The climactic weekend of the World Championships begins on Saturday with the Elite Women’s Road Race, a race packed with all the peloton’s stars that is invariably among the top highlights of the season.
For four years between 2017-2021, this was an event where the Dutch were untouchable, not only winning gold on each occasion, but also silver as well in 2019 and 2020.
But the race looks a little more open now, especially since the emergence of Italy as a rival force, and the retirement of two-time winner Anna van der Breggen. Now multiple riders look more than capable of winning, and not just the Dutch.
ANNEMIEK VAN VLEUTEN - NETHERLANDS
With her victories at the Giro Donne, Tour de France Femmes and La Vuelta, this has been the summer of Van Vleuten, and for most of that time she has appeared an unstoppable force that nobody knows how to contain.
But has the 39-year-old’s engine finally run out of steam for the year? She was out of sorts in the time trial last weekend, and had no explanation for her surprisingly low finish of seventh besides simply not having the legs, suggesting that fatigue might be catching up on her. Alternatively, that might simply be an off day, and the peloton should still brace itself for her trademark committed attacks — perhaps, if she’s in the mood, as early as on the Mount Keira ascent over 100km from the finish, in a similar long-range ploy as she pulled off three years for her previous Worlds road race win in Yorkshire. Image: Pauline Ballet/SWpix
Update: Annemiek van Vleuten crashed in the Team Relay Event on Wednesday, and she has been taken to hospital for examinations, this could mean she won't start the road race on the weekend, and even if she still does, recovering from a a crash could impact her form.
ELISA BALSAMO - ITALY
Since winning the Worlds last year in Leuven, Balsamo has continued to blossom as a rider, proving that victory was no fluke by building upon it to become a fully accomplished elite rider, winning nine races in the rainbow stripes including the classics Gent-Wevelgem and Trofeo Alfredo Binda, and stages at Giro Donne and La Vuelta.
Most of the time anyone has found themselves sprinting against Balsamo at the end of a hard race, she has had the beating of them — but the question at Wollongong is whether the race will be decided by a sprint? The parcours looks more selective than it did twelve months ago, meaning a repeat of 20-or-so riders making it to the finish together is less likely. If she’s to defend her title, the Italian will need to have her very best climbing legs. Having defied expectations last year, who’s to say Balsamo won’t do so again?
Demi Vollering - Netherlands
Demi Vollering is one of the biggest talents in the current women's WorldTour. In multiple stage races – most memorably the Tour de France Femmes – Vollering has proven herself as the best of the rest behind Annemiek van Vleuten on the climbs. It's not just her strength in the mountains that makes the 25-year-old an exciting rider, though, she also excels in the Ardennes classics on short, punchy climbs and rolling terrain.
The course in Wollongong is similar to that seen in the hillier one-day races, and Vollering was rarely off the podium in those events this year. She won solo in Brabantse Pijl, proving that she is adept at climbing when the racing is tough and short, intense efforts have to be repeated. The hills in Wollongong might not be long enough for Van Vleuten to completely ride away from her rivals, and they could be too difficult for Marianne Vos to stay in contact with the bunch. If this scenario occurs, Demi Vollering will be the card to play for the Dutch.
LOTTE KOPECKY - BELGIUM
For much of 2022, Kopecky has found herself lacking the extra kick needed in sprint finishes to accumulate wins. Podium finishes have come at each of Giro Donne, Tour de France Femmes, La Vuelta and RideLondon, but she hasn’t actually won a road race since May.
The Worlds, however, might be a different prospect for her. So far this season she has excelled most in races that are longer, tougher, and more prestigious than most, with two of her four victories coming at Strade Bianche and the Tour of Flanders, and the Worlds presents a similar opportunity to win from a small group, or perhaps even solo. With her form appearing to be being discovered at just the right time (as indicated by an impressive ninth-place finish at last weekend’s time trial), and with a Belgian team all unambiguously united behind her (something many of her rivals won't necessarily enjoy), the stars might just align for the 26-year-old. Image: Alex Broadway/SWpix
MARIANNE VOS - NETHERLANDS
The Dutch’s four-year stronghold in the Worlds Road Race was broken last year at the hands of the Italians, and they’ve assembled another line-up of superstars to try and reclaim their supremacy. As well as Van Vleuten, they’ll have Vollering and new world time trial champion Ellen van Dijk to use either as attackers or super-domestiques, while Marianne Vos will, as ever, present a potentially lethal option in a sprint finish.
Vos has picked her moments carefully this year, not racing for much of the spring before enjoying a prolific run of wins at the Giro Donne, Tour de France Femmes and Tour of Scandinavia, and after that has stayed out of action since mid-August. As a rider for the big occasions, there’s every chance she’ll better her runner-up finish from last year and claim a fourth career road world title.
ELISA LONGO BORGHINI - ITALY
Just like last year, the Italians are best-placed to take the race to the Dutch. They’re yet to announce their final line-up (although one of the stars of the sprint, Marta Cavalli, is going to miss out due to injury), but with the in-form Silvia Persico, fast finisher Marta Bastianelli and Vittoria Guazzini (fourth in the time trial at the weekend) all available, they have many options should the parcours prove too tough for defending champions Elisa Balsamo.
For all their strength-in-depth and young talent, it’s old-timer Elisa Longo Borghini who looks best-equipped to deliver them victory. The 30-year-old has a great partnership with Balsamo on the road for Trek-Segafredo already, and will likely relish freedom to attack while her teammate holds back and waits for a potential sprint. Though the Worlds hasn’t been a race that’s quite clicked for Borghini, who has twice taken bronze but never anything better, she’s nevertheless fully capable of winning it.
GRACE BROWN - AUSTRALIA
Local hopes rest mostly on the shoulders of Grace Brown, for whom victory would be a career-best result, but not one beyond the realms of possibility. The Australian is enjoying arguably her hottest ever streak of form just prior to the rare career opportunity of a home world championships, winning a stage at La Vuelta as well as La Périgord Ladies classic, and following Commonwealth gold in Glasgow with a very impressive silver behind Van Dijk in the time trial in Wollongong.
Image: Zac Williams/SWpix
If she’s to have any hope of winning gold, a lack of a strong sprint (Alex Manly is Australia’s best card in this regard) means she’ll have to attack, and possibly from fairly long-range. Her form means she’ll be watched attentively by the other favourites, and therefore won't be granted much leeway, but she has the strength and stamina to pull off something spectacular if she can get a gap.
Of the other nations, Denmark look well-balanced despite only having a 4-woman roster, with Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig capable of following the best over the hills and Emma Norsgaard presenting a threat in a sprint. Kasia Niewiadoma (Poland) is sure to animate the race in the aggressive manner she always does, while Juliette Labous (France), Mavi García (Spain) and Liane Lippert (Germany) represent the best hopes for the big Western European nations.
The US have some serious fire-power with Leah Thomas and Kristen Faulkner (fifth and sixth in the time trial respectively), as do Switzerland with bronze medalist Marlen Reusser. Arlenis Sierra could deliver Cuba an unlikely medal in the event of a sprint, while nobody will want to let Anna Kiesenhofer (Austria) up the road after she nearly managed a repeat of her Olympics miracle at stage 4 of the recent Vuelta.
Cover image: Alex Broadway/SWpix