A week ago, the outcome of Annemiek van Vleuten winning the World Championships would not have raised any eyebrows. Following a summer in which she has conquered all before her, winning all three of The Giro Donne, Tour de France Femmes and Vuelta a España, who would have seriously bet against her adding the rainbow jersey to her season’s collection of prizes? The parcours seemed to prove enough difficulty for her to distance the fast finishers, and nobody has been able to match her when she’s gone on the attack.
But everything that has happened to the Dutchwoman since arriving in Wollongong for the Worlds has totally re-contextualised her victory, from the predictable result from the overwhelming race favourite, to an astonishing comeback against the odds of a true champion with her back against the wall. First in Saturday’s time trial, questions regarding her form surfaced when she was only able to place seventh, in a race she had never before finished lower than fifth at. And then her very participation in the road race was thrown into jeopardy when she fractured her elbow in a nasty crash during the Mixed Relay on Wednesday.
She made it to the start-line, but it was painfully clear that her elbow was causing her great discomfort. She was visibly uncomfortable on the saddle, and her struggles were confirmed when she missed the five-woman selection that escaped on one of the ascents of Mount Pleasant. Neither did she grow into the race, and was once again dropped when the same five riders went clear again the final time up Mount Pleasant.
And yet, with one all-or-nothing attack inside the final kilometre, she somehow managed to slip clear with no-one grabbing onto her wheel, and held on by one second to take victory. The shock on her face after crossing the line said it all.
Rather than brute force, which most of her victories have been built on, this was a triumph of timing, fortitude, and a sheer will to win from Van Vleuten. She had nothing like the legs she’s enjoyed throughout this prolific season, and wasn’t even among the strongest five riders in the race, yet still managed to find a way to win. It was somewhat reminiscent of the Tour de France Femmes, which she managed to win despite suffering badly from illness during the first few days. Now, as then, none of her rivals were able to exploit her weakness, and her aura seemed to spook them even when she was so much on the back foot. It’s becoming clear that her grip on the women’s peloton is not only physical, but also psychological.
For so many other riders competing, this was a golden opportunity lost. They’ve spent the summer being tormented by Van Vleuten, unable to compete with a rider operating on an entirely level to them. Her injury presented them with a chance to race for arguably the biggest prize in women’s cycling — and which, for every rider competing aside from Marianne Vos and Elisa Balsamo, would have been a first ever world road title — yet they still found themselves defeated by her.
In particular, the five riders who went clear on Mount Pleasant will be rueing missing out on what would have been, for each of them, a career-defining victory. Of the quintet Liane Lippert (Germany) appeared to be strongest on the climbs, and was enjoying the ride of her life. Long recognised as one of the world’s most exciting young prospects, the 24-year-old has been a consistent performer over the last few years without winning anything other than the German National Championships since February 2020, but seemed to have the legs to end that drought. Her performance suggests she’s still improving and developing as a rider, and big wins will surely come, but she won't necessarily ever again be in as good a position to win the rainbow jersey.
As they so often are, Kasia Niewiadoma (Poland) and Cecile Uttrup Ludwig (Denmark) were also a part of this elite selection; but as is also usually the case, victory eluded them both. Three years of frustration (she still hasn’t won a race since the 2019 Women’s Tour) would have been forgotten for an instant had Niewiadoma pulled off this win, and like Lippert she too threatened to break clear from the others on the climb, but was unable to and once again is left to muse over what could have been.
Ludwig has had more success converting her good performances into wins, but, aside from one stage of the Tour de France Femmes, in no race anywhere near as prestigious as this; a win in Wollongong and claiming of the rainbow jersey would have sealed her status as a charismatic star of the sport.
For Ashleigh Moolman (South Africa), it would have been a career-best victory to justify her decision to postpone retiring, a major win that she would have been remembered for, and a step up from her previous runner-up overall finishes at the Giro Donne in 2021 and 2018. Even Elisa Longo Borghini (Italy), who unlike the others in the group, does have a bulging selection of big wins on her palmarès, from the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix to Strade Bianche, would have been celebrating a career-first Worlds title, one she’s hunted for in vain since winning bronze as a 20-year-old way back in 2012.
But despite forming a selection on Mount Pleasant not once but twice, they were joined by another small group featuring Van Vleuten with one kilometre to go, and ultimately all missed out on even winning a medal, with Lippert the highest finisher in fourth.
Instead, it was Lotte Kopecky and Silvia Persico who achieved the silver and bronze for Belgium and Italy respectively, having also been part of the Van Vleuten chasing group, although the way both riders banged on the handlebars in frustration upon winning the sprint from the group behind revealed just how much they lamented letting Van Vleuten get away.
Kopecky remains the only rider to have had the beating of Van Vleuten in multiple big races this season, defeating her at both Strade Bianche and the Tour of Flanders during the spring. Back then it seemed that Van Vleuten’s dominance might have been fading, and Kopecky was set to take over as the peloton’s star rider. But the 39-year-old has since returned with a vengeance, and to win in the manner she did in Wollongong was arguably the most extraordinary of her many great results these past few months.