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It shouldn’t be surprising that a rider considered the best of her generation, who has already won the other most important and hardest races this season, should go on to win the World Championships in impressive fashion. Yet when Annemiek van Vleuten raised her arms at the finish line in Wollongong on Saturday afternoon to claim her fourth elite rainbow jersey, it was a surprise to everyone, including Van Vleuten herself.
The new World Champion’s opportunistic win and her otherworldly 2022 season are undeniably the headlines of the race, but after 164km of racing and a situation that changed more times than you can count in the final two laps, there was plenty to take away from the first elite road race of the weekend.
Whatever the situation, Van Vleuten knows how to win
Van Vleuten’s three consecutive stage race victories this year have all been won with long, solo moves on big climbs, so she is not a rider you expect to launch a last-minute move on a flat finish. And yet that is exactly what she did on Saturday. Though her acceleration and effort to hold her lead to the line was impressive, it was really race craft that won Van Vleuten the rainbow jersey. Even on terrain that isn’t her favorite, the 39-year-old has proved she is masterful at seeing where the opportunities are, and taking them at exactly the right time.
She certainly didn’t have the best preparation for the race, riding with a broken elbow – perhaps a questionable decision – and that stopped her being able to assert herself on the climbs, but Van Vleuten adapted to every eventuality to take victory in a difficult situation. It seems that no matter how hard the race is, or how unlikely her chances may be, Van Vleuten can win in the face of almost any challenge.
…even when her team are on a bad day
It may seem odd to accuse the winning team of having a bad day, When they took to the start line, the team from the Netherlands already looked to be on the back foot: with Demi Vollering out with Covid and Van Vleuten racing on a broken elbow, the often dominant team certainly had weaknesses. The cracks showed in the race, too, with U23 hope Shirin van Anrooij out of contention early on, and Marianne Vos noticeably quiet in the race’s most aggressive moments. Van Vleuten and Vos remained together going into the finale, but the latter missed the selection that would contest for the win.
Losing Vos ultimately gave Van Vleuten the freedom she needed to launch her winning move, and the jersey means there will be no Tokyo-style dissection of a difficult day for the Dutch. But for a nation who are known for their dominance of the sport, this won’t go down as a vintage team display from the Netherlands.
The best season ever just got better
After winning the Giro d’Italia Donne, the Tour de France Femmes and the Ceratizit Challenge by La Vuelta – the latter not a Grand Tour by her standards, but still an impressive win – Annemiek van Vleuten’s 2022 season was already being hailed as one of the best ever, but claiming the rainbow jersey too takes the Dutch rider’s year to mythical levels.
Winning any of the races Van Vleuten conquered this season may be a goal riders aim at across a whole career, but she has won them all in the space of a few months. This was the first time achieving such a feat was possible, but it certainly doesn’t seem like something that will be repeated any time soon.
Strength doesn’t matter when the tactics aren’t right
In the final two laps of the race, an incredibly strong group of five riders got away not once but twice as Liane Lippert (Germany), Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (Denmark), Ashleigh Moolman Pasio (South Africa), Kasia Niewiadoma (Poland) and Elisa Longo Borghini (Italy) took their chances on the climbs, but both times they were caught. Why? The problem was that no matter their strength, most of the group hesitated from working hard.
With Uttrup Ludwig, Niewiadoma and Moolman Pasio all likely doubting their chances in a sprint, they each perhaps tried to save some energy in the group, and without a full gas effort from all involved, it was hard to stay ahead. Five riders of an impressive pedigree, all of whom regularly animate WorldTour races, they certainly had the firepower to challenge the chase, but when the tactics and interests aren’t quite right, the physical element becomes less important.
Furthermore, without a Dutch rider in their midst, the breakaway was at the mercy of Ellen van Dijk, and once the newly-crowned world time trial champion got on the front of the chasing group, the not-fully-committed leaders were soon brought back.
It wasn’t a course for the climbers
When the best climber of a generation wins, it would be easy to think it was a race for the climbers, but it came very close to being a day for the fast riders of the peloton. With Mount Keira and seven ascents of the short but tough Mount Pleasant climb on the profile, there’s no doubt the course was tough, but not tough enough to shake the likes of Lotte Kopecky and Silvia Persico, who sprinted to second and third. Niamh Fisher-Black, a pure climber, took the U23 title, but behind it was Pfeiffer Georgi who took silver, a rider more often seen in Lorena Wiebes’s lead-out train than the pointy end of hilly days.
Much of the pre-race discussion centred around whether the faster riders could hold on over the repeated climbs, and they resolutely proved they could on Saturday. With the strength and average climbing level of the peloton rising year-on-year, it requires increasingly tougher parcours to really force a small selection.
No fairytale day for Australia
Australia went all-in for their home World Championships, assembling a strong squad and showing their intentions throughout the race, but it wasn’t to be for the host nation on the roads of Wollongong. The team worked hard on the front of the peloton in the early stages of racing, and then had Sarah Roy and Brodie Chapman on the attack in the later laps, but after Grace Brown struggled to hold onto the injections in pace, Australia’s chances of a medal dwindled.
In the end, Australia’s best result was Alex Manly in 15th, finishing just behind Marianne Vos in the second group sprint. It was a strong ride in a tough race from a rider who has been having an impressive season, but it wasn’t the result Australia was looking for. Winning a home Worlds is a fairytale not many riders get to live, and despite their best efforts, Australia will be disappointed to not add a women’s road race medal to their tally.
More racing than expected for the U23 title
Awarding the inaugural women’s under-23 world road race title to the best-placed rider in the elite race, rather than creating a separate race, has been a much-questioned move by the UCI, and Saturday was the time to finally see how the race-within-a-race would pan out. Despite concerns that the race would end up being totally incidental – the victory whoever from the U23 ranks happened to cross the line first – there was definitely some concerted racing going on. A late decision to have the U23 riders wear black numbers helped riders and viewers to identify the eligible riders, and they were racing against each other, with several seemingly given the chance to go for the title rather than just work for their leaders.
The eventual winner may have been incidental – Niamh Fisher-Black was racing to win the race, not just the U23 title – but the fight for the medals was certainly on behind. Anna Shackley worked hard to bring Pfeiffer Georgi to the final, whilst Ricarda Bauernfeind and Simone Boilard put in big efforts to stay with their fellow U23 competitors. At the finish, Georgi committed to her sprint to claim second ahead of Bauernfeind, both chasing down medals rather than just rolling in in the group.
Of course, many of the pre-race criticisms remain. Fisher-Black didn’t even raise her arms crossing the finish line, her win was very much secondary to Van Vleuten’s, and it’s likely she may never wear the jersey in competition, but the race was on and the medallists worked hard for them. The separate race, set to be added in 2025, will be better, but this interim solution was a start.