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There was a lot of controversy building up to the 2022 World Championships in Wollongong, Australia. The inclusion of the first-ever U23 women’s race within the elite women’s race, the distance most riders had to travel to get Down Under, the magpies. But now that most of the top contenders are sipping flat whites after a recon the course there is a lot to be excited about, especially for the women’s road race on Saturday.
The course is technical and challenging, so it will be hard to control for the teams that do have the numbers and also leaves ample openings for riders who lack support. Every win requires many small pieces to fall together, but at the Worlds even more so.
With a long season almost in the rear-view, Saturday’s race will be a battle between the opportunistic riders and a few stacked teams. It will be a Worlds we talk about for years to come, one way or another.
The 164.3 km course includes one ascent of Mount Kiera and six laps of the Wollongong city circuit. There is a bit of a question about what kind of rider the course suits. At first glance it would appear to favours a puncheur, maybe even a sprinter who can get over the climbs, but like with any national team race the dynamics of the peloton will play a large role in who is there at the end, and how important that first climb is.
Mount Keira is pretty early in the race, but it’s not an insignificant climb. The climbing lasts 8.7 km with a max grade of 15% in the middle and an average of 5%. It tops out with 123 km remaining in the race, so the odds of someone getting away on the climb are slim…but never zero.
The descent off Mount Keira is technical enough that if a rider finds themself up the road after the climb, it would look like they have a chance at making it stick for a while. The road winds down almost until the race enters the city circuit, so it will be a while before a team or a group of individuals can gather themselves together to chase. Once they do organize, the next obstacle, the back-to-back punchy climbs on the circuit, will once again disrupt the attempt.
The women will race up Mount Ousley and Mount Pleasant six times, enough to slowly chip away at the legs and leave the riders feeling empty. The second of the two, Mount Pleasant, is the longer at 1.1 km with an average gradient of 7.7% and a maximum of 14%. After the duo, there is roughly 5 km to go to the finish.
It’s going to be a long race for the women, one of the longer one-day events on the calendar, and coupled with potential jet lag and national team dynamics it’s not easy to predict who will pull the jersey on at the end of the day.
The final climb and run to the finish looks a lot like the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race, a race not often won by a climber. Overall, it’s a harder race than the early season WorldTour one-day events. Based on the profile it might be safe to say whoever crests the top of the final climb first will wear the jersey shortly after.
The start list of every World Championships is a bit weird. Some teams have eight riders, some three. This year it’s especially interesting because of the inclusion of the U23 race. A few nations, like the home team and the Americans, opted not to bring any U23 riders at all. Some teams, like the Brits and the Kiwis, brought a stronger U23 contingent than the elite, and some threw in one or two U23 riders like the Dutch and Italians.
What we don’t know yet is how serious the nations with U23 contenders are about that jersey. The winner won’t be able to wear the jersey in races next season, it will be hung on the wall and their name will be written in history, but it’s not something they can show off like the elite title. Will the U23 race impact the elite race? Let’s hope not.
When it comes to the elite race there are a few strong contenders for the win, but it’s a race that could really be taken by a large number of riders. No one picked Anna Kiesenhofer for the Olympic road race, and whoever is the new world champion on Sunday morning might not be top of mind today.
If we break down the start list in terms of nations with the most numbers, the Dutch and Italians come out on top. The difference between these two squads is that the Italians seem to be better at working together. The team has a lot of really strong riders on it but only a couple of winners, whereas anyone on the Dutch team could win, to their detriment. The Dutch have a history of poor tactics but they have won in the past because of their strength. That doesn’t seem to work out for them anymore. What’s more, at the time of writing, it’s unclear if one of the favourites for Saturday in Annemiek van Vleuten will actually race, after crashing in the mixed relay team time trial.
The Italians have defending champion Elisa Balsamo, who just had the best season of her career. If Balsamo makes it over the climb in the front group and looks good in the circuits the team will have no problem riding for her. It’s likely the Italian coach will let Balsamo ride for herself in the beginning, just to see how she stacks up. They also have Vittoria Guazzini, the hot favourite for the U23 title after winning the time trial. Guazzini is used to being a super teammate on FDJ-SUEZ-Futuroscope, and she is definitely strong enough to be there in the end.
If Balsamo isn’t having a great day Paris-Roubaix winner Elisa Longo Borghini is there to pick up the slack. Longo Borghini has been known to make late race attacks on short punchy climbs but usually ends up at the back of a select group of favourites. This year, the former national champion has been working on her sprint and it shows. She is regularly the last lead-out woman for Balsamo on Trek-Segafredo, and the current world champion appears to have been teaching her older teammate a thing or two. Italy’s other possible contender is Silvia Persico. The new rider just won a stage of the Ceratizit Challenge by La Vuelta against a long list of Worlds favourites and has been having quite the season.
The Dutch may have two heavy favourites in Demi Vollering and Marianne Vos, but will the rest of the team back them? Vos luckily has one of her trade teammates, the current Dutch national champion Riejanne Markus. The team has two really strong workers in Ellen van Dijk and Shirin van Anrooij, but Van Anrooij is also a favourite for the U23 title so that could make things a little complicated. Then there’s Floortje Mackaij who isn’t a bad shout for a late race move. In short, they have a lot of options, but the race will depend on how they use them.
If Van Vleuten isn’t able to compete it will no doubt completely change how the race is won. Van Vleuten could definitely launch one of her signature long-range attacks on Keira and never be seen again.
Other teams with seven riders include France, Spain, the USA, and the home team of Australia. Neither France nor the USA has strong contenders for the win. They have a few riders who could be up there, like France’s Juliette Labous and Veronica Ewers of the USA but they don’t have one stand-out favourite. France is unfortunately down one key rider in Audrey Cordon Ragot. The double national champion suffered a stroke the week before the time trial and was therefore unable to compete. Her presence will be missed.
The rider who would be the top contender for the USA is Kristen Faulkner, however, the Giro Donne stage winner did not finish the Ceratizit Challenge by La Vuelta citing fatigue. End-of-the-season fatigue doesn’t go away with 40+ hours of travel.
A few contenders are coming in with significantly less support, like Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (Denmark) and Kasia Niewiadoma (Poland). Both riders have a few teammates, Uttrup has Emma Norsgaard who is a significant companion, but both are coming in with a lot fewer numbers. It could be in their favour, the way the course looks. They are also similar riders in style, an aggressive race would be great for them. Uttrup Ludwig perhaps has a better shot given she just won the Tour of Scandinavia and has been looking really good the second half of the season.
The UK is starting with four U23 riders, one of which is also the British national champion Alice Towers, and two potential elite contenders in Lizzie Holden and Anna Henderson. Henderson’s descending abilities might find her off the front at some point but the British team doesn’t really have a top-tier favourite for the elite race.
Finally, the home team not only has some really good quality but also the teamwork to boot. They won the Commonwealth Games when they went all in for Georgia Baker, and as this is their home Worlds the team will be looking at the race thinking they don’t care who wins as long as they’re wearing green and gold (how could you not think that with their special edition kit…it’s beautiful). Baker, Alexandra Manly, and Grace Brown are all potential winners. The team also has fantastic support from Brodie Chapman, Sarah Roy, Josie Talbot and Amanda Spratt. Overall, Australia has assembled a team that can definitely win this race. And given Brown’s form in the time trial, she is looking like the best shot. But Baker and Manly have both had strong seasons. Based on how the race shakes out, Australia has more than one rider who will be there.
Outside contenders include Marlen Reusser (Switzerland), Arlenis Sierra (Cuba), Mavi García (Spain), Liane Lippert (Germany) and Lotte Kopecky (Belgium).
CyclingTips Star Ratings
⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️: Longo Borghini, Van Vleuten, Brown
⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️: Vollering, Vos, Uttrup Ludwig
⭐️⭐️⭐️: Balsamo, Niewiadoma, Kopecky
⭐️⭐️: García, Reusser, Persico, Manly, Baker
⭐️: Labous, Faulkner, Sierra, Lippert
How to watch
The Worlds women’s elite road race will be live on GCN+ and Eurosport on Saturday, September 24 starting at 12:25 local time (4:25 CEST / 3:25 BST / 22:25 EST -1 day) so for those in Europe, set your alarms early and get your coffee ready to go. North American viewers can find the coverage on FloBikes.