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BRUGES, Belgium (VN) — The rainbow jerseys are flying off the shelves in Flanders.
As the time trials come to a close, the focus of the world championships turns to the road races where five more of the iconic jerseys are up for grabs.
One of those in the offing is the elite women’s road race where the peloton will roll out of Antwerp on Saturday afternoon, taking on over 1,047 meters of elevation across some 20 climbs.
The race will be the career swansong for defending champion Anna van der Breggen, but it will be no parade lap for the Dutch rider with a host of big names yearning for the title.
Here are three things to look watch for in the elite women’s road race.
Can the Dutch do five in a row?
The Dutch women have had the rainbow bands firmly under lockdown over the last few years. While it may have bounced around trade teams, the orange nation has not allowed anyone else to have a piece of the rainbow pie.
With such dominance of late, it is no surprise that the Dutch women are the hot favorites for Saturday.
Current champion Anna van der Breggen, for the next few days at least, doesn’t look like she’s in the form to defend her title. However, the Dutch won’t be short of options for victory with three other former world champions lining up for the squad.
Marianne Vos, Annemiek van Vleuten, and Chantal van den Broek-Blaak have all won the rainbow bands in the past and will be among the key contenders. Recently crowned European road race champion, and newly crowned world time trial champion, Ellen van Dijk could also be another option for the squad, along with Liège-Bastogne-Liège winner Demi Vollering.
It would be remiss not to mention world cyclocross champion Lucinda Brand and Amy Pieters, the remaining two members of the squad.
With this line-up, it’s hard to imagine anyone other than the Dutch winning the title, but if the Olympic Games have taught us anything it is that nothing is a certainty in cycling. There are some big nations out there with in-form riders that will be keen to ensure it’s not the fifth title in a row for the Dutch.
The team has already raked in three medals with gold and bronze in the time trial and silver in the mixed team relay.
City center trickery, climbs, and more
As Marianne Vos described it to VeloNews a few weeks ago, the road race course in Flanders is a parcours of three sections, each of which will provide its own unique challenge. Overall, the riders will cover 157.7k through the heart of the region.
Part one is the road from Antwerp to Leuven, a fairly flat affair designed to warm the legs up before the difficulties of what is to come. This section is the easiest of the three, but it is the one that is most exposed to any wind that might whip up through the Belgian countryside.
As the old saying goes, you can’t win the race here, but you can certainly lose it.
Part two is the loop around Leuven with its plentiful technical corners and four climbs per lap. This Leuven loop will be ridden 1.5 times after the ride down from Antwerp and 2.5 times at the very end of the race.
While the roads are largely wide and well surfaced, it is still a tricky route that will be susceptible to rain if it does come down. Good bike handling skills will be necessary for any rider hopeful of making an attack or chasing one down in the finale.
The road to the finish line tilts slightly upwards, but it’s not so difficult that it will be too much for any sprinters that make it to the line.
Lastly, it is the pièce de resistance of the whole race, the Flandrien circuit. The women will only have to face this part once, which will be good news for the faster riders and bad news for the climbers.
The six climbs that make up this approximately 45k circuit are the hardest of the entire race and should provide some of the key selections. Many of the ascents will be known to those who have contested the Brabantse Pijl.
The Moskesstraat, the second ascent in this loop, will be the big leg-sapper. It’s just 300 meters but it has gradients of up to 18 percent that are made even harder by the presence of cobbles. There will be more cobbles to come on the eight percent Bekestraat a few kilometers later.
This is a very different worlds parcours to what we’re used to, with multiple circuits instead of just one, and it should give us some unpredictable racing.
Attacks, and lots of them
With the recent Dutch dominance, there will be a lot of nations looking to shake off their competitors from the Low Countries and slip up the road in a small group or — even better — on their own. The Dutch will not wait around for a sprint finish either and always enjoy going aggressive when they can.
Riders will have to choose their moment well if they hope to break free of the main group or they could burn matches they need later in the day.
Some teams come with multiple options, with fast finishers as well as aggressive puncheurs to disrupt the rhythm of the race. Countries such as the USA, Denmark, Italy, Germany, Great Britain, and of course the Netherlands, can hedge their bets on the race unfolding in a few different ways but others cannot.
Expect to see the likes of Kasia Niewiadoma (Poland), Elisa Longo Borghini (Italy), Mavi Garcia (Spain), Marlen Reusser (Switzerland), Annemiek van Vleuten (Netherlands), Leah Thomas (USA), Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (Denmark), Lizzie Deignan (Great Britain) and many more have a charge up the road at some point during the race.
As with the Olympics, there are no race radios premitted in the world championships and all the teams will have to be careful of who goes up the road and who comes back. Though, there would be some racers happy to see a repeat of what happened in Tokyo.