Preview: Can anyone beat the powerful Dutch women in worlds road race?

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The 2017 UCI Road World Championships are in full swing in Bergen, Norway, where the cool climate and bumpy courses are a stark contrast to last year’s desert races in Doha, Qatar.

With the races against the clock now completed, all eyes are on the weekend when the elite women and men will vie for the most prestigious symbol in cycling: the rainbow jersey in the road race.

In the kick-off event of the week-long championships, Dutch-registered Team Sunweb upset the race-favourites Boels-Dolmans in the team time trial, clinching the win by 12 seconds. The men’s Sunweb team would do the same hours later, beating 2015 TTT champions BMC on their way to gold.

Then, in the women’s elite individual time trial, Annemiek van Vleuten (Orica-Scott) and Anna van der Breggen (Boels-Dolmans) clinched a historic double triumph for the Netherlands as they took gold and silver respectively. The Dutch dominance would continue the next day when Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) conquered the rain and the challenging uphill time trial course and beat his closest rival by an impressive 57 seconds.

As we look to the weekend, can anyone upset the powerful Dutch squad?

The eight-rider strong Dutch women’s team is lining up with the top four ranked riders in the world, and any one of the eight has the potential to win.

  • Annemiek van Vleuten: freshly crowned TT world champion, winner of the two-day La Course, third-place finisher in the Giro Rosa, number one ranked rider in the world.
  • Anna van der Breggen: UCI Women’s WorldTour champion, winner of the Ardennes Classic and the Giro Rosa, second-best ranked rider in the world.
  • Marianne Vos: already a three-time road world champion, European road race champion, third-best ranked rider in the world.
  • Ellen van Dijk: freshly crowned TTT world champion, European TT-champion, winner of Healthy Ageing Tour, fourth-best ranked rider in the world.
  • Chantal Blaak: Dutch national road race champion, runner-up at Omloop het Nieuwsblad and third-place finisher in Tour of Flanders.
  • Lucinda Brand: freshly crowned TTT world champion, winner of Omloop het Nieuwsblad and Stage 8 of the Giro Rosa.
  • Amy Pieters:  sprinter, runner-up at Le Samyn des Dames, stage winner at the Healthy Ageing Tour and the Ovo Energy Tour.
  • Janneke Ensing: an up-and-coming sprinter,  winner of a stage at Giro Toscana and Boels Rental Ladies Tour.
Van Vleuten sings along with the Dutch national anthem after winning the time trial title.

Double Rainbows

All eyes will be on the orange team during the road race on Saturday, Sept. 23rd, and on Annemiek van Vleuten in particular. While the team has many cards to play, Van Vleuten proved in the time trial on Wednesday that she is in the shape of her life.

For the past year, Van Vleuten has been a constant podium contender. If it hadn’t been for her crash, she could have even won the Rio Olympic road race last year. But as awful as the crash had looked, Van Vleuten returned to racing just a month later, winning the 2016 Lotto Belgium Tour in dominant fashion and that was only the start. This season, Van Vleuten has enjoyed her best season yet as both a formidable climber and time trialist. She kicked off the UCI season with a win at the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race and built up to a stellar summer with podiums at various spring classic. In peak form by June, Van Vleuten won the Dutch national time trial championships, gave an incredible performance at the Giro Rosa where she ended in third, and absolutely dominated the two-day La Course.

With the gold Worlds TT medal already in her pocket, Van Vleuten could make history if she is the first to cross the line on Saturday as well. Only Frenchwoman Jeannie Longo previously accomplished this feat, when in 1995, she became the first woman to win double rainbows.

The question is, what will the Dutch team’s tactics be? The course suits Van Vleuten as well as it does Olympic road race champion and UCI Women’s WorldTour winner Anna van der Breggen. In the past three seasons, Van der Breggen has won just about everything there is to win on the women’s road calendar. She’s already got a several silver world medals in her trophy chest, and the rainbow jersey would complete her lengthy palmares.

In talking with Ella CyclingTips, Marianne Vos would not reveal any team tactics, but she did say that they’ll be using every one of their cards.

“We are lining up with an incredible eight riders. We have many cards to play and the other countries are going to have a hard time determining who to watch, and we’ll use that to our advantage,” Vos said.

“I do think everyone will be looking to us, and so the race is very much on our shoulders. But we are not the only team that wants to win.”

The main competition, Vos speculated, will come from America and Italy.

“America is very strong at the moment and always does well at the World Championships. And Italy is another country that always performs at Championships,” Vos said.

The three-time road world champion acknowledged that the pressure is very much on the Dutch team, and other teams will surely rely on the orange squad to take initiative and do the work.

“Luckily, it’s not a new situation for us, to have that kind of pressure,” she said. “We know how to deal with it, and it’s nice to be able to take that initiative with so many riders.”

Here’s a look at what we can expect on Saturday, and who might upset the Dutch dominance.

Giro Rosa Anna
Anna van der Breggen, another top favourite for the World title comes from within the Dutch squad.

The Course

The course for the elite women’s road race is a 19.1-kilometre circuit around Bergen, which the peloton will complete eight times. Each time through, the pack will conquer three climbs. A little 500-metre leg zapper comes as early as two kilometres into the race, then there’s a one-kilometre stretch that averages at 5% before the peloton finally arrives at the main climb, Salmon Hill. Peaking 8.4km into the circuit, it’s this ascent of Salmon Hill that’s likely to be the most decisive part of the course. It’s not a particularly steep climb — the average gradient is just 6.4% and the toughest section is at the start — but it will surely break the field apart.

From Salmon Hill, it’s 10 kilometres to the finish. It’s bumpy until the final 2.5-kilometres lead into the finish, which is pancake flat and will surely be wicked fast. This means that if the race comes down to a breakaway, the winner will have to have a decent kick to reach the line first.

Who to watch

The World Championship road race is one of the few races each season where riders race for their nation rather than their trade team. This can lead to some interesting scenarios as teammates become rivals and vice versa.

Another notable difference with Worlds is the number of riders that are allotted to each team. While in trade team races, most teams line up with the same amount of participants, at the World Championships, each nation is entitled to a certain number of starters, according to the strength of that nation’s riders. The result is that the big cycling nations have teams of seven riders, while the smaller nations might have just one or two riders on the start line. The more riders, the more cards to play in the race.

With a star-studded roster of eight riders, the race is The Netherlands’ to lose, it seems, but there are plenty of other contenders from other countries to look for.

There will be a number of former champions lining up at the start, including Lizzie Deignan (Great-Britain) who despite a recent appendix removal, is well-suited for this course. Other former champions include defending champion and Ella contributor Amalie Dideriksen (Denmark), two-time winner Giorgia Bronzini (Italy), Pauline Ferrand-Prevot (France) and Marianne Vos (Netherlands).

But the course is an interesting one. A breakaway is likely, but not guaranteed. There were a number of races in this past Women’s WorldTour where the breakaway got caught within the final kilometres of a race, resulting in a mass sprint instead. And with this course showing a flat run-in to the finish, that scenario is to be considered here as well. Fierce competition could come from sprinters who can climb like Belgian Jolien d’Hoore who showed top form in the Madrid Challenge and Lotto Belgium Tour, and Tour of Flanders winner Coryn Rivera (USA).

Other big stand-outs from the 2017 UCI Women’s WorldTour, who would prefer a breakaway, include riders like Strade Bianche-winner Elisa Longo Borghini (Italy), 2016 Women’s WorldTour winner Megan Guarnier (USA), and OVO Energy Tour soloist Katarzyna Niewiadoma (Poland).

A sprinter who can climb: Coryn Rivera will be lining up as Team USA’s favourite.

Ella staff predictions

Anne-Marije Rook, Ella Editor:

1. Anna van der Breggen
“It’s tough to pick just one Dutch rider, and we may very well see another 1-2 for the orange squad. And while I would love to see Annemiek van Vleuten win double rainbows, Van der Breggen sure knows how to finish a race. She’s already won just about everything there is to win these past three years, and was an integral part in Marianne Vos’ Worlds wins in the past. She knows how to win and this course suits her well. The rainbow jersey would complete her road race palmares.”
2. Elisa Longo Borghini
“Longo Borghini is always there when it counts. She’s been getting stronger and smarter these past two seasons and was on the podium in Rio at La Course and at the Giro. If there’s a break, she’ll be in it.”
3.Coryn Rivera
“Rivera is a sprinter who can climb. This course suits her well. She just has to tuck in, hang in and make the break (if there is one). With the flat run-in to the finish, she could be well-positioned to become the first American women’s World Champion since Beth Heiden in 1980.”

Jeanine Laudy, Race Reporter:

1.Anna van der Breggen
“She is already the Olympic champion, wore the European championship jersey for a year and won the Women’s WorldTour leader’s jersey. After helping Vos get the rainbow stripes twice, this is Van der Breggen’s only missing title. She was close in Richmond and this course suits her too. She is going to want that rainbow jersey and I hope the Dutch team will back her – although I understand it’s a difficult choice to make since so many of the Dutch team can win.”

2.Elisa Longo Borghini
“Elisa Longo Borghini is so strong! It seems like she always races for podium but rarely makes the top step. I truly hope she will at some point throw caution out the window and just go for it. She’s strong enough and the world championships are the perfect time to do it.”

3. Annemiek van Vleuten
“While it’ll depend on the team tactics of the Dutch team, as to who will get to go for the win, Van Vleuten is up for the task. Ecstatic and fueled by time trial gold, Van Vleuten will take the stripes in the road race as well if given the chance.”

Simone Giuliani, Australia Editor:

1. Anna van der Breggen
“It’s just too hard to go past a pick from among the talent-heavy Dutch team, the question is just which rider. For me, it was really a toss-up between Annemiek van Vleuten and Anna van der Breggen as there is no doubt both riders have skills that suit the course and they have both delivered a swathe of impressive result this year. But I’ll opt for Van der Breggen as my pick. It’s hard to forget what powerful form the Olympic gold medallist can carry when she is really aiming to peak, particularly given her Ardennes dominance this year.”

2. Pauline Ferrand-Prevot
“Pauline Ferrand-Prevot has been low on road results this year, measuring out her commitments carefully to avoid over-extending herself like she has in the past. But if her performance at the mountain bike World Championships recently is any indication, the former world road, mountain bike and cyclocross champion may have just timed her peak perfectly.

At the Mountain Bike Worlds she had to work incredibly hard to push her way up the front of the field, after starting off the front row. Then when she impressively pulled herself into second and looked on the charge toward eventual winner Jolanda Neff, she got a flat tyre. Despite all this she still managed to finish on the podium with third place – not something she could have pulled off unless she was carrying some pretty amazing form. Now just to see whether it will also carry through on to Road Worlds.”

3. Lizzie Deignan
“The third pick was a real toss up for me. What if it is a reduced bunch sprint behind a couple of breakaway riders, could a sprinter like Coryn Rivera maybe hang on for a podium spot?  Perhaps I could go parochial and indulge in a bit of national bias by picking an outside chance like Amanda Spratt or Shara Gillow who came 5th and 6th at La Course. Or maybe I should slot in another one of the Dutch favourites as no sensible person would ever write off Marianne Vos? But in the end I couldn’t go past former world champion Lizzie Deignan. Yes, she has recently had an appendectomy so her preparation has been far from ideal, but as our SHEcret pro said: “it is Lizzie. When she wants to win a race, she normally wins the race.”

Lizzie Deignan in the stripes in 2016.

How to Follow

The women’s elite road race takes place on Saturday, Sept. 23, from 1.15-5.15 p.m. CET (4.15-8.15 a.m. PDT, 7.15-11.15 a.m. EDT, 9.15 p.m.-1.15 a.m. on September 24 AEST)

Watch: You should be able to watch the World TTT, ITT and Road Championships live throughout the world. Check your local TV listings or tune in via the UCI livestream on YouTube (geo-restricted).
Website: bergen2017.no
Twitter: @bergen2017

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