Can anyone beat van Vleuten? Your guide to the 2018 Worlds women’s road race

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There is no such thing as an easy race when it comes to winning the rainbow stripes. But in 2018, the women’s road race at the Road World Championships is bound to be particularly tough and selective. Trade teammates will be pitted against each other and frequent foes will work together in pursuit of the most prestigious title in women’s racing, all on a rare climber-friendly course.

With nearly 2,413 metres of climbing the terrain plays to the strengths of the powerful Dutch duo of Annemiek van Vleuten and Anna van der Breggen. Still there’s plenty of teams with enough climbing prowess to make sure that there’ll be no easy path to victory.

No doubt the Americans will want to send Megan Guarnier into retirement in style and the Australians will be going all out in an attempt to crown their first women’s road race world champion. Then there’s South Africa’s Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio who is bound to be hoping she can use strategy to win out over team strength.

Read on to find out all you need to know to follow the rainbow chase as it rolls toward Innsbruck in Austria on Saturday.

Course: The ups and downs

There’s been plenty of discussion about the fact course designers left Höttinger Höll, a wall of a climb out of the women’s race. But don’t let that deceive you: there is nothing easy about this route. There is plenty of climbing along the 156.2 kilometres from the town of Kufstein — which is just a stone’s throw from the German border — to the finish line in the regional centre of Innsbruck. The 2,413 metres of climbing over multiple climbs are bound to take a heavy toll on the peloton over the course of the race.

One of the most testing climbs is the Gnadenwald with a maximum gradient of 14%, but when the race reaches its slopes it will be less than halfway through. By the time they have 90 solid kilometres already in the legs the peloton will reach the finishing circuit. On that loop — which they will face three times — the riders will be repeatedly tackling the longest climb of the race, a 7.9 kilometre ascent with a maximum gradient of 10%.

It’s this climb, which passes through Aldrans and Lans, that could well be a pivotal launch point. The final climb begins less than 20 kilometres from the end, and once over the top its a big downhill run which then flattens out for the final dash to the finish.

Contenders: Can anyone throw a spanner in the works?

As often is the case, it is really hard to bet against the Dutch. They’ve got two of the best climbers in the world on their squad, with Annemiek van Vleuten (Mitchelton-Scott) and Anna van der Breggen (Boels-Dolmans). Add to that a powerful team of eight — one more than most because they have the defending world champion — which includes Ellen van Dijk, Lucinda Brand and of course 2017 Worlds winner Chantal Blaak.

Van Vleuten has definitely had the edge this year, winning the Giro Rosa and snatching victory from van der Breggen on the run into the line at La Course. As well as being able to climb she also has a formidable descent. Plus we all saw just how well she can time trial earlier this week when she defended her world title in the race against the clock. That’s a skill that could come in handy on that final run into the finish line.

There’s no doubt with this course and her form that 35-year-old van Vleuten is the outright favourite, with van der Breggen slotting in behind.

A tight La Course victory for van Vleuten.

The closest rival to the Dutch pair on the climbs this year has been Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio (Cervelo-Bigla) but the South African rider is sorely lacking in the teammates department. The world’s fourth-ranked rider has just one compatriot to help her tackle the powerful Dutch squad. That means Moolman-Pasio, who came second in the Giro Rosa this year, will have to play a careful, opportunistic hand.

Another rider who has shown this year that she’s really got what it takes to excel when the road goes up is Amanda Spratt (Mitchelton-Scott). Usually she’s riding by van Vleuten’s side as a powerful ally. Not this time though — it’ll be a case of frenemies out on the road to Innsbruck.

Spratt may be without her Giro Rosa roommate this weekend, but she’ll be backed by an able team with a really interesting mix of experience and fresh talent. There’s the experienced players like Shara Gillow and Tiffany Cromwell and the first-year professionals that can handle themselves on a climb, such as Lucy Kennedy (Mitchelton-Scott) and Brodie Chapman (Tibco-SVB).

The latter’s hard-earned descending skills from her days as a downhill mountain biker have already been used once this year with great results against van Vleuten, during her breakthrough win at the women’s Herald Sun Tour.  They could be an additional asset again for the Australian team given that solid downhill run not far from the finish line.

The team from the United States will also have plenty of reason to put their best forward, as it’s the final showing for the nation’s top cyclist of recent years, Megan Guarnier (Boels-Dolmans). The 2016 Giro Rosa and Women’s WorldTour winner will have Katie Hall (UnitedHealthcare) and Tayler Wiles (Trek-Drops) in her corner, both of whom have shown some powerful climbing form. Hall won the Tour of California this year, with Wiles second, and they finished 7th and 17th at this year’s climb-heavy La Course.

And let’s not forget Denmark’s Cecilie Uttrup-Ludwig (Cervelo-Bigla) who has continued to build on her impressive climbing prowess this year. Then there is Poland’s Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM) who is never too far from the front when the road turns up, or Italy’s Elisa Longo-Borghini (Wiggle High5) who has a knack for picking the right break.

How to follow:

The good news is that World Championships are consistently one of the most extensively covered events in women’s cycling. That means live viewing options are widely available. 

We can start with the UCI site, where you can watch online, though it will be geo-blocked for some. However, there is also a huge list of broadcasters here so you can find coverage on your local station. For those in the United States you can find the NBC cycling schedule here and for those in Australia, the best bet is to click through to the SBS guide. The BBC is the place to turn to if you are in the UK. 

Of course there are also plenty of social media options as well, with #InnsbruckTirol2018 probably your best tool for discovery. You can also check out the UCI stream on Twitter and Instagram as well as the Innsbruck-Tirol 2018 event pictures and tweets. 

Finally, keep checking the Ella CyclingTips Instagram, Twitter and site as we will have more coverage coming through. You’ll also be able to find race reports and results in the CyclingTips Daily News Digest. 

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