Moments of daring: An unpredictable path to a predictable Worlds result

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From a quick glance at the result of the women’s road race at the 2018 Road World Championships, you’d be forgiven for thinking the race was pedestrian. Just another predictable tale of Dutch dominance of the women’s peloton as Anna van der Breggen won with a huge gap back to the second-placed Amanda Spratt.

After all, there’s no surprise in yet another victory from a nation with such a deep well of talent that it leads the women’s world rankings with more than twice the points of its nearest rival. It also isn’t unreasonable to assume the strength of the Dutch would leave them unequivocally in control on a course that seemed tailor-made for their ace climbers, van der Breggen and Annemiek van Vleuten. 

But it seems that the rest of the peloton learnt last year — when Chantal Blaak soloed to the win unchallenged — that playing it safe may not be the best way to go when the deck is so heavily stacked against you. So while the result may have been predictable, with one of the Dutch favourites winning comfortably, it certainly wasn’t delivered through the formulaic pattern of the strongest team controlling the tempo until the fireworks of the final climb. A far more exciting and chaotic hand was played.

From the very first kilometres the peloton was throwing everything it had at the Dutch, from fierce unpredictable attacks early in the race, to a peloton-shattering pace on those very first climbs. Here are just some of those unpredictable and memorable moments from the elite women’s road race at the 2018 Road World Championships.

The favourite crashes

It was nearly 60 kilometres into the 156 kilometre race and one of the toughest climbs of the race was rapidly approaching. It had already been an aggressive race, with regular surges and attacks but this climb was when the action was really expected to start. Then, for a moment, it looked like the unthinkable might happen. Could the outright favourite Annemiek van Vleuten (Netherlands) be out of the race before it had even really kicked into gear?

There was some awkwardly placed road furniture and then a crash that took down the powerful Dutch climber. She was hobbling awkwardly. Not one to give up, she still quickly and calmly got back on her bike. She chased with a teammate and then quickly worked her way back up the field to the front of a climbing peloton.

The speed of her return to the head of the race (on an uphill section) meant there was little hint to those watching of any damage. Nor did the world time-trial champion look in any difficulty throughout the next 100 kilometres of racing. She played the perfect teammate to van der Breggen and finished seventh. But as it turned out, van Vleuten was struggling to deliver the power in one of her legs. She had injured her knee, and quite seriously it turns out.

Blowing it apart on those early climbs

There were climbs scattered throughout the race, with the total of over 2,400 metres coming largely from four ascents. The first was the Gnadenwald climb, with a maximum gradient of 14%, which was less than halfway through the race. The other was the 7.9 kilometre ascent with a maximum gradient of 10% on the finishing circuit, which the riders had to tackle three times.

If the race were to run its predictable course, the expectation would be that the final run up that 7.9 kilometre climb would be where the race-deciding fireworks would go off. But there were a lot of riders with other ideas.

The Dutch control at the front of the race was being pushed aside, even on that first climb, with a bit of German and U.S. pace-setting. And it was no easy pace. With the race not even half over the peloton had splintered and it was a select climber-filled group out front already.

There was, however, a considerable regrouping as the race made its way onto the finishing circuit to tackle the first of three ascents of that 7.9 kilometre climb. But then Australia decided it was time to blow the race apart again. They sent nimble climber Lucy Kennedy to the front. The first year pro, who has had a year riddled with injury, went out and completely tore the field apart as she just kept on with an unrelenting pace.

Kennedy driving the pace.

There were still more than 60 kilometres and two more runs up that tough climb to go, but after Kennedy’s impressive turn of climbing pace, already the field was decimated. And this time those out the front weren’t going to let themselves be reeled back in.

A fall that fuelled the fire

Just after Kennedy pulled the peloton apart, a picture of her leader Spratt on the side of the road momentarily flashed up on the screen. The camera panned away and we couldn’t see whether or not she was OK. I’m sure every Aussie fan’s heart sank at that moment.

Spratt was unquestionable the nation’s best hope. To have her ruled out of contention just when everything seemed to be falling into place would have been a cruel blow.

Before long though, the footage flashed back to an attack out the front. Spratt was in it — clearly she was fine. Just a little tumble onto soft grass as her concentration momentarily lapsed and wheels were crossed.

No damage was done; in fact the adrenaline may well have helped fuel the fire. No sooner had she rejoined the group than she jumped onto a pivotal attack by Ellen van Dijk (Netherlands), Emilia Fahlin (Sweden), Spratt (Australia), Elena Pirrone (Italy) and Polish champion Malgorzata Jasinka.

Who’s that American climber?

One of the rides of the day had to be the blazing escape by Coryn Rivera. It was impressive enough that the sprinter hung in there as Australia’s Lucy Kennedy blew apart the group on the first climb of the finishing circuit. But then she took it a step further, attacking over the top to charge away on her own.

Rivera quickly stretched out the gap on the downhill, sitting low on the top tube. Rivera was determined to get away so she would be there to help the climbers on her team on the next ascent.

But the way the race was unfolding, the sprinter all of a sudden transformed from a domestique to the nation’s best hope. It was in the second of the three laps on the finishing circuit that van der Breggen leapt out of the field to join a break of five out the front, which Rivera was now in.

As van der Breggen quickly split that group apart, Rivera’s climbing teammates where nowhere to be seen. So it was now up to the sprinter of the team, to determinedly try and hold the wheels of two of the best climbers in the world, van der Breggen and Spratt, on the long grind uphill.

“I tried to hold the wheel for as long as I could, but she is now world champion for a reason,” said Rivera in a statement from Team Sunweb. “From there it was about surviving and hoping my teammates would come from behind to try their hand at a medal.”

Impressively the sprinter held onto third through that second last climb, but blew up on the final one.

“Unfortunately, I went from going for the bronze medal to really giving everything I can to keep up,” said Rivera, who finished in 31st. “It was a hard course, in a beautiful place, and I did everything I could to contribute to Team USA and get the team ahead of the race and keep us in medal contention.” 

The long solo

There were still about 40 kilometres to go when Rivera dropped off the leading duo of van der Breggen and Spratt. That left two of the pre-race favourites riding together in the latter stages of the climb on that second lap. There was a long way to go before the line, or even that final ascent. It was early to be out the front in a break of two. Then van der Breggen decided she’d take it to another level and go it alone.

The Dutch rider took a brief moment behind Spratt’s wheel  — after the Australian reluctantly took a turn at the front — and then launched into time trial mode all the way to the line. It was nearly 40 kilometres away, but she seemed to do it without hesitation. Instantly she tucked in low and settled into the steady streamlined position that has helped her ride to second in the time trial the past two years.

Spratt, however, looked momentarily lost. She’d given it all to hold that wheel and when she couldn’t she seemed to be looking around to see if there was another rider she could work with to pull back van der Breggen. No one wants to chase such a formidable time-trialler alone.

However, it soon became clear that there was no-one but herself to rely on. Spratt settled in for the long solo ride too. With the chance to become Australia’s first women’s road race champion looking like it was riding away,  it was time to dig deep and hold on tight to that silver medal.

“I’m definitely happy with the silver medal,” said Spratt in the post race interview. “I can be very proud of this.

“I just tried to hold her [van der Breggen’s] wheel as much as I could … but she was on another level today. She was so so strong.”

From complete composure to the emotion of winning

Anna van der Breggen was determined not to let her focus slip for a minute. The Dutch rider had worked too long and hard to secure those elusive rainbow stripes. She wasn’t going to take any chances.

A picture of concentration.

There wasn’t even a glimmer of relaxation or celebration in her face until she’d checked behind when she was almost on top of the finish line.

“I didn’t know any gaps, so until the finish line I didn’t believe that I’d be the World Champion,” said van der Breggen. “I just rode as fast as possible.”

But once finished she could let her guard down and allow the sheer enormity and emotion of the moment sink in. She had taken a clear win with a huge gap of 3’42” and earned a year of wearing the rainbow stripes.

It paid to be brave

It was one of those races where a dash of daring was rewarded. Not for all, of course. For example Denmark’s Cecile Uttrup-Ludwig’s foray out the front before the first climb of the finishing circuit didn’t end up hitting the mark. Still, giving it a crack was overall a far more successful strategy than playing it safe. Every single rider in the top six had taken the risk of launching too early. Even solo star van der Breggen said in the post race interview that she was worried it was too far out when she went.

But it turns out a far surer way to lose the day on Saturday was to play it safe.

The big names that did were nowhere to be seen in the top five. In fact there was quite an unexpected group of riders filling many of those top spots, with the unpredictable way the race played out delivering some unexpected opportunities.

The huge smile on the face of Italy’s Tatiana Guderzo while she was accepting her bronze medal was a clear indicator of just what a nice surprise it was for the 2009 world champion to be up there. And far from fourth being a disappointing podium missing position, it was a result that left Sweden’s Emilia Fahlin delighted and surprised. 

“I really dug deep, and died a hundred times today,” said Fahlin in a Wiggle High5 release. “I’ve been suffering a lot, and emptying everything I had left. I’ve definitely got no regrets for the day, and I came out with a way nicer result than I ever could have imagined.”

On Saturday, it really was a case of who dares wins.

1. Anna van der Breggen, 2. Amanda Spratt, 3. Tatiana Guderzo

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