Preview: Your guide to the women’s road race at the 2020 Road Worlds

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One week after the final day of the Giro Rosa the best of the women’s peloton have made their way north to Imola, Italy for the Road World Championships. The elite women’s road race will be held on Saturday.

The original course for the Worlds was set to be a hard one, with a real steep climb on the final circuit that the women were set to take on three times. With 400 m of elevation gain in 3 km on the final climb and 1,919 m of elevation gain over the whole course, the vast majority of it in the final circuits, the race looked likely to go to a rider like Annemiek van Vleuten, Kasia Niewiadoma, or Anna van der Breggen.

When the host of Worlds changed hands, due to Swiss COVID restrictions, Imola was determined to upgrade the brutality of the original course in Aigle-Martigny. The 28.8 km circuit consists of two climbs, the Mazzolano and the Cima Gallisterna. Although both climbs are just under 3 km in length, they are … steep. The first of the two, the Mazzolano, tops out at a 13% gradient at the bottom of the climb and has 1 km at 9.6%. The maximum gradient of the second climb, the Cima Gallisterna, is 14%, with a 1.3 km section at 11%.

In total, the women will race 143 km and will complete 2,800 meters of elevation gain over the five-lap race. Both climbs will be crucial throughout the race, but the second of the two might be where the race is won, or lost.

Riders to watch

The Giro Rosa gives a pretty good idea of who is going well at the moment, and who could factor in the road race in Imola.

As per usual the Dutch will be lining up with the strongest all-around team focused on newly crowned time trial world champion and Giro Rosa winner Anna van der Breggen. Van der Breggen previously won the Worlds road race in 2018 in Innsbruck.

Based on how she rode at the Giro Rosa, right now she is one of the best climbers in the peloton. It was on the steep final slopes of stage 8 at the Giro where she solidified her overall victory, and the only person that could hold on to her then was Elisa Longo Borghini. The climbs on the Imola course are not long enough for that kind of tactic, but a solid enough attack could put Van der Breggen in a small group or even solo to the finish.

Van der Breggen winning Worlds in 2018.

Another Dutch rider with a very strong bid for the rainbow jersey is Marianne Vos. Vos had an incredible Giro Rosa, walking away with three stage wins out of nine. Last year, when La Course by the Tour de France took place just after the Giro Rosa — where Vos won four of the 10 stages — Vos was able to hold onto her form and take the La Course victory. She still placed high in the 2019 World Championships, in sixth, but was 5:20 off Van Vleuten’s winning time, and a little over three minutes back from second.

Vos has won the world championships three times, first in 2006 in Salzburg, and then back to back in 2012 and 2013. This would be her first Worlds title since she took most of 2015 off from racing. The finish suits her, and the climbs aren’t quite long enough to shell her. If it comes down to a group of climbers and Vos, Vos will undoubtedly have the best kick.

Vos won three stages of the recent Giro Rosa.

The Dutch powerhouse team doesn’t top out at two strong riders. Also on the roster is up-and-coming talent Demi Vollering. 2020 is Vollering’s third year racing, and the young rider already has a long list of strong performances, including third at La Course this year. Since she is not quite as experienced as her Dutch teammates she will likely play more of a support role, but she is still likely to get up and amongst it.

Probably the second strongest team on the start line will be the British. The squad will be headed by Lizzie Deignan who had a few podiums at the Giro Rosa after winning both the GP de Plouay and La Course within a week of each other. Deignan may not be as “pure” a climber as some of the Dutch stars, but she can certainly hang in there on the climbs.

One of the benefits on Deignan’s side is that she doesn’t have to compete for leadership on her team, yet she still has strong support from the likes of Hannah Barnes and Lizzy Banks. Finally, Deignan showed us in La Course this year that she can best any of the climbers in a sprint finish, so if it’s a small group with her in it, she will have very little competition.

Deignan (right) winning La Course a few weeks ago.

There’s one rider who could win this thing and have every single cycling fan, and definitely the majority of the peloton, in tears of joy, and that is Italian Elisa Longo Borghini. The first Italian to wear the pink jersey since 2008 at the Giro Rosa (even if it was just for a day) Borghini fought tooth and nail to get back onto the final podium of the race. She took every single minuscule opportunity to go for a win last week in Italy, and ultimately won the “queen” stage of the race, in a two-up sprint against Anna van der Breggen. For Longo Borghini to win a world title after the season she has had so far, is well within the realm of possibility.

If this race is won on a descent it will be taken by the Polish rider Kasia Niewiadoma. Second in the general classification at the Giro Rosa, Niewiadoma may not have won any of the stages or had any mind-blowingly good rides like she did at Trofeo Alfredo Binda in 2018 or Amstel Gold in 2019, but the day she lost the race was stage eight on a climb much longer than the ones featured in Worlds.

The short steep climbs suit Niewiadoma, and what she will be most excited about is the descents. She is known for being fearless downhill, and if she can get even the smallest gap over the second climb she can make up more time down to the finish. In La Course this year only Anna Henderson of Team Sunweb could contend with Niewiadoma’s descending. So, cover an eye if it’s Niewiadoma approaching the final climb with hunger in her eyes, and don’t put her style to the test at home.

Niewiadoma wore pink for a day at this year’s Giro Rosa.

The final rider to watch is Danish sensation Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig. One of the most aggressive riders in the peloton, Ludwig has had some bad luck in the races so far, crashing in the European championships and losing valuable time in the opening team time trial of the Giro Rosa. Regardless, she never stopped fighting for every single second.

In the Europeans, she attacked many times before it was finally clear that the move was gone. At the Giro Rosa, she won almost every mountain point out on course, and eventually the overall mountain classification. She is a really good climber, but the fight she has shown is what really sets her apart from many other riders.

Breaking down the numbers

One of the interesting aspects of the world championships is the breakdown of starters per team. Some nations field only one rider, while the home nation is permitted nine. Since cycling is, at the end of the day, a team sport, it’s important to keep in mind which nation is lining up with numbers in their favor.

The Dutch will line up with eight. The USA, originally slotted for seven, is lining up with six, after Chloe Dygert’s horrific crash in the individual time trial on Thursday. One of the strongest nations last year, the Americans aren’t quite as on-form in 2020. That’s not to say they couldn’t do well — their roster is still strong with Lauren Stephens who just won the Tour Cycliste Feminin International de l’Ardeche, and US national champion Ruth Winder who won the Tour Down Under in January.

Winder after winning the Tour Down Under.

Australia also lines up with seven riders, including Grace Brown, fifth in the ITT this year at Worlds. The Australian team will be missing Amanda Spratt, who was pulled from the team after her crash in the Giro Rosa last week and replaced by Tiffany Cromwell.

The final seven-rider team is Germany, with national champion Lisa Brennauer, who was fourth in the ITT. Six-rider nations include Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Norway, Poland, and Spain with Mavi Garcia. The host nation of Italy has the maximum allotment of nine starters.

Oh, you think I forgot the defending champ?

Now. The Dutch have a seven-rider team, however, as the defending champion Annemiek van Vleuten has an individual start in this year’s Worlds road race. In the seventh stage of the Giro Rosa, just a week ago, Van Vleuten was caught up in a crash, along with Spratt and Vos. Van Vleuten rode to the finish and straight into an ambulance. It was determined that she had broken her wrist, and would return to Holland for surgery.

Van Vleuten crashed out of the Giro Rosa with a broken wrist.

At that point, it was believed that Van Vleuten would not be racing Worlds. With just one week between the crash and the race, there was no way she would be healed in time to race. Of course, Van Vleuten had a different plan. Earlier in the week, she was fitted with a special brace that enabled her to still hold onto her handlebars.

Since she has her own spot on the start list she is permitted to decide for herself if she will race or not, and as of writing this, she has stated that she feels she is fully capable of racing. The final decision lies with the Dutch federation’s medical team.

If Van Vleuten lines up it could go one of two ways. The first is she rides away from everyone, similar to last year, and wins. The second is that she can’t stand on the climb due to the added pressure through her wrist, and she can’t properly descend due to the impaired handling, and she isn’t a factor in the race. In which case, it seems like a waste of valuable recovery time taken to fly all the way to Italy.

That being said, weirder things have happened in 2020 than Annemiek van Vleuten winning her second straight world championship road title in a cast.

Could we see this again in 2020?

All in all the Worlds this year is wide open. The course is challenging, but the climbs are not long enough to make it a pure climber’s race. It’s one to watch, that’s for sure.

For US viewers the race can be watched on NBC Sports, for Canadians it’s on FloBikes, and for anyone in Europe, Eurosport will be your best bet. For Australian viewers, you’ll want to tune into SBS.

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