Preview: What you need to know about the elite women’s road race at Flanders Worlds

A closer look at the route and the favorites.

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The leaves are finally changing color and the temperatures are dropping in the northern hemisphere, which means it’s time for one of the best one-day events of the cycling season: The World Championship road race. 2021 has been a weird year, with some crazy aggressive races to kick off the season, a lull ahead of the Olympic Games in July, and then a slew of unpredictable events that left us all on the edge of our seats.

Flanders is definitely a fitting location for the 100th anniversary Road World Championships (for the men, at least, because the women’s road race was only added in 1958). The elite women’s road race on Saturday will be a combination of unpredictable and “we should have seen this coming”. With a technical course that leads into a demanding finale, the race will either come down to the fast women, or to one of them.

So let’s dive into it. Here is everything you need to know about the 2021 Women’s World Championship road race.

The course

The course starts in Antwerp and follows a 56 km long run-in to a series of different circuits. There is a loop in Leuven where the race will finish and a Flandrien loop where the majority of the climbing is. Before the women take on the Flandrien loop, which hits at about 78 km into the race, they’ll do one and half of the finishing loops. They will then complete one Flandrien loop with six climbs, before finishing the race with two of the final Leuven circuit again.

The Leuven circuit runs 15.5 km on length while the Flandrien circuit is 50 km long.

In total, the race is 157.7 km, one of the longer one-days the women do all year. Despite what looks to be a hilly course, there is actually less elevation gain than the last two World Championships had. Each of the climbs in Belgium, short and steep, will narrow down the field but probably not eliminate some of the top sprinters all together.

Despite being in the iconic region the course doesn’t hit any of the climbs from the Ronde van Vlaanderen – but the climbs aren’t nothing. The climbs on the Flandrien circuit are especially steep.

Who to watch

Keeping in mind that the course favors a rouleur/sprinter/opportunist and the variety of outcomes we’ve seen at the latest women’s WorldTour events it’s safe to safe the World Championships this year is wide open. The list of favourites will still be the usual cast of characters, but the way in which the race will be won could be surprising.

Lotte Kopecky of Belgium attacks the breakaway during stage 4 of the Internationale LOTTO Thüringen Ladies Tour.

At the top of the list is hometown hero Lotte Kopecky. After Kopecky’s last two seasons, where she put herself on the international map and proceeded to impress time after time, she will have a lot of eyes on her. Kopecky is one of the fastest sprinters in the game but can also expertly gauge her efforts over these short steep climbs. Plus, she’s headed to SD Worx in 2022, the home of so many world champions.

To win, Kopecky will have to outsmart the Dutch, and per usual they are showing up in Antwerp with an incredible team. Former world champion Anna van der Breggen has already made it clear she is not on the hunt for a final rainbow jersey but is there to give back to her teammates. Oh what it must be like to have Van der Breggen as your domestique for the World Championships!

Apart from Van der Breggen, the Dutch have 2019 road world champion Annemiek van Vleuten, 2017 road world champion Chantal van den Broek-Blaak, 2020 cyclocross world champion Lucinda Brand, the new world time trial national champion Ellen van Dijk, 12-time world champion (across road, track and cyclocross) Marianne Vos, Amy Pieters, and Demi Vollering.

Chantal Blaak wins the 2017 World Championship in Norway.

In all honesty, every single Dutch woman on the start line could win the road race, in a variety of different styles. Van den Broek-Blaak is a master tactician and has managed some incredible wins on courses just like the Worlds course. Vollering and Vos are both strong sprinters, and have Pieters for an expert lead out if it comes to that. Van Vletuen, queen of the long range attacks, is flying right now. Just like the Olympic road race, it’s the Dutch who will run the show. Let’s just hope they don’t play a negative game like in Tokyo.

Speaking of tactics, there are a handful of outside favorites who we can count on to be aggressive, especially in the Flandrien circuit. One of the is Kasia Niewiadoma. The Polish rider has a team of six to make sure the race is easy for her until it’s her time to shine. Those short punchy climbs are her bread and butter so even though she’s not an out-and-out favorite to win, seeing her go for it is a given.

Elise Chabbey of Switzerland.

The same can be said for Marlen Reusser and Elise Chabbey of Switzerland. The two are both aggressive riders with nothing to lose, especially Reusser, who missed out on the rainbow jersey in the time trial by only ten seconds. The peloton has made the mistake of letting Reusser get away in the past, and it’s up in the air if they’ve learned from their mistakes.

Another rider who will have to be aggressive if she wants that top step is Elisa Longo Borghini. Borghini and her Italian teammate Marta Cavalli have both had strong seasons, but if there’s a sprint at the end of the race they will miss out, so their opportunities will all be on that Flandrien circuit.

Coryn Rivera on the start line of the Women’s road race in Tokyo.

Then there’s Coryn Rivera. There is no question of her getting over the climbs, she’s shown that since the Giro Donne in July. She has always been a top sprinter, but just needs to be in the right place. Rivera has openly expressed a desire to get the rainbow bands back on American shoulders. The last American rider to win the Worlds was Beth Heiden in 1980. Rivera’s team is strong but the USA does not have a track record of good tactics which could be a detriment to the sprinter.

Given the way she’s been riding recently, and if the race does come down to a reduced sprint, Chloe Hosking might claim the rainbow jersey. The Australian has a very strong team to back her with riders to cover moves on the harder parts of the course and help her get where she needs to be if things go sideways.

Germany has a strong team overall and is coming in strong after winning the Mixed Relay TTT on Wednesday. Lisa Brennauer is a favorite for a fast finish but if it is a select move that goes watch for Liane Lippert. She’s been coming into form in the latter half of the season.

Emma Norsgaard of Denmark.

Two final riders to watch are Emma Norsgaard of Denmark and Lizzie Deignan of Great Britain. Norsgaard has impressed all season, especially in reduced bunch sprints. She’s used to riding into the finales solo so a select move without any Danish teammates is not going to slow her down.

Deignan last won the World Championships in 2015 and has quite a ride since then. After having a baby in 2018 and coming back to racing in 2019 Deignan quickly found her way back to the top. 2021 hasn’t been the season she wanted, but it’s not over yet, and with her history in one-day racing she’s still a good pick on Saturday.

There’s so many different ways the race could play out. The three most likely are a select group of less than 10, a reduced bunch of around 30, or a solo rider. Probably Van Vleuten.

How to watch

Most of Europe can watch the women’s road race from start to finish on GCN+ or Eurosport. Candians will find coverage on FloBikes, while American viewers should look to NBC Sports. In Australia the race will be on SBS.

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