Shocked Van Vleuten rides through pain to cap stellar year with road race gold | World Road Cycling Championships

Everything changed with 30 kilometers to go. It was as if a switch had been flipped, a new act started in the theatrical performance of elite women’s road racing at the World Road Championships in Wollongong on Saturday. And, lingering patiently behind the scenes, the surprise star – Dutch Annemiek van Vleuten – is once again waiting to steal the show.

After threatening clouds had been threatening all day, suddenly the rain started to fall. Home country Australia took the downpour as a signal: first two-time World Championship medalist Amanda Spratt, then the team’s star protege, Grace Brown, and finally rider Sarah Roy. None made their efforts on local roads, but it was the openness that other nations needed.

A race of control has become a race of chaos. The peloton was divided along the route – groups of twos and threes with wide gaps between them, unlikely heroes sprinting for their moment in the spotlight, favorites in danger of slipping away.

Above all, almost taunting the runners as the dramatic denouement unfolded in the rain, a rainbow opened up over the panoramic view of Wollongong on the New South Wales south coast. A rainbow waiting to anoint the queen of women’s road cycling, the woman who will wear the rainbow jersey for the next 12 months.

Attack after attack followed. As the rain subsided, the lead groups rebuilt and the reduced selection entered the final kilometer. Then, out of nowhere, Van Vleuten did what Van Vleuten does. Nursing a broken elbow, suffered in a bad fall in the mixed team time trial on Wednesday, which in turn followed a lackluster performance in the women’s time trial last weekend, Van Vleuten had been quiet all day. Until the time was right and the 39-year-old was there when it mattered.

Emerging from behind, she surprised the selection to go solo. None of the best sprinters in the world could keep up with her – the rainbow jersey finally took hold of the Dutchwoman. Belgian Lotte Kopecky was the fastest to the finish line for the silver medal, Italian rider Silvia Persico settled for bronze. Alexandra Manly was best placed for the host nation, in 15th

Annemiek van Vleuten of the Netherlands pulls away from the peloton to win the Road World Championships. Photography: Con Chronis/Getty Images

“I was the servant today, with my elbow broken,” a shocked Van Vleuten said. “And now I’m world champion.”

Van Vleuten’s astonishing victory crowns a remarkable year at the twilight of a historic career. The versatile Movistar won the yellow jersey in the first Tour de France Women, as well as overall victory in the Giro Rosa and the Challenge by La Vuelta (as well as victories at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Liège-Bastogne-Liège and podiums at Strade Bianche, the Tour of Flanders and La Flèche Wallonne).

“It’s the best win of my entire career,” she said. “I still can’t believe it. I was such a committed servant today [for Marianne Vos] that I didn’t think about my chances – only in the last mile.

Gold medalist in the time trial and silver medalist in the road race at the Tokyo Olympics, 2019 road race world champion and 2017 and 2018 world time trial champion, Van Vleuten will wear rainbows again in 2023 – in what she says will be the final season of her glittering career.

“It’s the best,” was how Van Vleuten described the prospect of her swansong year as a world champion.

The 164.3km road race – the longest distance in the event’s history, which dates back more than six decades – took place at lunchtime from Helensburgh, just south of Sydney. After a controlled descent from the highlands towards the coast, the race began in earnest along scenic oceanside roads. The peloton had no time to take in the scenery, not even the iconic Sea Cliff Bridge, with a number of energetic early breakaway attempts.

France’s Gladys Verhulst was the first to make an attack stick, with the dominant nations of the peloton – Italy, the Netherlands and Australia – content to leave the sprinter on the road. But Verhulst was caught 20km later after the toughest climb of the day, Mount Keira on the Illawarra escarpment.

The steep climb was anticlimactic, with none of the favorite riders taking a chance; struggling with her injury, Van Vleuten was remarkably quiet. She said it was her plan to attack solo on the climb, but she was hampered by the pain.

As the race entered the first of six laps of a tough street circuit, another breakaway formed: Belgian Julie Van de Velde, young Swede Caroline Andersson and Briton Elynor Bäckstedt, older sister of Zoe Bäckstedt, who had won the under-19 road race in the morning.

It was the attack of the day – at one point the trio had almost two minutes on the pack – but without representatives from the heavyweight nations it was still doomed to disappointment.

Annemiek van Vleuten adds the road race world title to her victories in the Women's Tour de France, Giro d'Italia Donne and Challenge by La Vuelta.
Annemiek van Vleuten adds the road race world title to her victories in the Women’s Tour de France, Giro d’Italia Donne and Challenge by La Vuelta. Photography: Dean Lewins/AAP

Finally, the preliminary performances came to an end. After a brief relaxation in the peloton, the fireworks started and Van Vleuten stole the show. A remarkable finish from one of the greatest female cyclists of all time, both unexpected and utterly predictable.

“Yeah,” said Van Vleuten, pausing, seemingly still giddy from the win. “It’s quite a story.”

New Zealand’s Niamh Fisher-Black won the under-23 category – a race within the race, unlike the separate age category race for men. The UCI has promised to remedy this persistent inequality by 2025. Briton Pfeiffer Georgi won the silver medal.

The world championships wrap up Sunday with the elite men’s road race. Belgian pair Wout van Aert and Remco Evenepoel, two-time Tour de France winner Tadej Pogačar and local favorite Michael Matthews will be among the rainbow jersey contenders on the grueling 266.9km course.

About Robert James

Check Also

‘Do Better’: Newsom Halts $1 Billion in Homeless Spending – GV Wire

California’s plans to reduce the nation’s largest homeless population aren’t good enough, Democratic Gov. Gavin …