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Women’s Road race: Harsh truth edition

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la course Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Big weekend. The climbers come to the fore in a World championship in a way we probably haven’t seen since Mendrisio.

The Course

By now we’re getting familiar with the course, it’s lovely Von Trapp countryside finished with quite a hard lap in Innsbruck. It’s good stuff.

It is the same course we saw the junior men do except it has an additional lap of the circuit and with it one additional climb. What it lacks is the Höll climb which is the prime feature of the finale of the men’s race and the reason for this is that the UCI is a pitiful shithole of an excuse for an organization.But let’s leave that discussion behind for now because this is quite obviously an excellent championship course anyway and one that opens a lot of opportunities for the stronger climbers in the peloton.

The Duel

There is no getting around it. This race is without a doubt the story of the two best riders in the world facing off against each other for their first road World Champs win. Sure there are a bunch of other riders here who could theoretically win this race but that is not the story here. The two best riders in the world, certainly on hilly or mountainous courses, of the last few years will on Saturday go head to head on a course that should in all likelihood make them stand out from the rest of the pack. The fact that Anna van der Breggen and Annemiek van Vleuten are both members of the same Dutch team make it even more thrilling.

Van der Breggen is the Olympic champ, a title she took after van Vleuten crashed brutally on the downhill on her way to what looked like an almost certain win. She is also the rider that has dominated the mountainous GiroRosa in recent years and most of the hilly classics calendar as well. The last year though has seen her in almost as many second places in big races as Peter Sagan in his worst periods. This due to a combination of Annemiek’s improvement and the fact that she had become so dominant that her actions became the focal point of every race, a fact that she and her teams have not always dealt with in the best way. Add in what looks like a bit of a struggle with motivation or at least lack of the single-minded dedication that seems to drive Van Vleuten at the moment and you’ll end up with a handful of disappointing second places. For Innsbruck she seems perfectly peaked and fully committed though, her troubles may come from elsewhere.

Primarily Annemiek van Vleuten is the problem. At La Course this summer she almost climbed as well as AvdB, she pushed her to the limits on the descent and in the end won on what appeared to be pure willpower. The Worlds TT once again fell in her favor and she looks stronger than ever. What will make the difference between the two is the big questionmark. Van der Breggen is the outright strongest climber albeit more of a diesel than the punchier and more aggressive van Vleuten. Who the Igls climb will suit best is hard to say, it may be long enough for a diesel like AvdB to make her absolute watts-advantage do its thing but it may not be steep enough for her real climbing advantage to make a difference. The final climb of La Course was just barely hard enough for that to happen. If that is the case then van Vleuten’s more aggressive and more decisive tactical style could be the decider instead.

The Others

Elisa Longo Borghini, Ashleigh Moolman, Katarzyna Niewiadoma, Amanda Spratt, Megan Guarnier, Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig. These are all riders who could be a factor in this race. I’m saying they won’t be. These are all impressive riders, all have had strong races at some point in the season, Spratt, who is better than she ever was, will have a strong team behind her, Niewiadoma’s form is rising, Elisa looked good in the TT. But they are consistently one rung below the Dutch duo and really the only way they become real factors on Saturday is if they somehow become part of the tactical play between the Big Two. It sounds like a mean thing to say, and we know from history that this is also a way that someone can run off with the win, when two dogs fight over a bone a third one sometimes runs away with it, but it is nevertheless the truth. The real fight is within the Dutch team and it is between two riders I don’t think will be too concerned with teamwork and tactical cooperation against the other opponents. The only cooperation I could foresee between them is them getting away on the climb and doing a two-women timetrial to stay away from a group of weaker chasers.

The Dutch Dilemma

So is this race not going to offer any suspense at all? Do we just wait for Anna and Annemiek to settle it amongst themselves?

Well, of course not. The Dutch showed in Glasgow that their team coordination leaves a little to be desired and there are any number of riders who will try and push the dutch into situations where they ideally are working against each other or at least are put in a dilemma. For instance I bet riders like Niewiadoma or Longo Borghini wouldn’t mind ending up in a break with poorer climbers such as Blaak or Pieters. Problem is the Dutch really won’t be sentimental about these things, the big two would surely chase such a break even with a teammate up there, did I mention these two are pretty desperate for the win? All in all the Dutch will have a nightmare deciding who to back and how to allow their riders a chance to win without ultimately tripping over each other and giving the win away. Personally I think the more brute force nature of the course will solve their problems for them, when power trumps tactics and finesse then life gets easier in the DS car.

Who is left standing in the end?

I may have overestimated Van der Breggen for the TT, Van Vleuten just looked better than ever. Therefore it’s hard to overlook the 35 year old LaCourse-winner. My bet is that her greater confidence and sharper attacks will win the day, whether it be in the form of a downhill attack or perhaps in a long two-up sprint.