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Women’s roadrace: a threeway brawl?

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6th La Course 2019 - by Le Tour de France Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Saturday sees the race the locals may turn up to cheer the loudest for this week since it offers probably the best chance of success for a home rider. Lizzie Deignan returned from maternity leave this spring with one massive objective on her radar, the Yorkshire World Championships on a course that literally goes through her home town of Otley. The 2015 World Champion is very much a top favorite too, along with two others, on this hard-to-predict course.

Getting to the bottom of how hard a Worlds course actually is is always a bit of a mission impossible. Usually it starts out early with everyone saying how it’s way harder than it looks on paper and the true climbers perk up their ears hoping they will have their day. And then by the time we get close to the race everyone seems to be betting on the sprinters anyway. Here we get the unusual situation where those who have done the recon emphasize how hard the approach to the laps is while the laps themselves appear technical rather than offer difficulty in the form of climbing. Indeed as we’ve seen already, the laps themselves are attritional but don’t necessarily provide the set-piece attacking opportunities we often see on Worlds courses. That a team like Netherlands who have the two fastest pure sprinters in the world in Kirsten Wild and Lorena Wiebes has elected to leave both of them at home gives us a fair indication of how hard they deem the course to be. They are probably the nation that puts the most resources into reconnaissance and they aren’t even gambling a little bit that either of the two could make a final group sprint selection. Granted they are spoiled with riches of other options but still, Wiebes is the revelation of the season and they have more spots than anyone at their disposal. Similarly Australia (another team that recons ambitiously) chose to leave the ever dependable sprinter/leadout Chloe Hosking entirely off the team until injuries opened up a reserve spot for her. There are probably lessons in there, or those managers just got it spectacularly wrong.

In the end what we are likely to get is a race that favors the strong and tactically astute and/or aggressive. Team strength, or numbers of options really, could also be a deciding factor. This is likely not a race where you want to be caught on the back foot and forced to chase too much as the roads don’t really favor the numbers of a larger peloton to the extent that we normally see.

So lets go through the riders to watch on the women’s road race.

★★★★★

Lizzie Deignan is going to have many eyes on her for sure. Her season has been solid but not flamboyant since her return. Not the blistering attacks we saw from her in he peak seasons but she is there or thereabouts as exemplified by her Tour of Britain win. And more than anyone else we know that her season has been almost solely focused on this one race so if she got that buildup right she will be a main contender. She should definitely try and make this a selective race fairly early to give herself a chance against her two main contenders, there is little chance she wins a sprint against either of them. But we have seen that she has the capacity to get away from pretty much everyone else in the world when she is at her best so it would not be a far-fetched scenario.

Top billing though goes without a doubt to Marianne Vos who has crushed the latter half of the season to an extent that I’m not even sure she could have matched in her prime all-crushing seasons before her injury-problems. Almost entirely written off at several points as unlikely to return to anywhere near her top level she has done just that. Granted we did not see her unbeatable in the major races in the spring classics but since the Giro Rosa she is all but. Not surprising then perhaps that NL coaches aren’t bothering with heavier sprinters when Vos has an almost comparable finishing speed and also the ability to survive hills to go along with it. Practically everyone says the course screams “Vos” too, maybe a slightly more uphill finishing straight would have given her even more of an edge but apart from that it looks custom made. Coincidentally one of her most convincing performances of the spring was in the Tour of Yorkshire....

If Vos has been dominant since the Giro Rosa, Marta Bastianelli was the most dominant spring rider by a huge margin. At times her winning felt like almost an inevitable outcome and the other teams, much bigger and more resourceful than Bastianelli’s Virtu, seemed to struggle to come up with ways to shake her off and beat her. Bastianelli this year has responded to attempts to attack her in harder terrain by going on the offensive herself (or with the help of Sofia Bertizzolo) and this strength has seemingly flabbergasted the opposition. This doesn’t really bode well for them seeing as she will now be backed up by a massively strong Italian side. And if you, having followed men’s cycling, get the image of an Italian team that is full of backstabbery and internal intrigue then get that image out of your head. There is almost certainly no other national team, men and women included, that has a stronger record of cohesion and efficiency at Worlds in the last decade or so than the Italian women. It’s almost eerie how they almost alway manage to come together and punch above their weight when it matters. So unless tactical plays and group dynamics work against her, lets say Longo Borghini gets up the road in a group that gets too much rope by the peloton, there is practically no chink in her armor. Or rather there could be if the route to the Harrogate circuits is as hard as some say and other teams really apply the pressure. That could be Bastianelli’s kryptonite.

★★★★

Once we get past the big three the definition of the term favorite becomes a lot looser. The Americans who are on a roll this week have two intriguing prospects. First of all Coryn Rivera who is the prime candidate if we think the race will be won by “someone like Vos but not actually Vos”. Those two have been facing off a lot in the last two seasons. Rivera is more of the pure sprinter (compared with Vos) who has developed her climbing ability and endurance by leaps and bounds to be one of the best allround threats at this point. She races a lot more aggressively as well in the classics now. Not exactly the type to sit passively waiting for the sprint anymore which could be a key in this race. The only real problem is that if she’s there when it goes down then chances are Vos is too. Unfortunately Vos has been beating Rivera consistently when the two have gone head to head this year, unlike last year, so that’s a tiny flaw in the plan.

Then there are the Vans. Anna van der Breggen & Annemiek van Vleuten. No favorite rundown in this day and age would be complete without them eventhough the chatter around them is much more muted this year compared to Innsbruck. Here they will presumably be used as wild card tactical options on a course that isn’t as perfect for them but even then you’d have to be a moron not to keep a very close eye on them. Anna vdB especially has a knack for riding away from races on pure power in gruesome conditions and chances are we won’t be seeing all sunshine and gentle breezes. Truth is, on a team without Vos I’d have her as a 5 star but she has been on a bit of trend this year where she seems more than happy to do the heavy lifting for others and I suspect she may slip into this here. Annemiek is a less likely winner but on power alone and a newfound confidence in one-day races she could well win here too. Like in the TT though, I don’t think the weather will be doing her any favors.

★★★

Elisa Longo Borghini is a little bit the eternal bridesmaid of the peloton. So strong in practically every aspect of the sport (except sprinting) but she always seems to come up against one other who is better than her on the day. That leaves her with a lot of silvers and bronzes but not enough wins sadly. The role she will have on a team spearheaded by Bastianelli may well work in her favor though, she will be much more under the radar and perhaps racing with a bit more carefree recklessness?

Carefree recklessness is also what we usually associate with Germans and their hope is mainly Lisa Brennauer who has had a phenomenal season, albeit much of it in service of Kirsten Wild, and looked sharp in Madrid just before the Worlds. Seeing her crushed early in the TT by Dygert was a worrying sign but in hindsight that may have been more about Dygert than Brennauer perhaps? She has the experience and the pack skills that could prove golden here and her sprint is very very good.

A few years ago I think many of us were expecting Katarzyna Niewiadoma to be (or be on her way to being) a dominant rider in the mold of Anna van der Breggen but her development curve seems to have flattened out a bit on a level just below. She is still however a very capable one-day racer who is not afraid to take early initiatives to make the winning move. Once again I think this race will really be for those types of riders while those who take the conservative, “sit back and conserve energy for as long as possible” approach will see themselves left behind as the race is decided up ahead of them. In Niewiadoma’s case she probably could have done with a bit more punchy climbing on the course though to really give her a better chance.

92nd UCI Road World Championships 2019 - Women Elite Individual Time Trial Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images

And then we come to the big exclamation point after the TT, Chloe Dygert-Owen. Surely someone on such beastly form and power will simply ride away from everyone like a lady-Remco, surely she should be the US first priority leader? In a word, no, I don’t believe it. She still, due to other priorities, has very limited experience riding against the best in the world in a road race and I’m not entirely convinced that the amount of elevation won’t take out a good part of the zip in her legs if the course is as challenging as has been said. Rivera is a proven survivor in hard races and should be the no 1 protected rider for sure. But put Dygert-Owen on the attack fairly early in the finale and there is absolutely no telling how far she could go.

★★

At this point in the list we’re getting to people who I can’t quite see how they would actually win but their qualities are such that they are sure to feature prominently in the race and get good results. With a wild enough tactical development in the race they can of course win as well but it’s going to take a lot of thing going just right for them to do so. First of all Amanda Spratt who is now on such a level that as long as there is enough climbing she will always be a top 3 threat. I’d put more money on her ending up in a doomed breakaway attempt on this course than I would on her winning but dismiss her at your own peril.

Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig & Ashleigh Moolman fall pretty much in the same category. Both not afraid to go on the offensive but both could probably also use a lot more climbing to really have a fair chance of winning. I’m absolutely counting on them to be amongst those trying to make this a hard race sooner rather than later. Both have also had slightly disappointing seasons with Moolman crashing a lot when not busy being a very useful worker for Vos and Uttrup rarely finding that extra spark to get the absolute results. Ronde van Vlanderen and La Course showed that she is one for the big days though so maybe she will prove that again here?

Only third in the line of succession presumably on Team Italy, Soraya Paladin still feels like the most intriguing long range option for them. She was excellent in the Tour de Yorkshire so the roads do suit her. Not sure what chances she will be given but after the year she’s had I’m very curious what she could do here.

All other Dutch people in the race. Literally. They could all win if the tactics play out their way. I’m not even joking.

And then I suppose we should list a handful of sprinters who could be in it if the race is easier than advertised or for some reason is raced more passively than anyone could anticipate. Let’s say for instance that terrible weather makes the whole peloton massively cautious in Harrogate? In these unlikely circumstances you could find a few of these in the mix suddenly: Letitzia Paternoster, Chloe Hosking, Amalie Dideriksen, Sheyla Gutierrez, Arlenis Sierra and Teniel Campbell.

Honorable mention: Emilia Fahlin. After last year’s Worlds and her racing this spring Fahlin looked certain to be a medal contender in Yorkshire on a course perfectly suited to her. But a crash in training with a concussion as a result has kept her entirely off her bike since mid-May. Somehow, with what must have been very few training miles she managed a top 10 in her comeback a week ago in GP d’Isbergues. How she has managed to get herself to the startline here I do not know but I hope she has a good day.