Five things to look out for at the Road World Championships time trials

The world's best time triallists go head to head on Sunday and Monday in Belgium

Remco Evenepoel at the 2021 European Championships
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Ganna building form ahead of title defence

Filippo Ganna

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This time last year, Filippo Ganna was crowned world champion in Imola as part of a run of victories that confirmed him to be comfortably the best time triallist in the world. The Italian followed-up that gold medal at the Road World Championships with three more crowd-pleasing stage wins against the clock at the Giro d’Italia, and looked untouchable in the discipline.

That dominance hasn’t quite continued into 2021. Despite making a strong start to the season, and later adding a couple more Giro stage wins to his palmarès, Ganna suffered defeats at the Olympics and the recent European Championships, finishing as far down as fifth in the former.

Still, there are reasons for optimism ahead of the defence of his Worlds title. His under-par showing at the Olympics time trial could in part be explained by his focus on the track (which went much better, with Ganna taking gold as part of the Italian pursuit team), and silver medal at the European Championships indicates he’s improving again now he’s back exclusively on the road. And, unlike that route in Trento, the course in Bruges plays to his strengths, with no pesky climbs for him to get up.

For all the challenges he has faced, Ganna therefore remains the favourite to defend his World title, and cement his status as this generation’s best time trialist. 

Van Vleuten the woman to beat

Annemiek van Vleuten at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic time trial

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Unfortunately, both of the last two winners of the women’s time trial won’t be present in Bruges. Defending champion Anna van der Breggen felt she lacked the necessary motivation to put her all into the time trial, while 2019 winner Chloe Dygert is still rehabilitating from the shocking crash at last year’s race. 

That leaves the winner of the previous two editions, Annemiek Van Vleuten, as hot favourite for gold. 

Even if the other two were riding, Van Vleuten’s recent form might have made her the woman to beat anyway. In winning Olympic gold in Tokyo, she put over a minute into Van der Breggen and over two minutes into Dygert, and was a significant 56 seconds ahead of Marlen Reusser, who is likely to be her main rival again in Bruges. 

While it’s true that the hillier course in Tokyo played to her advantage, and the flatter roads in Bruges will better suit others, including her Dutch team-mate Ellen van Dijk (who’s on great form having just won gold at the European Championships road race and silver in the time trial), Van Vleuten is still extremely strong on the flat, and will take some beating. 

The 38-year-old always seems to be on the brink of some other historical feat these days, and the same applies here — a third Worlds title would put her second on the all-time list of women’s worlds time trial winners, just behind Jeannie Longo, who holds the record with four. 

Swiss expectations raised by double European Championships gold

Stefan Küng on his way to defending his European time trial title

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It’s been 11 years since Switzerland last won an elite Worlds title with Fabian Cancellara in the time trial. Back then the Swiss national anthem was a familiar sound at the Worlds with Cancellara dominating the event, winning a record-equalling total of four titles between 2006 and 2010.

Now, the nation might be on the cusp of another time trial gold, not just in the men’s but in the women’s event too. Marlen Reusser and Stefan Küng ran out champions at the European Championships last weekend in Trento, and both stated their intentions of going for gold in Bruges. 

Both riders have improved steadily over the years, and now appear good enough to be crowned the world’s best. Since finishing 29th on her first appearance in 2017, Reusser has placed 17th, then sixth, then second in the subsequent two years, and took Olympic silver prior to her triumph in Trento. That the time trial takes place on her 30th birthday gives the sense that victory might be written in the stars for her. 

Küng has been on the time trialing scene for much longer, but only recently has been able to compete regularly against the very best. He took bronze at last year’s Worlds, and missed out on an Olympic medal by a mere fraction of a second in Tokyo prior to his stunning defeat of Ganna at the European Championships. 

Wout van Aert begins quest for historic double-up

Wout van Aert

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Only one man has ever won both the Worlds road and the time trial in his career; Spaniard Abraham Olano, who was crowned time trial in 1998, three years after winning the road race in Colombia.

This year, Wout van Aert is not only aiming to follow in Olano’s footsteps by becoming the second, but is hoping to make history by becoming the first man to win both titles in the same year. 

Given the rarity of such cross-disciplinary success, this would have been an extraordinary feat, but a very feasible one for a rider as uniquely gifted as Van Aert. We’ve already seen the Belgian produce the almost unthinkable feat of winning a time trial, sprint stage and mountain stage all at the same Tour de France earlier this year, and four stage wins at the Tour of Britain indicates he’s approaching the Worlds with red hot form.

Unlike at the road race, Van Aert is not the favourite for the time trial, and was off the pace at the Olympics, where he finished sixth. But fatigue from riding the brutal road race just days before was a big factor then, and if he can find the legs that saw him win silver at last year’s Worlds, he’ll have a chance of completing part one of his mission by winning time trial gold. 

Multiple other medal contenders

Tadej Pogacar at the 2021 European Championships

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Wout van Aert isn’t the only Belgian capable of doing the unprecedented double. Remco Evenepoel is also riding both the road race and time trial, and, although he’s expected to play a support role in the former, will be free to ride for himself on Sunday.

The 21-year-old has made a roaring return to form lately, and was right up there along with Küng and Ganna at the European Championships, before fading during the second half of the course. 

The European Championships results should be a good indicator of who the favourites are for the men’s time trial, and all three of the Olympic medalists — Primož Roglič, Tom Dumoulin and Rohan Dennis — are, for various reasons, not riding.

In their absence, other riders to look out for are Tour of Flanders winner Kasper Asgreen, Stefan Bissegger (who was fourth in Trento), Rémi Cavagna, and Tour de France champion Tadej Pogačar, who on his day is capable of beating anyone in a time trial. 

The German team looks well-placed to challenge for a medal in the women’s time trial. Lisa Brennauer has been a reliable performer in the ‘race of truth’ for years now, winning gold way back in 2014, and bronze in the recent European Championships suggests she has the form to win a first Worlds time trial medal in six years.

One place behind Brennauer in Trento was her compatriot Lisa Klein, who at 25 years of age is much less experienced, but has all the makings of a time trial star. She appears capable of what would be a breakthrough first ever Worlds medal.

USA might not have Chloe Dygert to root for, but the evergreen 46-year-old Amber Neben is once again set to ride fresh off her fifth-place finish at the Olympics. Given the absence of the two riders who finished immediately ahead of her that day (Van der Breggen, and Australian Grace Brown, due to injury), a medal looks very much on the cards.