Dutch team seeking to exorcise memory of Olympics farce
With the recent emergence of young star Demi Vollering to add to the long-established brilliance of Annemiek van Vleuten, Marianne Vos, Anna van der Breggen and Chantal van den Broek-Blaak, this is probably the strongest team yet assembled by the Dutch — and given the imminent retirement of Van der Breggen and Van den Broek-Blaak, quite possibly stronger than they will ever be again.
Looking at their team you might feel that victory at the Flanders 2021 World Championships is a foregone conclusion, but, as they found out all too painfully in Tokyo for the Olympics, cycling isn’t always as straightforward as that. Tactical missteps and misunderstandings lead to the farcical situation of them failing to bring back Austrian breakaway rider Anna Kiesenhofer, conceding to her the Olympic gold medal that they surely would have won.
That folly will take some getting over, especially considering that the next chance to go for Olympic gold isn’t for another three years, but the World Championships does provide a chance for redemption. The Dutch have an exemplary record in this race, winning gold in four successive editions, and have been even stronger recently, taking the silver medal too in both 2020 and 2019.
Most of those have been won by aggressive racing and getting one of their stars up the road in a solo breakaway, with Van der Breggen in 2018 and 2020 and Van Vleuten all winning by over a minute. They’re likely to adopt a similar approach in Flanders, with the same pair attacking while Marianne Vos marks move behind, preserving herself to save her lethal sprint finish in case her compatriots are brought back.
It’s a formula that has proved unbeatable in recent years, save for the disappointment at the Olympics; and unlike in Tokyo, they can here rely on both a team double to size, and the use of race radios, to firmly control the race. Anything less than gold will be a huge disappointment.
A punchy parcours gives hope to the fast finishers
The route of this year’s World Championships is a little atypical, in that it features two circuits rather than just one (a total of four 15km laps of Leuven, sandwiching one longer 50km lap of Flanders), both of which feature multiple shorter climbs rather than just one or two headline climbs.
That will give the race a distinctly punchy flavour, with constant up and down to test the riders’ legs, and no one obvious part of the route where the key action will take place.
With so much climbing, but with no particularly long single effort to deal with, it will be intriguing to see whether the fast finishers can stay in contention, and whether the race will be selective enough not to end in a small group sprint. This could be one scenario that does not produce a Dutch winner, as although their sprinting option Vos (plus, potentially, Amy Pieters) does have a lethal finishing kick, there are multiple riders who would at least fancy their chances against her in a sprint.
Emma Norsgaard (Denmark) showed a real aptitude for Belgian roads earlier this season when she made the podium of several spring Classics, so could well be a contender. As could Lisa Brennauer (Germany), especially given the way she’s been sprinting in recent years, and fifth place in the time trial on Sunday indicates she’s in good form.
Coryn Rivera (USA) and Chloe Hosking (Australia) are also among the quickest finishers taking part in Flanders, but It’d probably have to be a less selective race than expected for them to have a shot of victory.
Lotte Kopecky carrying home nation hopes
Of all the sprinters taking part, Lotte Kopecky appears best equipped to win the rainbow jersey.
Not only is the 25-year-old in possession of one of the quickest sprints in the peloton, she’s also more capable than her rivals over the climbs. Unlike most of the other sprinters, the climbs for her aren’t just an obstacle to try and survive, but could be the launchpad for an attack of her own, and for the chance to get into a small elite group from which she can sprint to victory from.
On top of that, she’ll also be riding in front of home fans cheering her on, over roads she’s likely to be more familiar with than her rivals. Flanders is known as one of cycling’s heartlands and home to some of the sport’s most notoriously passionate fans, and those on the roadside will be desperate for a gold medal after Wout van Aert came so close to delivering one in the men’s time trial on Sunday.
Now that she’s back to winning ways with victories at Ceratizit Challenge by Vuelta and Trophee des Grimpeuses Vresse-sur-Semois this month following her crashes at the Olympics, form does not appear to be an issue.
If there’s one doubt that might surround her, it’s a lack of World Championships experience, given that he hasn’t attended one since 2016, but her success in similarly long races like the Tour of Flanders and Ghent-Wevelgem suggests she shouldn’t have any problems with the extra kilometres of a major event like this.
Attackers hoping for an attritional race
While some will be hoping for as easy a race as possible in order to stay in contention, others will seek to make this an attritional race in order to give themselves the best chance of winning.
Although the climbs are not that long, one factor that will play to attackers’ advantage is the twisty nature of the route, with the multiple tight corners in the Leuven circuit likely to play in the favour of those attempting to hold off a chasing group over those making the chase.
Chief among those likely to attack will be Italy’s Elisa Longo Borghini. The Italian has been arguably the world’s most entertaining and resilient riders in recent years, and even when up against the might of the Dutch team, you can guarantee she’ll do her all to attack and go for what would be a first ever Worlds title.
She’ll be aided by the backing of a full complement of seven riders, as the Italians were one of the five teams to qualify for the maximum quota of riders, which should give them significant influence into shaping how the race is raced. As well as the Netherlands, Australians and Germans, Denmark are the other nation with the maximum, and have the enviable two cards to play of Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig in attacks, and Emma Norsgaard in a sprint.
As for the smaller teams, although South Africa’s Ashleigh Moolman would surely have preferred a more climber-friendly course, Switzerland’s time trial silver medalist Marlen Reusser and Spain’s Mavi Garcia are exactly the kind of powerful rouleurs that their rivals can ill-afford to allow to solo away up the road. And eternal bridesmaid Kasia Niewiadoma (Poland) will surely put in a dig on one of the punchy climbs in her bid to end her two year drought of wins in the most spectacular way possible.
Deignan carries British hopes once again
While some stars retire and new ones emerge, and different riders claim leadership status each year depending on the nature of the route, Lizzie Deignan remains a constant in the British World Championships squad.
She’ll once again lead the British women’s team, aiming for a repeat of her success in Richmond six years ago when she won gold.
She’s continued to target the Worlds in virtually every year since then, but Flanders might represent her best chance yet of reclaiming her title. There were promising signs that she was riding into form at the right time at the Tour de l’Ardeche, while the punchy route also plays into her strengths.
Whereas Deignan spends much of the domestic calendar riding in tandem with Trek-Segafredo teammate Elisa Longo Borghini, for Britain she will be the undisputed leader. The likes of Lizzie Banks, Alice Barnes and young star Anna Henderson will offer great support, but none have the experience or pedigree of Deignan, who once again represents Britain’s best chance of a medal in this race, but in the Worlds as a whole.
Victory might be difficult — as it will be in particular for everyone who isn’t Dutch — but Deignan is not the kind of rider to just settle for a medal, and will presumably bring the same mindset to the Worlds as at the Olympics, where she expressed a willingness to risk losing in order to go for the win.
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Stephen Puddicombe is a freelance journalist for Cycling Weekly, who regularly contributes to our World Tour racing coverage with race reports, news stories, interviews and features. Outside of cycling, he also enjoys writing about film and TV - but you won't find much of that content embedded into his CW articles.