Riding with a fractured elbow, Annemiek van Vleuten (Netherlands) stunned her rivals in the finale of the women's road race, attacking from behind to win her second career road title at the World Championships.
The 39-year-old, who crashed on Wednesday in the mixed relay time trial, fought hard against the pain of her injury throughout the race, before delivering an awe-inspiring coup in the final 500m to claim victory in Wollongong, Australia.
Speaking after her win, Van Vleuten said: "It was hell. I could not go out of the saddle so I had to do everything seated and my legs were exploding on the climb.
"I wanted to attack on Mount Keira before I broke my elbow. The race went completely different. We had only Marianne [Vos] as the leader and I just was the domestique today.
"I still cannot believe it," she added. "I was waiting until they come with the sprint over me, but they didn't catch me."
Lotte Kopecky (Belgium) charged home in second, striking down on her handlebars in frustration as she crossed the line. Silvia Persico (Italy), the breakthrough rider of the 2022 road season, took the bronze medal.
The first rider under the age of 23 to cross the line was 22-year-old Niamh Fisher-Black (New Zealand), who earned herself the world title in that age category. Great Britain's Pfeiffer Georgi took silver in the U23 race, while Ricarda Bauernfeind (Germany) completed the podium.
How it happened
Starting up the coast in Helensburgh, the 164.3km course offered an early mountain test in the 8.7km-long Mount Keira, before six laps of the undulating Wollongong circuit would decide the winner.
Before the race began, the Dutch squad were down to six riders. Demi Vollering, having returned a positive Covid test, was a non-starter on the day, giving her team one less card to play out on the road.
There were scattered attacks in the first hour of racing, with France’s Gladys Verhulst setting off on a solo foray. The peloton then came back together before three escapees went clear. Caroline Andersson (Sweden), Julie Van de Velde (Bel) and Elynor Bäckstedt made up the new breakaway, the latter perhaps inspired by her younger sister’s solo heroics in the junior women’s race earlier in the day.
Fortune didn’t favour this brave Bäckstedt, though, and inside the final 55km, the bunch regrouped once again.
With each ascent of Mount Pleasant Road, a 1km climb averaging 7.7%, the peloton thinned out, whittling down the field to the strongest riders.
The Australians decided to liven up the race with 40km to go. First Amanda Spratt accelerated off the front, before Brodie Chapman and Grace Brown took turns to counter. With none of those attacks amounting to anything, Sarah Roy powered away on an uphill drag as a downpour of rain fell on the course.
After the Italians clawed Roy back, Kasia Niewiadoma (Poland) and Liane Lippert (Germany) shredded the field on the penultimate ascent of Mount Pleasant Road. Among their victims was Elisa Balsamo (Italy), the defending world champion, who dropped off the back of the lead group. Van Vleuten, too, appeared in difficulty as she battled through the pain of her elbow fracture.
Heading into the final lap, five riders remained at the front: Elisa Longo Borghini (Italy), Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (Denmark), Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio (South Africa), Niewiadoma and Lippert. Behind, the Australian and Dutch teams shared the chase.
13km from the line, the quintet was reeled back in, only to be replaced by a mighty Marlen Reusser counter attack. The Swiss rider, who earned a bronze medal in last weekend’s individual time trial, stretched out a 16-second gap as she tackled the circuit's punchy climb for the final time.
Still, before she could reach the top, Reusser was caught, and the same five riders as before went clear once again.
Under the flamme rouge, an eight-rider chasing group joined the race leaders and the finale looked all but set up for a bunch sprint. Van Vleuten, however, had other ideas.
Soaring from the back of the group, the Dutch rider thundered through to the front of the race, immediately putting daylight between herself and the other race favourites. As she came across the line in first, a look of astonishment washed across her face. Van Vleuten had pulled it off, and not even she could believe it.
Having won the Giro d'Italia Donne, Tour de France Femmes and the Vuelta's Ceratizit Challenge, the 39-year-old added another rainbow jersey to her collection, rounding off what is perhaps the most outstanding season of any rider in the history of the sport.
UCI Road world championships 2022 - Women's elite road race (164.3km)
1. Annemiek van Vleuten (Ned), in 4-24-25
2. Lotte Kopecky (Bel)
3. Silvia Persico (Ita)
4. Liane Lippert (Ger)
5. Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (Den)
6. Arlenis Sierra (Cub)
7. Juliette Labous (Fra)
8. Kasia Niewiadoma (Pol)
9. Elise Chabbey (Sui)
10. Elisa Longo Borghini (Ita), all at 1s
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