Backstedt and Balsamo claim emotional wins in Flanders

Emotions were running high on Saturday with Great Britain’s Zoe Backstedt and Italy’s Elisa Balsamo claiming the rainbow jerseys in the Women Junior and Women Elite road races of the 2021 UCI Road World Championships in Flanders.

Women Junior: Zoe continues the Backstedt legacy

The 100th anniversary of the UCI Road World Championships makes for a great occasion to explore cycling’s long and twisty history, with new achievements echoing the former. On Saturday, Zoe Backstedt, silver medallist in Tuesday’s individual time trial (ITT), took her maiden rainbow jersey, continuing the strong legacy built by her family since the 1990s, as she claimed gold ahead of Kaia Schmid (USA) and Linda Riedmann (GER).

The British youngster is the daughter of Megan Hughes (British National Champion on the road in 1998) and Magnus Backstedt (winner of Paris-Roubaix in 2004), who was commentating on the race live on Eurosport and GCN. She’s also the sister of Elynor Backstedt, who turned professional with Trek-Segafredo in 2020 after winning several UCI World Championships medals on the road and on the track.

“I have no words at all. I can’t believe I’ve just done that,” Backstedt said after her victory. “That was probably the hardest race I’ve ever done. I was just trying to keep us moving, keep us away from the group behind. I knew I had teammates in the group who would be able to help get the gap up a little bit more, and once it was above 30secs I knew that I could hold it with the American. We kept communicating and just said let’s get ourselves to the line and sprint it out, we’ll see what happens in the last lap. We did that, it came down to a sprint and I just had it.”

The peloton featured 112 riders from 37 nations. Dutch and British youngsters were the most involved in opening up the race. The action kept going relentlessly and only Kaia Schmid followed when Backstedt attacked with 33km to go. Despite a hard chase that didn’t allow the gap to get higher than 1min before the final lap, they held on until the line, and Backstedt dominated the two-woman sprint to claim the rainbow jersey.

Backstedt succeeds Megan Jastrab (USA), winner in 2019, and her British compatriot Lucy Garner, who claimed the rainbow jersey in the Women Junior road race in 2011 and 2012. Runner-up Kaia Schmid already claimed three medals (gold, silver and bronze) in the 2021 UCI Junior Track Cycling World Championships held three weeks ago in Cairo, Egypt. As for Linda Riedmann, she’s also enjoying a successful month of September with this bronze medal after winning the road race of the European Championships and signing her first contract with Jumbo-Visma Women Team.

Women Elite: Balsamo takes the crown from the Oranje stars

Winners of the last four editions, the Dutch riders gave their all to claim a fifth rainbow jersey in a row in the Women Elite road race but there was no stopping Elisa Balsamo as she powered to victory ahead of Marianne Vos and Katarzyna Niewiadoma (POL). The young Italian had already won the Junior title in 2016, and claimed three more rainbow jerseys in the 2015 and 2016 UCI Junior Track Cycling World Championships.

“I’m totally speechless, it’s unbelievable,” Balsamo said as she claimed her first Elite UCI World Championships at 23 years old. “I need some days or maybe months to realise this! This jersey, it’s a dream. My team was so, so good. Without them, this jersey wasn’t possible. They did a perfect lead-out and I really believed in them. After the last corner, I switched off my brain and just thought I had to go full gas until the line.”

A peloton of 162 riders from 48 nations had taken to the course to try and succeed Anna van der Breggen (NED), participating in her last race before she takes up a Sports Director position with SD Worx. The peloton didn’t give any freedom to the early attackers in the 56km leading from Antwerp to Leuven, where they tackled both the Leuven circuit and the Flandrien circuit (total: 157.7km).

Dutch and British riders upped the pace on the first lap of the Leuven circuit with its four ascents. Michaelea Drummond (NZL) went on the move for a brief stint at the front of the race ahead of the cobbled climbs of the Flandrien circuit.

Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio’s attack with 49km to go, on the final climb of the Flandrien circuit, opened up the race, with a succession of attacks gradually reducing the bunch. Van der Breggen was among the main riders caught behind after putting in some earlier work as a teammate.

After attempts by the likes of Annemiek van Vleuten (NED), Mavi Garcia (ESP) and Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (SWE), the peloton returned to Leuven and Aude BIannic (FRA) went on the move with two laps to go (31.1km). The in-form Marlen Reusser (SUI) tried to bridge the gap but she brought back a group of about 40 riders with her for the last 25km.

The following attempt from Garcia proved to be much more threatening, quickly opening a gap of 30secs. Several teams reacted and the Spaniard’s lead was down to 11secs when a reduced bunch led by Van Vleuten crossed the line for the penultimate time. The Dutch efforts meant Garcia was caught on the Keizersberg climb with just over 10km to go.

Attacks kept flying but some 20 riders remained together to battle it out in the sprint. The Italians took over in the final kilometre and Elisa Balsamo narrowly resisted Marianne Vos on the line. Tearful, she fell into the arms of her companions: “It’s a dream. Thank you.”