UCI Road World Championships: Van Vleuten wins against the odds

Annemiek van Vleuten takes a win for the ages.

Annemiek van Vleuten overcomes broken elbow to take a win for the ages.

Day six of the 2022 UCI Road World Championships in Wollongong, Australia, attracted huge crowds for the Women Elite (including Women Under-23) and Women Junior road races with Van Vleuten, Niamh Fisher-Black and Zoe Bäckstedt taking the honours.

Van Vleuten makes history

In the Women Elite road race, the Netherlands’ Van Vleuten lined up despite breaking her elbow in the team time trial – mixed relay earlier in the week. The pre-race talk was about her racing for countrywoman Marianne Vos. Van Vleuten told reporters she wouldn’t be able to ride out of the saddle because of her elbow, while Vos would be looking for her fourth road race UCI World title and her first since 2013.

With five laps to go, Great Britain’s Elynor Bäckstedt took inspiration from her sister, Zoe, taking to the front but her time at the front was short-lived as the peloton swallowed her up. With two laps to go, Australia’s Sarah Roy enjoyed a small lead over the peloton but, again, that soon disappeared.

On the penultimate climb of Mount Pleasant, Denmark’s Cecilie Ludwig, Poland’s Katarzyna Niewiadoma, Germany’s Lianne Lippert, South Africa’s Ashleigh Moolman Pasio and Italy’s Elisa Longo Borghini broke free from the peloton. Under dark clouds and heavy rain, the rainbows came out for the rainbow jersey.

Switzerland’s Marlen Reusser broke with 12km to go, looking to add to her team time trial mixed relay gold and individual time trial bronze. She soon created a gap of 12 secs. But behind, a small group led by Niewiadoma attacked and soon caught the Swiss rider.

Longo Borghini, Lippert, Niewiadoma, Ludwig and Moolman Pasio broke on the descent of Mount Pleasant and soon forged an advantage of 18secs. With 4km left, that lead had shrunk to 10secs. With 2.5km left, the leaders were in sight for the chase group led by Reusser. Incredibly, the group included Van Vleuten who, by now, was the Netherlands’ only hope.

They were all together with 1km to go when suddenly Van Vleuten flew from the back of the group. Could she hold on and defy her broken elbow? Incredibly she did, with Belgium’s Tour of Flanders winner Lotte Kopecky sprinting to silver and Italy’s Silvia Persico taking bronze.

Van Vleuten’s victory was the 98th of her professional career in a stellar season that’s seen her win the Giro d’Italia Donne, Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift and Ceratizit Challenge by la Vuelta.

“I cannot believe it; I’m waiting for the moment someone tells me it’s not true,” a clearly shocked Van Vleuten said after the race. “I was working for Marianne and suddenly found myself in the [lead] group. I knew I couldn’t really sprint because of my elbow so knew attacking from behind was the only chance I had.”

Asked how painful her elbow was, she replied: “It was hell. I couldn’t get out of the saddle so my legs were exploding on the climbs. I was doubting whether I should wear my earrings but left them on as I thought they might give me luck. It’s going to be beautiful to wear the rainbow jersey again.”

The women’s race doubled as the Women Under-23 race, too, with New Zealand’s Niamh Fisher-Black taking the first-ever road race UCI World title in the category. She finished 12th overall. Great Britain’s Pfeiffer Georgi won silver with Germany’s Ricarda Bauernfeind third.

Bäckstedt wins the double

In the Women Junior road race, Zoe Bäckstedt made it two out of two at the 2022 UCI Road World Championships after claiming time trial gold on Tuesday. In similar style to Tuesday’s victory, the 18-year-old Welsh rider dominated the competition, riding solo from just 10km out.

“I planned to go with a lap to go but I came over the climb the first time and felt really good. I was climbing at the front, which for me and the rider I am is not predicted,” she said after the race.

Bäckstedt went into the 67km race as the clear favourite and stamped her authority all over the race on the first climb of Mount Pleasant, breaking free on the ascent before stretching her lead on the descent. Incredibly, she soon carved out a lead of over two minutes, ensuring her victory was never in doubt. Behind her, France’s Eglantine Rayer edged ahead of Nienke Vinke (Netherlands) to win the two-up sprint.

“I was in tears with a kilometre to go,” Bäckstedt said. “There were so many people out on the course, shouting my name, shouting happy birthday, especially on the climb [of Mount Pleasant]. That’s when I needed it most.”

The victory completes an incredible 12 months for Bäckstedt. She won the Junior race at the UCI Road World Championships in Leuven (Flanders, Belgium) 12 months ago followed by another dominant victory in the UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships in Fayetteville, USA, in January. Last month, she added UCI Junior Track World Championship gold to her palmares after winning the Madison in Tel Aviv, Israel, alongside Grace Lister. And then, of course, she won the time trial of these current UCI Worlds followed by victory today.

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