Elisa Balsamo has been crowned the Women’s World Champion after a thrilling race, as she won a tight bunch finish, after a race that was anything but predictable.
The Dutch team came into the World Championships defending a three-year streak of World Champions, and the powerhouse team of eight riders, all of who could feasibly win the race if the day panned out a certain way.
With a 157km race around Belgium, starting from Antwerp, the Women’s Road Race has been decided in style.
A fast start to the race, with 81km covered in the first two hours, prevented any early breakaways. The Dutch were happy to show their strength, and ensured that there was no repeat of Tokyo 2020, where Anna Kiesenhofer stayed away from the early breakaway.
Michaela Drummond (NZL) was the only rider who was able to make any sort of breakaway, getting out to a 40-second gap before being brought back a couple of kilometres later.
Despite Demi Vollering (NED) suffering multiple mechanicals, the bunch was essentially all together with 50km to go, before the fireworks started.
Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio (RSA) and Annamiek van Vleuten (NED) were the first big animators of the race, with a devastating attack 48km from the finish. Vollering and then Ellen van Dijk (NED) attacked repeatedly, and by the time the Dutch took a breath, eight kilometres had passed and the race had been splintered.
From that point, the Dutch team attacked relentlessly. Constant small attacks from van Vleuten, van Dijk, Vollering, Lucinda Brand and Chantal Blaak punctuated the race, and kept the pace high, preventing any other teams from gaining an ascendancy.
Australian captain Tiffany Cromwell, Italian legend Elisa Longo Borghini and British star Anna Henderson marked the attacks as they came, trying to ensure that the Dutch would not win a fourth consecutive Women’s World Championship.
The pace didn’t let off at any point between the attack of Moolman-Pasio and the finish line. Despite the fast start, the pace stayed on, and yet the group stayed together.
After the Junior Girls and Boys races, and the Men’s u23 races, there had not yet been a bunch finish at the Flanders World Championships.
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Margarita Victo Garcia Canellas (ESP) launched a devastating attack with 24km to go, getting 30 seconds at one point, before the Dutch started to reel her back.
Van Vleuten, and the whole Dutch team repeatedly sent attacks up the road, attempting to break the peloton. The constant accelerations deadened the legs of the group, before eventually splitting the bunch into multiple groups with 20 kilometres remaining.
Garcia was eventually caught with 10.5km to go, as the main group (of 30 riders) arrived at the 10km mark all together.
As the select group of 26 riders approached a climb with 7.5km to go, the Dutch team had seven riders in the group. Rachel Neylan was the only Australian left after Cromwell was distanced.
Despite their numbers, the Dutch were unable to get a meaningful group away. Polish rider Kasia Niewiadoma tried repeatedly to attack on the climbs, using her power to try and get in front and get a break.
As the group entered the final kilometre, van Vleuten was on the front for the Dutch. There were 20 riders in the final bunch, and Niewiadoma tried one final dance ahead of the group to break away.
While Niewiadoma’s attack did not let her get away, it whittled down the group further, including dropping Moolman Pasio, the first instigator, and Neylan, the final Australian.
As the final sprint wound up, Longo Borghini was on the front, with teammate Elisa Balsamo in tow. Behind them were Marianne Vos and Niewiadoma. Even though the Dutch had six riders in the final, they knew that only Vis could contribute to a final sprint win.
And with 250m to go, the Olympic Bronze Medalist, Longo Borghini led out the sprint. In her wheel was her young 23-year-old teammate, Balsamo, and the 34-year-old, three-time road World Champion, Vos.
Longo Borghini turned her head to check on her teammate, as she reached her limit. A small shake of the head from the young Italian told her older teammate to keep up the leadout for a few moments longer.
With just over 100m to go, Balsamo jumped out from behind Longo Borghini with a devastating sprint. Her rapid turn of pace would be enough to prevent the evergreen Dutch woman from coming over the top to take the victory.
For all the Dutch efforts, they took only a silver medal, as Niewiadoma showed a turn of speed to take bronze.
After all the animation of the race, it was fitting that Niewidoma, a Dutchwoman and an Italian would take home the medals. They had pushed the tactics along, and both powerhouse teams had ridden strong races, while the Polish rider rode a brilliant lone hand race.
Balsamo broke the streak of three consecutive Dutch wins, at the end of a thrilling race. Constant attacks, team tactics and brilliant bike handling were all on display for viewers.
In the end, youthful exuberance combined with experience beyond her years, as Bolsamo out-foxed Vos, to take the rainbow jersey for 2022.
Balsamo will ride in the World Champions jersey until the next World Championships in Wollongong in 2022.
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