Two races were on the menu today in Flanders, which this week has been hosting the World Championships for the seventh time in history. First up in the morning saw the junior women take to the start. The race for the young athletes was confined entirely to the Leuven circuit, with the riders completing five laps with four climbs each, creating a total distance of 75km.
The gold medal came as a belated birthday gift for Zoe Bäckstedt, who turned 17 just yesterday. The rider from Wales took off just before the fourth of the finishing laps alongside Kaia Schmid from the USA. The two worked together to build up their gap over the chasing field, and in the end it came down to a sprint between the duo. Third place was contested almost a minute later among the chasers, and was eventually taken by Linda Riedmann of Germany.
At midday, the elite riders lined up at the start line. This year’s course was challenging in that it had it all: punchy climbs, cobbles, narrow streets and road furniture. The race promised to be tough, furious and grinding. The riders rolled out of Antwerp over 157.7km of hilly terrain featuring 1050 m of elevation gain and around 20 short and steep hills. The course for the elite riders began with a 56km ride to Leuven, followed by 1.5 laps of the 15.5km long finishing circuit, a single 50km lap of the Flandrien loop southwest of the city, and finally another 2.5km lap of the finishing circuit in Leuven.
The favourites were yet again the riders of the Dutch team, who have won the past four championships with Anna van der Breggen, Annemiek van Vleuten, Chantal van den Broeck-Blaak, and Marianne Vos. But other riders such as Belgian champion Lotte Kopecky and Italian champion Elisa Longo Borghini were highly rated to have a chance at snapping up the victory to end the Dutch domination.
After early attackers were already reeled back in, Michaela Drummond of New Zealand went clear, establishing a gap of around 30 seconds with 80km of racing still remaining. She managed to almost double that advantage, but was caught by the field as they upped the pace on the Smeysberg. Around 10km later, the Dutch came to the fore to put the pressure on, which thinned out the field to under 30 riders. Despite mechanical problems, Vollering was able to bridge the gap and make it back to the front group with just over 50km left. A few kilometres later, however, following several surges in pace by the likes of Van Vleuten, Moolman Pasio, Deignan, Vos and Niewiadoma, yet more riders found themselves distanced from the key group, including Kopecky and Van der Breggen. Following a slight let-up in pace, which allowed several riders to bridge back, the Dutch then forced the tempo yet again, this time with Ellen van Dijk, who went on the attack, a move which was, however, quickly countered.
With the race then taking on the finishing laps, a series of riders saw their opportunity, including Cordon Ragot, Cromwell, Georgi and Biannic. World Time trial silver medallist Marlen Reusser also launched an attack, which prompted several teams to work together to bring her back. On the second ascent of the Decouxlaan, the Spanish road and time trial champion Mavi Garcia made a move, which although not immediately countered by the field, was eventually reeled back by the increase in pace caused by the favourites attacking each other in the group behind. With less than 15 riders in the chase group at this point, the riders reached the business end of proceedings. The Dutch played their cards, sending Van Vleuten to attack with under 20km remaining, a move that was quickly countered by the Italians with Longo Borghini. The Netherlands, however, were not deterred and again attempted to take control of proceedings, using Van Vleuten and Van Dijk, Brand Vollering taking turns at the front. Longo Borghini yet again chased down the moves from the Dutch, and as the riders headed into the final 5km, the reduced field was largely back together. Niewiadoma tried her luck on the Sint-Antoniusberg, however the larger teams of the Netherlands and Italy again showed their strength, sending Vos and Balsamo to the fore to contest the sprint to decide the rainbow bands. After a superb leadout from her teammates, it was the 23-year-old Balsamo who pipped Vos at the line to take the win, with Niewiadoma crossing the line one second in arrears to round out the podium.
Elisa Balsamo: “It’s unbelievable. It’s a dream come true. My team was so good today. Without them, this jersey wouldn’t have been possible. They gave me a perfect lead out and I really believed in them. In the last corner, I told myself that I have to switch off my brain and go full gas and not watch what was going on behind.”