Rivals and teammates alike could only sit back in awe and watch Annemiek van Vleuten ride away with the rainbow jersey.
The Dutch superstar dropped the entire field with than 100km to go, and soloed home to earn a road world title to complement her two time trial gold medals from 2017 and 2018.
“I saw the attack, but I could not follow. I just said, ‘goodbye Annemiek, see you at the finish!’” Italy’s fifth-place Elisa Longo Borghini told Cycling Pro Net. “She was like an airplane, and she just took off.”
Van Vleuten’s gold highlighted perfect execution from the heavily favored Dutch squad. Defending world champion Anna van der Breggen rode a calculated race from behind to reel in the attacking Chloé Dygert Owen (USA) and later drop bronze medalist Amanda Spratt (Australia) to claim silver. Marianne Vos led home the main bunch with sixth to round out the Dutch domination.
“It was quite strange to sit in the back in the worlds and just watch it,” van der Breggen said. “We had some scenarios in mind, but not like this one. It was quite good for us, and the advantage was enough to play for the medals.”
In fact, van Vleuten’s solo flier was not in the part of the pre-race strategy for the Dutch team. The squad had many options, but no one expected anyone from the team to drop the entire field so early in the race, and then have the legs to stave off the chase.
Van Vleuten said when she found herself at the front, she simply punched the accelerator. When no one came along for the ride, she just kept going. Knowing she could take pressure off her teammates following behind, she had a free ride.
“Annemiek attacked so early, and no one could go with her,” Spratt said. “She’s a worthy world champion. We had girls working behind and we could not bring her back.”
On Saturday, it was all about trying to reel in van Vleuten. At first, many thought it was too soon. Dygert Owen’s solo counter-attack seemed to disrupt the main bunch, perhaps helping van Vleuten to maintain her gap of about two minutes going onto the final circuit.
“It was a brutal, brutal course and everyone finished empty,” Spratt said. “I didn’t think she had enough to make it, but when you saw she had two minutes once we hit the circuit, this circuit is so hard, it’s very hard to chase.”
With such strong Dutch presence in the group, Dygert Owen tried to go it alone. Hot off winning the elite women’s time trial title this week, things looked promising as she chipped away at the gap.
“It was the right time to attack, I thought I could do it, but my body just gave out. It was definitely a very hard race and I gave it all I had,” Dygert Owen said. “Going into the race, I wasn’t sure what to expect with this not only being my first European road race, but also about 20km longer than any race I had done before against the strongest riders in the world. I took my shot and went as hard as I could. I am disappointed I didn’t get the result I had hoped but my legs just didn’t have it today.”
She ran out of steam, allowing Spratt and van der Breggen to catch her, and drop her. The American finished fourth, while van der Bruggen played a tactical game to take silver behind the unstoppable van Vleuten.
“There was cooperation, but they didn’t go hard enough in the beginning,” van der Breggen said. “Once the attacks started, the cooperation was not good, and it looked good for Annemiek. For me, it was not to go too early, and use the other riders to close the gap to Chloé.”
The grueling race provided a preview to what lies in store for the elite men’s road race Sunday. The demanding point-to-point part of the race — though following a different route Sunday — will provide more room to attack earlier in the race that expected. On Saturday, the tight and challenging finishing circuit provided little room to organize a chase. The men’s teams will be careful not to let a big group get too far off the front Sunday.