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Elisa Balsamo sprinted to world championship glory Saturday, ending the Netherlands’ four-year spell in control of the rainbow jersey.
Balsamo outsprinted the Dutch great Marianne Vos and in doing so, became the first Italian world champion in 10 years. Kasia Niewiadoma rounded out the podium after a characteristically attacking ride from the Polish climber.
As well as seeing the crowning of a new young champion in Balsamo, Saturday’s race saw the retirement of defending world champion Anna van der Breggen, who rode out the final toward the back of the race after being dropped before the final flurries of attacks in Leuven.
Anna van der Breggen (Netherlands): 89th
Anna Van der Breggen says she wants to give back to her team mates in the last race of her career today. 🇳🇱
It seems she means it.
— UCI (@UCI_cycling) September 25, 2021
Defending world champion Anna van der Breggen finished toward the back of the pack after being distanced midway through the race.
Van der Breggen had been suffering with fatigue through the summer but gave it her all in her final race before retiring and becoming sport director with Team SD Worx. After twice winning the rainbow jersey, taking GC victory four times at the Giro Rosa and winning the Flèche Wallonne seven times, van der Breggen worked for her teammates through the start of the race, collecting bottles from the team car and keeping leaders Vos and Ellen van Dijk in position.
Riding at the back of the group allowed the 31-year-old to savor her final ride as a pro racer.
“I was dropped in the beginning and then just did my best, but in the end I was done. On the local circuit in Leuven it felt like two laps of honor – so many people and enthusiasm, from the crowd, but also in the peloton. They all knew it was my last race, so I got a lot of thanks in the peloton.
“This was a moment I lived for, from now on I don’t have to worry about whether I’m not going well or I still have to train. That’s a nice feeling, although it would have been even better with a world title for Marianne.”
Elisa Balsamo (Italy): 1st
— UCI (@UCI_cycling) September 25, 2021
Elisa Balsamo delivered on an Italian press in the final circuit through Leuven on Saturday. A fleet of Italian riders kept the 23-year-old in position through the tricky city-center circuit before moving up en masse to lead out their sprinter, who charged to take the first rainbow jersey since Giorgia Bronzini wore the stripes in 2011-12.
Despite having placed in the top-1o a countless number of times this season, Balsamo had not taken the top step of the podium since winning GP Oetingen in March. She will now head into her first season with Trek-Segafredo in 2022 with the most treasured jersey in cycling on her back.
“I’m totally speechless, I have no words to describe this feeling, it’s unbelievable. It was a dream for me after this long season. My team was so good, without them, this jersey wasn’t possible.
“My team made a perfect leadout, and I really believed in them. After the last corner I switched off my brain and said ‘you have to go full gas, don’t watch behind.’
“I need some days to realize today’s race. There are a lot of people I have to thank, including my team, family and nutrition coach.”
Marianne Vos (Netherlands): 2nd
We’ve already spotted some fine street art in Leuven 👀 pic.twitter.com/69hrWnxHdW
— Team Jumbo-Visma Women (@JumboVismaWomen) September 24, 2021
Marianne Vos was distraught after placing second Saturday. The Dutchwoman was in tears after being outsprinted by Elisa Balsamo in what was her 14th world championships. Although the 34-year-old speedster has three world titles to her name, her second-place finish this weekend was the sixth time she has been edged into silver in the race for the rainbow jersey.
Although some of the Dutch riders had suggested the team lacked the numbers to make it count in the final, Vos was unable to look past her own stinging disappointment when she spoke shortly after her race.
“Balsamo was very strong. I was good. In retrospect, you can look a thousand times over and think if only I had done this or that. I missed it, but I didn’t make enough speed.”
“Perhaps the team could have been better working together … It wasn’t such a big mistake, I guess.
“Second place is sour when you’re so close to victory. On the other hand, it is also very beautiful, but now it is difficult to process this.”
Kasia Niewiadoma (Poland), 3rd
Kasia Niewiadoma (Poland) followed several late-race attacks, and still had the legs to kick to third to claim her first world championships medal with bronze.
“I was surprised there were not that many attacks,” she said. “I thought it would be exploded into little pieces. We rode steadily, and I knew it would be hectic in the finale, so I tried to ride at the front and watch the others.
“I knew the final kilometers would be difficult,” she said. “I tried to attack but no one was riding with me. I knew everyone would be super-tired, and I knew I made mistakes when I was not on the wheel, and they were gone, and I had to close it by myself. So I have to be happy with the bronze.”
When asked if she was frustrated without a big win in 2021, she replied: “It’s nice to be consistent. It is sure [that] I miss the big victory. I am also patient. I think the world is not ending when I am not winnnig here at the worlds, I trust my process and I know the big wins will come.”
Lotte Kopecky (Belgium): 16th
— Belgian Cycling Team (@BELCyclingTeam) September 25, 2021
Lotte Kopecky carried the hopes of her nation on her shoulders Saturday. After starting the race in the form of her life, the strong sprinter was the undoubted captain of the home team as the Belgian public crossed its collective fingers for its first world champion since 1973.
Belgium’s hopes came unstuck in the all-attacking Leuven circuit as Kopecky found herself caught on the wrong side of the split and out of gas after battling her way back toward the front of the race ahead of the final sprint.
“I couldn’t position myself well on the local circuit, it was my own fault that I was always too far on the Wijnpers climb. It was really necessary that Jolien [D’Hoore] could bring me back for the last time. It was a shame, I had high ambitions and then it is always difficult if you can’t fulfill them.
“In a way I also enjoyed the race. I heard people shouting for 100 miles and I haven’t experienced that much. Balsamo is a beautiful world champion. She is strong and fast and based on her season it is certainly not undeserved.”