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Mixed relay team time trial explainer: What is it, how does it work, why should we care?

Love it or loathe it, the mixed relay is back at the world championships and Filippo Ganna, Ellen van Dijk, and Annemiek van Vleuten will be racing. Here's what you need to know.

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The mixed team relay is back at the road world championships, whether you like it or not.

First introduced to the world championships in 2019, the six-rider event returns Wednesday after being paused for the reduced-format 2020 worlds. Filippo Ganna, Ellen van Dijk, Annemiek van Vleuten, Tony Martin and a strong U.S. sextet will make Wednesday’s race one to watch, whether you’re skeptical of the new format or not.

Also read: Our takes on the mixed relay and our love of the pro team time trial

Wondering what the heck this race is and how it works? We got your back.

Teams of six – three women and three men – will cover a 44.5-kilometer route from Knokke-Heist to Bruges on Wednesday. The male trio rolls out of Knokke-Heist and team time trials through 22.5km to Bruges before the three women take over the racing and complete a lap, finishing back in the city.

Like in any regular team time trial, coordination and communication between riders is key. The three women can only start once the second of the male contingent has completed their segment, and the finishing time is determined by the second woman across the line.

Only one male and one female rider can afford to be dropped in each section of the race, meaning a team cannot let one single super-strong rider get carried away and drop everyone else – here’s looking at you, Filippo.

Mixed relay – in, trade team time trial – out

The mixed relay was introduced to the world championships in 2019 at the expense of the trade team time trial, an event that saw BMC and Quick-Step repeatedly locking horns for the gold medal.

The UCI brought in the mixed event to put a stop to the parade of big-budget trade teams trouncing the rest of the field in the traditional TTT, and to expand female participation after relatively few women’s teams were able to muster resources for the race.

‘The mixed relay team time trial reserved for national teams is the latest step towards greater gender equality in cycling,” David Lappartient said when the event was introduced.

“Between 2012 and 2018, the team time trial was a showcase for UCI-registered teams. The new format will shine the spotlight on the national federations and their riders while promoting equality between men and women.”

Riders, teams, and national federations were at first slow to warm to the new format suggesting it was a tokenist gimmick, but it now seems that the cycling world is slowly starting to get its head around the race.

The UCI remains committed to pushing the event, and if even the notoriously oil tanker-like governing body is beginning to steer into new waters and explore mixed-gender racing then everyone else should at least give it a try, too.

There’s also talk that the Olympic Games will soon unveil mixed-team sports, so if and when that happens, cycling will be right at the front of the cue.

Strong squads make the mixed relay a race to watch

Elisa Longo Borghini was part of the Italian mixed relay team smashing it at the Euros
Ganna and Co. crushed it at the European championships earlier this month. (Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)

The mixed relay is still young after only rolling out at one world championship and the past three European competitions, so there’s no established hierarchy among the competing teams.

The Dutch team won both world and European golds in 2019, Germany was victorious in the 2020 Euros, and the Italian team won the blue-striped jerseys in Trento earlier this month.

This year’s relay should be a must-watch with a new weight of national federations buying into this year’s event, and even the most skeptical of fans should have something to savor as the fastest in the world rip through Flanders.

The Dutch, Italian, Danish, Swiss, German, and British squads all look to be taking the race seriously and will be sending strong sextets to Bruges on Wednesday. Newly crowned ITT champs Filippo Ganna and Ellen van Dijk will be back on their bikes, and other big hitters including Marlen Reusser, Stefan Küng, and Tony Martin – racing for the final time before retirement – will also start.

The USA is also taking part and packs a team that could crack the podium. Brandon McNulty, Lawson Craddock, Leah Thomas, Ruth Winder, Neilson Powless, and Coryn Rivera will roll out Wednesday ahead of this weekend’s road races.

For now, the mixed relay looks likely to become a mainstay in top competitions, and it could be an Olympic sport in 2024. Best you get on board before you get dropped.