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UCI Road World Championships: 10 riders to watch in the elite women’s road race

Italy, France, Australia, and the Netherlands have the power squads but there are plenty of major stars on the start line in Wollongong.

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With the time trials firmly in the rearview mirror all attention turns to the road races at this year’s UCI Road World Championships in Wollongong, Australia.

On Saturday the elite women’s race, with the U23 event confusingly being run within the same race, takes place with stellar lineups from the likes of Italy, the Netherlands, and France.

There is an obvious question over pre-race favorite Annemiek van Vleuten following her crash in the TTT but the Dutch team head into the 164.3km race with arguably the strongest team on paper even with their leader on the ropes. Defending champions Italy have two cards to play in Elisa Longo Borghini and last year’s winner Elisa Balsamo, while the home crowds will be hoping that Grace Brown and her teammates can rise to the occasion.

The course has several key points with the ascent of Mount Kiera coming in the first half, followed by six laps on the local Wollongong city circuit. The route should be finely poised between the climbers and the classics specialists but weather and tactics are sure to play their part in what should be one of the best races of the entire season.

We take a look at 10 must-watch riders.

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Annemiek van Vleuten (Netherlands)

Despite the shaky form and the fractured elbow, Annemiek van Vleuten is still among the favorites for the women’s elite road race. There’s an obvious question over whether or not she starts following her crash in the TTT but regardless of the course profile or her condition the veteran Dutch rider cannot be written off. In the last five years Van Vleuten has been top-10 on four occasions with a win and second place part of her palmares, and despite a disappointing seventh place in the individual time trial it’s worth remembering that after missing out on gold in the women’s TT in Yorkshire three years ago she went on an unbelievable 100km long solo break in the road race to win gold. The winner of the Giro, Tour, and Vuelta, not to mention wins or top-10s in virtually every major one-day race this season, van Vleuten is a rider you write off at your peril.

Grace Brown (Australia)

The home favorite, and clearly in sparkling form following her silver in the individual time trial, Brown leads the line for an impressive-looking Australian team. Her results so far in the elite women’s race have been nothing to write home about but those two attempts in 2018 and 2020 deserve to be looked at in context of where the 30-year-old was in terms of experience and her role within the national team at the time. This time around Brown is flying with a really consistent season peppered with impressive wins and encouraging displays. An aggressive race will certainly suit her skillset and that massive one-day win could be on the cards.

Juliette Labous (France)

It’s been another season of progression for the 23-year-old French rider with Labous winning the Vuelta a Burgos, a stage in the Giro d’Italia, and claiming fourth in the Tour de France Femmes. With a strong French team around her, minus Audrey Cordon-Ragot, the French rider will be looking at the Mount Keira climb and the two short ascents on the final laps to make her mark in a bid to drop some of the faster finishers. Labous isn’t quite a top favorite for the women’s race but she’s flying nicely under the radar. Don’t write off Évita Muzic either. She’s had a notable season and has the qualities to shine on Saturday.

Elisa Longo Borghini (Italy)

With Annemiek van Vleuten and the ornithologists enlisted by the Dutch to explain why the local birdlife hates them so much the standout favorite has to be Elisa Longo Borghini. The Italian has five top-10s and two second places in the elite road race but more importantly she’s flying right now with a stage win and second overall at the recent Vuelta. The race profile wasn’t ideal for her in Spain but the 30-year-old always finds a way to turn an unfriendly course profile into an opportunity. She’s arguably one of the most tactically astute riders in the peloton and has one of the strongest teams around her for the race. Italy, in fact, has several potential cards to play but with Balsamo waiting for a sprint it’s Longo Borghini who has the opportunity to seize the race and make it her own. Two wins in a row for Italy? Nessun problema.

Demi Vollering (Netherlands)

So much depends on Annemiek van Vleuten’s health and ability to go the distance with her fractured elbow. If she falters or doesn’t start then the entire complexion of the race changes and the Dutch team will be down one leader. That will likely change the team’s approach but it won’t rob them of options with Vollering and Marianne Vos both capable of wrestling the rainbow jersey back from Italy. Vollering hasn’t won a race since back in May but she’s been consistent throughout the summer with a pocket of second places, including runner-up to van Vleuten at the Tour de France Femmes. Vollering’s early season form was out of this world and if she managed to peak again for Australia she could be untouchable.

Marianne Vos (Netherlands)

In 14 starts Vos has only missed out on the top-10 twice and has taken three wins and six second places. It’s a phenomenal record and few would bet against her adding to her tally of rainbow jerseys this weekend. With Van Vleuten teetering the Dutch need a strong character to step up and Vos has all the credentials and the skills to get the job done. She was second last year while her form this season has been stellar. She didn’t mess around with the time trials so should be incredibly fresh come the weekend. Vos can win from a number of scenarios too, a key factor in worlds success, with her sprint and climbing abilities vital on a course that looks well-balanced.

Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (Denmark)

The Danish rider created one of the most memorable and popular moments of the season at the Tour de France Femmes with her stage win to Epernay and she heads into the world championships as one of the key riders to watch. The big question is whether the course is hard enough for her to make the difference because if she arrives at the finish with a small group of riders then her chances will diminish significantly. She has been top-10 in the last two editions of the race, and they were arguably on tougher parcours but the Dane does arrive at the race with some excellent form having won the Tour of Scandinavia and finished fifth in the Vuelta. The Danes only have a four-rider team too, so that means they won’t have to control the race, but it also ensures that they can’t make any mistakes either. Uttrup Ludwig stands a chance, but it’s going to be tough. One certainty is that outside of an Australian win, she’d be the most popular winner.

Lotte Kopecky (Belgium)

Race director Scott Sunderland told VeloNews that the classics specialists suited the Wollongong course best so it’s hard to ignore the credentials of Tour of Flanders winner Lotte Kopecky. Without a doubt the rider of the spring with a further win in Strade Bianche and second in Paris-Roubaix, the 26-year-old has relished her first season at SD Worx. She has the full backing of the Belgian team around her and those punchy climbs on the finishing circuit should suit her perfectly. She can match the pure climbers on those ascents and then out-kick them in a reduced sprint. She’s proved that she can also race on the front foot and be aggressive, so the final hour of racing could see her animate the race in a bid to draw out climbers she can later beat to the line.

Elisa Balsamo (Italy)

No such thing as the curse of the rainbow jersey for Elisa Balsamo
No such thing as the curse of the rainbow jersey for Elisa Balsamo (Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images)

The defending champion stormed to a surprise win 12 months ago and arrives in Australia in a perfect position in terms of expectations and pressure. With Longo Borghini to lead the line and the expectation that the race will not end in a bunch sprint Balsamo can sit back and let the race develop and potentially come to her. Just like she did in Leuven in 2021. Her form is great, she’s a better climber than many give her credit for and she’s the perfect two-pronged attack to work alongside Longo Borghini. She doesn’t have an element of surprise like she did 12 months ago but she’s a much better all-around athlete this time around.

Kristen Faulkner (United States of America)

A relative late-comer to the sport, Faulkner has settled into life at BikeExchange-Jayco with surprising ease and become a mainstay of the Australian team’s offense. A gutsy climber with a strong TT, she’s an outsider for the women’s road race but with Coryn Labecki at home nursing an injury the U.S. team should be all-in for the 29-year-old. She won two stages of the Giro d’Italia earlier this year, so competing at the very top, and beating the best riders in the world, is a level she can clearly reach. Unlike many of the riders on this list, Faulkner doesn’t have a huge amount of pressure on her shoulders.