Road

UCI road world championships: Five riders to watch in the elite women’s road race

The course will suit a punchy climber who can handle repeated efforts of a tough climb — and this year, there are many.

The women’s elite road race gets underway on Saturday in Imola, Italy, and the list of riders to watch keeps growing.

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Saturday’s course promises to be challenging, with two punchy climbs to contend with on each lap of the 28.8 km circuit. The short, steep climbs should provide plenty of opportunities to attack and thin the bunch, and only riders who can cope with the repeated efforts will thrive.

However, as we’ve seen in the Giro Rosa and the handful of races before it, there is no shortage of women who are up to the challenge in the peloton of 2020. Here are five in particular to look out for — plus a few more.

Anna van der Breggen – Netherlands

Can the Dutchwoman go three-for-three in Italy this month?

After her recent victory at the Giro Rosa and her newly-minted time trial world title, it seems like van der Breggen is at the top of her game. Furthermore, Saturday’s hilly course suits the Dutch national champ, who has plenty of podium finishes on similar challenging terrain.

After four silvers, it was time for gold. Van der Breggen on the podium after Thursday’s ITT. (Photo by Bas Czerwinski/Getty Images)

When van der Breggen last won the rainbow stripes in 2018, she also racked up an impressive slew of victories at races that bode well for her on this year’s course — Flèche Wallonne, Liège–Bastogne–Liège, and Strade Bianche, to name a few.

In fact, there are few races van der Breggen hasn’t won. Her calm confidence in the peloton almost makes her blend in at times, but her closetful of champion’s jerseys and Olympic medals belies that she’s anything but normal.

If she were to win on Saturday, van der Breggen would be only the second woman since Jeannie Longo in 1995 to win both the world championship time trial and the road race in the same year.

Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig – Denmark

During her performance at the Giro Rosa last week, the young Dane proved herself as a contender among the top climbers in the peloton.

At the Italian stage race, the FDJ Nouvelle Aquitaine Futuroscope rider was seen in green more than in her team jersey. Uttrup Ludwig would eventually come to win the mountains classification of the event after wearing the green jersey from the fourth stage onwards. On stage two’s steep uphill finish, she crossed the line second to stage-winner Marianne Vos. Even more notably, she finished fourth overall, just two seconds off of the podium.

Uttrup Ludwig celebrates yet another day in the green jersey at this year’s Giro Rosa. (Photo by Luc Claessen/Getty Images)

Even before the Giro Rosa, Uttrup Ludwig showed that she is one of the riders who reentered the 2020 race season in peak form. In mid-August, she won the Giro dell’Emilia Internazionale Donne Elite. On a pancake-flat course with a punishingly steep climb to the finish, Uttrup Ludwig showed that she always seems to have gas in the tank for one last push.

Lizzie Deignan – Great Britain

Although Deignan has said that’s she’s not particularly anxious about Saturday’s race or results, the former world champion has a good shot at a second rainbow.

Deignan told the UK’s Evening Standard that the world championships were hardly on her radar until the venue changed earlier this month.

“The original worlds in Switzerland were not on my radar — they were too mountainous for me — but, from what I’ve heard, this suits a more classics-type rider, so you never know,” she said in an interview on Thursday.

Deignan and Vos down to the line at La Course. Photo: Christophe Petit Tesson

Nevertheless, Deignan’s low-key attitude about the race belies the fact that she is one of the strongest women in the peloton right now — and that the Imola course is right up her alley. The punchy climbs on Saturday’s course will be reminiscent of many of the Belgian classics that Deignan has dominated over the years.

After winning both GP de Plouay and La Course in August, Deignan is the current overall points leader in the Women’s WorldTour ranking. She also boasted a stunning performance at the Giro Rosa, working tirelessly for Trek-Segafredo’s GC contender Elisa Longo Borghini.

Were she to win, this would be Deignan’s second world title — and her first as a mother.

Elisa Longo Borghini – Italy

Despite being one of the riders confined to the indoors for weeks during the initial months of the coronavirus pandemic, Longo Borghini has returned to racing in top form. The Trek-Segafredo rider finished in the top five of her first four races back from the COVID racing-stop, and was on the podium in two of the three Spanish one-day races back in July.

She had an impressive performance at the brutally hot, dry, and difficult Strade Bianche and went on to win the Italian national road title later that month.

Pure elation after her first-ever Giro Rosa stage win. Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

Yet nowhere was Longo Borghini’s form — and heart — on display like at the Giro Rosa. It was a week of firsts for the Italian at the stage race. After Trek-Segafredo won the opening team time trial, Longo Borghini got to wear the maglia rosa for a day. Then, a week later, she won a stage for the first time.

Saturday’s course suits the all-rounder who can climb with the best. Furthermore, there’s no denying that winning a world title in Italy would carry extra significance for Longo Borghini, who has said how emotional returning to racing has been given what her country has been through.

Annemiek van Vleuten – Netherlands

Yes, we already chose a Dutch rider, and yes, this one has a broken wrist.

But, this is Annemiek van Vleuten we’re talking about.

The current world champ may have fractured her wrist in Italy, traveled home to the Netherlands for surgery, been okay’ed to ride outside, and traveled back to Italy all within the span of a week, but if there’s anyone who can bounce back from such chaos, it’s the defending world champion.

The 2020 Strade Bianche was brutal, even for eventual winner van Vleuten. Photo: Sara Cavallini/Getty Images

The Dutch rider stormed into the renewed 2020 race season on a five-race winning streak until the Dutch championships where she finished second to Anna van der Breggen. Five days after that, she became the European champion and was well on her way to a third Giro Rosa title when she crashed at the finale of the seventh stage.

According to reports in the Dutch media, the defending world champion feels that she’s had an excellent period of recovery since her accident in Italy one week ago. More important, however, is her confidence that the hilly Imola course will play well to her strengths.

Although we’d be unlikely to see anything akin to the historic breakaway of 2019, with ten opportunities to attack on one of the course’s two climbs and little opportunity to recover in between, the Dutchwoman might again find a way to fly.

I also have my eye on . . .

Lizzy Banks, Lauren Stephens, Leah Thomas, Mavi Garcia, and Kasia Niewiadoma.

After Great Britain’s Banks’ finished second to Deignan at GP de Plouay, won the longest stage of the Giro Rosa, and looked strong and confident during Thursday’s ITT, I have a feeling we’ll be seeing more of her on the podium.

Stephens and Thomas are my American picks; although we haven’t seen Thomas since La Course, her third-place finish at Strade still resonates. Stephens finished ninth in Thursday’s ITT and celebrated a career win at Ardeche earlier in September.

If she’s recovered enough, Spain’s Mavi Garcia will also be a contender on Saturday. One of the few riders in the peloton to race both Ardeche and Giro, Garcia boasted impressive results in both. And don’t forget how she took on van Vleuten at Strade.

Finally, after her second-place finish at the Giro Rosa and her ever-present positivity, watch out for Poland’s all-rounder Kasia Niewiadoma. She also rips on the descents.