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Worlds preview: The Dutch vs. everyone else in women’s road race

Anna van der Breggen and Annemiek van Vleuten give the Netherlands a powerful one-two punch for the worlds road race.

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The world’s best riders have already been showing their stuff against the clock in Austria over the last few days, but this weekend they’ll trade sleek helmets and aero bars for their road racing getup. The women’s world road race championship gets underway on Saturday.

The hype around this year’s worlds has been building since back in 2016 when Innsbruck secured championship week. Nestled in an Alpine valley, the city was always expected to offer a climber-friendly worlds, and the course that organizers have since unveiled lives up to that promise.

As such, the race will give a few specialists a welcome opportunity to contend against some familiar worlds favorites for a rainbow jersey on Saturday.

The route: Ups and downs abound

The women’s worlds course runs 156.2 kilometers in full. Things get underway in Kufstein — expect plenty of pre-race shots of the town’s imposing medieval castle — and finish on a circuit in Innsbruck.

After a few rollers in the first hour, the peloton will take on the short but very steep Gnadewald climb and then drop into the circuit, where three trips up and down the Igls climb await.

7.9 kilometers in length with a 5.7 percent average, its tough enough to wear away at the non-climbers with repeated ascents, but perhaps not hard enough to favor only the purest mountain goats. The gradient is not so steep as to make it an obvious launching pad for a solo attacker. However, the chaos of riders trying to cooperate with the national team squadmates and the fatigue of riding the event’s 2,413 vertical meters could be enough to spur a loner to victory.

Descending skills will come in handy as well, with downhill off the climb running a bit steeper than the ascent. After things flatten out on the final lap of the circuit, it’s a little over seven kilometers to the finish. A strong kick will be important if a small group manages to make it to the line together.

The contenders: Dutch women favored to repeat

Van Vleuten
Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

For anyone who has watched women’s cycling over the last decade, and particularly the past few seasons, it should come as little surprise that the Dutch worlds squad contains both of the two top favorites for the rainbow jersey this fall, and that doesn’t even include defending world champion Chantal Blaak.

Anna van der Breggen and Annemiek van Vleuten have duked it out for the title of the sport’s top female rider all season. They’re both very evenly matched riders, with big engines but elite climbing legs too. Van Vleuten may have the slightest of edges in the pure power department — she successfully defended her rainbow jersey in the time trial on Tuesday — and the high-mountain climbs, but van der Breggen has the edge in classics-style racing. That might give her a tiny advantage in this race, but it’s pretty much a tossup.

On Saturday, van der Breggen and van Vleuten will be asked to put their season-long rivalry aside for the good of the Dutch national team. That’s going to be an interesting storyline to watch. In any case, expect at least one of them to put in an attack on the final climb, with Blaak, Lucinda Brand, and Ellen van Dijk also potentially in the mix.

Poland may have the best chance at unseating the Dutch women, courtesy of an in-form Katarzyna Niewiadoma.

Katarzyna Niewiadoma on the attack at the Ladies Tour of Norway. Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

The 23-year-old has emerged as one of the sport’s strongest climbers over the last two years, and she is fresh off an overall victory at the Tour de l’Ardèche. A climber-friendly world championships is a huge opportunity for her.

The same is true for South Africa’s Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio. Consistently among the top finishers in big races all season long, she will jump at the chance to shine in Innsbruck. The top step of a major race podium has proven elusive for the veteran climber in the past, but the form and the skillset are undeniably there. You have to think she’ll find her way to a big win sometime soon.

Team USA has a few climbers who could have a shot on the lumpy parcours as well. Katie Hall is one of the world’s finest at going uphill. She does not have as much of a track record in one-day events as in stage races, but she’ll definitely draw some attention on the late climbs. Ruth Winder and Megan Guarnier — riding her swansong race before she retires at the end of the year — are other potential contenders.

Australia’s Amanda Spratt, Denmark’s Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig, France’s Audrey Cordon-Ragot, and Italy’s Elisa Longo Borghini are other versatile riders who could get into the mix on Saturday.