Words by Amy Jones | Photo by SWpix.com
For the first time in four years the women’s world championships road race was won by a non-Dutch rider, in the form of Elisa Balsamo of Italy.
Much like the narrative after the women’s road race at the Olympic games detracted from a stunning win by Anna Kiesenhofer and focused on the Dutch team’s loss, one of the main talking points to come out of the road race in Flanders was how the Dutch let yet another race that looked to be theirs in the bag go to another nation.
After years of speculation going into every major championship over how the Dutch might crumble under the pressure of having a team full of favourites, the 2021 season seems to have finally caught up with them. Until now, they have gone on to prove any doubters wrong, taking six of the previous 10 world road race titles and the 2012 and 2016 Olympic Games. Now, however, both the Tokyo road race and the world championships have shown that their strength in numbers might be less of a blessing than a curse after all.
Starting the race with eight of the peloton’s best riders seems like a good way to go into a world championships, but on this occasion it seemed to work against the Dutch squad. Defending champion Anna van der Breggen did what she could in her final race as a professional but barely made it into the second group on the road having been way off her usual mark of late.
Demi Vollering — who went to Flanders as a pre-race favourite thanks to her performances this season and her strong kick — suffered mechanicals early on and received little in the way of help from her team to get back into the race. Annemiek van Vleuten and Ellen van Dijk made a good show of attacking and countering each other in the final few laps, but bizarrely also chased one another down on multiple occasions.
Van Dijk claimed that the plan was to keep attacking until 4km to go and if that wasn’t to succeed they would lead out Vos for the finish: “That’s where we failed,” she said. “The lead-out wasn’t good enough. Now she had to close a gap. If she didn’t have to close that gap then it might’ve turned out differently. I saw it happening at 600 metres and knew it wasn’t good. We weren’t grouped together as we should’ve been at that point. We lacked the numbers there and that might’ve been because of all the attacks we did.”
After losing the sprint against the 23-year-old Italian, Marianne Vos was in tears at the finish, clearly unhappy with the result. It was her sixth silver medal at the world championships, having been denied by Italians on five occasions with Marta Bastianelli in 2007, Tatiana Guderzo in 2009, and Giorgia Bronzini in 2010 and 2011.
In stark contrast, however, after the race, Vos said in a press conference: “That went well. We were never really out of contention. Elisa was just faster on the line, then you have to be happy with silver.” Which seems like more of a concession to Balsamo’s ride than praise of her team’s tactics.
Indeed, regardless of any failings from the Dutch, Elisa Balsamo’s sprint was perfectly executed after a consummate lead out from team mate Elisa Longo Borghini. The Italian team had their tactics perfectly lined up in the final laps of the Leuven circuit with Maria Giulia Confalonieri getting herself into all the right moves and Longo Borghini keeping things under control. Meanwhile, the Dutch team were busy chasing each other down and attacking with no clear intent.
The race in Flanders looked like it was for Netherlands to lose, they did so, but to a more than deserving winner. It remains to be seen whether Balsamo’s win over Vos marks a changing of the guard in the women’s peloton or not, (the Dutchwoman can be expected to continue to win as long as she pins on a number) but the rainbow jersey will almost certainly be visible at the sharp end of races next season.