A punchy and technical route is on tap for Saturday's elite women's road race at the UCI Road World Championships in the cycling-enthusiastic region of Flanders in Belgium. The Classics-style race will cater to some of the best one-day race specialists, rouleurs and sprinters in the sport, all looking to become the next world champion.
The elite women will race 157 kilometres between Antwerp and Leuven, with the course including 20 short climbs and a total elevation gain of 1,047 metres. The race starts at the Grote Markt in Antwerp and travels south for 55km to two distinct circuits; the Flandrien circuit consists of six climbs and the Leuven circuit includes four climbs.
The field will first complete one-and-a-half loops of the circuit in Leuven, followed by one loop of the Flandrien circuit, and then two-and-a-half final loops of the local circuit in Leuven.
This race will mark the final event for the defending champion Anna van der Breggen, who has chosen to take on a support role for her seven Dutch teammates.
The Dutch are the favourites, and they have eight riders who can win this race. They also have an impeccable track record for winning world titles.
They won the last four consecutive road race world titles with Chantal van den Broek Blaak (2017), Annemiek van Vleuten (2019) and Van der Breggen (2018 and 2020), and before that, the three victories from Marianne Vos (2006, 2012 and 2013). All four will be on the start line.
They have four more potential winners in reigning cyclo-cross World Champion Lucinda Brand and Dutch Champion Amy Pieters, Liège-Bastogne-Liège winner Demi Vollering, and newly-crowned time trial World Champion Ellen van Dijk.
They are no doubt the strongest team on paper, but they will be up against tough competition if they want to win the title again.
Below Cyclingnews highlights to riders to watch for the elite women's road race in Flanders.
Lotte Kopecky (Belgium)
Belgian fans will be lining the streets cheering for their home favourite Lotte Kopecky, who with the support of her national team, has a solid chance of winning the world title in Belgium.
Born in Rumsts in the province of Antwerp, Kopecky is the double national champion in the time trial and the road race. She has had a stand-out season with victories at Le Samyn des Dames and a stage of the Lotto Thüringen Ladies Tour, second place at Gent-Wevelgem, and four fourth places at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Nokere Koerse, Brugge-De Panne and Dwars door het Hageland. She also won the overall classification at the Lotto Belgium Tour, finished fourth in the road race at the Olympic Games, and took a recent victory at the Challenge by la Vuelta.
She has fully recovered from a hip injury sustained in a crash on the track at the Olympic Games, and says she's ready to handle to pressures of performing on home soil for the World Championships title in the elite women's road race.
She has consistently shown herself among the best on hilly courses, able to stay with the strongest climbers during the classics, while also riding into finals and sprinting with the fastest.
Marianne Vos (Netherlands)
Marianne Vos won her first elite road race world title 2006, her second in 2012, and her last victory was in 2013.
The most recent editions of the event were far-better suited to her compatriots Anna van der Breggen (Innsbruck 2018 and Imola 2020) and Annemiek van Vleuten (Yorkshire 2019). However, this year's route suites the puncheurs like Vos to perfection.
Having dominated the sport for over a decade, even with a nearly two-year hiatus, Vos continues on an upward trajectory. This year, she won Gent-Wevelgem and the Amstel Gold Race, along with a record 30th career stage win at the Giro d'Italia Donne. She also won what was left of the bunch sprint for fifth place at the Olympic Games.
The eight-rider Dutch team will back Vos for a fourth rainbow jersey, and although she did not finish the recent European Championships, her compatriot Van Vleuten is convinced that she can win in Flanders.
“For sure the world would love it, for sure Marianne would love it, and also I would love it for her," Van Vleuten said.
Coryn Rivera (United States)
Coryn Rivera is the only American to have ever won the Tour of Flanders, doing so in 2017, and she is the USA's best chance at an elite road race world title in Belgium.
Rivera said the Worlds route is much more similar to the Brabantse Pijl than it is the Tour of Flanders, but that either way, it's well-suited to her strengths.
Rivera is fast, but she's not just a sprinter, and has shown that she is capable of tackling a hilly world's route, ride into a breakaway, and finish strong on the toughest courses.
She consistently represents Team USA at the Worlds with strong performances; she was 31st after being in a breakaway in a mountainous Innsbruck 2018 and 10th at the hilly edition in Yorkshire 2019.
This year, she won a stage at the Giro d'Italia Donne and then finished seventh in her first-ever participation at the Olympic Games in Tokyo in July. They are strong indicators that she is progressing well toward the World Championships in Flanders.
Lizzie Deignan (Great Britain)
Lizzie Deignan last won the world title in 2015 on the streets of Richmond in the USA and she's been trying to get the rainbow jersey back ever since. She has come close on several occasions with a fourth place in Doha in 2016 and sixth in Imola in 2020.
A home Worlds in Yorkshire in 2019 suited her well, but a tactical race saw Annemiek van Vleuten go on a 104km solo raid to win the world title and Deignan finished 31st.
She came into this season with a focus on the Spring Classics, and although shethen had a bout of illness, she came back strong to finished fourth overall at the Giro Donne and 11th at the Olympic Games.
Deignan hopes to peak again at the World Championships where she has a team to support her goals of winning a second rainbow jersey.
Marta Bastianelli (Italy)
Italy come into these World Championships with two major cards to play for the rainbow jersey in Marta Bastianelli and Elisa Balsamo, and a third if you include aggressive rouleur Elisa Longo Borghini.
Balsamo's career is just beginning to gain traction after a number of high-profile podium finishes in the Spring Classics. She has a newly-inked contract with Trek-Segafredo for next season and that will go a long way in helping her continue her success for future years to come.
Bastianelli, on the other hand, is a former world champion from 2007 and she has had several winning seasons, particularly before COVID-19, with victories at Gent-Wevelgem, Tour of Flanders, PostNord Vagarda, Ronde van Drenthe and the European Championships, all in 2018 and 2019.
This year she has secured secured three wins at the Tour de Suisse, La Perigord Ladies, and most recently at Tour de l'Ardeche - showing that she is coming into great late-season form.
Longo Borghini will enjoy a more opportunistic role while the team fully supports their two sprinters Bastianelli and Balsamo for an anticipated small group sprint.
Emma Norsgaard (Denmark)
Emma Norsgaard is the highest ranked under-23 aged rider in the UCI Road World Rankings because she has consistently performed well among the elite ranks in her first season with the Women's WorldTeam Movistar.
So much so that she has been tipped, by many, as a favourite for the punchy route in Flanders.
She took the overall win at Festival Elsy Jacobs and victories at Thüringen Ladies Tour and Giro d'Italia Donne. She also participated in her first Olympic Games in Tokyo this year.
She is well suited to the Spring Classics and punchy stage races, but also a strong time trialist, which says a lot about her versatility. She isn't a pure sprinter, however, but if the race for the rainbow jersey comes down to a small group sprint, Norsgaard is almost certainly be in the mix.
Lisa Brennauer (Germany)
Lisa Brennauer has shown that she is in great form at these World Championships with a fifth place in the individual time trail on Monday and then Germany's victory in the team time trial mixed relay on Wednesday. These results are off the back of a bronze medal performance in the time trial at the European Championships.
She is a former world champion in the time trial, but as of late, her expertise seems to be in well-timed, late-race attacks where she can carry her power through the final kilometres of a race at speed.
Brennauer was third at Gent-Wevelgem and won the chase-group sprint for second place at the Tour of Flanders this spring, and went on to double wins at the German Championships and double sixth places at the Olympic Games.
If the race comes down to a reduced field sprint, watch for Brennauer to make a surprise late-race break for the rainbow jersey.
Elisa Longo Borghini (Italy)
Elisa Longo Borghini lines up with two powerful sprinters in Marta Bastianelli and Elisa Balsano, but she will have a free pass to race as a rouleur during these World Championships.
Longo Borghini's aggressive all-in racing style has often lit-up the Women's WorldTour this season, and on occasion, her efforts have paid off with victory at Trofeo Alfredo Binda and GP Plouay, second at Strade Bianche, third at Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and fourth at Tour of Flanders.
The route in Flanders may not be exactly suited to Longo Borghini but that's neither here nor there for a rider who is primarily interested in making the race extremely difficult for everyone else.
"I really like being a rouleur in the races, and also to help my teammates whenever possible. I like to be aggressive and I don’t like boring races," Longo Borghini told Cyclingnews.
Longo Borghini's edge and commitment to racing aggressively could see her roll the dice and become the new world champion.
Lucinda Brand (Netherlands)
If we're talking about rouleurs then we also need to be talking about Lucinda Brand. At previous World Championships, she has been a support rider for Annemiek van Vleuten and Anna van der Breggen, but this year Brand would be a great option for a breakaway.
She enjoys racing aggressively and has had success this year with an overall win at the Thüringen Ladies Tour, mountain classification at the Giro Donne, and a recent stage win at the Tour de l'Ardeche. She did not have the pressures of the Olympic Games weighing her down this year and might be fresher than some of her rivals.
The reigning cyclo-cross World Champion has been slowly building her form all season and will no doubt be in great form for the start of the cyclo-cross World Cup, which starts next month in the US.
Pauline Ferrand-Prévot and Marianne Vos have won back-to-back cyclo-cross and road world titles, Brand could be the next to join that club.
She was also picked by Lotte Kopecky as a favourite for the Flanders route.
Mavi Garcia (Spain)
Like Longo Borghini, Mavi Garcia loves attacking and igniting decisive breakaways, sometimes straight from the gun. She’s not afraid to go solo or make her rivals work for their spoils. Garcia, the Spanish national champion, is the perfect example of a rider who isn’t afraid to grab an opportunity.
A standout moment in Garcia’s career was her long-range solo breakaway at 2020 Strade Bianche that almost netted her the win, only to be caught by Annemiek van Vleuten in the closing kilometres. This year she was second overall at the recent Tour Cycliste Féminin International de l'Ardèche.
The punchy and technical finish circuits might appear to suit a fast finisher of some kind but if the race comes down to a reduced group, and legs are tired near the end of 160km race, watch for Garcia to have the stamina to carry out a winning breakaway.
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