Four overall victories and ten stage wins at the Tour of Qatar over the years made Kirsten Wild (Netherlands) the obvious favourite for victory in the women's road race at the World Championships, and the galaxy of stars flanking her in the Netherlands team only shortened her odds still further.
Riders of the calibre of Marianne Vos, Ellen van Dijk, Anna van der Breggen and Annemiek van Vleuten were deployed as a rather deluxe cohort of domestiques for the occasion, and when Wild found herself behind no fewer than seven orange jerseys at the front of the bunch with six kilometres remaining, it seemed as if she was about to sleep walk to victory behind the Dream Team.
Nothing is ever that simple in cycling, of course, and still less against an elite peloton at the World Championships. The Dutch squad scarcely put a pedal stroke askew all day, yet the nightmare scenario ensued all the same. After Vos led her out, Wild opened her sprint from distance and looked every inch a winner, only to be overhauled by 20-year-old Amalie Dideriksen (Denmark) within metres of the line.
"Of course I hoped to win gold: the same as everybody, I guess." Wild said. "I have to admit I'm disappointed. I think it was a really strong race from the team. I can't blame anything but myself."
While the Netherlands dictated the terms of engagement on the final lap, a race within a race took place behind, as riders scrambled for position in Wild's slipstream. Her misfortune, perhaps, was that a sprinter with Dideriksen's raw speed won that particular battle.
"I looked behind when we came to the last corner and I saw Amalie on my wheel so I thought it would be a hard one because I knew she was strong," Wild said. "We only had two girls on the front and I knew it would be hard to make the whole kilometre. So in the end I was a bit early and she passed me in the last metres."
Wild suffered a banal fall early in the race but quickly remounted and dismissed the idea that the crash had any impact on her final performance. At various stages, a number of her Dutch teammates, including Vos, Van der Breggen and Amy Pieters would force the pace at the front of the peloton, but she confirmed this was a preordained tactic rather than an ancillary plan.
"With this strong team it would have been a bit stupid just to wait for the sprint because these girls are so strong, we thought we could maybe isolate the strong riders from Australia and Belgium," Wild said. "That was the plan to isolate the others but keep a big squad for the lead-out at the end."
The Doha course, as Wild colourfully acknowledged, was tailored to her strengths and those of her Dutch team. "For us, this course is like Holland: only the field in Holland are green, and here they're yellow, and the cows are camels," she said.
Wild's teammate Vos suffered the maddening frustration of taking five successive silver medals in this race, but a rider of her rare gifts and range has a fighting chance of taking top honours on just about every kind of Worlds course, as her three rainbow jerseys on the road testify.
Wild has a world title on the track from 2015, of course, but, a sprinter by trade, the opportunity for a road title of the kind presented in Doha might never arise again.
"This was my chance," Wild said immediately after descending from the podium. In the press room almost an hour later, she smiled weakly when asked if she had come around to the idea that the silver medal was something more than a consolation prize. "Right now, it just feels like losing gold."
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