A UCI Road World Championships located so far from the cycling heartland of Europe was never likely to be business as normal, but it turns out that it is more than the distant location, time-zone and reverse seasons that will make this edition in Wollongong, Australia an unusual one.
It is a rainbow jersey battle where spiralling travel costs and a WorldTour relegation battle that is seeing trade teams pull rank over national squads, is taking some out of the action before the racing has even begun.
Still, the big names are lining up so that will likely quickly fade into the background once the racing gets underway from September 18 to 25. Annemiek van Vleuten, Filippo Ganna, Wout van Aert, Elisa Longo Borghini, Marianne Vos, Tadej Pogačar and two-time defending world champion Julian Alaphilippe will go to battle on a road course heavy on climbing and a technical time trial circuit that is packed with corners.
The course located south of Sydney in New South Wales, that takes in the climbs and the coast, looks set to deliver action-packed racing for World Road Championships second stop in Australia, with the first being Geelong in 2021.
The Wollongong event also marks the return of international road racing to a nation that has been isolated for the past two years after strict border closures imposed during COVID-19 pandemic were only lifted early this year.
The limited opportunity to make the long trip for course reconnaissance means most competitors will be racing in unfamiliar territory, at a time when if they were in Europe they would likely be asleep and amid the blooming flowers of early spring in the southern hemisphere, rather than the turning leaves of the northern hemisphere autumn. They'll also be racing in a place where bike racing is far from mainstream and even the die-hard fans from around the nation haven’t had the opportunity to witness top level riders on Australian roads for more than two seasons.
Of course many of those spectators will be looking for a home victor so there’ll be no shortage of focus on the likes of Grace Brown and Michael Matthews, as while the nation’s sporting tendencies may lean more heavily to football than bikes there is no doubt it has a population that knows how to throw themselves into a big sporting event, especially if Australia is in with a chance.
The 11 championship races, which will result in the awarding of 13 titles, are expected to be watched by 300 million around the world. The racing will mostly start and finish in and around the coastal New South Wales city of Wollongong, about 80km south of central Sydney. The beachside location should be a boon for the cameras and the climbs that are located slightly inland will provide plenty of elevation through the road races, much of which will play out on a spectator friendly city circuit.
Time Trial courses
The racing at the Road World Championships will start with a first on Sunday September 18 – the elite women’s and elite men’s individual time trials run on the same day, on the same course and over the same distance. On top of that the first ever U23 women’s world title will be awarded to the quickest rider in that category who managed to gain selection to compete in the combined elite and U23 women’s category.
Then the U23 men’s race against the clock of two laps and 28.8km will play out on Monday September 19. The junior women’s race of 14.1 km on Tuesday morning (AEST) and the junior men’s 28.8km event is in the afternoon. The mixed relay will deliver a 28.2km finale for the races against the clock, with one lap of the 14.1km circuit for the three men from each team and one for the three women.
The time trial circuit starting and finishing in Wollongong varies across the different categories, though it provides a familiar core, both across the route for the races against the clock and the road race city circuit. Starting by the beach and heading past the Wollongong Botanic Gardens, through to Mount Ousley Rd and onto the adjacent Dumfries Ave, where riders will face a small climb, but it skips the more challenging route up Ramah Avenue to Mount Pleasant that will be taken in the road race. Riders head back toward the coast and on a course that runs in line with the Blue Mile shared cycle pathway.
The course is heavily punctuated by turns, around 30 per lap for the elite races, providing an opportunity for those who relish the technical routes. There is, however, a faster sector along Cliff Road, past the lighthouse at Flagstaff Hill just before the finish line across from Wollongong beach on Marine Drive.
The circuit for the elite races, 34.2km over two laps, varies slightly to the other races, extending further north toward Towradgi and extending the coastal run into the line.
See the maps section of our Road World Championships home page for full details of the course.
Road Race courses
The city circuit which starts and finishes in Wollongong is the core of all the road races, though for the elite men and elite/U23 women there is a start further north in the small hamlet of Helensburgh, as well as the Mount Keira loop.
The road races start on Friday September 23 opening with the men's junior category which takes on eight laps of the city circuit and then it is ten for the U23 men in the afternoon. Saturday it is four laps of Wollongong based circuit for the women's junior race, before the elite/U23 women's race strikes out from Helensburgh. The last day of competition and it is the men’s elite race that will wrap up proceedings.
The terrain in this patch of Australia opened up a wide variety of course options for race director Scott Sunderland to choose from as he returned to his stomping grounds of around 30 years ago to create routes worthy of a battle for the rainbow jersey.
There may have been some talk that it was time for a pure sprinters course, and subsequent expectations that it would be a relatively flat route, but when details came out it was clear that the only sprinters in with a chance are ones that are extremely hardy on the climbs. There is 2,433m of elevation gain in the 164.3km women's elite/U23 race and 3945m in the 266.9km men's elite event.
The elite races work their way from the hamlet of Helensburgh, still in the neutral zone through the descent to Stanwell Park, and then head down along the coastline, via the spectacular Sea Cliff bridge, towards Wollongong, where they will loop inland to the 8.7km long climb of Mount Keira, with an average gradient of 5% but a maximum of 15% around the halfway mark. The climb peaks at just 42km into the day of racing, so while it may begin the wearing down process, it comes too far from the end to tip the favour toward the climbing specialists.
It is a course that is more likely to play into the hands of the puncheurs, as once the single loop of the Mount Keira circuit is completed, the race heads through Wollongong again and onto the corner riddled city circuit with its repeats of the short sharp ascent of Mount Pleasant – 1.1km at 7.7% and a maximum of 14% – providing a likely attack launching point through the six loops for the women and 12 for the men. Still with the peak coming about 8km from the finish line, any solo attackers will have their work cut out holding off the chasers right through to the beachside run into the finish line.
The last 4km of the circuit is less corner heavy than the rest, giving the break less opportunity to stay out of sight. The lighthouse on Flagstaff Point will be a welcome sight for any attackers if they do manage to hold off the charge, as then there is just one more corner with less than 500m to go and a final dash for the finish line on Marine Drive. Though if it is a group, albeit likely a small one, that is contesting a sprint that's the point where riders will be hoping they are well-positioned to come out from the wheel of either a friend or foe so they can take a rainbow victory.
Time Trial contenders
The first event this year will see the not just one, but two rainbow jerseys claimed, with both an elite and U23 women's title being awarded in the combined event. The Dutch will enter with favourites in both, between European U23 champion Shirin van Anrooij and, in the elite, defending champion Ellen van Dijk along with two-time title holder Annemiek van Vleuten.
Even without all the participants confirmed, it's clear that there will be some solid competition for Van Anrooij, particularly in the form of European Championships runner up Vittoria Guazzini (Italy). There was some anticipation that Sarah Gigante may be lining up in the category, providing a real hope for a home victory, but in a year where there was no extra rider quota for the new category, she wasn't on the team list leaving the host nation without any U23 women's riders to contest the first ever world titles for the category.
In the elite women's competition it is hard to look past the threat of last year's runner up in the discipline at both the Olympic Games and World Championships, Marlen Reusser (Switzerland), who also beat Van Dijk to take victory at the European Championships last month. Then there's Grace Brown (Australia), who has clearly been focussed on the rare home-nation Worlds opportunity and will enjoy her local advantage on the corner heavy, technical time trial course, which no doubt she has been out on the ground to inspect on one of her trips home during the year.
Filippo Ganna (Italy) of course will be a key rider to watch in the elite men, as the two-time defending champion always is when he lines up for a race against the clock, however he will not be the only rider in an Italian jersey to look out for with the technical course likely to suit the winner of the final stage of this year's Giro d'Italia Matteo Sobrero. Wout van Aert (Belgium) is a rider that usually would also come near the top of the favourites list on a course like this, but the rider who finished second in the discipline in Flanders last year has opted out of the time trial to focus on the road race, leaving Belgium's chances with Vuelta a España winner Remco Evenepoel.
Tadej Pogačar (Slovenia), who can count his worst time trial result this season as a fourth, confirmed his strong lead in form with victory at GP de Montréal. The Swiss duo of Stefan Bissegger and Stefan Küng also delivered a reminder that they shouldn't be overlooked at the European Championships last month, when they took first and second ahead of Ganna.
Ethan Hayter, under normal circumstances, is a good option for Great Britain but is a bit of an unknown given his COVID-19 withdrawal from the Vuelta a España. Luke Plapp will be shouldering the hopes of Australia, with the 20-year-old stepping into fill the position left vacant by Rohan Dennis, after coming second in the U23 World Championships time trial last year.
Road Race contenders
In the combined women's elite/U23 road race on Saturday, one team that looks to be going all out for the U23 title is Great Britain, with four of their six rider team slotting into the category and four powerful riders at that – Elynor Backstedt, Pfeiffer Georgi, Anna Shackley and Alice Towers. New Zealand's Niamh Fisher-Black will, however, be keen to stand in their way with the SD Worx rider, who finished an impressive fifth overall at the Giro d'Italia Donne, clearly the strongest hand the nation has to play across both titles.
In the elite category all eyes will be on the powerhouse Dutch team – which is as usual packed with options – and also the defending Italians as well. The course may end up being a little too climb heavy for Flanders winner Elisa Balsamo, depending on how the race plays out, though if she does hang in there for a select group sprint she's shown she has the fast finishing form at the moment, taking victory in the final stage sprint at the Ceratizit Challenge by La Vuelta. However, if it looks like an attack will reign the Italians will likely have their money on Paris-Roubaix winner Elisa Longo Borghini.
As we have already mentioned, the Dutch team's options are, as usual, many and the envy of all. Giro d'Italia Donne, Tour de France Femmes and Ceratizit Challenge by La Vuelta winner Annemiek van Vleuten, and Tour de France Femmes runner-up Demi Vollering always aggressive on the climbs and prepared to strike out early, while supreme bike handler Marianne Vos, who has spent so much of her career in rainbows, is likely to revel in the technical nature of the city circuit and will be the rider of choice if it comes down to a select sprint.
Tour of Scandinavia winner Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (Denmark) is bound to ride aggressively and attacking will also likely be the name of the game for Australia's Grace Brown, with climb capable sprinter Alex Manly the more likely option to contest a fast finish for the home nation. Lotte Kopecky (Belgium) is likely to be another hard rival to overcome in a sprint.
Kristen Faulkner (USA) has taken her racing to a whole new level this season, and is bound to take advantage of one of the many launching points on the course, while the likes of Kasia Niewiadoma (Poland) and Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio (South Africa) will also want to make the most of the climbs. Liane Lippert (Germany) has the all round ability required to succeed on the demanding course. The French team will also be playing a strong hand with the combination of Vuelta a Burgos overall winner Juliette Labous and Évita Muzic, who happened to come second in the same race, with both also in the top 10 of the Tour de France Femmes.
For the men's elite race Wout van Aert (Belgium) is, unsurprisingly with his results tally, the name that seems on the tip of everyone's tongue. A technical course that suits his all-round abilities and a show of form since returning to racing after the Tour de France makes him an obvious choice, and perhaps there is also a little fire left as well from last year's home Worlds road race not turning out as planned.
He, however, is not the only option for Belgium, with Remco Evenepoel leaving no doubt that his form warrants a dual leadership position after he won his lead in race, which was none other than the Vuelta a España.
Tadej Pogačar has just shuffled his way up the favourites list too, by beating Van Aert in the sprint at the GP de Montréal, which has a course that has a resemblance to the parcours that will be tackled in Australia.
Van Aert's perennial rival Mathieu van der Poel, on the other hand hasn't had the best run in recent months, though can still count the Tour of Flanders among his victories this season. Still if anything could turn around the late season for the Dutch rider, the rainbow bands would be it.
Peter Sagan (Slovakia) is a rider who in better patches looks like he'd be suited to this course but two DNF's in Canada weren't a promising sign. The story, however, is different for the rider he beat to take his first of three world titles in 2015. Michael Matthews (Australia) came second at the GP de Quebec, plus he has the record on home soil, winning the U23 title in 2010 in Geelong which is the last time the Road World Championships was in Australia.
Then there is Gent Wevelgem and Giro d'Italia stage winner Biniam Girmay (Eritrea), who came third behind Matthews in Quebec but was unwell in Montreal, creating a degree of uncertainty, but hopefully the two weeks to the road race is long enough to recover. Crucially, a question mark had been placed over Julian Alaphilippe (France) after the two-time defending champion dislocated his shoulder on stage 11 of the Vuelta a España. He has now been confirmed as a starter, but will he be there with the form that makes a third title in a row a possibility?
Sunday, September 18
Women/U23 Individual Time Trial
Wollongong start/finish, 34.2km. 9:35-12:30 (AEST)
Men Individual Time Trial
Wollongong start/finish, 34.2km. 13:40-17:00 (AEST)
Monday, September 19
Men U23 Elite Individual Time Trial
Wollongong start/finish, 28.8km, 13:20-17:00
Tuesday, September 20
Women Junior Individual Time Trial
Wollongong start/finish, 14.1km, 09:30-11:05
Men Junior Individual Time Trial
Wollongong start/finish, 28.8km, 13:20-17:00
Wednesday, September 21
Team Time Trial Mixed Relay
Wollongong start/finish, 28.2km, 14:20-17:05
Friday, September 23
Men Junior Road Race
Wollongong start/finish, 135.6km (2016m elevation), 8:15-11:35
Men U23 Road Race
Wollongong start/finish, 169.8km (2520m elevation), 13:00-17:10
Saturday, September 24
Women Junior Road Race
Wollongong start/finish, 67.2km (1008m elevation), 8:00-9:50
Women/U23 Elite Road Race
Helensburgh start/ Wollongong finish, 164.3km (2433m elevation), 12:25-17:00
Sunday, September 25
Men Elite Road Race
Helensburgh start/ Wollongong finish, 266.9km (3945m elevation), 10:15-16:50
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Simone joined the team as Production Editor based in Australia at the start of the 2021 season, having previously worked as Australian Editor at Ella CyclingTips and as a correspondent for Reuters and Bloomberg.
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