Shocked Van Vleuten rides through pain to cap stellar year with road race gold

Everything changed with 30 kilometres to go. It was as if a switch had been flicked, a new act begun in the theatrical showing that was the elite women’s road race at the Road World Championships in Wollongong on Saturday. And, lingering patiently in the wings, the surprise star – the Netherlands’ Annemiek van Vleuten – waiting to steal the show yet again.

After ominous clouds had threatened all day, suddenly the rain started to fall. The home nation of Australia took the downpour as their cue: first Amanda Spratt, a two-time medallist at the World Championships, then the team’s protected star, Grace Brown, and finally workhorse rider Sarah Roy. None make their efforts stick on local roads, but it was the opening other nations needed.

A race of control became a race of chaos. The peloton was split along the road – groups of two and three with big gaps between them, unlikely heroes sprinting away for their moment in the spotlight, favourites at risk of slipping away.

Above it all, almost taunting the riders as the dramatic denouement played out below in the rain, a rainbow opened over the scenic vista of Wollongong on the south coast of New South Wales. A rainbow waiting to anoint the queen of women’s road cycling, the woman who will wear the rainbow jersey for the next 12 months.

Attack after attack followed. As the rain eased, the front groups came back together and the reduced selection entered into the final kilometre. Then, from nowhere, Van Vleuten did what Van Vleuten does. Nursing a fractured elbow, sustained in a nasty crash in the mixed team time trial on Wednesday, which in turn followed a subpar performance in the women’s time trial last weekend, Van Vleuten had been inconspicuous all day. Until the moment came and the 39-year-old was there when it counted.

Surging from behind, she surprised the selection to ride away solo. None of the world’s best sprinters could follow her – the rainbow jersey grasped by the Dutchwoman at the last. Belgium’s Lotte Kopecky was quickest to the line for the silver medal, Italian rider Silvia Persico settled for bronze. Alexandra Manly was best-placed for the home nation, in 15th

“I was the domestique today, with the broken elbow,” said a shocked Van Vleuten. “And now I’m world champion.”

Van Vleuten’s stunning victory caps a remarkable year in the twilight of a historic career. The Movistar all-rounder won the yellow jersey in the inaugural Tour de France Femmes, together with general classification victory at the Giro Rosa and Challenge by La Vuelta (as well as wins at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Liège–Bastogne–Liège and podium finishes at Strade Bianche, the Tour of Flanders and La Flèche Wallonne).

“This is the best victory of my whole career,” she said. “I still cannot believe it. I was such a committed domestique today [for Marianne Vos] that I was not thinking of my chances – only in the last kilometre.”

The time trial gold medallist and road race silver medallist at the Tokyo Olympics, 2019 road race world champion and 2017 and 2018 time trial world champion, Van Vleuten will again wear rainbows in 2023 – in what she has indicated will be the final season of her glittering career.

“That’s the best,” was how Van Vleuten described the prospect of her swansong year being in the world champion’s jersey.

The 164.3km road race – the longest distance in the event’s history, which dates back over six decades – rolled out at lunchtime from Helensburgh, just south of Sydney. After a controlled descent from the highlands towards the coast, racing began in earnest along picturesque oceanside roads. The peloton had no time to take in the scenery, not even the iconic Sea Cliff Bridge, with a number of energetic early breakaway attempts.

France’s Gladys Verhulst was the first to make an attack stick, with the dominant nations in the bunch – Italy, the Netherlands and Australia – content to allow the sprinter up the road. But Verhulst was caught 20km later, after the toughest ascent of the day, up Mount Keira on the Illawarra escarpment.

The steep climb was anticlimactic, with none of the favoured riders trying their luck; battling her injury, Van Vleuten was conspicuously quiet. She said it had been her plan to attack solo on the climb, but she was hindered by the pain.

As the race entered the first of six laps of a tough city circuit, another breakaway formed: Belgium’s Julie Van de Velde, Swedish youngster Caroline Andersson and Britain’s Elynor Bäckstedt, older sister of Zoe Bäckstedt, who had won the Under-19 road race in the morning.

It was the attack of the day – at one stage the trio had almost two minutes on the peloton – but without representatives from the heavyweight nations, it was always destined for disappointment.

Eventually, the preliminary performances came to an end. After a brief détente in the peloton, the fireworks began and Van Vleuten stole the show. A remarkable finale from one of the best-ever female cyclists, at once unexpected and entirely predictable.

“Yeah,” said Van Vleuten, pausing, seemingly still dazed by the win. “It’s quite a story.”

New Zealand’s Niamh Fisher-Black won the Under-23 category – a race within the race, in contrast to the separate age category race for the men. The UCI has promised to remedy this lingering inequality by 2025. Britain’s Pfeiffer Georgi won the silver medal.

The world championships conclude on Sunday, with the elite men’s road race. The Belgian pair Wout van Aert and Remco Evenepoel, two-time Tour de France winner Tadej Pogačar and local favourite Michael Matthews will be among the rainbow jersey contenders over the gruelling 266.9km course.