Ripping up the script written by the Dutch women in the past four world championships, the Italian Elisa Balsamo snatched the road race title from under the noses of a dominant Netherlands squad. One of the sport’s greatest of all time, Marianne Vos, finished in tears, less than a bike length behind after a gruelling 157km around Flanders.
Balsamo, the 2016 world junior champion, and the rest of the Italian team played a tactical blinder by lying low in the final 50km before the finish in Leuven as the Dutch squandered their strength in a constant series of fruitless moves – and other nations squandered theirs with constant responses – as the peloton was whittled down to a front group of about 25.
The 23-year-old from Piedmont and two of her teammates moved to the front in the final kilometre, with Vos perfectly positioned in their slipstream as Balsamo opened up the finish sprint. Vos’s sprint has secured two one-day Classic wins this year, but the 2012 Olympic champion was unable to find her final kick and ended up just under a bike length shy of her fourth world road title. A sixth silver road race medal was scant consolation.
“My teammates gave me the perfect lead out,” said Balsamo, who ended a Dutch monopoly on the title that lasts back to 2017. “After the last corner I switched off my brain and just said I had to go full gas.”
Poland’s Katarzyna Niewiadoma took the bronze medal behind Vos, who could reflect on a day when her Dutch teammates had attacked tirelessly in the final hour, placing seven riders in the final selection, and with the 2019 champion, Annemiek van Vleuten, in particular stretching the survivors with one searing acceleration after another.
On a day of contrasting fortunes for Great Britain, Lizzie Deignan struggled with the attritional nature of the course. She finished 14th after being unable to figure in the finish sprint having fought her way back to the front after being on the wrong side of a split on the penultimate lap.
“I felt completely out of speed,” said the 2015 world champion. “It was a war of attrition, just stressful the whole day.”
Deignan hailed one of the strongest Great Britain performances she has seen in many years, with Pfeiffer Georgi and Anna Henderson at her side until almost the close, with Henderson working herself into the ground to neutralise most of the attacks from Vos’s teammates.
At 20 and 22 respectively, Georgi and Henderson offered a glimpse of the future, and there was another when the Welsh rider Zoe Bäckstedt gave Britain their first gold medal of this year’s championships with a dominant victory in the women’s junior title race, outsprinting the American Kaia Schmid after five laps of the 15-kilometre circuit in Leuven.
Bäckstedt had already taken the silver medal in the time trial and went one better after attacking with Schmid on the third time up the narrow, partly cobbled Sint-Antoniusberg climb.
They rapidly built a one-minute advantage – helped by a crash in the remnants of the chasing pack – after which the destiny of the gold and silver medals was clear and it remained only for Bäckstedt to outsprint her breakaway partner.
The 17-year-old from Pontypridd comes from one of Britain’s most remarkable cycling families. Her elder sister Elynor landed two bronze medals in the junior races in 2018 and 2019 and now rides with Deignan’s Trek-Segafredo professional team, while their mother, Megan (née Hughes), is a former British road race champion and her father, Magnus, won the Paris-Roubaix one-day Classic in 2004.
“I think I had a slow puncture for the whole race,” said Bäckstedt. “I could feel at one point that it was a little bit flat, but from cyclo-cross I know I can ride a tyre that’s got a bit less air in – I just have to be a bit more careful on the corners.
“I knew if I could get into the last corner first, I could take it at my speed and she wouldn’t be able to get away from me, so I took it first and took it up to a sprint and it worked out perfectly.”