Riders to Watch Out For at the UCI World Championships by Matt Stephens

By Matt Stephens

This year, the coastal town of Wollongong, Australia, will host the UCI Road World Championships, with 23 titles awarded through junior, U23 and elite categories across Road and Time Trial disciplines. Winning those iconic rainbow bands defines a rider’s career. There is nothing quite like it, it’s the absolute pinnacle of one-day racing.

First up, let’s take a look at the routes for elite women’s and men’s road races. Held on September 24 and 25, respectively, they feature two distinct parts: the Mount Keira loop and the Wollongong city circuit. Both races will do one large Mount Keira loop, featuring spectacular coastal cliffs south of Sydney, before the women do six laps of Wollongong and the men 12. This final circuit is 17.7 km long and has 220 m of elevation per lap, most of this due to the Mount Pleasant climb, which is 1.1 km long and averages 7.7% with maximum gradients of 14%.

It’s also a fairly technical circuit too, which will quite clearly suit the puncheurs of the respective pelotons, a course with a ‘Down Under Classics’ feel. The men will face a whopping 3,944 m of elevation over 266.9 km and the women 2,433 m over 164.3 km. It’s going to be one of the most challenging Worlds courses of recent years.

That’s for the course – so who in the women’s Elite field should we be watching? The host nation put together a very strong squad led by Sarah Roy and Amanda Spratt who was second at the hilly Worlds in Innsbruck in 2018. Defending Champion Elisa Balsamo will not ride but Elisa Longo Borghini will love these parcours and has been in scintillating form of late. If Denmark’s shining star Cecille Uttrup Ludwig takes the title, I think the whole world will celebrate, such is her popularity. This year, she has taken a huge leap forwards, winning the Danish Road title, a stage at the Tour de France Femmes and the overall at the Tour of Scandinavia. She has also developed a ferocious sprint to add to her armoury.

Elisa Longo Borghini
Elisa Longo Borghini is in great form. © Profimedia

Poland’s Kasia Niewiadoma will always be a threat as she was medalled in Leuven last year, and one should also watch out for her Canyon SRAM Swiss teammate Elise Chabbey. French hopes will lay with Juliette Labous who finished just off the podium at the TDF Femmes whilst Mavi Garcia of Spain will also be suited to the arduous nature of the Wollongong laps. However, Annemiek van Vleuten of the Netherlands will be the clear favourite to take her third World Road title. This year, she has appeared to be on a different level as soon as the road rises, taking the Giro d’Italia Donne, Tour de France Femmes and the Ceratizit Challenge by La Vuelta in a frighteningly dominant style.

Onto the Elite men in no particular order. My first pick is Magnus Cort Nielsen of Denmark. In 2022, he’s looking as dangerous as ever and his capabilities will suit a course like this. However, it’s not just his strength and sharpness that are key, he’s also one of the shrewdest, most intelligent riders in the world. He’s also very patient, a virtue at the Worlds. Two-time Tour de France winner Tadej Pogacar flies the flag for Slovenia and will no doubt be a potent force although his team is a small one. Still only 23 and, along with his Tour titles, he’s already won Strade Bianche, Liège–Bastogne–Liège and Il Lombardia, so he knows how to win a single-day race. Vuelta winner Remco Evenepoel and Wout Van Aert share leadership of the mighty Belgian squad but the big question here is how they’ll combine as a cohesive unit. It’ll be fascinating to see it unfold.

Fred Wright and Ethan Hayter lead a young Great Britain squad who have a realistic chance for the podium, Wright in particular is in excellent shape as displayed at the Vuelta with seven top ten finishes. Alberto Bettiol of Italy will also be suited to the terrain offered up in Wollongong but has been a little quiet of late. Switzerland’s Stefan Küng, silver at the Harrogate Worlds in 2019, could pose a threat and is climbing better than ever. Home team Australia have a cracking squad built around Michael Matthews who was a silver medalist in the Worlds RR in Richmond 2015. The Canberra-born puncheur is clearly back to his best after a career-defining solo win at the Tour de France into Mende this year. With this shape still in place, with strong performances in Quebec and Montreal, this could be his year.

Although he’s had a steady season by his own standards, you can never rule out three-time World Champion Peter Sagan of Slovakia, a rider who can pull performances out of nowhere like a magician rabbits. What can the defending champion Julian Alaphilippe do? ‘Lou-Lou’ has had a horrid year, plagued by misfortune and injury, and the current form suggests that it’ll be difficult for him to compete at the level he wants, so we may see him playing a team role for the likes of Christophe Laporte or Benoit Cosnefroy, the recent GP Cyclist Quebec winner. Looking at the USA squad, my pick would be Neilson Powless who’s proven he can win big in one-day races and was 5th in the Worlds in Leuven last year.

In a World-Championship first, both the men’s and women’s Elite Time Trial will take place on the same day, on the same course over the same 34.2-km distance, taking in two laps of 16.8 km featuring ascents on the mount Ousley climb. It’s an undulating course with plenty of corners, taking in 312 m of elevation. It’s a course where keeping a constant rhythm will be a challenge, so it will suit riders with a strong technical ability who’ll enjoy the regular corners and shifts in gradient.

The men’s race will be an intriguing battle: we have Filippo Ganna of Italy, the champion in 2020 and 2021, Belgium’s Remo Evenepoel, the European TT Champion in 2019 and World silver medalist the same year, whilst the Swiss team could possibly get two riders on the podium with current European Champion Stefan Bissegger and Worlds TT bronze 2020 medallist Stefan Kung. Other riders who could feature highly are Bauke Mollema of the Netherlands, who seems to be getting better at Time Trials as he gets older, Magnus Sheffield of the USA, and British Champion Ethan Hayter.

In the women’s race, the Netherlands bring 2021 Champion Ellen Van Dijk and Annemiek Van Vleuten, the Champion in 2017 and 2018, Kristen Faulkner of the USA could impress, having taken two TT wins this year. France is represented by young sensation Juliette Labous, whilst Marlen Reusser, the Olympic TT silver medalist and current European TT Champion, will be in the red and white of Switzerland. Also, watch out for Emma Norsgaard of Norway and Vittoria Guazzini of Italy.

Bring it on!