The first leg of the UCI Road World Championships is complete, with seven titles awarded as the time trials were run and won – some by the favorites and others by the unexpected.
The biggest source of upsets came from the Norwegians, who swept up both the men’s elite and U23 titles but that is not where the surprises ended, as when the unexpected won through, the expected missed out.
Big names Filippo Ganna (Italy) and Annemiek van Vleuten (Netherlands) slipped far further down the results chart than most had thought possible.
There was also a new generation of riders coming through who staked their claim as riders to watch in the world of time-trialling, none more so than Britain’s Zoe Bäckstedt who set a scorching pace out of the gate at the women’s junior time trial, fast enough in fact to top the initial pace of women’s elite winner Ellen van Dijk (Netherlands).
The fastest new faces, however weren’t the only ones who left their mark, with the man who came last in the men’s elite time trial, Drabir Alam (Bangladesh) also unequivocally achieving his goal.
We take a closer look at some of the key takeaways from the time trials at the Wollongong World Championships.
Even Ganna and Van Vleuten have bad days
The course at Wollongong with its corner heavy stop start rhythm, may not have been ideal for either Annemiek van Vleuten or Filippo Ganna, but ideal or not expectations are always high for these supreme time triallists, especially given both already have two world titles in the disciplines to their name.
A third running title was at stake for Ganna, and a return to time trial rainbows she had won in 2017 and 2018 for Van Vleuten.
The Dutch rider, the world number one, has hardly had a misstep this year, focusing on big targets and delivering time after time. Her list of victories includes the biggest races on the calendar, the Giro d’Italia Donne, the Tour de France Femmes and Ceratizit Challenge by La Vuelta.
Although, the time trial was one goal that just didn’t work out, with seventh on the Marine Drive line and then the long run down the line of press in the mixed zone to explain what went wrong, again and again.
“I knew that I had a shit day,” said Van Vleuten. “Afterward, when I look at my efforts, I could see that I did not have a good day.”
Then in the afternoon it was the usually unbeatable Ganna, who was fifth at the first checkpoint and it didn’t get any better from there. He too came seventh and he too had a similar response to Van Vleuten when he spoke to the media after the mixed relay team time trial.
“I think it was just one shit day for me and it doesn’t matter. We close the book and we see for the future, for the next goal.”
Ganna, at least, walked away from the team time trial with a silver medal, but for Van Vleuten things got worse, rather than better as she crashed right at the start and fractured her elbow.
Norway is no longer ‘bad at time trials’
Thor Hushovd may have taken victory for Norway in the road race the last time the Road World Championships was in Australia in 2010, but it’s not a nation used to being on the time trial podium, let alone on the first spot. That all changed this year.
“If you go back two, three years ago they were always saying that the Norwegian was bad at the TT. So now we are good but I really don’t know the answer [why],” said new Norwegian U23 world champion Søren Wærenskjold, though then added that he thought it was in the preparations.
Good, is perhaps an understatement. First it was Tobias Foss who upset the apple cart, with the long list of favorites trying and failing to beat the mark set by the Norwegian.
He had never before won at the elite level outside his home nation but secured his first one on the biggest stage possible, playing to the on-off nature of the undulating and corner heavy course to perfection.
That victory alone was stunning enough, but when the next day it was followed with a win in the U23 men as well, with Wærenskjold taking victory in the U23, jumping up that all important position after securing silver last year and speaking. Those tips he got from Foss before his ride must have been good ones!
Australia’s rainbow prospects run deeper than Dennis
Rohan Dennis is by far the most successful Australian currently racing when it comes to time trials, having won the world title in 2018 and 2019 as well as Olympic bronze in Tokyo, so there was of course some level of disappointment when the announcement of the Australian team didn’t include his name. The results, however, have proven as a reminder that the nation’s time trial prospects run far deeper with a pipeline of riders pushing to become the next Australian to wear the time trial rainbow jersey.
Of course Grace Brown was always going to enter the women’s elite competition high up on the favorites list, having taken out fourth at the Olympic Games last year and being particularly motivated and prepared for this home Worlds. She did not disappoint, taking silver after being beaten by defending world champion Ellen van Dijk (Netherlands) after a nail-biting wait on the hot seat.
However, it wasn’t just Brown who posted a strong showing for Australia, with Georgia Baker making her elite Worlds debut and slotting straight into the top ten, sitting in eighth position just three seconds behind Van Vleuten.
Then there was the youngest participant in the elite men’s time trial, Luke Plapp. He stepped up the category after winning silver at U23 level last year and slotted straight in with a solid showing of 12th – a performance made even more impressive by the fact that it was on a course that didn’t play to his strengths and came just a week after completing his first ever Grand Tour at the Vuelta a España.
Hamish McKenzie then perhaps provided one of the biggest revelations, surprising even himself with a second place finish in the men’s junior individual time trial. The only rider who could go faster, was last year’s silver medalist Joshua Tarling (Great Britain) who already has a contract in place with Ineos Grenadiers for the next three years.
That, however was not the end of the Australian medals, with the nation participating in the team time trial mixed relay event and securing bronze behind the formidable Swiss and Italian teams with the squad of Sarah Roy, Alex Manly, Georgia Manly – who was also celebrating her birthday – Michael Matthews, Luke Plapp and Luke Durbridge.
“It’s our first time we’ve done this event and I think it has quite a big future,” said Durbridge. Exactly the same thing could, perhaps be said of the nation’s time trial prospects in general.
The Backstedt brilliance
There was but one woman who rode the first 7.1km stretch of the Worlds Wollongong individual time trial course faster than Ellen van Dijk and that woman was 17-year-old Zoe Bäckstedt. The rider from Great Britain had aimed to deliver a time of under 20 minutes but in the end it was a time of 18:26.78, and she took the junior World Championship title with a huge margin of more than a minute-and-a- half.
It was an incredible effort over the 14.1km time trial course, a single modified loop of the two lap 34.2km elite route, that not only could her category rivals compete with but that left her with an average speed that exceeded all but the top two riders in the elite women’s time trial.
“I would have loved it if the elites had done the same lap as we had, and they had just done two laps or something like that, so I could kind of compare times,” said Bäckstedt. “But yeah, I mean, it gives me some good markers for how I’m going and hopefully next year I’ll get some good time trials in on the road.”
Markers that will certainly make her a rider to watch not just in the years ahead as she moves up the time trial ranks but also as she turns professional with EF Education-Tibco-SVB next season.
Results aren’t always numbers on the page
While there were many disappointed faces rolling by after the time trials, the face of the last men in the elite men’s individual time trial was not one of them.
“I’m slow, but hey I gave everything, I’m happy,” said Bangladesh racer Drabir Alam. “I’m just happy that I’m here.”
The result Alam was looking for, after all wasn’t one that you could find on a piece of paper and while he had enjoyed the cheers of the crowd and the experience on the road, that wasn’t why he was there.
“In the global scheme of cycling you have never heard of the word Bangladesh,” said Alam, having earlier mentioned that he was the first from his country to compete in the elite men’s individual time trial at the World Championships.
This was his chance to be able to change that and draw attention to the sport in Bangladesh.
“There are quite a lot of exciting youth there that are actually picking up cycling and there is a wave of cycling coming in. When we saw that the World Championships allows nations to come in and just represent their country so the world can see, we felt like this has to be somewhere where we can really put our name out there.
“Now there are more people seeing us. We will have some help, we will be able to train them better and maybe just maybe we can do something about it.”