Twenty-fourth may not be the result Australia wanted in yesterday’s Elite Women’s Road Race World Championship, but directeur-sportif Gene Bates says the riders could be “satisfied with the effort” after an extremely tough race in Flanders.
Rachel Neylan was the team’s highest-placed finisher, playing an active role in an attritional finale.
Gaps over the steep climbs saw the Australians fighting hard to be represented in the most dangerous moves. Despite being outnumbered by the bigger teams, Tiffany Cromwell and Sarah Roy were able to maintain presence for Australia at the front before slipping back in the final circuit around Leuven.
“As soon as we entered Leuven, the attacks started,” Neylan said. “I spoke to Tiffany [Cromwell], our captain. She said we needed to be really selective and gamble a little bit on what we follow and what we don’t, because we were outnumbered.
“I just did my best to follow the good wheels, but in the end I probably followed a little bit too much, too early.”
Bates said the Australian riders could be content with the effort they put in.
“The girls did what they could with what we had today. They stuck to the plan, they tried to be aggressive – particularly the girls that got to the Leuven circuit in the final,” Bates said.
“I think we can be satisfied with the effort. That’s the big one for me: everyone gave absolutely 100% of what they could. We can only ask for that," he said.
162 riders set out from the port city of Antwerp for the 157.7km race to Leuven.
After a flat run-in, the course consisted of two main circuits: one-and-a-half laps of the Leuven circuit, followed by a lap of a harder, steeper Flandrien circuit, before returning for two-and-a-half laps around Leuven.
The seven-rider Australian squad had multiple options in case of an aggressive finale, along with top sprinter Chloe Hosking if a bunch sprint eventuated.
Aside from a few short-lived moves, the peloton stayed together in the flat opening kilometres between Antwerp and Leuven. World Championship debutant Lauretta Hanson consistently patrolled the front while Jess Allen worked hard to provide team support in these early stages.
Jess Allen was on team duties for the Elite Women's Road Race World Championship (Video: UCI)
“The speed was really high. Everyone was nervous, I think, about the distance and how hard the course was going to be later. I think that kind of neutralised things a little bit,” said Neylan. “It was pretty flat so there wasn’t really any point, and it was quite fast. I think everyone was focused on the circuits.”
The first of the hilly Leuven circuits saw the race begin to string out, but it wasn’t until the steep cobbled climbs of the Flandrien circuit that dangerous gaps began opening.
On the Bekestraat with 58km remaining, most of the Australians were caught behind a crash and forced to chase as the pace intensified at the front. Rachel Neylan, Tiffany Cromwell and Sarah Roy made the front group of 50 riders, but unfortunately former medalist Amanda Spratt was stuck in a chasing group and never regained contact.
With 45km to go, as the peloton made the return trip to Leuven, the Dutch launched a series of attacks with Roy, Cromwell and Neylan taking turns to follow the more dangerous moves and sticking with the front group.
With 20km remaining, a surge on the steep Wijnpers climb saw the Australians caught out of position and once again forced to chase, this time with only Neylan able to rejoin.
Mindful of positioning, Neylan made her way to the front of the group through the twisting final circuit and put in an attack of her own on the Deouxlaan climb with 8km remaining. However, her move was shut down by the Dutch.
The final categorised climb of Wijnpers saw another fierce surge which split the peloton in half, distancing Neylan.
Italian sprinter Elisa Balsamo won the reduced bunch sprint while Neylan fought on to 24th place, 45 seconds behind.
Rachel Neylan "left it all out there on the road" in the Elite Women's Road Race World Championship.
I feel like we rode really well [on] the first Leuven course and then the Flanders course. We were communicating with each other and we were well-positioned. Everyone stuck to their roles.
Unfortunately, there was a crash on the cobbled climb and that put us on the back foot at little bit with a few of us involved behind that. It really started exploding at the end of the Flanders course when we started to exit, so then the attacks really started.
I was covering a lot. We were outnumbered as soon as we got out of the Flanders course. As soon as we entered Leuven the attacks started. I spoke to Tiffany, our captain. She said we needed to be really selective and gamble a little bit on what we follow and what we don’t, because we were outnumbered.
I just did my best to follow the good wheels, but in the end I probably followed a little bit too much, too early.
I tried an attack on the last climb up the back and I gave it everything, I went with one of the Dutchies, but when the Dutch start to one-two and you’re alone, it’s a little bit difficult to go with every attack and counter.
I left it all out there on the road today. I’m pretty disappointed with the final lap, but I gave it everything.
The girls did what they could with what we had today. They stuck to the plan, they tried to be aggressive – particularly the girls that got to the Leuven circuit in the final.
Tiffany and Rachel especially had some really good moments in great moves that looked promising, but unfortunately, we just ran out of numbers in the final there.
It was quite a negative race [at the start], that’s what it looked like from the outside, but hidden in that was quite a high tempo. We saw a lot of riders being dropped right from the get-go. That demonstrated how difficult it was. Also given the length of the race, 160km is quite long for this classics style, and I think that’s where we sort of fell down at the finish and ran out of legs.
I think we can be satisfied with the effort, that’s the big one for me, everyone gave absolutely 100% of what they could. We can only ask for that.
Probably not satisfying — the result — but that’s not always a bad thing. Sometimes it’s good to have a result you’re not satisfied with that will spur you on and create motivation for next year.
24. Rachel Neylan +45"
38. Sarah Roy + 3’31”
41. Tiffany Cromwell s.t.
92. Lauretta Hanson +9’30”
94. Amanda Spratt s.t.
112th. Jessica Allen +13’21”
DNF. Chloe Hosking
The UCI Road World Championships conclude tonight with the Men Elite Road Race. You can watch on SBS On Demand from 6:15PM AEST. For more information, visit our all-in-one-guide.
Feature photo: UCI/SWpix