The elite women race for the rainbow jersey on Saturday over the the same hilly 13.8 kilometer circuit as the men. The course includes two climbs, the l’Acqua Fresca and the Torrazza de Novazzano. The climbing begins just after the start and climbs at 9%-10% for 1.2 kilometers and hits a maximum gradient of 12%. Approximately 500 meters of false-flat follows this first climb, before the road turns downhill into a twisty, technical descent. Four kilometers separate the summit of the l’Acqua Fresca from the beginning of the final climb of the day. The Torrazza de Novazzano climbs for 1.7 kilometers and summits with 2.5 kilometers to race. After a short descent, it’s a climbing false-flat to the finish. A climber with a fast finish and stellar descending skills will win this World Championship.
After pre-riding the course, experienced American pro Amber Neben reported via Twitter, “It will be very hard. No doubt.” Former World Champion Marianne Vos pre-rode the course earlier this season and believes it will be selective. “The circuit is only 13.8 kilometers, and the climbs bump up in rapid succession, leaving little time for recovery,” Vos explained to Ciclismo femminile. “I think it is a course suited to me, but I will in truth need to be in top form. In the Netherlands, we have a saying: the riders make the course. I think this will be the hardest circuit in recent years, but we must see how the race unfolds,” Vos concluded. Emma Pooley, who won the GP Plouay, believes the course suits her as it is a “very difficult course.”
On to the start-list. The top women are closely matched, and there is no single rider who stands out as the favorite here. As Marianne Vos aptly pointed out, much depends on how hard they race this hilly course and how well the teams work together. The women’s race last year in Varese came down to a small group finish. Nicole Cooke won the six-up sprint after Marianne Vos tried to go early and ran short of legs before the line. Cooke took the rainbow, followed by Vos and Judith Arndt. If the past few editions of the women’s road race are any indictions, this race should be an animated affair.
Emma Pooley has won two hilly world cup races this season. Both times, the pint-sized British climber won from a distance by attacking solo from a long way out. In Montreal, she spent much of the race alone in the wind and at the GP Plouay, Pooley rode the final 40 kilometers of the difficult Plouay course alone. Marianne Vos won the sprint behind her. No doubt Pooley would like to see a repeat of this outcome in Mendrisio. With Nicole Cooke and her deadly sprint as a team-mate, Pooley should be free to attack early and often. Certainly, that was her tactic at both Beijing and Varese last year, though the field proved quick to bring her back. Both the German and Dutch women have strong teams for this Worlds and Pooley may find it difficult to escape in the same way she has at the World Cup races. If Pooley does not snap the elastic, the British team can rely on Nicole Cooke in the sprint. The World and Olympic champion has ridden a quiet season this year, lurking in the top ten on a number of occasions but failing to pull down any big wins. Maybe Cooke has been waiting for Mendrisio, but Pooley looks the better of the two for this year’s course.
Second in the road race at Beijing last year, Emma Johansson spent this season locked in a tight battle with Marianne Vos for the World Cup overall. The talented Swede won the Ronde van Drenthe and consistently finished well throughout the World Cup, which she lost narrowly to Vos. This course will suit Johansson with its constant climbing, though she will need a hard race that eliminates the sprinters. Last year, Johansson made the final split, but could not match the speed of Vos and Cooke. Perhaps she might look into going along with Pooley, if the British climber goes up the road early. Johansson is due for a big win and will certainly be among the riders at the front when the race heats up in Mendrisio.
Marianne Vos won the World Championship on the road at Salzburg after out-sprinting a sizeable group. Last year, she finished second to Cooke on the hilly course at Varese. The 22 year old Vos is a two-time World Champion in cyclocross and has a World Championship title in the points race on the track. The multi-talented Dutchwoman won two rounds of the World Cup this year and took the jersey of overall winner. She has a formidable turn of speed at the finish, but is no slouch in the hills. After pre-riding the Mendrisio course, Vos said she would need good form, but did not count herself out of the race for the Rainbow Jersey. If Vos makes it to the finish in a small group, she is a difficult to beat. The climbers have their work cut out for them, and will need to make the race too difficult for Vos and her strong Dutch team to survive.
Past World Cup winner Judith Arndt has missed much of this season to injury. She rode to a fourth place finish in the time trial earlier this week, suggesting that she may be returning to form in time for the season finale. The experienced Arndt finished third last year after the German team rode a tactically astute race. Unfortunately, neither Arndt nor her team-mate Trixi Worrack had the speed to match Nicole Cooke and Marianne Vos at the finish. Arndt has made most of her biggest results in the stage races and will need a hard race on this Mendrisio course to win. Much the same could be said for Worrack, who climbs well but does not have much speed at the line. The German team also brings 23 year old Claudia Häusler who won both the Giro Donne and the Tour de l’Aude this season. Häusler is a past German National Champion on the road, but most of her international results have come in the hilly stage races. Like Arndt, Häusler will need a selective race to reach the podium. Look for the German team to work hard in the early laps to whittle down the field. If anyone can put Marianne Vos in difficulty, it will be the German team, though they will have to watch closely to keep Emma Pooley from sneaking away.
In recent years, the elite women from the United States have become increasingly competitive on the international circuit, and they have proven especially successful in the time trial. This year’s road race team combines youth and experience. Kristin Armstrong, who has Olympic and World Championship medals to her credit in the time trial, will ride the final race of her career at this road race. Armstrong won a one-day race earlier this season from a two-up breakaway with Marianne Vos, but the American is better known for her talents against the watch. Amber Neben, a past World Champion in the time trial, will also ride, and the hilly course should suit her skills, though she did not make the finale of the Varese race last year. Up and coming climbers Mara Abbott and Evelyn Williams bear watching on this course. Abbott won the mountains jersey at the Giro Donne this year, while Williams has rapidly climbed to the elite level after only recently beginning cycling. Both of these young riders have the talent to shine on the difficult circuit in Mendrisio, but they will likely be hindered by their relative lack of experience. In with an outside shot, the Americans will find it difficult to match their successes in the crono.
The Italian women have a medal to their credit already this week after Noemi Cantele took silver behind Kristin Armstrong in the time trial. The Italian women won the World Championship road race in Stüttgart with Marta Bastianelli, but Bastianelli is currently suspended after a controversial doping case involving a diet supplement. Tatiana Guderzo gives the Azurri their best chance at a medal in the road race. Guderzo initiated the race-winning move at Beijing in the Olympic road race. When Nicole Cooke joined the move and began driving hard, Guderzo proved able to hang on and finished third behind Cooke and Johansson. The 24 year old won a stage at the recent Giro della Toscana International Femminile, and should be on good form for this weekend’s party. Noemi Cantele also is in with a chance in Mendrisio. Last year, Cantele put in a desperate chase in the finale at Varese after missing the winning move. She hovered just off the back of the lead group, before the main field brought her back short of the line and denied her a shot at a top ten finish in her home town. Cantele is a past winner of the GP Plouay and earlier this season finished second in the women’s Omloop het Nieuwsblad. Either Italian could place in the top five if she finds the right move, but the win is likely a stretch.
Local girls Nicole Brändli and Karin Thürig will both enjoy the hilly course in Mendrisio. Thürig is better known for her time trialing skills, where she is the current Swiss National Champion and a former World Champion several times over. Brändli finished third at the Giro Donne this year and is a past winner of the Italian stage race. Both Swiss riders will ride hard for the home fans, but aren’t likely to figure in the finale.
Look for a hotly contested, animated race from the women. The elite women have considerably more fitness than the UCI-mandated race lengths require, and they will attack this Mendrisio race hard. Several teams will want to lose the sprinters like Nicole Cooke and Marianne Vos and it should be hard racing from the start. The hard course sets up some intriguing tactical match-ups and it should be a close race to the finish in Mendrisio. — Gavia« 2009 UCI Road Worlds Dashboard