The sport of cycling is no stranger to picturesque scenery. Road cycling is renowned for its stunning broadcasts, particularly during grand tour season – panning shots of French châteaux, Italian mountain passes and Spanish landscapes. It is not for nothing that tourism agencies are a major sponsor of cycling events globally.
Even by these standards, the UCI Road World Championships – which begin on Sunday in Wollongong – will be pleasing to the eye. The road race course will see the world’s best riders battle it out along a beautiful coastal road, from Helensburgh to Wollongong, including the iconic Sea Cliff Bridge at Stanwell Park, which protrudes into the ocean. The peloton will then head into the highlands to conqueror Mount Keira, before doing laps of a city circuit – 12 for the elite men, six for the women – before the world champions are crowned.
The course, particularly the opening 60 kilometres, will make for stunning television. The mix of terrain – a frenetic opening section, a tough climb and then a punishing circuit – will ensure thrilling racing. But the winding coastal road, from the far southern edge of Sydney down to Wollongong, also serves as an apt metaphor for the world championships’ return to Australian shores, 12 years since they were last held here. Just getting to the start-line has been a monumental effort, for riders, national teams and the event organisers.
Three factors have caused major headaches. First, distance. Australia is a long way from cycling’s European heartland. The past five road world championships have been held in Europe; in the time since the event was last in Australia, just two editions have taken place outside the heartland – one in Doha and one in the United States. Neither are as far away as Wollongong.
Bringing a peloton, and equipment, all this way has been a logistical nightmare, while some riders – including 2019 men’s road race world champion, Mads Pedersen, and his Danish counterpart, recent Tour de France winner Jonas Vingegaard – have opted not to contest the race. Even at a very practical level, national teams typically borrow trade team buses and staff for international racing – which cannot be done on the other side of the world.
Second, and relatedly, teams have put Wollongong 2022 in the too-hard basket. Cycling Ireland pulled out entirely, citing cost and priorities. Cycling New Zealand told riders, most of whom are based in Europe, that they would have to self-fund the travel. Several big-name riders have opted out as a result, leaving a threadbare squad.
Last, under the UCI’s new relegation system for World Tour teams, leading riders have been blocked by their trade teams from travelling to Australia, as they scrap for points in end of season races to avoid the cut. Most prominent among this contingent is 2018 world champion Alejandro Valverde, who was told by Movistar that club had to take priority over country. Throw in Covid-19 disruptions and other hiccups, and the latest edition of the road world championships has not been smooth sailing.
But these travails will quickly be forgotten once the racing begins. The schedule begins on Sunday with the elite women’s and men’s time trials. For the host nation, Grace Brown will lead the charge in battle against the clock; she enters in good form, having recently won time trial gold at the Commonwealth Games, and last year finished fourth in the same discipline at the Olympics. A medal would not be unexpected. But the Dutch will be favourites, represented by defending champion Ellen van Dijk and former two-time champion Annemiek van Vleuten.
For the Australian men, only Luke Plapp will ride on Sunday, with two-time former world champion Rohan Dennis unavailable for family reasons. The 21-year-old Plapp claimed silver in the Under-23 time trial at last year’s world championships in Belgium, and is an outside prospect to make the podium. Italy’s Filippo Ganna will be the strong favourite for the rainbow jersey, having won gold at the Tokyo Olympics and then defended his stripes at last year’s world championships. Tadej Pogačar will also be in the mix.
The next generation will then have a chance to shine, with junior and Under-23 time trials and road races during the week. Australia will also enter a strong team in the mixed time trial relay, where three male riders and three female riders from each nation competing in a two-legged team time trial race. The novel format, which made its debut in 2019, will be raced on Wednesday. Australia has not entered either of the previous editions of the race, but given the depth across its team, may well be a medal contender in Wollongong.
The marquee road races are scheduled for next weekend: the women on Saturday and the men on Sunday. Brown will again be Australia’s leading light across the 164km course, with its 2,433m of elevation. The 30-year-old, a two-time national champion, is the puncheur-style rider suited to the Wollongong course, which is tough enough that a bunch sprint seems unlikely, but not so hard that only elite climbers will be left standing.
Australia’s two-time road race medallist Amanda Spratt has had a challenging season, recovering from a rare disease and subsequent surgery, but has the experience to cause an upset if the cards fall her way. Alexandra Manly, a former track star, is another to watch for the Australians. Once again it will be the Dutch – the dominant force in women’s cycling – that are likely to boss the peloton, but they will also face challenges from the Italians, the French, the Americans and the Danes.
Last time the road worlds were in Australia – in Victoria more than a decade ago – young Canberran Michael Matthews emerged triumphant in the Under-23 road race. Now 31 and practically an elder statesman of the sport in Australia, Matthews is hoping to add the elite rainbow jersey to his impressive world championships haul, which also includes a silver medal from 2015 and a bronze medal in 2017. The puncheur arrives in good form, with a Tour de France stage and a second-placing at the Quebec GP under his belt.
Matthews will face tough international competition during the 266km epic, in the form of Pogačar, Belgian duo Wout van Aert and Remco Evenepoel and Dutchman Mathieu van der Poel. But with Australian sprint king Caleb Ewan controversially omitted from the team in light of a recent form slump, the Australians are all in on Matthews. Surrounded by a strong team, combining experience (Simon Clarke, Luke Durbridge and Heinrich Haussler), climbing ability (Jai Hindley, Ben O’Connor and Nick Schultz) and youthful energy (Plapp), the 2022 edition of the race represents Matthews’ best shot in years at an elusive rainbow jersey.
A big week of racing beckons for Australian cycling, with several prominent medal prospects. And the prime international advert for the picturesque scenery of the NSW south coast won’t hurt either. This is cycling at its best.