Great Britain will field some of their strongest teams ever for the Road World Championships this coming week in Flanders. The squads are bursting with youthful talents such as the Olympic gold medallist Tom Pidcock and Pfeiffer Georgi, but such is the strength and the depth of the opposition in the elite events at least that their chances are all but impossible to predict.
The best medal hope lies with the 2015 women’s elite champion, Lizzie Deignan, as it has done for a decade now, apart from her break to give birth to her daughter, Orla. Deignan has yet to hit the heights she achieved in 2020; her only win to date is the Tour of Switzerland, but she now faces a busy end of the season, with the first women’s Paris-Roubaix and the UK Women’s Tour following immediately after Flanders.
However the race pans out next Saturday, she is perfectly suited to the little hills on the punchy course through Flanders and Brabant where she lived when she first began racing in Europe in 2009, and she has a full-strength team behind her, unlike in Tokyo, where the Olympic race ran away from her in the finale.
Over the years, Deignan has had to contend with the dominant Dutch squad on her own – the orange train ran away with the win last year thanks to Anna van der Breggen – but with established WorldTour riders Anna Shackley, Anna Henderson and Alice Barnes around her, she may finally get some support when it matters.
Georgi, meanwhile, is at the other end of age and experience spectrum, but the 20-year-old has enjoyed a seamless run of form in recent weeks, culminating in her first professional win, at the Grand Prix de Fourmies.
At the Tour of Britain, won by the Belgian Wout van Aert, it was clear that the big star of the home nation has hit form at the right time for both Sunday’s elite men’s time trial and next Sunday’s climax, the elite men’s road race. Van Aert took half the stages in the eight-day UK Tour, pushing his tally for the season so far to 13, including two Belgian Classics.
However, he was also the favourite for last year’s world road title in Italy and for the Olympic road race in Tokyo last month, and was too heavily marked to win either. He will face intense pressure in the most cycling-mad region of Europe, which could create space for his teammate Remco Evenepoel, arguably the most exciting young talent in professional cycling.
Given the large number of riders who appear to be hitting form at the right time – including Julian Alaphilippe, the defending champion, and the Danes Magnus Cort Nielsen and Michael Valgren – the British men will be hoping to fly under the radar, as the Tour of Britain runner-up, Ethan Hayter, or the in-form Conor Swift should at least figure in the final phase. In 2019 in Harrogate, the favourites fell by the wayside, letting through an outsider in the Dane Mads Pedersen, and a similar outcome cannot be ruled out this year.
The absence of Geraint Thomas from the GB men’s team speaks volumes about the 2018 Tour de France winner’s uncertain form, and the role of elder statesman will be played by Luke Rowe, Ben Swift and Mark Cavendish, who on Friday agreed terms for 2022 with his current team, Deceuninck Quickstep.
The young prospects Pidcock, Hayter, Fred Wright and Jake Stewart all have the credentials to make it through to the decisive final phase, whether they can produce the sheer grunt to compete when Van Aert, Alaphilippe and company make their moves remains to be seen, but like Georgi in the women’s race, the sense is that this is just the beginning of their journey.
Elsewhere, in the time trials it is hard to see beyond last year’s gold medallist Filippo Ganna – although Van Aert should push him hard – and the double women’s world champion, Annemiek van Vleuten.
The men’s under-23 race is usually a lottery but the British leader Ben Askey showed well recently at the under-25 Tour de l’Avenir, while in the junior races Zoe Backstedt, Finlay Pickering and Josh Tarling can realistically hope to be among the medals.