Ellen van Dijk pips Grace Brown to win Road World Championships opener

The sun was shining, the waves were rolling in and a Dutch woman was winning the opening race of 2022 UCI Road World Championships. It was seemingly the natural way of things – a predictable result in a flawless setting on the beachside streets of Wollongong, as Ellen van Dijk defended her women’s individual time trial crown and the Dutch national team won the sixth edition of the race over the past decade.

But if the 35-year-old’s victory on Sunday seemed predestined – her third world title since first winning the discipline in 2013, alongside four European time trial titles – it almost wasn’t to be. Australia’s Grace Brown sat in the hot-seat all day, after starting in the opening wave of riders and setting a blistering pace over a technical, undulating 34.2-kilometre course.

Brown’s finishing time, just under 45 minutes, was unmatched until the very end, when the last rider out, van Dijk, finally crossed the line. But it was a close-run thing: Van Dijk was forced to go out fast to match Brown’s earlier pace, and despite leading at the first and second intermediate time check, van Dijk faded in the last kilometres.

In the end only 12 seconds separated the Dutchwoman from her challenger. It was enough, albeit only just, for Van Dijk to defend the winner’s rainbow jersey and relegate Brown to the silver medal position. Swiss rider Marlen Reusser was third, adding bronze to her silver medal from last year’s Olympics.

“I’m a bit surprised to win,” van Dijk told reporters after the race. “For me I never thought it would be the perfect course.”

She is now the second most successful woman of all-time in the discipline, with three world titles, one silver and two bronze medals, behind only French legend Jeannie Longo. “I kind of said goodbye to my jersey yesterday – I put it at the bottom of my bag, and thought: it was a great year, I really enjoyed it,” Van Dijk said. “I felt happy, and I felt that anything to come today would be a bonus. That was a great bonus.”

For Brown, her silver medal is Australia’s best performance in the race since 1999, when Anna Millward finished second at the world championships in Italy. “My goal was to be on the podium and my dream was to win the race,” said Brown. “I achieved my goal and I can still aim towards that dream. It would have been amazing to win it on home soil, but it was still a really special day. I’m satisfied.” Compatriot Georgia Baker placed eighth on Sunday, a strong showing from the Tasmanian rider in her first full season on the road after a glittering track cycling career.

Brown’s enduring fine form, having won time trial gold at the Commonwealth Games last month and a stage at the recent Ceratizit Challenge by La Vuelta, puts her among the favourites in the elite women’s road race next weekend. “I’m going to celebrate this first and then slowly work towards the road race,” she said.

It was a historic edition of the race, which has been contested since 1994, as the first to be raced across the same distance, on the same course, on the same day, as the men’s individual time trial. “It’s a no-brainer – hopefully it continues like that,” said Brown. “It’s nice to be on the same playing field.”

The slow march towards gender equality in cycling was also evident as 21-year-old Italian Vittoria Guazzini finished fourth overall to secure the first-ever women’s Under-23 time trial title, after governing body the UCI agreed to add a separate women’s Under-23 category to match the men’s events. The Under-23 men have their own race – to be contested on Monday; the UCI have promised the Under-23 women will also race separately in the years ahead. “For now we have to be satisfied with this – and hopefully with two different races [from 2025], it will be even better,” Guazzini said.

The Dutch national team’s unshakeable dominance in women’s cycling may have continued in Australia on Sunday – the European nation’s sixth time trial title matches their six road race rainbow jerseys over the past 10 years. But it did show signs of cracking – Van Dijk only narrowly held off Brown, while reigning Olympic gold medallist Annemiek van Vleuten was well off the pace in seventh. “By far not my best day on the bike unfortunately,” the Dutch legend tweeted afterwards.

But having defended the rainbow stripes in the time trial, Van Dijk was defiant with the road race to come. “The only goal is winning,” she said. “For sure the Dutch team will be ready.” The world championships continue on Monday and run until next weekend, when the elite men’s and women’s road race champions will be crowned.