LEUVEN, Belgium (VN) — It has been 41 years since an American woman won a road race rainbow jersey.
When the 20-year-old Beth Heiden beat Tullikke Jahre of Sweden and Mandy Jones of Great Britain to become world champion in Sallanches in 1980, none of this year’s USA world championships road race team had been born.
Since that day, several American women have come close to achieving what Heiden did on that August afternoon — from Rebecca Twigg to Inga Thompson — but none could take the win. In recent years, the medal haul has dried up for Team USA women with Megan Guarnier’s 2015 bronze the only one in the last 26 years.
Could that change this year in Flanders? Is 2021 the best chance of a rainbow jersey for the stars and stripes squad in some time?
“I would say so,” Coryn Rivera told VeloNews. “I think we have a pretty strong classics style team. I typically do well in the classics, Ruth [Winder] does well in the classics, and Leah [Thomas] has also done well this year. As for Kristen, she’s had a lot of top 10s this year and I think we’re coming in with a pretty strong team for this kind of course.”
Rivera is part of a six-rider team for the USA that has a real shot at the rainbow bands in Flanders this week. She is joined by Ruth Winder and Leah Thomas, both of whom formed part of the USA’s mixed team relay line-up that finished eighth Wednesday, and Kristen Faulkner, Lauren Stephens, and Tayler Wiles.
“I think we have a really strong team. If you look on paper, we’ve had results in our own right this year and that makes it really exciting,” Thomas told VeloNews. “We have a bunch of different cards to play and the key will be figuring out how to use those cards most effectively to come up with a race result. There are a lot of strong countries here and it’s about maximizing our potential and I think racing aggressively will serve us well.”
Of the six members of the team, three — Winder, Thomas, and Faulkner — have taken big victories in the last two months, while Wiles and Rivera have come close, and Stephens is the reigning US national road race champion.
Meanwhile, Rivera is a former Tour of Flanders champion and will be a serious threat if she’s taken to the line. Winder is also the winner of this year’s Brabantse Pijl — which includes some of the climbs featured in the road race — and comes into the event with the added impetus of it being the final race of her career.
There is every chance that this team could walk away with a medal, and maybe even do what no American woman has done since Heiden.
Sacrificing for each other
Precisely how Saturday’s road will play out is hard to predict with anything from a reduced bunch finish to a solo breakaway potentially making it to the line.
The U23 men’s event, which is often a barometer of how things may go over the final weekend, blew up with about six kilometers to go on the penultimate climb and ended with a solo rider taking the win while a small bunch sprint decided the rest of the medals. A similar scenario played out in the junior men’s race, too.
Both races were very aggressive, a far cry from the deeply negative racing that was seen during the women’s road race at the Olympic Games in Tokyo — the last time many rode in national colors.
“I think it depends on how the race goes. It can be a course where it’s not hard enough and nothing gets away or someone does get out of sight very quickly or a small break. I think it is a race that will be played out by the riders,” Rivera said.
“I would imagine it won’t be like the Olympics because you’ll have larger teams of six, and with the Dutch sometimes eight or nine. So, there are more hands on deck and a little bit more cooperation from teams. Hopefully, it’ll be a better race.”
If the USA wants to take home a medal of any color, it will have to get past a string of strong nations looking to do the same. The Dutch dominate much of the pre-race talk but there is Italy, Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, Great Britain, Poland, and several more with riders capable of riding away with the rainbow jersey.
Without a clear and overwhelming favorite for the win, the team is looking to use its numbers to disrupt the race.
“I love an attacking style and I’m happiest when I’m in a break. We’ll see if that plays out in this world championships, but we’ll go in with the mentality of we want to impact the race,” Thomas said.
“We have to be representative and be present and I think we have to go all-in and be aggressive and go for it. We obviously have to be smart but there are people on our team who have been doing this for a very long time and they have the expertise to guide us who are newer to the European peloton. We definitely have a group where we’re willing to work together and sacrifice for one another and that really matters.”