It's the question that gets asked almost every year at this stage, can anyone beat the powerhouse Dutch in the world championships road race?
For the last three years, the answer to that question has been an echoing 'no'. A quick look at how those races played out reveals why the Netherlands always go into the race with the favourite status.
In the 2017 Bergen worlds, there were quite a few different attacks, a bit of a game of musical chairs off the front of the race as attacks were caught and brought back. The decisive move saw van Vleuten, van der Breggen, Australian Katrin Garfoot, Hannah Barnes (UK) and Kasia Niewiadoma (Poland) joined a previous attack of Blaak and Audrey Cordon-Ragot (France) out the front of the race.
Blaak attacked, nobody from the other teams wanted to work as they were all isolated and dragging two of the best riders in the world to the finish line. Blaak won easily. One Netherlands world title.
In 2018 on a formidable climbing course around Innsbruck, the Dutch were happy for a group including Ellen van Dijk and van der Breggen to get a bit of an advantage on the peloton. When van der Breggen attacked, only Amanda Spratt was able to go with the Dutch star, before eventually being dropped with 39 kilometres to go.
At that stage, even if Spratt had been the stronger, there would have been plenty of time to chase her back, but with van der Breggen in the lead, the Netherlands team just sandbagged the front of the peloton, stifling any moves as van der Breggen powered to the win by over three minutes over Spratt in second. Two Netherlands world titles.
Annemiek van Vleuten pulls off one of the most ridiculous attacks in world championships history jumping clear with 105 kilometres remaining. Despite the solo nature of the performance, it was still a triumph of Dutch strength, as van der Breggen simply sat on the break and finished second on the day. She did miss a powerful attack by Chloe Dygert (USA), but the time trial champion couldn't forge her way across the gap, fading into the finish.
Three Netherlands world titles. So, how to stop a repeat of the Oranje atop the podium? It's not going to be easy.
The road race for women at the World Championships in Imola is 143 kilometres long. The route includes five hilly laps of 28.8 kilometres, adding up to a total elevation gain of 2,445 metres.
The climbs on the circuit are short but hard. The 1.5 kilometres ascent of the Via Mazzolano serves up an average gradient of 8.7 per cent, with the steeper first section hits pinches of up to 13 per cent. The Cima Calisperna 1.3 kilometres climb slopes at 10.9 per cent and the steepest parts hit a whopping 14 per cent.
From the top of the Cima Calisperna it's 12 kilometres either downhill or flat into the finish line back in Imola.
While the ten ascents of the climbs in the women's race will be the key factor in determining the winner, there's plenty of flat or false-flat riding and technical descending to add an extra wrinkle.
Annemiek van Vleuten (Netherlands) is unquestionably the best rider in the world, but perhaps not at the moment, after crashing heavily during the Giro Rosa and fracturing her wrist just 9 days ahead of the road race. Normally, that would be the end of the conversation, but van Vleuten is incredibly lining up at the start to defend her title from last year.
At her peak, she's clearly the best rider in the world, showcased this season by a trio of wins in a row culminating with her Strade Bianche triumph when she bridged a seemingly impossible gap to Mavi Garcia late in the race. Surely a broken wrist will prove too much for her though, it's far from an easy course as it is technical in nature and she'll put pressure on her wrist everytime she gets out of the saddle on the steep climbs.
"I don’t think this would be possible with every broken wrist, but I was lucky in the way it broke and with the 30-minute surgery needed to correct it," said van Vleuten recently in an interview with Cyclingnews. I don’t want people to think that it’s possible to ride with a broken wrist, or that it’s cool.
"No, it’s not cool, it’s shit, but I was very lucky that I don’t have pain. I have also had good advice from doctors."
Anna van der Breggen (Netherlands) won the Giro Rosa in van Vleuten's absence for the third time and the pair have been a formidable 1-2 punch for the Dutch in recent years. She is in form, has a great history in one-day races, and should go in as favourite after her win in the time trial.
The steep climbs will suit her as she has dominated Fleche Wallonne in recent years and her 2021 retirement date probably means that she'll be fully focused on wearing rainbows in her final year as a rider.
The rest of the Dutch squad includes a total of four world road race titles between them with Marianne Vos' three wins and Blaak's single victory. However, it might be Demi Vollering that's the key support rider here after her impressive ride to third at La Course.
The Australian team's chances took a significant dip when Amanda Spratt confirmed that she wouldn't be starting the road race, with the two-time medallist from the past two editions of the race Australia's best hope again. Instead, Australia will have to pursue a broader strategy with Lucy Kennedy, Grace Brown and Brodie Chapman likely to be the main protagonists.
All have a history of racing aggressively, with Kennedy and Chapman looking in good form, if not quite great form, at the recent Giro Rosa. Kennedy was a key driver of the pace in both of the final two stage breakaways, while Chapman set up the win for her French teammate Evita Muzic on the last stage.
Backing them up are Tiffany Cromwell, Shara Marche, Sarah Roy and world champs silver medallist from 2012, Rachel Neylan. You would expect that the Australians will have to race aggressively if they want to climb on the podium, with the quality of the other nations likely to tell if they let the Dutch dictate the race.
Italy has a surprise home world championships with the late move from Aigle to Imola and their main contender is Elisa Longo Borghini. It's hard to believe that the Italian champion has just a single bronze medal to her name in the road race, but she hasn't always had the best of times at the world championships. This year she comes at the head of a superb squad, with Soraya Paladin, Elena Cecchini, Marta Cavalli and former world champion Tatiana Guderzo well-positioned to lead their star into the finale.
Most Italian riders are part of armed forces, and it would be little surprise to see the Italians produce a regimented performance on the attack in Imola.
The other team with numbers could well be the British, who come to the race with Elizabeth Banks, Alice Barnes, Hannah Barnes, Anna Henderson and Elizabeth Deignan all looking in very good form at present. While Deignan may not quite be at her world-beating best form from when she won the world champs back in 2015, she has been good recently, with her La Course win an unexpected triumph over Vos in the sprint. Her climbing was called into question at the Giro Rosa recently when she was well off the pace after Stage 2, but she bounced back with good showing later in the race.
Banks is an ascending talent in the women's peloton and a fun character to boot! Her GP Ploauy performance and Giro Rosa stage were very impressive, she'll be one to watch.
Those will be the main teams to watch during the race, but there are plenty of riders without powerful squads that could mix it up for a medal. The main problem is that they've just got the one shot at victory.
Kasia Niewiadoma (Poland), Liane Lippert (Germany), Lauren Stephens (USA), Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (Denmark), Mavi Garcia (Spain) and Ashleigh Moolman (South Africa) all should be included with a chance at victory, with a lot of fans of the sport no doubt hoping that the effervescent Uttrup Ludwig can claim the win.
There are a few almost Australians present in the field as well. A self-described part-time Australian, Catalina Soto Campos will be the lone rider from Chile in the race, the 19-year-old hoping to put in a performance that will get her closer to the Olympics next year. Kerry Jonker used to have an Australian racing licence but switched to South Africa and rather than racing the National Road Series, she's off at the world championships.
The women's world championships road race will be broadcast on SBS On Demand from 20.35 AEST and on SBS VICELAND from 22.30 AEST.