09/20/2011 11:41 EDT | Updated 11/20/2011 05:12 EST

Canadians Whitten, Hughes finish in the top-five in women's time trial event

COPENHAGEN - Clara Hughes made a triumphant return to the cycling world championships Tuesday.

The former speedskater was fifth in the women's time trial in her first world championship appearance since 1999. Hughes returned to cycling after retiring from speedskating following the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

"I just found it really motivating and inspiring to be around the best cyclists in the world," Hughes said. ''I'm coming away with a reality check.

"Not that I need one but I find it really motivating. I have a lot of work to do but I'm also excited because I think this shows I have the potential to be one of the best on the days where it counts."

German Judith Arndt completed the rainy 27.6-kilometre circuit in a winning time of 37 minutes 7.08 seconds. New Zealand's Linda Villumsen finished second, 21.73 seconds behind while defending champion Emma Pooley of Britain was third, 24.13 seconds off the pace.

Tara Whitten of Edmonton was the top Canadian, finishing fourth, 26 seconds behind Arndt. Hughes, a Winnipeg native who turns 39 next week, was 11 seconds behind Whitten.

Rhae-Christie Shaw of Amherstburg, Ont., was seventh, 39.23 behind Arndt.

Hughes won four speedskating medals for Canada — including one gold — over three Winter Olympic Games. She also won a pair of bronze medals in cycling at the 1996 Summer Games.

Hughes finished fifth despite riding in a rain storm that swept the circuit during her time on the course. For the first half of her race, Hughes recorded the fastest split — nearly a minute faster than her closest rival — but slipped to 12th-fastest over the second half of the race once the rain fell.

"It definitely was the first true test for me," she said. "I'm really pleased with my result just dealing with the conditions.

"Also I think a lot of people don't realize that even with all the experience I have in sport over two decades it's always different stepping into a new environment. Definitely the first time I'm stepping back into the entire international scene of road racing, it's intimidating."

Whitten, the defending Omnium world champion, was thrilled with her career-best world time trial performance.

"I'm known for starting too hard and then fading so it was something I was focused on, just being really controlled on the first lap, and having something left to push on the second,'' she said. "I know the conditions played a role today — Clara had wetter conditions on the second lap, and I had it worse on the first lap — but I'm really happy with how I rode my second lap.

"Fourth is tough, especially when it is really close so I'm just re-living a lot of my ride and thinking about where I could have gained time. But at the same time I have to be happy. It's my best result ever at road worlds."

Whitten trailed Hughes by 4.59 seconds after the first lap but improved dramatically over the second half of the race to finish 10.63 seconds ahead and take the lead. After being bumped to second by Villumsen, Whitten went to third once Arndt finished and lost her grip on the bronze medal after Pooley, the last rider on the course, crossed the finish line.

Still, Whitten said having three finishers in the top seven speaks volumes about the strength of the Canadian team.

"It's the strongest team we've had at road worlds for such a long time and it's really exciting that a year out from the Olympics that we have that," she said. "It’s an incredible testament to the talent we have in Canada.

"I had probably the best time trial of my life today, it was too bad it was a couple seconds short of the podium. But it was a huge improvement of what I've done in the past and a big step forward for me. I was proud of how I dealt with the conditions, it was quite wet out there and I was a bit nervous about that."

Shaw, a former triathlete who left a career as an engineer with Microsoft to be a bike racer, was taking part in her first world championship and came in with a very modest goal.

"I'm rooming with Tara and I said to her last night, 'I hope I don't finish last,''' Shaw said.

Shaw, 35, was the seventh starter in the 51-rider field and held the overall lead until being supplanted by Hughes some 13 riders later.