Key Takeaways: Men's World Road Race Championship
Breaking down how the World Road Race Championship was won with a stunningly impressive ride from the sport's newest superstar
Belgium’s Remco Evenepoel ripped clear with an elite group from the peloton with nearly 80 kilometers remaining before methodically dismantling his competition to ride clear for the World Road Race Championship title in beautiful seaside Wollongong, Australia. The chasing peloton, which was led home by France’s Christophe Laporte in second and Australia’s Michael Matthews in third, over two minutes behind, appeared to have no answer to Evenepoel’s peerless near-effortless, yet overwhelming power.
After the race started off much harder than expected, with France’s Pavel Sivakov drawing first blood by splitting the peloton on the early ascent of Mt Keira with 230 kilometers left to race, things settled into a more traditional form after the split peloton regroup on the city circuit in Wollongong. The French team continued their aggressive racing by attacking on a pass of the short and steep Mt Pleasant with just under 80 kilometers of racing, and while it did catch out most of the main favorites and get Romain Bardet up the road, it also included Evenepoel. Unfortunately for the French team, the 22-year-old Belgian never appeared under pressure and simply bided his time until ripping clear, first with Alexey Lutsenko in tow, and then solo after dropping his companion with 25 kilometers remaining. This set up an unchallenged solo ride to an impressive World Championship-winning ride that polishes off an unbelievable late-summer campaign for the new superstar.
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1) Remco Evenepoel +0
2) Christophe Laporte +2’21
3) Michael Matthews +2’21
4) Wout van Aert +2’21
5) Matteo Trentin +2’21
6) Alexander Kristoff +2’21
7) Peter Sagan +2’21
8) Alberto Bettiol +2’21
9) Ethan Hayter +2’21
10) Mattias Skjelmose +2’21
228km: Just 30kms into the race and with the breakaway having built up a 6.5-minute advantage, Pavel Sivakov from the French team sets an extremely high pace on the early ascent of Mt Keira.
214km: This pace from the French team splits the peloton and as they come off the fast descent of Keira, a front group containing favorites like Tadej Pogacar and Wout van Aert, has ripped off the front. They have a sizable gap on the main peloton and are still being driven by the French team.
209km: Once they get back to the flats, the front peloton group has pegged the breakaway back to under three minutes in just 19kms and has a 3.5-minute advantage on the main peloton behind (being led in pursuit somewhat oddly by Germany). The French team is still driving the pace incredibly hard, which is causing splits to occur in the now somewhat disorganized group. Eventually, a select group, with Pieter Serry from Belgium and Pavel Sivakov from France, rips off the front while the rest of the group sits up and is caught by the chasing main peloton.
152km: The Sivakov/Serry group eventually bridges up to the breakaway while the rest of the race regroups. We can tell they have slowed considerably since their gap to the break is now back to over seven minutes.
75.9km: For the next 80kms, the race falls into a more traditional format, with the Dutch and French teams increasing the pace on the circuit through Wollongong (the pace is so high that the break’s gap has been reduced down to 1'41). Not content with the hard, but steady pace, Quentin Pacher of France attacks up and over Mt Pleasant.
75.6km: Pacher’s move is incredibly strong and we can see that he quickly strings out the group. Wout van Aert, who is in a good position initially, seems to take a look at this move and not like what he sees, while his teammate Evenepoel appears to see Van Aert hesitate and realize this is his moment to take the reins.
75.2km: The split-second read and react decision from Evenepoel sees him arrive at the steepest part of the climb right on the wheels of the attackers, while Van Aert’s hesitation has seen him fall far enough down that he is unable to join even if he wants to.
74.9km: When they crest the top of the climb, we can see Evenepoel’s red helmet tucked safely into the top six wheels, while Van Aert and Pogacar have missed out and are now caught hopelessly behind.
65.6km: Just how critical the positioning during this move was is revealed 10kms later when we see that the gap between them and the peloton behind has increased to 52-seconds. Quinten Hermans from Belgium is driving the pace with assistance from the French team.
34.8km: The advantage to the peloton has now increased to two minutes. Evenepoel realizes this gap is more than enough of a cushion and that he has wrung his breakaway companions dry, so he attacks on a fast, twisty section of road heading through the start/finish. Alexey Lutsenko from Kazakhstan is the only rider who reacts quickly enough to get into Evenepoel’s near non-existent slipstream.
34.5km: The move might look benign, but once Evenepoel gets a clean, even if slight, gap, we can literally see the concern and almost resignation in the group behind as riders start to look around for who can potentially offer up a pull to match Evenepoel (it is also worth noting that the Italian rider on the front who lets the gap go is Lutsenko’s trade teammate Samuele Battistella).
25.7km: In theory, Evenepoel has an issue with a rider as strong as Lutsenko lurking on his wheel since he could outsprint him for the win, but Evenepoel seems completely unbothered by this and drops Lutsenko as soon as they get back to the next ascent of Mt Pleasant.
24.5km: Just over a km later, Evenepoel already has nearly a minute advantage over Lutsenko, 1’15 to his breakaway group, and over two minutes to the peloton. And with how strongly he is turning the pedals over, how comfortable he looks on the bike, and how aero his position is, it is clear he will easily stay away for the race win.
Chase Group Finish: Over two minutes after Evenepoel finished, what remained of the peloton sprints for the medals with France’s Christophe Laporte taking second and Australia’s Michael Matthews getting 3rd. Wout van Aert, the heavy pre-race, gets 4th while Peter Sagan, sprinting almost lazily in the saddle, gets an impressive 7th place, which is perhaps his best result of the season and signals he might have more to give in 2023.
1) Remco Evenepoel is the best rider in the world until proven otherwise
The most impressive thing about Evenepoel’s winning ride is that without a sprint, everyone knew exactly what he needed to do to win the race, yet nobody could do anything to stop him.
And even more impressively, once he made the front group, he had a massive target on his back and a group of riders either attempting to attack and distance him or holding back from pacemaking so they could attempt to latch onto his inevitable move. Even with the cards stacked against him, Evenepoel never seemed the least bit perturbed and took control of the group until he saw an opportunity to ride clear with Alexy Lutsenko.
With Lutsenko, a strong and quick (i.e. dangerous) rider hanging on his wheel, he never seemed the least bit bothered and simply trusted the slopes of Mt Pleasant would give an opportunity to dispatch the Kazakhstani rider.
With a one-day Monument (Liège–Bastogne–Liège), Grand Tour (Vuelta a España), and now, World Title, in the span of just five months, Evenepoel is officially a superstar and has to be considered the best rider in the World until proven otherwise. He will enter the 2023 season, and in particular, the Tour de France, with the bright lights of the Belgian cycling world focused directly on him.
2) The rest of the peloton still hasn’t accepted what Evenepoel is capable of
After watching Evenepoel dismantle the best riders in the World on Sunday en route to a dominant solo win, it is clear that the correct course of action for every rider not on the Belgian squad would have been to refuse to work if they found themselves in a group with Evenepoel and instead of attempting to fight him pedal-stroke-for-pedal-stroke, a team like France needed to get a strong rider on his wheel (i.e. Pavel Sivakov) and then pool their resources to chase him down once he was clear.
A question I would levy to every rider in the Evenepoel’s attacking group that clipped clear with roughly 75km to go is what exactly they expected to happen? It is reasonable to expect that a rider like Romain Bardet could potentially get up the road and latch on once Evenepoel attacked to bridge up, but under no circumstance should any rider other than Evenepoel or his Belgian teammates have been doing an ounce of work in that group once they realized Evenepoel was there.
3) Long-range solo attacks are becoming an extremely high-efficiency way of winning for the right rider
Part of Evenepoel’s success was due to going with a move from nearly 80 kilometers out that many riders, like Van Aert and Pogacar, seemed to deem premature and foolhardy. However, getting into that seemingly crazy move gave Evenepoel a 2-minute buffer over the other favorites when he attacked with 35 kilometers to go. For a rider as strong as Evenepoel, holding off a fatigued and disorganized peloton with that much of a head start from that distance is essentially a layup.
While an attack from this distance might have been considered an absurd distance just a few years ago, modern training, nutrition, and racing have seen riders getting more and more comfortable attacking from these distances since they can reverse engineer the effort and calorie demands in training. For a rider like Evenepoel, they aren’t crazy, but an extremely high-efficiency way of riding.
I’m old enough to remember when these long-range efforts were both considered crazy and the domain of Mathieu van der Poel. However, Evenepoel has since advanced the form by taking what Van der Poel used to do and has made it look clinical, calculated, and frankly, shockingly easy.
4) The Belgian team rode everyone else into a trap
Evenepoel’s physical performance during his solo ride to the finish was impressive, but he was aided by the fact that the peloton was extremely unmotivated and disorganized due to the presence of his national teammate, Wout van Aert, whom no team in their right mind would tow to the line for fear of his sprint and/or late-race solo attacking ability.
And from the early portions of the race, when Belgium got Wout van Aert and Pieter Serry into the front peloton, and then had Serry bridge up to the breakaway, Remco Evenepoel was able to sit back in the ‘dropped’ main peloton and expend very little energy through these difficult early parts.
This ‘sit back’ strategy also meant that when things eventually came back together and the racing got selective again with 80km-to-go, Belgium still hadn’t spent any time on the front setting pace while their Dutch and French rivals had, and thus was able to send fresh reinforcements in the form of Quinten Hermans up the road with Evenepoel, which was a key piece of the puzzle since Hermans was a key part of following and killing any attempted bridge attempts once Evenepoel went clear.
5) Wout van Aert’s moment of hesitation cost him dearly
Even though his Belgian team walked away with the win, Van Aert will almost certainly be disappointed to leave Australia without a medal, especially considering he skipped the time trial, which he could have won, to go all-in on the road race.
Looking at the GPS data from the race, it is clear that the lack of a win wasn’t due to a lack of fitness (he recorded the fastest ascent of Mt Pleasant with a time 15-seconds quicker than Evenepoel) but ultimately came down to his hesitation during the race’s winning move.
In some ways, this hesitation is understandable, since it was likely due to knowing his teammate Evenepoel would cover what appeared to be a risky move, while he sat in the bunch, waiting for others to work and attack if the race regrouped.
But, looking at the race in retrospect, there was never going to be a group of teams willing to chase hard enough for a regrouping, especially with Van Aert himself back in the main peloton. In the future, Van Aert would be wise to learn from Evenepoel’s ‘long bomb’ strategy in these highly tactical international races.
6) The French team raced as though they didn’t know Remco Evenepoel was there
Belgium, with pre-race favorites Evenepoel and Van Aert, should have headed into the race closely marked by every other national team and ridden into the ground after being forced to take responsibility for pacemaking duties earlier.
Instead, as I pointed out above, they were able to sit back and follow wheels thanks to the overly aggressive French team, who blew up the race up on the early ascent/descent of Mt Keira, eventually launched Evenepoel’s winning move, and played a key role in helping him pry open the gap to the chasing peloton during the early portions of the group’s attack.
In some ways, coming into the World Championships and imposing their will on the race en route to a 2nd place finish via Christophe Laporte can be considered a success, but in others, they rode in a manner that facilitated Evenepoel’s winning move and robbed Laporte of the chance to sprint for the win. Also, their aggressive racing only contributed to dropping their undercooked star Julian Alaphilippe, who would have benefitted from being nursed along at a slower pace.
Hindsight is indeed 20/20, but knowing what we know now, they would have been much better served just covering dangerous moves and ‘shelling up’ back in the peloton with Belgium the rest of the time. They could have then deployed their strong riders, like Pavel Sivakov, only to mark Evenepoel, while Laporte sat back in the group behind for the sprint.
Also, considering how strong Sivakov looked while splitting up the peloton early on and bridging up to the breakaway, he might have been one of the only riders capable of sitting following Evenepoel and then outsprinting him for the win (this strategy worked for Sonny Colbrelli at the 2021 European Championships).
7) The quality of the race suffered from a slight lack of fitness from the top riders
This race was both much more animated, and far more boring than I expected. The hot pace on the climb of Mt Keira spiced things up early and came as a complete surprise to me, but Belgium’s winning tactics all but decided the outcome with just under 80 kilometers to go and sapped the final two hours of any suspense. With Van Aert, one of the only riders capable of matching Evenepoel, on his team, and the race’s other superstar Tadej Pogacar looking slightly off the pace, there was no one who could realistically go head-to-head with Evenepoel and come out on top.
The major missing ingredient was Mathieu van der Poel, who dropped out early on (largely due to being arrested the night before), but is both crazy and strong enough to follow a long-range attack from Evenepoel and almost certainly wouldn’t have gone silently into the night. While his Dutch team rode strongly throughout the race, they were clearly lost without their leader and appeared to fail to call an audible after Van der Poel dropped out.
8) Mathieu Van der Poel’s unforced error adds to a run of poor form at major events
Instead of fighting for the win on race day, Van der Poel was caught up in an altercation with two teenage girls (who were repeatedly knocking on his hotel room door late into the night) the night before the race.
After being arrested for assaulting the two girls (I will do a full Van der Poel later this week) at 4 am, his chances of competing for the win the following day were all but over, meaning this truly bizarre, unbelievably, and completely unavoidable, situation cost Van der Poel the rare opportunity to contest a World Championship on a course that was almost tailored-made for his attributes.
Outside of the damage to his palmares and image in the short term, this somewhat unprecedented and self-made disaster has the potential to haunt the Dutch star for years to come. Of course, the superstar has already accomplished enough to retire with an impressive run of results, but riders of his caliber and level of fame tend to build, or lose, momentum based on their recent results. A bad streak of racing can easily turn into a lost year(s), and just as his younger rival Evenepoel seemingly can’t lose and is becoming a bigger and bigger star, Van der Poel has flopped at the Tour de France and then self-destructed at his next major race. Coming out of this with a strong start to 2023 will be key to proving he is still a top rider and not falling victim to the trappings of fish-bowl fame.
Women’s race breakdown coming later this week…
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Great analysis 👏👏
Remco was strong. But on the same course, using trade teams instead of national ones, would he win? I think not.
Laporte out sprinting WVA after Pogačar in Montreal. Who’s leading who next year at the TDF for Jumbo Visma?