Worlds Week: Breaking Down a Beautiful, Yet Brutal, Road Race
The Men's road race world championship sparkled amongst the Flandrian landscape and produced one of the best one-day races in modern cycling
Julian Alaphilippe won his second-consecutive World Championship Road Race title on the streets of Leuven with a solo attack that beautifully balanced raw power, effortless skill, and most importantly, tactical prowess, throughout the difficult race. The performance by the defending champion left the impression that the chasing group, led home by the Netherlands Dylan van Baarle and Denmark’s Michael Valgren, could do little to stop the Frenchman, and saw pre-race favorites like Tom Pidcock, Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert go home empty-handed. Alaphilippe’s victory, which took place on a relatively mild collection of circuits in and around Leuven, Belgium, came compliments of the brutally difficult pace set by the home Belgian team, that produced the all-out racing from which Alaphilippe thrives and in retrospect, could have been a tactical error. The result of this effort was that a final 100-kilometers of nearly all-out racing on the tight Flemish roads, Alaphilippe simply had to pick his spot to attack and then trust his world-beating fitness to hold off the chasers, who found out too late that they had fallen directly into a well-laid trap, to complete his historic double.
175km: After a fast and furious first two hours of racing, Benoît Cosnefroy attacks, and Remco Evenepoel follows, along with an extremely strong collection of riders. This is extremely far from the finish, and with so many riders left in the group behind, it is incredibly unlikely to stay away.
167km: With Evenepoel off the front in an extremely select group, the Belgian team gets to the front of a narrow climb to block the road and slow the pace to allow the group to build up their gap. This shows how the narrow Belgian roads can be exploited, but I don’t understand this move. Evenepoel has little chance of winning out of the strong group up the road and this blocking technique will just prolong his time in the breakaway, where he is burning energy taking powerful pulls. This almost ensures he won’t be able to make the finale.
144km: The Italian team has missed this move and is forced to send their entire team to the front to nail it back. To pull back this powerhouse move, they have to set an incredibly fast pace that strings out the bunch and continues the nuclear fast pace.
100.7km: The Evenepoel group is eventually brought back. This means the race is all together with 100km-remaining and will lead to endless attacks and extremely hard racing. The Belgian team gets to the front to set a hard pace, but we can see that they might not be in complete agreement with this tactic due to a few heated conversations between teammates.
70.8km: The massive Nils Politt eventually rips off the front and forms another strong lead group. Evenepoel again covers the move and wastes no time taking more massive pulls at the front. The US team, who had Brandon McNulty in the last move, has this one covered by Neilson Powless.
58km: Belgium, despite having Evenepoel working up the road, does a lot of work to keep the gap in check. When they hit a cobbled climb, Alaphilippe uses it to lift the pace further and attempt to close the gap.
56.7km: Alaphilippe’s attack pulls out an elite front group and with the gap down to 16-seconds, Jasper Stuyven and Wout van Aert get to the front to finish it off. Having Evenepoel working in the breakaway and riders working to reel him in makes no sense, which shows why racing without radios can be so difficult.
49.1km: When the chase group makes contact with the breakaway, Alaphilippe immediately attacks, which shows Belgium might have gotten themselves in trouble by pulling him up to the front.
47.2km: The attack doesn’t work, but we can see just how much better he looks compared to the rest, specifically Van Aert on his wheel, he looks absolutely gassed after closing down the move. At this point, Alaphilippe is just playing with his food and waiting until the perfect time to drop the rest.
47km-26.3km: To deter more attacks, Evenepoel gets to the front and sets an extremely high pace. But, this isn’t a permanent solution, and Evenepoel eventually runs out of gas and has to pull off.
21.3km: Smelling blood in the water with Evenepoel no longer there to protect Van Aert, Alaphilippe’s teammate launches another attack. It doesn’t stick, but Alaphilippe certainly notices how much Van Aert struggles to respond.
17.4km: On the penultimate trip up the steep, narrow climb before the finish line, Alaphilippe finally launches his winning move. At this point, due to his testing attacks earlier, everyone knows it is coming, but, more importantly, Alaphilippe knows they can’t do anything in response.
16.9km: At the top of the climb, we can see Alaphilippe in the distance, while Dylan van Baarle, Powless, and Stuyven dangle in-between. Michael Valgren (in red and white), gets the last preverbal ticket on the rain by stepping out and sprinting up to Van Baarle. Van Aert and Van der Poel, on the front, see this happening, but simply can’t respond. Tom Pidcock, sitting nine riders back, has a front-row view to the Valgren bridge but doesn’t respond, even though he has the legs, and costs himself a shot at the win. The half-kilometer between Alaphilippe’s attack decides the race.
Finish: Alaphilippe dangles a few seconds off the front for most of the final lap, and despite looking like the chasers of Powless, Van Baarle, Valgren and Stuyven might catch him, his gap starts increasing over the final 9-kilometers, and he crosses the final line over half a minute ahead of the chasers.
1) Julian Alaphilippe rode an incredible race to get one of the best wins of his career. He has a lot of great wins in his career, but his constant probing via attacks and complete control of the final 50kms was truly impressive.
He conserved energy early in the race, even being as bold to ride at the back of the peloton with 100km remaining, but found himself present and accounted for at the front of the race when it mattered.
His successive attacks on any climb he could find entering the final lap were beyond impressive and his ability to hold on groups of extremely strong chasers throughout the final lap demonstrated just how much stronger he was than the rest of the field.
Oddly, just like the 2020 season, he had a fairly quiet season in terms of win, but also like 2020, saved his best for the world championships.
He becomes only the seventh rider of all time to win back-to-back world championships and shows his riding style is perfectly suited for international racing.
2) The Belgian squad entered the race with the odds-on favorite Wout van Aert and an extremely strong roster but stuffed this up massively.
Instead of using their collective strength to play multiple cards, they used it to make the race brutally difficult, presumably hoping to burn off any riders faster than Van Aert in a sprint.
They certainly succeeded in this, but, if they wanted to increase their chances of a Van Aert win, they should have taken as many riders as possible to the finish line. Instead, they burned a lot of riders and strength drilling the pace with 100km-to-go.
This meant Remco Evenepoel, likely their strongest rider on the day, was forced to pull off with 25km-to-go, which left Van Aert incredibly vulnerable to attacks.
This was likely an effort to make the race hard to drop sprinters like Caleb Ewan, but even if Ewan would have been present in the front group over the final circuit, it would have been incredibly difficult for him to respond to attacks up and over the climbs. I have to imagine Van Aert would have been better served with more teammates in the finale.
It is clear the team’s strategy was all-in for Van Aert. Despite an extremely strong team with multiple options, they used Remco Evenepoel, one of the strongest riders in the world, as their option to mark early breakaways. This role is usually reserved for a bit player, but Belgium was using a rider who just finished 3rd in the TT.
This is the opposite of how I expected the race to play out. Prior to the start, I was concerned the team would struggle with balancing expectations and goals inside their roster.
However, this didn’t end up being a cause for concern, and the team rode 100% for Van Aert. For example, they had Jasper Stuyven and Van Aert chase down a move with 58km-to-go that included Evenepoel. The oddest part about this strategy was that Evenepoel had been working for around 40kms driving the pace in the breakaway, which means that as soon as his teammates caught up with him, he was already on the limit.
This means that once Evenepoel inevitably ran out of gas, Van Aert and Belgium were extremely vulnerable to attacks; and Alaphilippe exploited it perfectly.
3) Despite the numerous flaws in these strategic decisions, much of the team’s failure comes down to Van Aert himself.
The team did a great job of setting the race up for him and delivered him to the front group and in a position to win.
However, when the time came to follow Alaphilippe’s race-winning move, Van Aert either misread the moment or simply couldn’t respond.
In the end, his teammate Stuyven had the better legs as evidenced by his ability to respond and make the Alaphilippe chase group. But, while Stuyven is a great rider, he isn’t the quality of rider a team like Belgium should have as their final card to play at a home world championship.
4) Remco Evenepoel rode an incredible race and proved my concerns about his willingness to work for Van Aert wrong. He was on the front for what seemed like the entire race, and at 21-years-old, put in one of the most impressive performances I’ve seen at a World Championships from a rider of his age.
But, as I said above, as impressive as Evenepoel’s ride was, I think Belgium could have used his strength more effectively. He appeared to be the second-strongest rider in the race, yet wasn’t available to contest Alaphilippe due to decisions made before the race.
In short, why use Evenepoel to mark early moves and have him drive a move that Belgium ended up chasing down themselves at the expense of having Evenepoel available to mark Alaphilippe in the finale.
5) The lack of race radios likely influenced the finale. For example, if Evenepoel was able to communicate with his team in real-time, I wonder if they would have had him sit on between 90km and 40km to-go, which would have allowed him to conserve his energy so he would have been able to make it to the finale after Stuyven and Van Aert bridged up with the other favorites.
While the introduction of an x-factor like this at the Olympics and World Championships could be seen as gimmicky, I believe it is a welcome change from the grind of WorldTour racing, increases the excitement of the races and tends to produce an incredibly deserving winner.
6) Mathieu van der Poel, a heavy pre-race favorite, was consistently caught on the wrong side of splits throughout the race and appeared a shadow of his pre-Olympics self.
His back injury sustained at the Olympic Mountain Bike race is clearly still bothering him and puts his presence at next week’s Paris-Roubaix in serious doubt.
7) The teams of Great Britain and Italy, despite having some of the strongest teams in the race, were caught on the back foot all day and seemed to misjudge the race at nearly every point.
Italy’s ringer and a heavy pre-race favorite of mine, Sonny Colbrelli, who was on the form of his life, missed the move.
Great Britain’s Tim Pidcock, at only 22, completed a massive transformation from his suspect Vuelta form and was one of the strongest riders in the race. But, he simply missed the move when Alaphilippe attacked and was forced to burn his incredible effort chasing in vain in the final 10kms.
8) The American Neilson Powless came into this race with a run of great results yet seemed to raise his game to a level that allowed him to go blow-to-blow with the best riders in the world in one of the most difficult races of the year.
US cycling has been in the wilderness for years, but Powless’ season, amongst performances from other riders, bodes incredibly well for the future.
The past decade has seen a nearly endless parade of talk about the quality of the young riders, without the manifestation of results at the elite level, but, as Powless showed today, the tide is finally starting to turn,
9) Michael Valgren, after a breakout 2018 season, has struggled through a run of incredibly forgettable results. But, after a series of wins at Giro della Toscana and Coppa Sabatini, he gets 3rd place at the World Championship and states that he is back as a top-tier one-day racer.
10) The Belgian atmosphere and the duel circuit format was, in my opinion, an absolute home run.
The course was exceptional and set up an incredibly hard race that pitted the strongest riders against each other and produced a truly worthy winner.
Also, and almost more importantly, the crowd was one of the best I’d ever witnessed at a world championship race. This significantly elevated the perceived stakes and viewing experience.