A hard day, possibly the hardest of the year, and a race and a result shaped by the weather. In the final moments Mads Pedersen was the strongest.
It wasn’t just rain, it was a weather alert with local flooding and the course had to be changed on the morning of the race with less of the Dales and more of the finishing circuit: 20km less and reduced climbing. It caused havoc with the TV coverage although a fuelling issue with a helicopter compounded this. Above all it soaked riders to the bone, it stole body heat, it burned calories, it frayed nerves on a tricky circuit. It was a day when for ducks to seek shelter, let alone for humans to race 260km.
The peloton looked jumbled with plenty of anything-goes wardrobe choices as riders donned a mix of national team clothing and where they didn’t have the right options, items borrowed from their pro teams and personal stash. The race had a lively start with Dan Martin attacking and then grand tour riders Primož Roglič, Nairo Quintana and Richard Carapaz in the breakaway. This wasn’t the usual long range raid of riders looking to make a name for themselves, perhaps it was just a way to keep warm.
France and Belgium lead the chase but it was all rather obvious on their part, they were using up riders. France’s new coach is Thomas Voeckler and the once-wily racer wasn’t deploying any complicated tactics here. The Belgians came undone when Philippe Gilbert was caught in a crash and Remco Evenepoel tried to encourage him but they were done.
Lawson Craddock attacked with just under 60km to go and was joined by Stefan Küng. The American didn’t last long, but Küng was soon joined by Mads Pedersen, Gianni Moscon and Mike Teunissen. It was an obvious test move, in Pedersen’s own words the plan was to attack so his compatriots Michael Valgren and Jacob Fuglsang could sit tight. Moscon and Teunissen were playing similar roles for their respective leaders Matteo Trentin and Mathieu van der Poel. Still Moscon’s presence upped the tension, the pantomime villain who threatened to win.
With 35km to go the French “shook they coconut tree” as they say only for Nils Politt to attack, draw a couple of riders clear and reduce the lead quartet to a slender lead, it looked like it was over for them. More so when Mike Teunissen cracked and this seemed to give Dutch teammate van der Poel the green light to make his move with 33km to go. He launched and only Trentin could follow as Julian Alaphilippe turned his head around to look for help in chasing that never came.
Van der Poel and Trentin got across to Küng, Moscon and Pedersen to form a strong quintet, all sharing the work and the kind of big engines that were too much to pull back. Behind the Belgians led the chase but Dylan Teuns and and Tim Wellens are attacking riders for hilly courses and now tasked with chasing stalwarts of any time time trial and the gap duly grew.
Van der Poel looked the most able by virtue of his attack, it was his jump that distanced everyone else but with 10km to go suddenly he was looking down at his bike as if there was a problem with the front mech but this was no mechanical. He cracked and it was so sudden, as if the Man With The Hammer had landed a direct blow. It was an implosion rather than the fade we saw with Peter Sagan in the final kilometres to Roubaix.
Suddenly Matteo Trentin looked to be in the box seat and certainly the fastest on paper. Only that paper wasn’t just damp, the ink had run and it was reverting to a mushy pulp. On the last long climb of the circuit Küng didn’t quite attack but put in a big grind which dropped Gianni Moscon and for a moment Pedersen was losing ground too but the Dane clawed his way back.
It left three riders assured of a medal. Between Pedersen, Küng and Trentin normally you’d bet the ranch on Trentin but minutes ago you thought this was van der Poel’s race. This was no normal sprint on a normal day. Indeed this wasn’t really a sprint, more a test of reserves after enduring a cold shower for over six hours. Trentin launched late and quiclly looked to have the jump with his first few pedal strokes but then couldn’t keep going and Pedersen closed in and passed him. The Italian slumped back down in the saddle and the Dane won by a clear margin.
A lively end to a good series of road races in Yorkshire. The weather shaped everything and if Mads Pedersen wasn’t the obvious winner – the very last of yesterday’s one chainring picks as a rider capable of lasting right to the end of tough races, like when he made the podium in the Tour of Flanders last year – he was the strongest rider left at the finish. He could sprint when van der Poel had cracked and Trentin was frozen and all the rest were out of the picture and so he feels like a satisfying winner rather than fluke.
The next time many riders don a national jersey it’ll be in the suburbs of Tokyo for the Olympics and with a strong chance of stifling heat and humidity, the likes few in the peloton have experienced. Pedersen won’t be there but he’s got plenty to look forward to instead, just 23 and now world champion, a step up from the silver medal in the junior worlds of Florence in 2013 when only a certain Mathieu van der Poel beat him.