The Moment The World Championships Were Won

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Under leaden skies and high on the Cima Gallisterna climb of the chalky Apennine foothills Julian Alaphilippe places a late attack towards the top of the Cima Gallisterna. Nobody else can follow but a few can chase and there’s a tense descent to Imola.

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An early break from seven riders who made sure their journey to Imola wasn’t for nothing. They’d get seven minutes, with the Swiss team leading much of the chase. Things livened up with 70km to go when the French team hit the front with Quentin Pacher and Nans Peters. They didn’t take up the chase and share the work, they dynamited the race on the climb up the Mazzolano chapel. The day’s break was swept up.

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The Belgian team took over the work on the front. For the day they were anaesthetists, their job was to numb rivals and to put the race to sleep so that Wout van Aert could wield his sprint in the finish. Not too fast, not too slow they had to contain attacks and ensure their leader was in contention for the final lap.

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Tadej Pogačar attacked on the penultimate lap with 41.5km to go, the same point as Anna van der Breggen launched yesterday. The weather, teams and tactics were different but the Tour’s maillot jeune lasted for 15km up front. The French had all but vanished but this was all part of a bluff from selector Thomas Voeckler who explained after the race the idea was to suggest the team had backed off, that the earlier move with 70km was a hot-headed act of vainglorious panache. In fact they were sitting tight and Pogačar’s 45 second lead with one lap to go prompted an uncomfortable chase, the Belgians forced to commit more resources before the Spanish joined. Was Pogačar going to win? No, but he’s just won the Tour de France and so he had to be kept on a tight leash.

Through Riolo Terme and the race split for a brief moment. By now teams had lost several riders and for a brief moment there was hesitation: to chase now or to save resources for the final climb in a few minutes’ time? Alaphilippe was on the right side as behind the Belgians led the race. The gaps were small but Alaphilippe could coast while behind others were stressed. Tiesj Benoot closed the gaps but only for Guillaume Martin to attack which prolonged the chase further and forced rivals to burn more matches, this time Greg Van Avermaet doing the work.

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Marc Hirschi put in the first big move, but an acceleration more than an attack and it took Wout van Aert, Vincenzo Nibali, Alaphilippe, Primož Roglič, Michał Kwiatkowski and Jacob Fuglsang clear. Nibali briefly put his nose in the wind but it was Kwiatkowski who placed the next big move but gone was his mellifluous pedalling style, he looked like a worker from the nearby vineyards treading grapes. Alaphilippe sat tight, looking back to find van Aert on his wheel, the equivalent of a prisoner looking back to find his jail warden two paces behind. Only right on the last ramp Alaphilippe attacked and with one bound he was free. Van Aert couldn’t follow, Kwiatkowski tried but seem to stall and only Fuglsang had the jump but he fell short.

It left Alaphilippe solo for the descent and evoked memories of Sanremo where he led over the Poggio but had pushed himself so hard he struggled with the ensuing descent. This time a there was a determined chase from van Aert, Hirschi, Kwiatkowski, Fuglsang and Roglič. Van Aert was both the driving force and the brake on the chase, his long turns towed them but his presence slowed the others. To paraphrase yesterday’s L’Equipe, to take WvA to the finish was to drive yourself into the abattoir. So we got the classic game theory stand-off: to work was to get beaten by someone else; not to work was to lose. The only solution was for all to collaborate perfectly but good luck arranging this so late into the race with varying states of fatigue. Is one rider’s short turn an energy saving ploy or a heroically generous effort from their last resources? The small surprise was Roglič who had a double interest, he could chase for a medal but also help out Jumbo-Visma colleague van Aert and this has caused a minor diplomatic incident in sections of the Belgian media but perhaps the Slovenian was just rinsed? Or perhaps he was just Slovenian and not obliged to chase?

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Alaphilippe kept going but there was none of that inevitable feeling of the race being over and the thrill fading, his lead was 15 seconds and he’s prone to cramp in the final of a big race, and the tension sustained by this being the world championships, the rainbow jersey ahead.

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The Verdict
A classic world championships. The early break, the inevitable catch and the pace ratcheting up until a frenzied last lap. All traditional but well done to the UCI and organisers for stepping in at the least minute, even the roads were resurfaced which is a minor miracle. It all came down to the last moment of the last climb and then suspense all the way to the finish, a Sanremo-esque feel but the difference to La Primavera was the more committed chase behind, a solid group rather than a collection of survivors. Alaphilippe’s success wasn’t guaranteed until he passed under the flamme rouge.

The Frenchman, the bleu d’Auvergne, makes for satisfying winner, we might have got a replacement world championships but no stand-in for the rainbow jersey. Alaphilippe won because of his decisive, solo attack and then to hold off a royal flush of star riders but also because he’ll wear the rainbow stripes well for a year, the ray of sunshine that makes the rainbow out of a gloomy backdrop.

43 thoughts on “The Moment The World Championships Were Won”

  1. A fine win by Alaphilippe – chapeau.

    Some questions:

    Would Pogacar have had a good chance at the win if he’d waited a lap and attacked himself on the last climb (or gone with Alaphilippe), rather than trying to do something for Roglic?

    Was this another example of how you don’t need a strong team if you have good legs (and perhaps if there is another strong team on hand to chase down attacks)?

    Why didn’t Kwiat, Fuglsang, Roglic and Hirschi chase down Alaphilippe harder? Sure they would have towed WVA to gold, but as it was they towed him to silver and the four of them were effectively scrapping over bronze, rather than five of them (ie including Alaphilippe) fighting for two medals

    And a couple of observations:

    From a Brit perspective, a shame that Thomas and S Yates weren’t there, as both showed excellent form at T-A and the course would have suited them (and Rowe provided superb support for Pidcock)

    WVA was clearly absolutely rubbish at the Worlds – he didn’t win a single race! – but the Ardennes and cobbled Classics should be belters, as he fights with his old adversary MvdP, who also seems to be in pretty good form

    • To have a go at the questions:
      – Pogačar could have tried later but maybe he doesn’t have the same jump as Alaphilippe, he’s better on a long summit finish?
      – The French had a strong team, they were always around to shepherd Alaphilippe who never went into the wind before he attacked
      – As for the chase, it’s hard as it was downhill but also if one of them had worked harder to speed up the chase, they’d get outsprinted and not even get a medal
      Interesting with the British team as if those going to the Giro were able to say no to being selected, something that usual comes with consequences in other federations.

      • Is that right, re riders not usually having a say (and therefore facing consequences if they don’t want to go)?

        But this year, for example, it sounded like MvDP said no a Netherlands call-up? Maybe 2020 is just a bit unusual…

        • Depends on each country but sometimes it happens, there can be other things, eg in France you need to race the nationals (or a very good excuse) or you don’t make the long list for selection. You’d think GB would have needed Thomas and Yates, both would be good for a circuit like that.

          • Was there something about Thomas and Yates being in a separate Giro bubble? Tao GH didn’t ride the Worlds either, when he might have been expected to, and he’s also doing the Giro

          • I more or less get Simon Yates missing the worlds to save himself for the Giro. But how does Adam miss a worlds course like this and race Flèche W a few days later? What’s his priority? I’m not saying Yates would have won against this field but you could say the same of several other big name riders.
            More broadly, why does GB so rarely send its best team to the worlds? Would any other major European nation do this? (Granted, Thomas and Dowsett were a strong pick for the time trial.)

  2. In this unusual year we could potentially have a very short gap between a new champion win their first race, what’s the longest/shortest the rainbow band have gone without a win?

  3. Great worlds and great pieces on it Inrng – it’s shaping up to be an amazing season! After the year we’ve all had, this will be a great way to finish it off. The racing has been solid right now. A few comments:

    ~ Worlds looks to have produced a really realistic result – the course suited the riders who finished Top-10, but you wonder who else might have been in with a good chance given a “normal” build-up.

    ~ TdF – everyone is shouting that Pogacar is doping and that’s how he won, blah blah blah… but I wonder if a more realistic conclusion is that Bernal did himself in due to a very wonky pandemic training schedule, and ditto for Froomey/Thomas/et al. who… so rather than a doping result, we have a result due to abnormal build-ups.

    ~ back to the worlds – am I the only one who really noted some of the amazing camera angles of the racing loop? Specifically the section where the camera was panning across the side of the mountain lip – it really showcased the speed of the riders with a beautiful backdrop – Cycling needs to ensure the entire world sees those camera shots because no other sport can even come close to competing with that visual.

    ~ The ITT was really interesting for a couple reasons: a) hat’s off to the home nation for Ganna’s race, brilliant ride (I didn’t realise he was that good, but great job to him), it’s great that Italy was rewarded with a Gold after stepping in to host, b) Van der Breggen’s ride – SO FAST! Doing some quick math, she lost 8 seconds per km to Ganna, but if you go down the men’s list and say, use Brandle (a previous world record holder in the hour), she only lost 3 seconds per km!!!! That’s an amazing job to the dutchwoman, and hat’s off to the organisers for putting both genders on the same course. It really would be interesting to see the result over a 50k course… although I definitely expect the gap to be larger, but it would be a great test.

    Anyways, sorry for the novel, but I hope we’re all looking forward to a great season!

    Thanks Inrng!

    • VDB was fast, but Dygert was a good 35s faster and seemed to be extending that lead when she crashed at around the halfway point. Though to finish first…

      • Looking at just the intermediate time split, C. Dygert would slot into 20th spot in the Men’s ITT field and A. Van Der Breggen into 33rd spot. But as you say, to finish first, one must finish. It does look like a race of two half maybe with the wind. R. Dennis was 2nd at the intermediate, but finished 5th; W. Van Aert was 6th at the intermediate but finished 2nd.

    • I agree with what you say, except for your assertion that ‘everyone is shouting that Pogacar is doping’.

      I think that applies only to the usual crowd of sad basement-dwellers who frequent certain other cycling websites

    • Interesting that you can only conceive of somebody beating Skyneos because of them being thrown off by a global pandemic, rather than someone just being extremely good.

      • I always though the “but Sky’s killing the sport…” thing was overplayed. A half-competent opposition could always potentially overthrow them. Unfortunately the 2010s had a strange dearth of talent.

      • I didn’t say that… did I?

        All I said was Bernal would have had a much better build up if it was a regular year. Same with other riders (eg. Pinot). So, Pogacar’s competition may have been better prepped and given him more competition in a normal year – which includes all riders (Pinot, Bernal, etc.).

  4. Chapeau to Monsieur Alaphilippe. And chapeau to whoever designed the route to include that parallel side-on helicopter shot, probably the best I’ve ever seen.

    • I forget who it was on Twitter that suggested that the UCI should ensure that all future Worlds include a section along a ridge to allow for those helicopter shots!

      Absolutely spectacular, and on a par with the best camera-work that the Tour gets where there are similarly well planned shots.

    • All the terrain around the area is like this with ridges and steep slopes but looks even better when filmed from the helicopter like this. The pilot in Paris-Nice was doing the same only at a few metres above the ground.

    • If only travel wasn’t impossible right now- Italy couldn’t have asked for a better advertisement to go cycletouring there. The only problem being it looks like real leg-smashing terrain…

      • You can take your pick, head east and it’s flat all the way to the sea, head west or south further inland and you get much bigger climbs, Pantani’s training roads. It is a good area for riding, there are lots of locals out riding especially at the weekends, several local pros, the Reverberi brothers who run the Bardiani team are from here, some good U23 races. Also cities like Imola, Forli, Ravenna, Bologna, Faenza are nice. But Italy has so many other good regions for riding, one nod for this area is the roads are ok; the nearby Marche area is as scenic but the roads are bad.

        • A good reminder on road quality. I’m a regular in Tuscany where the roads are pretty good (especially in the north west near Lucca, where you can get mountains and flat coastal riding in the same day). As soon as you cross the “border” into Umbria, the road quality can be terrible. In my experience, road quality in Marche and Arezzo is somewhere in between those two extremes, perhaps being less reliable in areas more prone to landslips / earthquakes.

          I’ve not ridden much in Emilia Romagna as the landscape is usually “greener” for a reason…. that said, the TV pictures were absolutely amazing and the highlight of the Worlds for me.

  5. There was a moment on the final lap when Tom Dumoulin broke clear and pulled off a small group including WVA. It’s always easier said than done but WVA initially didn’t pull that group, which was potentially a race-losing move in an attack with riders he could easily beat to the line.

    WVA’s sprint at the end showed why it was frankly silly for anyone else in that group to pull a single hard pedal rev for him. Yes, it’s “negative” but at that point the only point you had to win was for WVA to do all the work and pray he would tire in the sprint or be too exhausted to cover a counter if he caught the leader.

    An extremely worthy winner, and wonderful work from Guilliame Martin in the last lap.

  6. Pogacar “maillot jeune” on the Tour, lovely phrase.

    I really enjoyed the finish of what was before the last climb a relatively boring, formulaic race. For once, I think the lack of radios actually added something to the race, looking at Alaphilippe on the race track at the finish, nervously looking behind, desperate for a time gap, that added to the tension for me.

    And while I’ve never been one of the flag-waivers lamenting the loss of the good old days where cyclists raced for the Motherland, it’s really nice to see different teams/strategies/alliances playing out in a race a couple times a year. I’d love to see a 6- to 8-day-long stage race with national teams for the pros, a bit like those they have for Juniors, or the Tour de l’Avenir for U23s, maybe every 4 years or so, kind of like the Olympics. And no team car radio.

  7. I was just thinking ‘Christ, Van Aert is some boy. I’ve never seen anyone make a one day race look so easy’ when Alaphilippe jumped and for 10-20 seconds he looked human. An enjoyable race with an absolute A list of contenders in the finale. We’ve definitely got a champion who’ll do the jersey justice. Italy always seem to do good worlds, just about every town there seems to have ideal terrain. They should host it at least once every 3 years!

    • That final selection was so satisfying – grand tour winner and contenders, winners of most classics, ex-world champ and one of the young stars of the Tour. Perfect for a World Champs (unless you’re a pure sprinter). And the strongest on the day won.

  8. Fantastic finale. Didn’t love the course but it was interesting.

    My take away is that his double 2nds to me shows WvA backed up that he is the best rider of the year. His year has been absolutely incredible across all terrains.

      • I wonder if WVA may be entering the phase of the Sagan/Kelly dilemma: after an initial period of “strength-based” success, the rest of the peloton figure you out and then noone will ride with you for fear that you’ll kill them in the sprint. This leads to a more difficult period where you have to figure out new ways to win.

  9. A question and a thought: Many comments about Julian being a “worthy winner” and I couldn’t agree more. No doubt he’ll represent the jersey well in the remaining year and 2021. But who is the last person you would consider a worthy winner? Looking at the list from the last 10 years I can only think of one less than inspiring winner – Costa in 2013. Otherwise we have Hushovd, Cav, Gilbert, Kwiat, Sagan x3, and Valverde. I don’t think we should be too hard on Mads as he’s barely had time to represent the jersey and yet even at the TDF he figured prominently in the front group of many stages.

    And a thought, how great is Van Der Breggen right now??? Can anyone think of the last time someone (man or woman) pulled off the ITT/Road WCS double? Such an impressive performance!

    • Totally agree about Van der Breggen! What a deserving winner. You feel for Dygert and Van Vleuten, but unfortunately that’s how racing is, and in their absence we get a super strong and deserving winner who destroyed the rest of the competition.

      And then this morning (SPOILER ALERT) she absolutely owned the Mur de Huy. Led the entire climb, shedding riders from the front group the entire time, then attacked the final two riders to win at the top… Solid solid racing.

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