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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.