One metre, two metres. Alexey Lutsenko might have fancied his chances in a two-up sprint but Remco Evenepoel wasn’t going to risk that. Evenepoel attacks on the penultimate climb up Mount Plesant and it’s going, going, Wollongong.
Under sunny skies the race had a lively start. The French coach Thomas Voeckler wanted to exploit the long climb of Mount Keira and deployed Bruno Armirail and Pavel Sivakov to blow the race apart. A maxi-breakaway went clear that was packed with star names like Wout van Aert and Tadej Pogačar. One rider who wasn’t there was Mathieu van der Poel, a hotel blue saw him arrested by the police overnight which left him both sleepy and with his mind elsewhere and he soon quit the race.
Once you get a group of more then ten it loses cohesion, too many riders can sit on and even those taking turns can ease through. Sure enough it began to splinter, with even Pogačar himself hammering up the first climb of Mount Pleasant. But it all came back together except for a few survivors, a blend of the early breakaway and a handful who had gone clear on Mount Keira and it felt like the peloton, led by Germany and the Netherlands, had the measure of them.
With 76km to go, France’s Quentin Pacher launched up the climb of Mount Pleasant and a sizeable group went clear with Remco Evenepoel in there. There were some strong riders in the move like Romain Bardet and Alexey Lutsenko but Evenepoel arguably the only top favoriet there.
Two laps later and with the gap out to two minutes riders in the bunch behind attacked up the climb but this was more a last roll of the dice, no team could bring back the breakaway. The flurry saw the gap almost halve to a minute but as ever, the last part of the gap is the hardest to close and the likes of Pogačar, Madouas and Van Aert marked each other.
Evenepoel’s presence in the move was like a gun on the table in a Chekhov play: he was going to attack, it was just a matter of when. Rivals had two options, to pray they could stay with him when he attacked or to pre-empt his move and try to go clear themselves so that by the time he made his move he’d pass them at cruising speed and they might have a better chance of holding on. Romain Bardet went for the first plan and followed two of Evenepoel’s attacks; Alexey Lutsenko and Pascal Eenkhoorn tried the other tactic. Neither worked, nobody could get a gap… and then Bardet couldn’t follow another attack.
Evenepoel used a downhill run on the approach to the finish line and a tight bend for his attack, exploiting the speed and his compact position to get an advantage on the others. This time Lutsenko went with him and the pair worked together. You could see it was panic stations behind but a classic stand-off too, the Zugzwang scenario where if someone chased hard they’d be worse relative to their rivals.
So we had a lead duo. Lutsenko’s a versatile rider and packs a potent sprint, he was not someone Evenepoel would have wanted to take to the line. Indeed Evenepoel never seems to take anyone to the line. So he used the climb to go clear. It was Going, going… Wollon-gone. He was away. There’s a certainty, an inevitability, an invincibility when Evenepoel goes clear that nobody else enjoys. Anyone else going solo with 35km to go would be struggling and liable to implode but with Evenepoel it feels different, it’s much more certain.
Attention quickly turned to who would join him on the podium. Lutsenko was by himself for a long while but got caught on the descent to the finish by others who’d been in the breakaway with Evenepoel since Pacher split the field. It looked like they’d be sprinting for the medals but then Jan Tratnik appeared out of nowhere and suddenly the bunch came in with Christophe Laporte outsprinting Michael Matthews, the surprise heightened by the sluggish TV production which struggled to keep up with a lot of the action. For Laporte, a surprise silver and salvation for the French who tried to shape the race only for their moves to pave the way for Evenepoel, he was always going to win but sitting tight on Mount Keira helped while the French got to work, Pacher’s later move was when Evenepoel slipped away from his big rivals. Matthews gets another podium finish, plus in these times a handy 400 UCI points to all but ensure BikeExchange stay in the World Tour but that’s a story for another day.
A lively race with an enjoyable start. Mount Keira didn’t determine the result but it probably got plenty of Europeans out of bed early. The race took on a more habitual format with the early break and then ever-faster laps until Evenepoel attacked several times, finally going clear with Lutsenko and then solo. We don’t need hindsight to say the win was obvious, it felt like it in the moment. But the missing ingredient for a vintage edition was a sprinkling of more stars in the Evenepoel group, things could have been closer if, say, Pogačar was in the move.
The Worlds is a particular race where how it is won the day matters, but who wears the rainbow jersey for the year counts for plenty as well. Someone can snipe Sanremo or rob Roubaix and it’s great for them and a triumph for an underdog but with the Worlds, ideally a champion wins so they can show off the jersey next year. Evenepoel’s bound to wear the rainbow stripes in style but he’ll face an off-season with its challenges, he’s already public property in Belgium and now he’ll be even more in demand.
Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the Vuelta, the Worlds and more this season, Evenepoel’s palmarès is impressive. But he’s not the new Merckx. If there was an inevitability about Merckx winning each time, at least they never knew how he was going to win. Would he go solo, win from a group, or boss the bunch sprint? With Evenepoel it’s solo only, but that’s all the more impressive to pull off.