Mathieu van der Poel launches uphill and passes Alberto Bettiol. Wout van Aert, Mads Pedersen and Tadej Pogačar chase but before the top of the climb Van Aert can’t close the gap and sits down as Van der Poel powers away. This was the moment the race was won.
The race started in Edinburgh and rode out to the Firth of Forth. This early phase in the Worlds often sees lesser-known riders put themselves in the shop window but this move looked a more traditional early breakaway in a World Tour classic, among them Matthew Dinham, an Australian from DSM who’d just finished the Tour de France and little did we know but he was on his way to seventh place. The exotic touch came from riders trying to bridge across, like the Vatican’s Rien Schuurhuis or Hasani Hennis, Anguilla’s answer to Geoffroy Soupe. Still it helped flush out the teams with ambitions and we saw the Belgian, British, French and Slovenian teams chasing.
The break had no menace leaving viewers to watch the supply of tourist sites fed into the TV productio, or compare some of the national kits, many of which look like they were last designed in 2003. The biggest drama saw protestors blocking the road to pressure the Scottish government not to issue oil and gas exploration licences. Whether halting a bike race achieves anything remains to be seen but it did reveal a few social media accounts showing their green credentials by recycling a video from Germany last year and passing it off as live from the Carron reservoir. Similarly rider union boss Adam Hansen showed a tendency to pick fights in the name of defending the riders but found himself spending the evening having to explain himself several times over and as he ventures into sports politics, one slogan to remember is that “if you’re explaining, you’re losing”. It took the best part of an hour to unglue and unchain the protestors and yet it didn’t seem to affect the sporting outcome a jot although while plenty stopped to urinate by the road, Van der Poel doubled back through the convoy to visit a local house for their facilities.
The Crow Road climb flew past and amid the highland scenery several World Tour level riders were being dropped, a sign the pace was up. We were trainspotting in Glasgow as the big teams competed to be at the front the idea being that if you were beyond 20-30th place then you’d be stuck.
The circuit saw the Danes on the rampage. It was the first lap and the TV graphics said there were 140km to go, not 40km or 4km when Michael Mørkøv hit the front with Mads Pedersen on his wheel. But you could see exactly why they were doing this as the field was strung out. Julian Alaphilippe attacked and had Søren Kragh Andersen for company. As just seconds later as if to stress the value of being at the front several riders had to put a foot down on a climb after a tangle including the two Dutch riders Pascal Eenkhoorn and Dan Hoole and it was game over. Was this going to ruin Mathieu van der Poel’s chances? With hindsight of course not but he’s coped fine with a weak Alpecin team in other races too. Alaphilippe’s attack hadn’t burned himself up but it was clearly a softening move on behalf of the French team only their plans came unstuck when Christophe Laporte punctured. Again and again the sporting Glasgow effect was in action, a banal event like a puncture was disastrous and to lose 20 seconds ruinous even if there was three hours left, gaps that could be coasted across elsewhere were a chasm on this course. This urban alleycat circuit with the allure of a course around multi-storey garage wrecked our reference points and time frames.
With 120km to go Alberto Bettiol surged up the Scott Street “wall” with Mads Pedersen on his wheel and behind them, a fluo green Slovenian jersey that could only be Tadej Pogačar. Wout van Aert led the charge across marked by Matteo Trentin and going through the pit lane you could count 21 riders were away, the last of whom was Mathieu van der Poel; the big absentee was Remco Evenepoel but he’d bridge across soon after. It was hard to tell who was where, at times TV viewers were like riders without their race radios. No sooner could a moto camera line up a shot of the group they had to move away for the next corner, all while the helicopter shots were at altitude to ensure they were clear of the Glaswegian skyline.
Mathieu van der Poel made his first move on Scott Street with 92km to go but his long look back over the top suggested it was about surveying the damage rather than making the break. More moves went, Pedersen was active again. Among them with 74km, Van der Poel again and this time Van Aert on his wheel and then Pedersen, Bettiol and Pogačar… and Dinham and with this a glimpse of the strongest riders in the race. Pedersen again launched solo but it all came back. Evenepoel began to attack but it was never incisive, was he on an off-day or playing team mate with these softening moves?
Bettiol went clear with 55km as the rain began to fall harder but only places, some of the parts of the course were deluged while others were sunshine, more of the Glasgow effect. Once he’d got ten seconds his was away and built this up into 30 seconds. Tiesj Benoot led the chase while Van der Poel sat at the back and got caught out by a split, his frugal style risky but he spotted the danger and got across.
As they descended the ramp down to George Square, Benoot led with Van Aert, Pedersen, Pogačar and Van der Poel behind, then Jhonathan Narvaez (pictured moments before on the left above, the same order). This would prove a crucial moment as Narvaez slid out on the wet corner forcing Jasper Stuyven to clip a foot out the pedals and Stefan Küng behind him to brake and suddenly there was a gap with five riders away and then down to four once Benoot had done some final work.
From here on the final 40km became more predictable. A past Ronde Van Vlaanderen winner Bettiol was out alone and tiring while being chased by the top four from this year’s Ronde in Van Aert, Pedersen, Pogačar and Van der Poel. Who was going to win? For all of them second place would be little comfort.
With 22km to go Bettiol was in sight on a back section of the course. Here Van der Poel attacked and Van Aert chased, both of them them stomping on the pedals but suddenly the Belgian had to sit down, an act of surrender. Van der Poel was now clear. Van Aert, Pedersen and Pogačar were chasing but it did seem more like a collection of individual efforts, each doing a turn but hoping someone else would pull harder.
Van der Poel was well clear and away only to slide out on a corner in a moment that must have given Dutch fans cardiac chaos. Luckily for him and them it was more of a slide than a slam and with clothing lacerated and a shoe damaged he was up and away. It could have been so much worse if he’d damaged his bike and needed a spare. As it was even a crash couldn’t stop him and again just a few second’s lead was enough, all while the chasers behind didn’t know he’d crashed either as this might have given them more motivation. But with a lap to go the Dutchman had 30 seconds and the trio where left with the awful problem, none of them wanted to finish second but they really didn’t want to be fourth. As Van der Poel celebrated, Van Aert was away to take second place leaving a sprint for the final podium spot between Pedersen and Pogačar and the Slovenian taking it, an upset on paper but given the Dane’s action throughout the race and the effect of all the hills, no surprise.
The worlds is a totemic event. Sometimes you can have a good race but with a surprise winner, or a bad race but at least a satisfying victor who’ll make a worthy wearer of the rainbow bands. Glasgow delivered everything, a thriller and satisfying outcome. Even if the breakaway was toiling the ride over from Edinburgh was like the longest neutral zone ever. There were attacks throughout the Glasgow circuit and even when Van der Poel looked to have made the decisive break he slid out on a corner to ratchet the tension back up. He was clearly the strongest and picked his moment to attack but was able to line up this moment through some crafty racing before, he was often discreet in the streets of Glasgow compared to his rivals.
There’s a lot to be said for urban racing for a sport so used to the countryside. For all the criticism of the course with its corners it didn’t prove too dangerous, even in the deluge although Narvaez’s crash was tactically crucial in creating the split for the lead four. Above all it was just monstrously tiring, a tarmac mountain bike course that kept the peloton in single track.
The race got the Hollywood outcome, the big names on the bill in the star roles on the last laps, even crossing the line in the predicted order. Bettiol never seemed a threat so there was no underdog contender as the surprise. The TV production was one of the negatives but as said already it was a hard course to film, but this wasn’t helped by bugs with the on-screen time gaps and distance graphics.
For Van der Poel what a difference a year makes, last Worlds he’d spent the night with the police. He doesn’t have any plans to race on the road, the next goal is a good qualification for the Paris Olympics mountain bike on Saturday. Come 2024 he’ll be even more suited to the road race, a chance to reunite the rainbow bands and circles, like Paolo Bettini in 2004. In the short term he’s likely to find himself obliged to do a road race, if only so his sponsors can get the rainbow photo opportunity they crave, perhaps the Benelux Tour, aka Renewi Tour.
Van Aert is the runner-up again, there’s a story of patience and appliance here if he can finally land a one-day win to top the likes of Sanremo and the E3 but as consistent as he proves, Van der Poel keeps bettering and battering him. Pogačar’s third place adds some colour to the podium and not just the lime green of Slovenia, a Tour de France star who gets credit for racing.