Ten Takeaways from the Worlds: Sunday’s elite men’s World championship road race in Flanders was one of the most exciting rainbow battles in living memory. No hours of watching a hopeless early break, but a headie too and fro before the killer blow from Julian Alaphilippe. Spencer Martin has his ‘Ten Takeaways’.
Attack, attack and attack – Julian Alaphilippe
Julian Alaphilippe won his second-consecutive World Championship Road Race title on the streets of Leuven with a solo attack that beautifully balanced raw power, effortless skill and most importantly, tactical prowess, throughout the difficult race. The performance by the defending champion left the impression that the chasing group, led home by the Netherlands Dylan van Baarle and Denmark’s Michael Valgren, could do little to stop the Frenchman, and saw pre-race favorites like Tom Pidcock, Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert go home empty-handed. Alaphilippe’s victory, which took place on a relatively mild collection of circuits in and around Leuven, Belgium, came compliments of the brutally difficult pace set by the home Belgian team, that produced the all-out racing from which Alaphilippe thrives and in retrospect, could have been a tactical error. The result of this effort was that a final 100-kilometers of nearly all-out racing on the tight Flemish roads, Alaphilippe simply had to pick his spot to attack and then trust his world-beating fitness to hold off the chasers, who found out too late that they had fallen directly into a well-laid trap, to complete his historic double.
1) Julian Alaphilippe rode an incredible race to get one of the best wins of his career.
- He conserved energy all day, even being as bold to ride at the back of the peloton with 100km remaining, but found himself present and accounted for at the front of the race when it mattered.
- His successive attacks on any climb he could find entering the final lap were beyond impressive and his ability to hold on groups of extremely strong chasers throughout the final lap demonstrated just how much stronger he was than the rest of the field.
- Oddly, just like the 2020 season, he had a fairly quiet season in terms of win, but also like 2020, saved his best for the world championships.
- He becomes only the seventh rider of all time to win back-to-back world championships and shows his riding style is perfectly suited for international racing.
The Belgian team got it wrong
2) The Belgian squad entered the race with the odds-on favorite Wout van Aert and an extremely strong roster, but stuffed this up massively.
- Instead of using their collective strength to play multiple cards, they used it to make the race brutally difficult, presumably hoping to burn off any riders faster than Van Aert in a sprint.
- They certainly succeeded in this, but, if they wanted to increase their chances of a Van Aert win, they should have taken as many riders as possible to the finish line. Instead, they burned a lot of riders and strength drilling the pace with 100km-to-go.
- This meant Remco Evenepoel, likely their strongest rider on the day, was forced to pull off with 25km-to-go, which left Van Aert incredibly vulnerable to attacks.
- This was likely an effort to make the race hard to drop sprinters like Caleb Ewan, but even if Ewan would have been present in the front group over the final circuit, it would have been incredibly difficult for him to respond to attacks up and over the climbs. I have to imagine Van Aert would have been better served with more teammates in the finale.
- It is clear the team’s strategy was all-in for Van Aert. Despite an extremely strong team with multiple options, they used Remco Evenepoel, one of the strongest riders in the world, as their option to mark early breakaways. This role is usually reserved for a bit player, but Belgium was using a rider who just finished 3rd in the TT.
- This is the opposite of how I expected the race to play out. Prior to the start, I was concerned the team would struggle with balancing expectations and goals inside their roster.
- However, this didn’t end up being a cause for concern, and the team rode 100% for Van Aert. For example, they had Jasper Stuyven and Van Aert chase down a move with 58km-to-go that included Evenepoel. The oddest part about this strategy was that Evenepoel had been working for around 40kms driving the pace in the breakaway, which means that as soon as his teammates caught up with him, he was already on the limit.
- This means that once Evenepoel inevitably ran out of gas, Van Aert and Belgium were extremely vulnerable to attacks; and Alaphilippe exploited it perfectly.
Van Aert just didn’t have it
3) Despite the numerous flaws in these strategic decisions, much of the team’s failure comes down to Van Aert himself.
- The team did a great job of setting the race up for him and delivered him to the front group and in a position to win.
- However, when the time came to follow Alaphilippe’s race-winning move, Van Aert either misread the moment or simply couldn’t respond.
- In the end, his teammate Stuyven had the better legs as evidenced by his ability to respond and make the Alaphilippe chase group. But, while Stuyven is a great rider, he isn’t the quality of rider a team like Belgium should have as their final card to play at a home world championship.
Evenepoel had an incredible race
4) Remco Evenepoel rode an incredible race and proved my concerns about his willingness to work for Van Aert wrong. He was on the front for what seemed like the entire race, and at 21-years-old, put in one of the most impressive performances I’ve seen at a World Championships from a rider of his age.
- But, as I said above, as impressive as Evenepoel’s ride was, I think Belgium could have used his strength more effectively. He appeared to be the second-strongest rider in the race, yet wasn’t available to contest Alaphilippe due to decisions made before the race.
- In short, why use Evenepoel to mark early moves and have him drive a move that Belgium ended up chasing down themselves at the expense of having Evenepoel available to mark Alaphilippe in the finale.
No radios at the Worlds
5) The lack of race radios likely influenced the finale. For example, if Evenepoel was able to communicate with his team in real-time, I wonder if they would have had him sit on between 90km and 40km to-go, which would have allowed him to conserve his energy so he would have been able to make it to the finale after Stuyven and Van Aert bridged up with the other favorites.
- While the introduction of an x-factor like this at the Olympics and World Championships could be seen as gimmicky, I believe it is a welcome change from the grind of WorldTour racing, increases the excitement of the races and tends to produce an incredibly deserving winner.
Van der Poel was good, but not 100%
6) Mathieu van der Poel, a heavy pre-race favorite, was consistently caught on the wrong side of splits throughout the race and appeared a shadow of his pre-Olympics self.
- His back injury sustained at the Olympic Mountain Bike race is clearly still bothering him and puts his presence at next week’s Paris-Roubaix in serious doubt.
Colbrelli was strong, but missed the move
7) The teams of Great Britain and Italy, despite having some of the strongest teams in the race, were caught on the back foot all day and seemed to misjudge the race at nearly every point.
- Italy’s ringer and a heavy pre-race favorite of mine, Sonny Colbrelli, who was on the form of his life, missed the move.
- Great Britain’s Tim Pidcock completed a massive transformation from his suspect Vuelta form and was one of the strongest riders in the race. But, he completely miscalculated the race and was forced to burn his incredible effort chasing in vain in the final 10kms.
A strong showing from Neilson Powless
8) The American Neilson Powless came into this race with a run of great results yet seemed to raise his game to a level that allowed him to go blow-to-blow with the best riders in the world in one of the most difficult races of the year.
- US cycling has been in the wilderness for years, but Powless’ season, amongst performances from other riders, bodes incredibly well for the future.
- The past decade has seen a nearly endless parade of talk about the quality of the young riders, without the manifestation of results at the elite level, but, as Powless showed today, the tide is finally starting to turn.
Bronze for Michael Valgren
9) Michael Valgren, after a breakout 2018 season, has struggled through a run of incredibly forgettable results. But, after a series of wins at Giro della Toscana and Coppa Sabatini, he gets 3rd place at the World Championship and states that he is back as a top-tier one-day racer.
The fans were happy with the race, apart from the result
10) The Belgian atmosphere and the duel circuit format was, in my opinion, an absolute home run.
- The course was exceptional and set up an incredibly hard race that pitted the strongest riders against each other and produced a truly worthy winner.
- Also, and almost more importantly, the crowd was one of the best I’d ever witnessed at a world championship race. This significantly elevated the perceived stakes and viewing experience.
# Spencer Martin is the author of the cycling-analysis newsletter Beyond the Peloton that breaks down the nuances of each race and answers big picture questions surrounding team and rider performance. Sign up now to get full access to all the available content and race breakdowns. #