A tough course as selective as expected
The route may not have seen the huge time gaps between the leading riders that characterised the women’s road race on Saturday, but it still lived up to expectations as being the toughest and most selective in years.
The climb up to Igls each lap wore the riders down and gradually whittled the peloton to a smaller and smaller size, while the the super-steep Hottinger Höll obliterated the front of the race.
The course did not make for the most tactically nuanced of racing, but there can be little debate that the cream rose to the top and that the strongest riders prevailed and were awarded with the medals.
The surprise lay in who those riders turned out to be. Winner Alejandro Valverde had been a pre-race favourite, but Julian Alaphilippe was expected to be his main rival; instead, fellow Frenchman Romain Bardet pushed Valverde closest to seal second place, with Michael Woods in third – incidentally, the same two riders who finished second and third at Liege-Bastogne-Liege earlier this year, one of the few races comparable in terms of length, difficulty and prestige.
For Woods, a Worlds bronze medal is arguably the biggest result of his career. For Bardet, the result is further evidence of his one-day racing pedigree, but also adds to his frustrating run of career near misses – he’s now made the podium of the Worlds, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the Tour de France and the Criterium du Dauphine without quite managing to win any of them. A career-defining big win must surely be on the horizon?
At last, Valverde is world champion
Valverde’s bid to win a World Championship gold medal is one of the longest-running sagas in this generation’s peloton.
It began way back in 2003, when, riding at his first ever Worlds, the Spaniard finished second behind his compatriot Igor Astarloa, before making the podium twice more in 2015 and 2016.
Later, he returned from a doping ban to finish third three years in a row between 2012-14, but still couldn’t quite win that longed-for rainbow jersey.
Only now, after another prolonged interruption to his career following a horrific and potentially career-ending crash at the Tour de France last year, has Valverde at last won the title he has always seemed destined for. The emotions came flooding out through ecstatic, hoarse cries of joy let out at the finish line.
Following his collapse at the end of the Vuelta there were doubts whether the Spaniard had the condition to win in Innsbruck, but Valverde is never off form for long, and at 38-years of age he becomes the second oldest wearer of the rainbow stripes behind Joop Zoetemelk.
Will this victory be the last hurrah of Valverde’s extraordinarily long and, it must be reiterated, controversial career? Age has to catch up on him eventually, but either way this result feels like the crowning achievement in a glimmeringly successful career.
Tom Dumoulin’s battling spirit make for thrilling finale
At the top of Hottinger Höll, just three riders (Valverde, Bardet and Woods) remained at the front of the race, and looked to have the medals wrapped up. But a handful of seconds further down the road, and just out of sight for any tentative looks over their shoulders, was their worst nightmare – a charging Tom Dumoulin on a mission to hunt them down.
The threat of Dumoulin was what gave the finale the extra layer of intrigue that made it worthy of a World Championships. Having climbed in his usual steady manner – weaving across the narrow road to take the least steep gradients, and passing riders who had earlier dropped him, including Gianni Moscon and Julian Alaphilippe – Dumoulin crested the summit just about still in contention, and used his almost peerless time trial skills to bare down on the leading trio.
When the catch was made just 1.6km from the finish, he didn’t quite have the legs to produce what would have been the ideal move of using his momentum to time trial straight past them, but still seemed poised to make an attack. However, he had little time left to find an opportune moment, and was spotted and immediately attended to the one time he appeared to be revving up an acceleration.
His tired legs were then ultimately only able to sprint for fourth place, but Dumoulin – and his Dutch teammates in general, who were the main animators on the last ascent to Igls – deserve credit for making the race exciting.
Kennaugh Britain’s star performer
All the talk regarding the British team had been of the twin-threat posed by the Yates twins, but instead it was Peter Kennaugh who proved to be the team’s star performer.
The squad evidently held lofty ambitions for the race, as they took it upon themselves to lead the peloton and chase down attacks earlier on in the race, with the likes of Conor Swift and Tao Geoghegan Hart impressing with turns at the front.
But the plan had to be revised when Vuelta a España champion Simon Yates was dropped on the penultimate climb up to Igls. From this point, Kennaugh switched from defence to attack mode, an instigated a key move that saw Michael Valgren get up the road.
He couldn’t quite match the Dane’s pace, and the attack was eventually neutralised anyway, but Kennaugh wasn’t done yet. He road deep in the finale to stay near the front, and managed to finish a very fine sixteenth place ahead of an illustrious array of big name riders, including the next-best placed British rider Adam Yates in 37th.
It was a very impressive and typically exciting ride from Kennaugh, and helped compensate for the underpar performances from the Yates brothers.
Sagan’s reign comes to an end
At long last, after three successive victories, Peter Sagan has met his Worlds road race waterloo, and will be trading in the rainbow jersey he has become so synonymous with for his old Slovakian national champions jersey.
Doubts that he had the climbing legs to compete on such a testing course were confirmed very early on when, with over 90km still to ride, he was dropped on the climb. A nod to the camera indicated that he wasn’t too disappointed, however.
Watching him go out the back wasn’t therefore too much of a surprise, but it was to see other big names who were well suited to the course being dropped out of contention early on – notably Michael Kwiatkowski, Wout Poels and the possibly sleep-deprived new father Dan Martin on the penultimate climb to Igns.
Later Vincenzo Nibali was disappointed dropped, and the Colombians’ dazzling array of climbers failed to animate the race, while we’ll never know what Primož Roglič might have been capable had he not crashed.