Triumphant Julian Alaphilippe ends French drought
Much is made of how there has not been a French winner of the Tour de France since 1985, but the nation has also endured a similarly long draught of winners in the men’s road race at the World Championships.
Their last victory came in 1997 courtesy of Laurent Brochard and since then cycling’s other traditional European powerhouses Italy, Spain and Belgium have won it four, five and two times respectively.
When Julian Alaphilippe burst onto the scene in the middle of the last decade, he looked exactly like the kind of punchy, powerful rider who could end that particular draught. Today, having already picked up a host of other major Classics, he fulfilled that hope and won France its long-awaited gold medal.
He won the race in his typical swashbuckling style, launching one of his trademark punchy attacks on the final climb, with a turn of speed that no-one could match, and soloing the rest of the 12km to the finish.
His face was a picture of pain all the way to the finish, his mouth wide-open as he gasped for air, and his head compulsively swivelling as he checked and double-checked to make sure the chasers weren’t nearing.
They weren’t, and an emotional Alaphilippe had time to celebrate and let the feeling of victory sink in as he crossed the line.
There can hardly have been a more popular and charismatic winner of the Worlds than Alaphilippe. It ought to be a fun 12 months watching him in the rainbow jersey.
Wout van Aert a victim of his own strength
Paradoxically, being too good can sometimes be more of a hindrance than an advantage in cycling.
Everybody in Imola knew that Wout van Aert was the man to beat today. At the Tour de France earlier this month the 26-year-old had displayed the kind of all-round talent that men’s cycling has not seen for decades, combining one of the peloton’s quickest bunch sprints with an ability to climb alongside yellow jersey candidates.
That meant two things. Firstly, that everyone would make sure to try to cover any attack he made, and secondly that nobody would want to work with him in the knowledge that he’d outsprint them at the finish.
His Belgian team did the best they could to work around these two problems and were impressively united behind their leader. They did a lot of the pace-setting in the peloton over the last two laps, and Tiesj Benoot, Tim Wellens and Greg van Avermaet all helped control the many attacks that were attempted.
Ultimately, though, the final climb was too tough for them to control. Van Avermaet set a searing tempo for its first half, but when Switzerland’s Marc Hirschi attacked, Van Aert was left to his own devices.
He desperately needed to follow Alaphilippe’s wheel when the Frenchmen made his attack, but could not, and when four other riders joined him to form a chase group, they inevitably failed to work well together, knowing that bringing Alaphilippe back would only mean being beaten by Van Aert in the sprint.
Van Aert did indeed win the sprint for second, and therefore adds another silver medal to add to the one won in the time trial. He might have hoped for more, but that’s still a fine achievement.
Best of the rest Marc Hirschi grabs bronze
Wout van Aert winning the sprint for silver might have been nailed-on, but who took bronze from the remaining four riders in the group was a much more open contest.
Marc Hirschi (Switzerland), Michał Kiwatkowski (Poland), Jakob Fuglsang (Denmark) and Primož Roglič (Slovenia) all formed a chasing group behind Alaphilippe, after the decisive selections were made on the ninth and final ascent of the steep Cima Gallisterna.
Kwiatkowski and Hirschi were the best sprinters on paper, though you can never tell how someone’s sprint will hold up after over 250km of racing. Nevertheless, it was those two riders who emerged as the quickest behind van Aert with Hirschi just about edging it at the line.
It was another triumph for the 22-year-old, who enjoyed a stunning breakthrough Tour de France this month, where he won a stage and entertained us all with his attacking racing. And his attacking instincts were again on display today, as he forced the initial selection of eight riders with an acceleration on the final climb.
His success was more evidence that a changing of the guard is happening between the older establishment and the young upstarts doing so well this season, and that this former under-23 world champion might one day win at senior level.
Slovenians add excitement with Tadej Pogačar attack
The Worlds is usually a slow-burner, with most laps functioning as a gradual whittling-down, attritional process rather than a springboard for exciting, attacking racing.
This year was no exception for the most part, until Tour de France winner Tadej Pogačar launched an attack on the penultimate lap, with over 40km still to ride until the finish.
With most riders, we’d have written off such an early solo attack as hopeless, but Pogacar had only last week achieved something deemed similarly unlikely in the final time trial of the Tour de France. And, on top of that, just yesterday we witnessed Anna van der Breggen triumph at the women’s elite race with an attack on the same climb and on the same lap.
However, even the Tour de France winner does not boast the same superiority over the rest of the field as the Giro Rosa winner Van der Bregen, and Pogačar was reeled in by the Belgian-led peloton around 20km from the finish.
The plan had been partly to soften up the others for the man he so dramatically defeated at the Tour de France, Primož Roglič. And indeed, Roglič was able to get into the chase group behind Alaphilippe. But his lack of a sprint finish cost him a medal, and he instead had to settle for sixth-place.
Tom Pidcock impresses on debut
With the likes of Geraint Thomas and the Yates brothers choosing not to ride, Great Britain brought an inexperienced team to Imola.
Instead, the race was tackled as a chance for the nation’s hottest young prospect, Tom Pidcock, to gain some valuable experience and show what he could do at senior level.
The 21-year-old has been hyped for a number of years now, due to his success in cyclo-cross, as well as on the road by winning races like Paris-Roubaix at both junior and under-23 level, and this year he enjoyed one of his biggest breakthroughs yet with a stunningly dominant performance to win the u23 baby Giro.
Profiting from great work by the vastly experienced Luke Rowe, Pidcock impressed today, managing to just about survive the increase in pace on the penultimate climbs to remain in the peloton at the bell.
He tailed away in the final lap, but that’s only to be expected of a rider not used to the extra distance of elite road races like the Worlds. His eventual finish of 42nd made for a successful debut and Team Ineos, who only last week announced that they had signed Pidcock, will be delighted with how their new recruit looks.