Julian Alaphilippe took a sensational victory in the men’s road race at the 2020 Imola World Championships, attacking on the final climb and holding off the chasers all the way to the finish line.
The Frenchman’s face crumpled in emotion as his victory became reality in the finishing straight, eventually coming to a stop and falling to the floor after becoming the first rider since Laurent Brochard in 1997 to take the rainbow bands for his nation.
Belgium’s Wout van Aert won the sprint for second, with Marc Hirschi (Switzerland) pipping Michał Kwiatkowski (Poland) on the line to take bronze.
The race had erupted into life when Tour de France winner Tadej Pogačar attacked on the penultimate lap, looking to set things up for Slovenian team-mate Primož Roglič.
The attacks rarely stopped from there, until Alaphilippe picked his moment perfectly with 17km to go to launch up the final climb of the day and not look back.
Furiously he pedalled, checking behind on the progress of his chasers, but they were not overly keen to tow Wout van Aert to the finish line, so the gap survived and Alaphilippe sailed across the finish line to take the rainbow bands.
How it happened
It was a sleepy start to the men’s road race, absent of action after the breakaway was allowed up the road. Seven riders went off the front, namely Jonas Koch (Germany), Torstein Traeen (Norway), Daniil Fominykh (Kazakhstan), Yukiya Arashiro (Japan), Eduard-Michael Grosu (Romania) Ulises Castillo (Mexico) and Marco Friedrich (Austria).
With four of the nine laps remaining and over 100km to go, the escapees still had an advantage of 5-35 but the Belgians soon came to the fore to show their strength, the bunch stringing out on the descent.
Soon only Koch and Traeen were left out front, their gap halved, and they too were eventually reeled in as France came to the front with 70km to go and the race began to heat up.
Tour de France stage winner Nans Peters soon attacked for the French, looking to test the legs of Julian Alaphilippe’s rivals, leading over the finish line and two laps now remaining.
The French Grand Tour’s overall winner Tadej Pogačar then dropped back to the team car for a bike change as Luke Rowe kept Tom Pidcock safe at the front of the bunch, with Oliver Naesen leading the pack with 55km to go.
Rowe soon hit the front with Pidcock in tow, riders starting to drop after nearly 200km of racing and things starting to finally heat up, as Tom Dumoulin looked to be in difficulty.
Tiesj Benoot now took over on the front for Belgium, with Wout van Aert in fourth wheel, as Alaphilippe was brought back to the front once again by his team-mates following France’s bizarre move earlier in the race, as Pogačar was also marshalled forwards by Luka Mezgec.
Pogačar then unleashed his attack in the same place Anna van der Breggen had done in the women’s road race. The Belgians couldn’t immediately follow as the 22-year-old took out a 10-second gap, but soon became happy to let him dangle 25 seconds off the front.
He maintained this gap over the finish line to the sound of the bell signalling the start of the final lap, with team-mate Primož Roglič able to just sit in the bunch and wait for the rest to chase his young compatriot.
Alaphilippe and Guillaume Martin were spotted plotting at the back of the now reduced bunch, and with 22km to go Tom Dumoulin stretched his legs and immediately caught up to Pogačar, Van Avermaet leading the chase behind.
Guillaume Martin was the next to go, casually riding up and off the front, then it was the turn of Italy’s Damiano Caruso, Ecuador’s Richard Carapaz and Wout van Aert on his wheel to make a move.
By this point Tadej Pogačar was at the back of the group, as Vincenzo Nibali chanced his arm with 20km, Mikel Landa jumping on his wheel and followed by Rigoberto Uran and Van Aert.
Uran then attacked, gaining a momentary gap over the other three, who themselves had only minimal breathing space over the 50 riders who remained in the peloton.
The quartet were brought back into the fold on the flat following the descent, riders nervously waiting for the final climb.
There was no stop in action, though, as Italy launched once more, Pogačar back at the front and closing this move down, looking over his shoulder to check on Roglič’s location.
Carapaz, Van Avermaet and Alaphilippe were among the riders starting to drift off the front, Carapaz flicking his elbow at Van Avemaert to no avail.
Gaps were now opening up on the road, as nations found themselves with team-mates up the road and losing the desire to chase. But Belgium weren’t satisfied with Van Avermaet as their contender, working to bring Van Aert back into the fold.
Guillaume Martin then went off the front again, as 30 riders remained in contention behind but Tiesj Benoot soon had it back under control for Belgium at the foot of the climb.
Van Avermaet took to the front up the final climb, Marc Hirschi also now towards the front as the damage was being done at the back, Dani Martinez dropping off the back for Colombia.
Hirschi then started to move as Van Aert followed, Alaphilippe in third wheel and Roglič, Max Schachmann (Germany), Michał Kwiatkowski (Poland) and Jakob Fuglsang (Denmark) also making the juncture as the Dutch chased behind.
Kwiatkowski was the next to go, Schachmann being dropped from the leading group as Alaphilippe then kicked, launching his bid for glory.
Rocking over his handlebars, he fought the gradient to extend the gap to Fugslsang and Kwiatkowski, with Van Aert chasing back up to the pair before Roglič and Hirschi also joined to form a chasing quintet.
Kwiatkowski started to get the group organised as Alaphilippe took a 13-second advantage into the final 10km but they weren’t making any inroads with 7km to go, Alaphilippe keeping his gap and checking over his shoulder as he sat on his stem and pedalled furiously.
The gap dipped to 10 seconds with 5km remaining, the chase neutralised on the descent, before the flatter section offered the final chance for the catch to be made.
Van Aert hit the front and tried to drag the Frenchman back down the road, but on the race track the chasers started to look at each other as Van Aert picked it back up again.
Alaphilippe started to rock into the final 2km, doing all he could to hold his gap, but the chasers just could not peg him back, a mix of the Frenchman’s prowess and the group behind not wanting to bring Van Aert back into the fold just to be beaten in the sprint.
The gap between the groups was clearly visible on the race circuit but Alaphilippe had done enough, overcome with emotion as he sailed over the finish line to become the new world champion.
Imola 2020 World Championships, elite men’s road race: Imola to Imola (258km)
1. Julian Alaphilippe (Fra), in 6-38-34
2. Wout van Aert (Bel), at 24 seconds
3. Marc Hirschi (Sui)
4. Michał Kwiatkowski (Pol)
5. Jakob Fuglsang (Den)
6. Primož Roglič (Slo), all at same time
7. Michael Matthews (Aus), at 53s
8. Alejandro Valverde (Esp)
9. Max Schachmann (Ger)
10. Damiano Caruso (Ita), all at same time