The first event of Flanders 2021, the World Time Trial Championship, delivered a showcase showdown between two of the greatest performers in this discipline. Home hero Wout van Aert and defending champion Filippo Ganna were the final riders down the ramp, and when they got going, they really got going.
And the race was won by the smallest of margins. The six seconds Ganna went clear by was the tightest time gap since Tony Martin - more on him later - beat Taylor Phinney to the title in 2012.
Since he first emerged to global prominence in the individual pursuit in 2016, Ganna has been the master of measuring effort, and so it proved again today. He was not the fastest rider until the finish, which was the only place it mattered.
‘Maybe next summer’ - Ganna thinking about hour record attempt
Long before Ganna crossed the line, home hopes were first raised at the sight of Remco Evenepoel, riding with strength and guts we haven’t seen from him for some time, fuelled perhaps by the energy of thousands of fans long absent, but now lining the side of home roads once again. An early starter, but not the earliest, though his was not the first fast time at check one, it was the first that looked like it might go all the way. 11 seconds under that of Max Walscheid’s impressive enough start, Evenepoel looked to be only getting started, settling into his run. And so it proved. By the second intermediate split, despite a few twitchy moments, including one in which he lost his literal bottle, he had only extended his lead. 37 seconds quicker than the promising Swiss rider, Stefan Bissenger, Evenepoel seemed destined for the hot seat.
He made it there by a mile - with a time of 48:31, an average speed of 53.5km/h - but by the time he did the biggest guns in the race were rolling.
The final six riders down the ramp - in the disappointingly un-windswept north sea town of Knokke-Heist - included the reigning champions of the Tour de France, the Tour of Flanders, and the European champion.
Tadej Pogacar, Kasper Asgreen and Stefan Kueng all put on a decent show, but none could match the power of Van Aert and Ganna.
‘Slow down!’ – Cheeky Belgium fans urge Ganna to ease up during time trial
There are few bigger in cycling at the moment that Remco’s own national team-mate, Wout van Aert. Van Aert is not technically a TT specialist, but it’s technical only in the sense that he can win every other kind of race as well. Ganna, in contrast, is the purest of testers the sport has seen since Tony Martin, the German who announced his retirement earlier in the day.
Neither blew Evenepoel out of the water at the first split, perhaps a reflection of the technicality of the early Ks. Van Aert was notably faster than Ganna there, by seven seconds.
On the long tree-lined boulevards of in-land Flanders, however, both showed what they were made of, and it was almost indistinguishable stuff.
Telling was that although the winner on the Champs was still ahead, he had slipped back to a lead of less than a second. Momentum was with the Italian, and the steely determination on his face suggested that he knew it. Van Aert appeared to be fighting slightly more to stay in the race. He crossed the finish line knowing he’d comfortably knocked his compatriot into second place, but equally aware that his own fastest time would not be enough.
Ganna, likewise, could tell the race was won before it was. Though he was pushed to perform by Van Aert, who was one of the first people he embraced, the precision with which he delivered that performance, and produced the fastest world championship time trial recorded, showed us who he is.
Another of the rides of the day was one we barely caught a glimpse of. Great Britain’s Ethan Hayter flew through the first intermediate split, just three seconds slower than Evenepoel. He could not maintain the pace and came home in eighth place to be able to perform in this discipline on a par with some of the specialists, gives an idea of how much potential this all-rounder has. Interviewed afterwards, Hayter seemed more than satisfied with his ride.
Less so was Kueng. The Swiss rider is normally as reliable as the watches his home country is renowned for, but something didn’t tick for him today, as he finished more than a minute off Ganna’s winning time.
And while Kueng was disappointed, if there was one rider who disappointed us, it was Remi Cavagna. The Frenchman, who is a perfectly capable tester, never looked like delivering on that capability. 14th place is far less than most would expect from the man who, was a crash away from beating Ganna in the final stage TT at this year’s Giro.
But Sunday was really all about a second title on the bounce for a diesel in the age of hybrids. By bumping two of Belgium’s own into silver and bronze, Ganna might have made himself unpopular in Bruges. It’s hard to imagine anyone begrudging a ride of such strength and style.
"I didn't know if I could arrive at the World Championships with good sensations and good shape but today when I woke up, I had a good feeling in my legs and in my head I just dreamed to win again today," said Ganna afterwards. "For me defending this jersey is very important and I hope to honour it in the next year."
'Sorry!' - Ganna on denying Belgians on home soil
Who would dare bet against it?
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