The World Championships is a race like no other.
Even as it might have a parcours comparable to elsewhere, it is never raced in the same way as any other one-day race. Knowing that, Flanders 2021 nevertheless managed to deliver a men’s World Championship road race like none we’ve seen before, replete with surprises and drama from the first kilometre to the final.
For good or ill, the host nation was always destined to define the race, promising us a show in the home of cycling. Their riders were visible on the front, in different guises, for more of the 268 kilometres than those of any other.
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But even as the Belgians had written the script in advance, one Frenchman was determined to rip it up. With all the pressure and attention on home favourite, Wout van Aert, defending champion Julian Alaphilippe could afford to ride with legs as light as those of an outsider. One move followed another before a third and final attack carried him to glory in Leuven.
Highlights: Alaphilippe stuns field to defend world title
Before those final thrilling kilometres, however, we were witness to 260 brutal ones.
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After the race rolled out of Antwerp, a breakaway, of sorts, was allowed to form relatively easily. Eight-strong, it contained unfancied riders from unfancied nations, and only one WorldTour professional, in the shape of Austria’s Patrick Gamper.
Although allowed a modest gap, the attention was not on the escapees for long. Barely 80km in, on the Smeysberg climb, the first serious attack from the bunch occurred. With a significance that seems even more important in retrospect, it was France’s Benoit Cosnefroy, with explicit permission from Julian Alaphilippe who launched it.
Remco Evenepoel was the Belgian rider responsible for following, while Tim Declercq, who had been providing the Lion (of Flanders’) share of the peloton’s fire power back in the engine room felt obliged to join, seemingly as much to keep his own team-mate under control as the rest of the group. The younger rider was at times seen to be at tactical odds with his road captain. Evenepoel wanted to push on, while Declercq felt the onus was on other countries, who did not have a Wout van Aert back in the bunch.
The group contained big talent, such as the reigning Tour of Flanders champion, Kasper Asgreen, and three-time Vuelta winner Primoz Roglic. As it built up a healthy lead of its own over the peloton, Italy, one of the few big countries not represented, were forced to put men on the front of the peloton.
Matteo Trentin, a rider who came close to personal glory in Harrogate two years ago, gave everything to manage and then extinguish the break’s advantage. As the race arrived in Leuven for its second passage, it was as one.
“As one” did not mean settled, however, and only presented opportunities for further attacks. These were, again, largely instigated by the French.
With 90km remaining, a move made by Nils Politt of Germany was the next to break the elastic. Evenepoel was able to infiltrate it.
Here was a rider with something to prove. Not to or for himself, but to and for his country and team-mates.
He has been criticised in recent months, by local press, and by the king of Belgium, Eddy Merckx, for riding for himself, putting personal ambitions and glory ahead of those of his country and compatriots. Merckx even suggested Evenepoel ought not to have been selected for the World Championships. In the press Evenepoel had publicly rejected such disparagement, but it was on the road to Leuven that he put his money where his mouth was.
With less than a third of the race remaining, an attack by Alaphilippe out of the peloton dragged Van Aert up to the front group. That was when Evenepoel began to ride.
“Evenepoel is an absolute machine,” said Rob Hatch in commentary. “We’re getting a demonstration of him as a team player.”
We were. As it became clear that the group containing three Belgians, three Italians, three Frenchmen and Mathieu van der Poel was going to provide the winner, Evenepoel gave everything for his leader. In the final fifth of the race, he rode and rode and rode and rode. Even when the lead of the group was secured, he was determined to deter attacks to his leader’s supremacy. No-one from the group wanted a sprint more than Wout.
Perhaps Evenepoel, who only peeled off with 26km left of the race, had made the race too hard for his leader. Only a few kilometres after Evenepoel had dropped away, Alaphilippe, set up by Valentin Madouas, launched a significant, softening attack on the climb of the Wijnpers.
It was his next, however, on the next Leuven hill, the Sint-Antoniusberg, that would prove unfollowable. Van der Poel and Van Aert had nothing to offer, which is just how it goes, sometimes. Dylan Van Baarle, Jasper Stuyven, Neilson Powless and Michael Valgren gave chase but it quickly became one of those scenarios where one rider had the advantage over four. In the finale Alaphilippe could ride without hesitation, only looking forward, while the others were obliged to look around at each other. Even as the Frenchman’s legs faded he was able to establish a lead of a few seconds, then a few more, before it became an inevitable advantage of half a minute.
While the home crowd booed his passage good-naturedly, an “exhausted but exuberant” Alaphilippe had time to take in the moment, and raise his arms in celebration.
Dylan Van Baarle finished in second, and Michael Valgren third to deny the host country podium representation. A disappointed Van Aert, for whom the day was designed, could manage no better than 11th.
“This wasn’t planned,” said Alaphilippe afterwards. “I went all out. I have no words.”
‘I didn’t think it was possible!’ – Alaphilippe after stunning worlds defence
There’s no such thing as an unworthy world champion but there are world champions who feel perhaps more perfect than others. Rob Hatch called it “a race for the ages.” Julian Alaphilippe more than earned himself another year in rainbows.
You can watch the 2021 UCI Road World Championships live and ad-free on the Eurosport app and Eurosport.co.uk. Download the Eurosport app for iOS and Android now. You can also watch the most comprehensive live & ad-free racing on GCN+. Go deeper and get interactive with live polls & quizzes, plus rider profiles, race updates, results & more – plus stream exclusive cycling documentaries.
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