Coming in as the defending champion, Julian Alaphilippe (FRA) knew that he would have to pull out something special to be crowned World Champion again. On the streets of Flanders, he rode a special race to win again.
Still smarting from Wout van Aert’s silver medal at the Olympics, the Belgian team were hopeful of securing the rainbow jersey for the man who had finished with three silver medals in major championships over the last twelve months.
The home team were expected to take charge of the race as Men’s World Championships race unfolded. The Belgians lived up to the expectations, as Tim de Clerq, Tiesj Benoot and Remco Evenepoel all spent big chunks of the race on the front.
As the race kicked off the 268km course, eight riders broke away, before being pulled back, with 115km to go.
Tim de Clerq and Davide Ballerini (ITA) did the power of work to bring back the early breakaway, and the Dutch team were a strong presence on the front of the peloton early on.
As the group passed a tough cobbled climb, Julian Alaphilippe launched for the first time, splitting the peloton. Caleb Ewan, one of the key Aussie hopes was distanced on the climb, as he struggled with cramp, putting an end to any hope that he could win the rainbow jersey.
The 16 riders who came across with him, following that attack, would stay away. The peloton wouldn’t see them again until the finish line. Australians Michael Matthews and Rob Stannard were in the group, but had been unable to follow the withering pace.
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When the front of the race came together again, Remco Evenepoel was driving the pace. He sat on the front for kilometres on end, and made sure that the group would not be caught.
With 48km to go, the peloton was just 30 seconds behind, Alaphilippe attacked again, and this time, the group followed, and increased their lead. Ten kilometres later, they had 80 seconds over the bunch, as the gap continued to grow.
Amongst the group of 17, there were three riders from Belgium, Italy and France, with two from Norway and the Netherlands. Evenepoel continued to sit on the front, keeping the pace high to neutralise any attacks from the group.
Evenepoel swung of, totally spent, with just 26km remaining in the 268km enduro. Not long after he did, Alaphilippe attacked again, and gained a small gap.
Reminiscent of his victory at Imola, the Frenchman went on the offensive on a steep section of road, and time trialled away from the group.
With just 10km to go, Alaphilippe held a ten second lead over Jesper Stuyven (BEL) , Dylan van Baarle (NED) , Nielson Powless (USA) and Michael Valgren (DEN).
Wout van Aert (BEL) and the remaining favourites from the forward bunch found themselves 35 seconds adrift. The group was unwilling to cooperate and chase cohesively, and the race slipped away from them.
That gap of ten seconds would be as close as the chasing quartet would get. As he did 12 months ago, the Frenchman rode with a pace that was unmatched, as he attacked every climb and corner in the last few kilometres.
In the end, he had enough time to sit up, and celebrate, as he saluted the crown and crossed the line.
Behind him, van Baarle would take second, and Valgren bronze. For all the efforts of the Belgian team, they would leave empty handed.
There will be later questions about the tactics of the Belgian team, as they used up Evenepoel’s legs, and van Aert was unable to follow the final move.
But for now, the cycling world will toast the classy Frenchman, who has won two consecutive World Championships, and rode with panache and aggression as the defending champion in Flanders.
The 2022 World Championships will be held in Wollongong.
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