To end a week-long schedule of racing, cycling fans were treated to spectacular performances over the weekend as the action moved to Flanders for the World Championship road races.
With the likes of Wout van Aert and Remco Evenepoel already having proved their power by coming second and third, respectively, in last week’s time trial from Knokke Heist to Bruges, Belgium was tipped for the top spot in the road race with a formidable team especially motivated to take the rainbow jersey on home turf.
The 268km course started in Antwerp and headed south through Mechelen before completing a series of loops around Leuven and Flanders, eventually finishing in Leuven. Featuring 42 climbs with gradients of up to 20%, the peloton was soon whittled down and only 68 finished the race of the 195 who started, representing 45 nations.
However, with such a demanding course there was plenty that was beyond the control of even such dominant teams as Belgium. Aside from the relentless pace of the race and steep climbs, a few crashes along the way dashed the chances of some hopefuls.
But in the end, it was the unexpected strength of the defending champion – France’s Julian Alaphilippe – that took everyone by surprise in an unbeatable show of strength. Although always a serious contender, Alaphilippe’s form going into the race didn’t suggest a top place finish. Indeed, surrounded by reporters at the finishline, the Frenchman told of how even he hadn’t been expecting to successfully defend the title – a feat only ever done by six riders in history.
But with insistent attacks at the front of the race, Alaphilippe finally broke away on the Sint Antoniusberg, 17km from the finish line. Amazingly he managed to sustain his lead, much to the dismay of Flemish fans who had hoped for a home champion in the shape of Wout van Aert.
In the end, Belgium just missed out on a podium finish with Jasper Stuyven coming in fourth and van Aert 11th.
Men Junior road race: 1. Per Strand Hagenes (Norway) 2. Romain Gregoire (France) 3. Madis Mihkels (Estonia)
Men under-23 road race: 1. Filippo Baroncini (Italy) 2. Biniam Girmay (Eritrea) 3. Olav Kooij (Netherlands)
Women Junior road race: 1. Zoe Backstedt (Great Britain) 2. Kaia Schmid (USA) 3. Linda Reidmann (Germany)
Women Elite road race: 1. Elisa Balsamo (Italy) 2. Marianne Vos (Netherlands) 3. Katarzyna Niewiadoma (Poland)
Men Elite road race: 1. Julian Alaphilippe (France) 2. Dylan van Baarle (Netherlands) 3. Michael Valgren (Denmark)