Julian Alaphilippe overcame 60 Flemish hills and the wrath of Flemish fans to join the rare group of male cyclists who successfully defended the title of world road racing champion, winning solo in Leuven after covering the last 17 kilometers all alone to do a little piece of personal history. France may be one of the first nations in cycling, but even champions like Bernard Hinault and Louison Bobet have never won the world twice.
Dylan van Baarle of the Netherlands won the sprint for second place, with Michael Valgren of Denmark third, while Belgian rider Jasper Stuyven missed the podium terribly. 22-year-old British runner and Olympic gold medalist Tom Pidcock finished sixth.
Alaphilippe takes advantage of an aggressive race that begins to take shape at 180 km out of the remaining 260 km, as a French team entirely devoted to its service launches the first in a series of attacks that quickly wear out the peloton on a course of ‘barely a mile of straight or level road in it.
As the race headed towards the finish circuit around Leuven, Alaphippe attacked to create a final selection of 17 riders with less than 50 kilometers to go, and he took his final step on the brief cobbled climb to St Antonius in Leuven, sprinting to the left. out of the way while his rivals stayed to the right. With two teammates to mark the group behind him, the die was cast.
Flemish fans were aiming whistles and throwing beer at the Frenchman as he passed, but their frustration would have been better directed at the team selectors who pinned it all on youngster Remco Evenepoel and the Tour of Britain and the double Classic winner Wout van Aert and, only for the first to burn his energy with an unsuccessful early attack while the second ran out of legs in the last kilometers.
“I never imagined running a lap and a half of the circuit on my own, it was not in the plan,” said Alaphilippe. “I would like to thank the Belgian fans, not always nice, but they made me angry and that pushed me to move forward.
Just behind the four riders who sprinted for the silver medal, Tom Pidcock capped a consistent run from a young British team to take a sixth place which promises great things for the future. “I’ve waited too long,” he says. “I thought Alaphilippe was attacking too much, getting excited, but he was just playing with us.”
At 22, Pidcock’s first professional season saw him win the semi-classic Flèche Brabançonne and the Olympic cross country mountain bike title; in races as long and difficult as worlds his time will come, but Alaphilippus’ time is now.