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Julian Alaphilippe raced like a true champion to successfully defend his rainbow jersey at the world championship road race Sunday.
The Frenchman unpicked a Belgian lockdown with a series of blazing attacks in the Flandrien hills before going solo with 18km to go in what was one of the most breathtaking worlds road races in years.
Home darling Wout van Aert was left bitterly disappointed with 11th, an off-form Mathieu van der Poel did his best under unfavorable circumstances, and Tom Pidcock left it too late to make his mark.
Here’s what the stars said after the 2021 world championship road race:
Julian Alaphilippe (France): World champion
CHAMPION DU MONDE 🤩🇫🇷
— UCI (@UCI_cycling) September 26, 2021
Julian Alaphilippe did what Julian Alaphilippe does Sunday, laying down a barrage of brave attacks that blew the race to bits.
The defending champ came to the fore after his French teammates had animated the race with riders like Benoit Consnefroy and Anthony Turgis making the race extra tough all day long. Alaphilippe more than stepped up after his teammates’ endeavors, forcing the first major split at 60km to go, and surging again and again in the final Leuven circuits before he was left in awesome isolation at the front of the race.
“I gave everything, but I also have to look at the team. Vakentin Madouas and [Florian] Sénéchal guided me excellently in the final. It was very difficult but in the end a real dream. The legs were good, I worked hard towards this. This was not foreseen. I have no words for this, I’m just happy.
“I know what it’s like to ride in this jersey so that was definitely an extra motivation for me today. It was terrible to have to go 18km from the finish, but I knew what I had to do and just kept on giving everything.”
Wout van Aert (Belgium): 11th
Great atmosphere in Belgium. 🙌🏼 pic.twitter.com/Mdh0mNBHvo
— Team Jumbo-Visma cycling (@JumboVismaRoad) September 26, 2021
Pre-race favorite Wout van Aert was disconsolate after being distanced by Alaphilippe’s assault. Van Aert couldn’t match the Frenchman’s moves in the Leuven circuit and dropped back into a group of stragglers to finish an anonymous 11th.
After van Aert was the standout star of the season, the Belgian team had gone all-in for the 27-year-old and the light blue jerseys dominated the race. It all looked to be going so well for Belgium after the team swamped the front of the race and marked the major moves, but van Aert just didn’t have the legs when he needed them most.
“I already felt on the Smeysberg climb that I didn’t have the legs I had hoped for. After that the course was a bit easier, so I hoped I could resist. We were also in a good situation then, but on the course in Leuven my legs were totally empty. I told Jasper [Stuyven] that I wasn’t good enough. I hoped he could take another medal, but it just didn’t work out.
“There wasn’t enough in my legs when Alaphilippe attacked … I’m only human. Alaphilippe was the strongest in the race. He has attacked countless times. Behind that there were maybe a lot of riders who felt good, but nobody had the same gear as Julian.
“The team rode a good race. We had to take our responsibility and did it smartly. Remco [Evenepoele] played a very nice role, and the other Belgians also rode fantastically. That’s what makes it so disappointing.”
Mathieu van der Poel (Netherlands): 8th
🏁 Hats off to you, Mathieu! After all you’ve been through in the past weeks, you can be proud of yourself. 👏 pic.twitter.com/Z85cHHwtRM
— Alpecin-Fenix Cycling Team (@AlpecinFenix) September 26, 2021
Mathieu van der Poel had started the race after weeks of uncertainty as he struggled to shake off the back injury he sustained at the Olympic mountain bike race. The Dutch ace had scrambled for form in the final weeks before the worlds, riding just three one-day races in a late bid to rediscover his racing legs after some eight weeks without racing.
Although the Dutchman wasn’t able to animate the race Sunday in the way he would have when on top form, the 26-year-old managed to edge out Sonny Colbrelli and arch rival van Aert in the kick for eighth place, scoring a result that may have been better than many expected.
Van der Poel is now headed to Paris-Roubaix next weekend.
“It was hard work, especially in the first part of the race. I didn’t exactly have much surplus today. I hoped that we would ride to the finish with a group and sprint for the gold there, but that didn’t happen.
“Dylan van Baarle then came to ask me what he should do when Alaphilippe was gone. I told him that he should jump himself if he still felt good.
“Then I got into a situation where Dylan was in the front and I had to control a bit in the group. I finished eighth, that was the highest possible for me today anyway.”
Tom Pidcock (Great Britain): 6th
What an absolutely brutal race and what an incredible ride from this insanely talented 22 year old, fighting until the very end at his second elite road worlds! 👊
— British Cycling (@BritishCycling) September 26, 2021
Tom Pidcock rode to sixth after starting the race uncertain of his form after feeling the fatigue of racing his debut grand tour at this summer’s Vuelta a Espana. The young Brit kept his head down and his powder dry for the majority of the race before making the decisive splits in the final 20km.
Pidcock was rarely to be seen all day as he waited for his moment to make his move – but as he explains, he left it all too late.
“It was cat and mouse. I had a feeling it would be, coming into the race on this circuit there’s no climb hard enough to just ride off – unless you’re Alaphilippe.
“I was just saving it for one attack and I just waited too long and missed the train. Alaphilippe did an unreal ride, fair play to him.
The crowds were unreal. We weren’t riding on roads but in a stadium … the crowds on the first lap … my ears were ringing, it was incredible.”