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Even road race world championships can sometimes be drab affairs.
Luckily, when you have the world’s best riders lining up for one of cycling’s most cherished garments — the coveted rainbow jersey — top racing is almost always in the cards.
And occasionally, the world championships can deliver the best race of the year.
The 2021 road world championships in and across Flanders have all the makings of stand-out races for the stripes. Here’s why:
It’s in Flanders
Settings count in professional cycling. After all, it’s the sport’s outdoor stadium.
But sometimes even the Belgians can get it wrong. Back in 2002, the last time the worlds were held in cycling’s “holy ground,” they finished on an auto race track. Mario Cipollini won a bunch sprint that provided some color to what was a rather lackluster setting for such an important race.
None of that will be happening for the next two weekends.
Flanders officials have fully embraced their opportunity to showcase its cycling lanes, bergs, villages, and culture to the world. Bruges, Antwerp, and Leuven are among the key cities hosting events over the next 10 days.
The time trial courses swoop up and down along the western seaward side of Flanders before ending in Bruges. The road races start in Antwerp and end on a spaghetti noodle-type finishing flourish over two finishing loops that present an endless riddle of climbs, curves, and little room for recovery.
The entire province should be heaving for a once-in-a-lifetime for some of the world’s best racers to race on home roads in front of their friends, family, and countrymen.
A worlds unmasked
Somewhat surprisingly, Flanders officials announced this week that fans will be able to line the race routes wherever they like and do so without being masked up.
That’s an encouraging sign following 18 months of pandemic hell, and it could be one of the first major bike races where fans will be able to return to the roadside with a modicum of normality.
Since 2020, racing across the board has done a top job of keeping most of the racing happening despite a litany of health restrictions and mitigation efforts. Despite the limits and controls, the sport has been able to continue to shine.
Having a full impact of fans lining the road cannot be understated. Nearly all riders say they’ve missed the full fervor and emotion that racing in front of tens of thousands of screaming fans brings to the races.
Fans entering VIP tent zones and crowded start and finish areas will still need to follow health protocols, but for the everyday fan watching on the side of the road, it will almost feel like 2019 again.
Bring on the Jupiler and the Lion of Flanders flags!
Key to any memorable world championships is rivalry. One of the best moments ever in cycling history captured on film was a screaming Greg LeMond beating Dimitri Konyshev, Sean Kelly, and Steven Rooks in a four-up sprint in a rainy finish in Chambery that encapsulated everything the world championships stand for.
This year’s world championships will bring some well-worn rivalries to the fore.
Top among them, pre-race favorite Wout van Aert and longtime nemesis Mathieu van der Poel. Unfortunately, nagging back problems for van der Poel still might scuttle his worlds trip entirely, and he won’t make a final decision until next week.
Also read: Why everyone is cheering for Wout
If he’s there even if he’s a touch off his best, it would be another chapter in the ongoing rivalry between cycling’s two best and biggest motors in the peloton today. Everyone’s hoping it happens.
Racing in her final worlds, Anna van der Breggen could see her most dangerous rival within her ranks as compatriot and teammate Annemiek van Vleuten appears to be hitting a “purple patch” just in time for a run at a possible rainbow double.
And with riders racing in national colors, the Dutch, Belgians, French, and Italians will be racing on pride throughout the week.
Expect fireworks and plenty of surprises.
Weather always plays a decisive role in any world championships.
And sometimes brutal conditions can almost overwhelm a race, much like what happened in the elite men’s road race in Yorkshire in 2019, when extreme cold and rain sapped the life out of the bunch just a day after the women delivered a superb race in better conditions.
All eyes will be on the weather forecasts.
Flanders in late September can be hit or miss. After years of relatively mild weather during the spring classics in April, some are hoping for classic classics-style weather for the worlds. They might get it.
Unfortunately, for the elite men time trialists, forecasters are calling for rain Sunday. Partly sunny skies are forecasted for the rest of the week, with rain expected to move back in Monday, the day after the men’s road race. Of course, that can change very fast.
Winds will always be a factor in Flanders, especially for the time trials being contested closer to the coast. Winds are expected to pick up for the men’s road race next Sunday, with southwesterly breezes at 20kph.
Belgians on home roads
It’s all the elements adding up that could make this world championship one that truly lives up to the hype.
All the ingredients are there: demanding courses, a deep level of favorites, challenging weather, historic racing terrain, and a loyal fanbase that should turn out in record numbers.
The key narrative will be the Belgian riders racing for the rainbow jersey on home roads.
The men’s Belgian peloton is so deep right now that Belgium could have fielded two top-quality teams, with the likes of Greg Van Avermaet, Sep Vanmarcke, and Oliver Naesen among those being left at home. The Belgians will try to play spoiler on the women’s side against the heavily favored Dutch and Italian squads.