There is only one Julian Alaphilippe, and he delighted his countless fans again on Sunday as he dominated the Men Elite road race of the 2021 UCI Road World Championships to keep the rainbow jersey he had claimed a year before in Imola (ITA).
On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the event, in Flanders (Belgium) “Loulou” became the seventh rider and the first Frenchman to win two years in a row. And he did it with a solo triumph, after he dropped all of his rivals with 17km to go. Dylan van Baarle (NED) and Michael Valgren (DEN) joined him on the podium.
“I really hurt myself in the final lap,” Alaphilippe said as he tried to recover from his solo effort. “I was thinking about my kid. There were also many Belgian supporters who wanted Wout van Aert to come back and it pushed me. It was very hard; it’s a huge emotion. I know what it means to spend a year with the rainbow jersey. I was relaxed, I just wanted to do well and help the team. I knew I had good legs. The course suited me and I made a selection. We had Valentin [Madouas] and Florian [Sénéchal] and I told Florian to save his legs for the finale. It wasn’t planned; I didn’t think I could make it to the end. I know what awaits me next year. I’m happy.”
As his team manager, Thomas Voeckler, entered the interview area, Alaphilippe added with a huge smile: “We didn’t really respect the plan but it worked out!”
French riders quickly open up the race
The 194-man (with riders from 45 nations) peloton took off from Antwerpen with 56km leading to Leuven, where they would face the Flandrien circuit (two laps) and the Leuven circuit (eight laps) to try and succeed Julian Alaphilippe. After 12km of battle, eight riders made the early breakaway: Jose Tito Hernandez (COL), Joel Burbano (ECU), Pavel Kochetkov (RCF), Patrick Gamper (AUT), Rory Towsend (IRL), Oskar Nisu (EST), Kim Magnusson (SWE) and Jambaljamts Sainbayar (MGL).
Belgium and Denmark drove the bunch and the gap was up to 5:18mins as they crossed the line for the first time. Tension quickly rose with crashes involving the likes of Ethan Hayter (GBR), Mads Pedersen (DEN) and Matteo Trentin (ITA), and attacks from very far away by serious contenders.
Frenchmen lit the first fireworks on the first lap of the Flandrien circuit. After an attempt by Anthony Turgis, Benoît Cosnefroy got on the move with 178km to go, followed by Remco Evenepoel (BEL) and Magnus Cort Nielsen (DEN). More attacks involved Arnaud Démare (FRA), Kasper Asgreen (DEN), Primož Roglič, Jan Tratnik (SLO), Tim Declercq (BEL), Ben Swift (GBR), Pascal Eenkhoorn (NED), Imanol Erviti (ESP), Nathan Haas (AUS), Stefan Bissegger (SUI), Markus Hoelgaard (NOR) and Brandon McNulty (USA).
The Italians were caught behind and it led to a major chase between this impressive group and the peloton, until everyone got back together, including the early attackers, as the race entered the last 130km. The bunch was reduced and the Belgians maintained a high pace.
Alaphilippe’s countless attacks
With more attacks, a new group of 11 attackers led by Remco Evenepoel again went away with 90km to go. The gap remained minimal and Alaphilippe (FRA) put the hammer down with 58km to go to bridge the gap and create a new group of 17 leaders. The defending champion had two teammates with him, Valentin Madouas and Florian Sénéchal. The Belgian team also had three riders, with Jasper Stuyven alongside Van Aert and Evenepoel, while Italy’s Sonny Colbrelli was joined by Andrea Bagioli and Giacomo Nizzolo.
Alaphilippe attacked again on the penultimate ascent of Wijnpers, and again with 19km to go, and again up Sint-Antoniusberg. He entered the final lap (15.6km) with a 10sec lead on four chasers: Neilson Powless (USA), Jasper Stuyven (BEL), Dylan van Baarle (NED) and Michael Valgren (DEN).
After a tight chase, Alaphilippe eventually increased his lead to 30secs on the final ascent of Wijnpers and pushed alone all the way to the line. Behind him, Van Baarle dominated the sprint for silver ahead of Valgren. Jasper Stuyven (fourth) was the first Belgian on the line to wrap up this amazing week of racing in Flanders.