Six years after Ponferrada 2014, the UCI Road World Championships road race took place entirely on a circuit. 174 riders from 43 countries started the race at 10am from the Autodromo. Three athletes weren’t able to take part: the German Nikias Arndt, Eritrea’s Natnael Berhane and one of the possible outsiders, Aleksej Lutsenko from Kazakhstan. It had already been demonstrated by Thursday’s women's race, won by the Dutch Anna van der Breggen, that the route was demanding, with little opportunity for recovery between the two climbs of Mazzolano (2.8km at an average gradient of 5.9%, with a maximum of 13%) and the Cima Gallisterna (2.7km at 6.4%, 14% max.) whose summit is placed 12km from the finish line, and providing 550 metres of altitude gain for each of the nine 28.8km laps, totalling more than 5000 metres.
A tough course, too much for the Dane Mads Pedersen who decided to not defend his rainbow jersey: “Whoever takes over from me, I wish them the best of luck and a year of happiness,” he said. The track was largely inspired by the previous UCI Road World Championships held in Imola, the 1968 edition won by Keetie van Oosten-Hage and Vittorio Adorni.
The first breakaway started just a few kilometres from the start with seven riders: Jonas Koch (Germany), Torstein Traeen (Norway), Marco Friedrich (Austria), Daniil Fominykh (Kazakhstan), Yukiya Arashiro (Japan), Eduard-Michael Grosu (Romania) and Alfredo Ulises Castillo Soto (Mexico); of which Arashiro, Grosu and Castillo Soto were the sole representatives for their countries. After one lap they gained 5’54’’ on the main group led by the Slovenian, Swiss and Belgium national teams. The gap between attackers and peloton fluctuated during the first part of the race: 6’34’’ after the second lap, 5’07’’ after lap three, 7’07’’ at the end of the fourth and 5’41’’ after lap five, with Friedrich and Grosu having lost contact with the breakaway group.
Under the eyes of President of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, and UCI President, David Lappartient, who were both following the race in Imola, the pace increased considerably on the sixth lap. Only Jonas Koch and Torstein Traeen remained on the front with Arashiro in no-man's-land and the main group stretched in a long line at a gap of just 2’37’’, being propelled by Denmark national team. The breakaway ended at 68km to go, just after the seventh passage on Cima Gallisterna thanks to a powerful acceleration by the French national team and shortly after the 2020 Tour de France winner Tadej Pogačar from Slovenia had to change his bike but promptly got back in the Gruppo Compatto of around 50 riders.
Fast forward a lap later again on Cima Gallisterna, the Slovenian – who was also one of the youngest participants – attacked almost at the same distance to the finish as when Anna van der Breggen w made her move in the women's race. Chased by Belgium, Pogačar gained 10 seconds with 40km to go and then increased his advantage to 25 seconds with one lap remaining, but he was caught by the Dutchman Tom Dumoulin and then all the main group on the Mazzolano ascent. After being hidden all day, the Italian national team attacked with Damiano Caruso and then with Vincenzo Nibali with 20km to go.
With 240km already in the legs, only the best riders were able to keep the front and everything was to be decided on the last Cima Gallisterna climb. Belgium’s Greg Van Avermaet pushed hard on the first part of the ascent, then it was the turn of the Swiss Marc Hirschi and 2014 UCI World Champion Michał Kwiatkowski from Poland. But at the summit it was the moment of the Frenchman Alaphilippe, chased by Hirschi, Giro di Lombardia winner Jakob Fuglsang (Denmark), Van Aert, Primož Roglič (Slovenia) and Kwiatkowski. At 5km to go, Alaphilippe managed to take a 12-second advantage and pushed full gas until the end, claiming his first UCI World title in front of Van Aert and Hirschi, 23 years after Laurent Brochard in San Sebastián, Spain, and 26 years after another Frenchman found victory in Italy: Luc Leblanc in Agrigento 1994.