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How one decisive echelon attack changed worlds

DOHA, Qatar (VN) — Wind turned what was potentially a tame world championships into a brawl for the ages.

The peloton woke up Sunday to bristling flags, and a few hours later, the fight for the rainbow jersey turned into a brutal game of tactics and strength. Only 25 riders rode into the decisive fracture on the unforgiving flats with nowhere to hide. Though valiant chasers would fight on for a few more hours, their world championships were over as soon the peloton shattered into pieces.

“Everyone knew where they needed to be, and we all don’t fit on the same piece of road,” said Paris-Roubaix champion Mathew Hayman of Australia. “We were unlucky to lose Luke Durbridge, but the race worked out well for us to have ‘Bling’ [Michael Matthews] there, because we wanted a hard race, and we got it.”

That was the understatement of the day. Sunday’s 257.3km road race (plus about a 10km neutral start) turned what could have been a boring and predictable race into anything but. Wind and heat made for extreme racing conditions, and fans could sit back and marvel at the unfolding battle of the echelons.

“It was a real race, a real world championships,” said second-place Mark Cavendish. “If it was just the circuits, it would not have split. The wind changed the race.”

All week long, many complained that Qatar was an inappropriate and unworthy venue to host the worlds. Extreme heat, a dearth of fans and ambiance, set against a very technical, criterium-like circuit only fueled the discontent.

“It was a real race, a real world championships. If it was just the circuits, it would not have split. The wind changed the race.”
– Mark Cavendish

There was a key difference for the men’s race: The opening 150km were set across the barren, desolate flats of Qatar’s windswept peninsula. There was nary a hill, a building, or a tree in sight (or a fan). As riders lined up at Doha’s sprawling Aspire Center to take the start, a sense of inevitability swept across the peloton.

“We need to be ready for echelons today,” said Australia’s Heinrich Haussler before the start. “With the way the wind is blowing, everyone knows it’s going to happen.”

Belgium and the Netherlands were natural allies in the race against the wind. Both nations boast expert echelon racers, and each wanted to shed as many sprinters as possible to give their respective captains a chance to win. Efforts to splinter the group at 30km came too early due to wind direction.

The major breaking point came when the route doubled back to loop toward Doha, where the wind changed from a head-crosswind into a tail-crosswind. Belgium found another ally in the British team, which lined up in team time trial formation to drive pre-race favorite Cavendish into the nose of the peloton as the course reached the critical turn-around point.

“I was second into that corner,” Cavendish said. “We did a massive turn before we got to that corner, and we had Dan McLay and Ian Stannard leading it out. They put three of us in there, but we lost Luke Rowe to a puncture. That was a bit frustrating, but it was huge to be in the front group.”

Belgium set the tone, placing six riders into the lead group. But others were there with teammates, including Italy with four, Norway with three, and Netherlands and Great Britain with two each. Eventual winner Peter Sagan said he almost missed the split, but he sprinted alone across no-man’s leads to link up with teammate Michal Kolar in the front group.

“I was the last rider to get into the group,” Sagan said. “It was the first victory of the day to be in the first echelon.”

The ensuing battle was something spectacular, and something unseen in world championship competition. The worlds are typically held on closed circuits, usually between 15 to 25km, leaving almost no space for echelons to form. Though other worlds have featured some open road racing, nothing compared to Sunday’s 150km stampede across the treeless, stark flats of Qatar. The topography and heat delivered the echelons that many were hoping for.

“I was the last rider to get into the group. It was the first victory of the day to be in the first echelon.”
– Peter Sagan

“That was the most important part of the race,” said Tom Boonen, who had predicted days before the peloton would split. “We had six guys there, and we controlled the race to the finish. Everyone knew that it would be a split in the wind, so we were prepared for it.”

Echelon racing is both brutal and spectacular at the same time. Once a gap opens up, it takes a Herculean effort to bridge across. Panic rippled across the peloton as riders fought desperately to hold their position. Even the fastest and strongest riders in the world can get trapped if they lose the wheel.

“I was the last rider to miss the front group,” said French sprinter Nacer Bouhanni. “I made a huge sprint to try to get back. Christophe [Laporte] brought me to within 10 meters off the back. I was on the wheel of the last rider, but my legs just exploded. I could never make it back after that.”

There was no hesitation in the front group as everyone realized that a few hard pulls would snap the elastic. The Belgians and Italians poured it on to make sure the first group would stay clear. Others pitched in for the collective good. Everyone knew the race was reaching a critical moment, and just as Boonen predicted, it was every man for himself.

“I was behind the first echelon, and I almost missed it,” said Dutch rider Niki Terpstra. “At first, the gap was only a question of seconds, and I didn’t think it would hold. Then it got to one minute, and I thought, ‘this could be it!’”

As good as things were looking for the Belgians and Italians, the race was quickly unraveling for others. Germany’s Marcel Kittel missed the split and later abandoned in tears. André Greipel was in the front group, barely hanging on as the race turned back toward Doha, but he didn’t have the leg speed and ceded. John Degenkolb initially made it safely across to the front group, only to puncture about 10km after making the turn. He later lost his cool as his efforts to chase back were foiled, and he let his rage be known by squirting water into the face of a Belgian rival.

“That was a shit season,” Degenkolb grumbled to German reporters. “The mechanical ruined everything for me. I don’t know what would have been possible if that had not happened.”

“I was on the wheel of the last rider, but my legs just exploded. I could never make it back after that.”
– Nacer Bouhanni

Also missing the move were the French, who had only William Bonnet represented up front. Both of their leaders, Bouhanni and Arnaud Démare, were out of the frame. Yet the Germans were the only major team leading the chase, in large part because the French only had one rider in the first chase group, assuring that the leaders was gone for good.

“We saw the echelons forming, but we were caught in the wind. Only the strongest riders could close the gap. I saw Sagan ride 30 to 40 meters alone to get across. He was the last one,” Démare said. “Once the gap was two minutes, I knew it was over. It is a huge disappointment.”

The gap consolidated at two minutes as the peloton roared back toward the Pearl island for seven laps on the technical finishing circuit, where chasing would be much more complicated. The final sprint would decide the podium, but the race was already over for anyone who missed the first group.

Many might dislike Qatar, but the race delivered something unseen in world championships history. Qatar has no mountains, no hills, and no other geographic features to make it a compelling setting for bike racing. But organizers and the UCI deserve credit for utilizing Qatar’s one challenge: the wind. By adding the 150km of flats on the out-and-back loop, instead of racing the full distance on the circuit course, the die was cast for a spectacular race.

“There’s a reason the world championship is so special, and it always provides a worthy winner.
– Mark Cavendish

Cavendish summed it up best, admitting that the Qatar worlds were much more difficult than when he won the world title in Copenhagen in 2011.

“Just look at that podium; three former world champions standing there together,” Cavendish said. “There’s a reason the [world championship] is so special, and it always provides a worthy winner. We were the only three world champions in the race, and we all finished in the podium.”