It takes a lot to bring veteran hard-man Philippe Gilbert to tears. But there he was, the former world champion and defending Paris-Roubaix winner, collapsing in tears as he abandoned Sunday’ grueling road world championships following a crash.
The six-and-a-half-hour race turned into a race of attrition, and left everyone shattered in its wake.
“My tears are normal,” Gilbert told Belgian media. “This is a big blow. I worked so hard to be ready for this race, and to have it end like this.”
Just about everyone will be happy to leave the rainy and cold conditions Yorkshire in the rearview mirror. Only surprise winner Mads Pedersen will be smiling as the world’s elite men racers head off to vacation or late-season racing finales.
Conditions were so bad Sunday organizers were forced to alter the route even before the race started, lopping off two of the three major climbs early in the race due to standing water on the course. To maintain the world’s distance, they added two additional loops on the finishing circuit, guaranteeing a hard race of 260.7km.
Temperatures dropped throughout the afternoon, and cold and shivering riders left the race in shattered husks.
Defending champion Alejandro Valverde abandoned showing signs of hypothermia in what was his first DNF in 13 world’s starts.
“I was frozen and I told my teammates I could not continue,” Valverde told AS. “Everyone knew it was going to be a hard race, but with such bad weather, it turned into a crazy day.”
The rain, cold and wind coupled with a technical, demanding finishing circuit left many teams’s best-laid plans in shambles. The heavily favored Belgians lost Gilbert and Remco Evenepoel midway through the race due a crash. Valverde left soon afterward, all but defanging the strong Spanish unit.
The lead group was down to less than 50 riders when the race turned up the heat in the closing two loops. With no numbers to chase from behind, a lead group of five riders soon pressed toward the line in what would become the victorious move. Pre-race favorite Julian Alaphilippe said he was powerless to mount a serious chase.
“We’ll never forget this day,” Alaphilippe said. “I’ve rarely experienced something so hard in all of my career.”
Even the strongest of the day were not immune to the demanding conditions. Pre-race favorite Mathieu van der Poel astutely bridged out to a group that included eventual winner Pedersen, Italians Gianni Moscon and silver medalist Matteo Trentin, and bronze medalist Stefan Küng (Switzerland). Van der Poel, who’s been on a high-flying season since the spring, suddenly bonked out of the winning group.
“It was strange,” van der Poel said. “I felt dizzy and empty when I had to let the group go, but then I felt better again in the final kilometers. I think every rider who rode this world championships will remember it for a long time.”
The hellish conditions also shattered the rainbow jersey dreams for Trentin, who was heavily favored to win after van der Poel dropped out of the lead group. The Italian opened up his sprint too early, and Pedersen had the legs to come around him.
“It was such a hard race, on the edge of what’s acceptable,” Trentin said. “It was not a normal race. I am still shivering. On paper, I was the fastest, but after such hard conditions, all statistics go out the window.”
Pedersen was the only one truly happy with how things turned out Sunday. The 23-year-Dane suffered like everyone else, but he had the legs when it counted in the final 400 meters. Second in the 2018 Tour of Flanders, the Dane couldn’t believe he ended up in the rainbow jersey.
“I just hoped that when I saw the finish line, all the pain would be gone, and I could do a good sprint,” Pedersen said “It’s six and a half hours on the bike so everyone is on the limit and so anything could happen in that sprint.
“This is every rider’s dream to wear this jersey,” he said. “For me to do it now — it’s unbelievable.”
Pedersen’s dream come true was a nightmare that couldn’t have ended soon enough for many. Yorkshire will go down as one of the most grueling elite men’s worlds in years.