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A world championships for the ages: Peloton left in awe of ‘stadium-like’ crowds at Flanders

An estimated 1 million fans packed the roadsides from Antwerp to Leuven, creating a festival-like atmosphere unlike anything anyone's seen before.

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MECHELEN, Belgium (VN) — Crazy, incredible, and amazing — that’s just a few of the words riders used to describe the crowds in Flanders for road racing world championships.

The UCI estimated 1 million screaming fans decked out in their finest costumes — from painting the Flanders lion on their faces to coming dressed as a beer bottle — to cheer on the elite men’s peloton Sunday at the race for the rainbow jersey.

The racers said they’d never seen anything like it before.

“It was unbelievable racing, and it was like racing in a stadium on roads,” sixth-place finisher Tom Pidcock said. “We weren’t racing a road race, we were racing in a stadium. It was incredible, chants, singing it was unreal. It was like a football [soccer] match.”

In fact, so many came out that some had to be turned away from some sections of the course as there was no more room.

The atmosphere was so hopping in Flanders that it almost felt as if the fans were jumping through the television screen at times.

Also read: Flags and beer and beer and flags – the fans of the 2021 road world championships

After more than a year of reduced crowds and racing “behind closed doors,” the scenes at the world championships were something of a sensory overload.

“It was crazy, I’ve never experienced anything like this,” Slovenian Matej Mohorič said. “It felt like half of Belgium was here today. I was super proud to be here, and I also saw lots of Slovenian flags. It was the best race of my career atmosphere-wise.”

Fans from all over the globe flocked to the roadsides in Flanders
Fans from all over the globe flocked to the roadsides in Flanders (Photo: Alex Broadway – Pool/Getty Images)

Fans pour into Leuven, tripling its population in a day

The relaxing of Belgian COVID-19 restrictions shortly before the worlds that kicked off little more than a week ago, coupled with some uncharacteristically warm, spring-like weather, assured the whole week was well attended.

Officials estimated 1.4 million watched racing across the full week of time trials and road races, and nearly all of them showed up to the party Sunday. Some 350,000 crowded into the city streets of Leuven, more than triple the city’s population.

“I know we have to respect what is happening with the pandemic crisis, but it feels nice to be back to the old days,” Mohorič said.

The men’s road race provided the huge party atmosphere that the cycling world had come to associate with watching bike racing in Belgium.

There could hardly have been a better place for the 100th anniversary of the world championships and a restriction-free edition. Even the home riders, who are accustomed to the fervent passion of their fans, were awed by what went down Sunday.

Also read: Massive crowds turn out in Flanders to cheer thrilling worlds race

“The crowd was unbelievable, I’ve never seen anything like this not at the Tour de France or the Tour of Flanders. It was really great,” said Belgian Yves Lampaert.

“I’m proud of my country and my flag, and to wear the jersey that represents that, is the greatest honor a sportsperson can have,” Remco Evenepoel wrote on social media. “I gave it really my all. I tried to convert the decibels of your cheers into watts! The crowds were amazing! Thank you Belgium.”

‘Extra motivation’ for Julian Alaphilippe

Remco Evenepoel goes on the attack, to the joy of the fans
Remco Evenepoel goes on the attack, to the joy of the fans (Photo: Getty Images)

Evenepoel and the Belgian team ripped up the men’s road race Sunday, with the 21-year-old launching several stinging attacks that signaled a never-ending barrage of moves from just under 200k to go.

While the Belgian team came away with just a fourth-place to show from their efforts, the fans showed their appreciation for the star of Belgian cycling, singing “Merci, Remco” as he rode home many minutes behind the winner.

It was Julian Alaphilippe, with his trademark swashbuckling style, that stuck the dagger into the hearts of the Belgian fans. As they had done a week before when Filippo Ganna beat Wout van Aert to time trial gold, they attempted to get Alaphilippe to slow down.

Also read: Julian Alaphilippe defends rainbow jersey with blazing world championship ride

There were some boos, too, and a few choice words that Alaphilippe thought wise not to repeat in his post-race press conference.

However, it only gave the Frenchman more impetus to drive to the line to take a second consecutive world title.

“The fans were so loud, and it was amazing to feel so many people on the road,” Alaphilippe said. “On the last lap, the Belgian supporters asked me to slow down — and a few more things, I will not say more — and I think that gave me even more motivation.”

While relations might have soured briefly as Alaphilippe attacked for victory, Belgian fans quickly took him back into their hearts with a raucous podium celebration in the center of Leuven.

In a wise move, the organizers of the world championships set up an official podium for awarding medals before a second ceremony in the heart of the finishing city where fans could lap up the celebrations of the medalists.

Video images showed Alaphilippe leading a sea of fans to cheer and clap that looked more like a Queen concert at Wembley Stadium than a bike race.

Nathan Haas entertains the crowds
Nathan Haas entertains the crowds (Photo: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images)

Out on the course, the biggest scenes came on the Wijnpers and Moskesstraat climbs with fans climbing on pretty much anything solid to get a view of the riders coming through.

Despite the brutal racing at the front, dropped riders easing off the back were happy to entertain the amassed crowds. Quinn Simmons high-fived the fans, and Nathan Haas pulled a wheelie up the ascent to a rapturous response.

Even those in the thick of it couldn’t fail to take in the atmosphere.

“This was the best atmosphere in racing,” said bronze medalist Michael Valgren. “On the last steep climb, it went it this — zooooorrrrooom! — like a jet. That’s what cycling is all about. It’s nice to be back to some sort of normality.”

It’s going to take a lot to beat what we saw Sunday.