MECHELEN, Belgium (VN) — As far as professional cycling goes, this weekend’s world championship races are going to be hard to beat.
So many fans packed into Leuven’s central square it looked more like a Queen concert at Wembley Stadium than a podium ceremony for a bike race. The rainbow jersey is a big deal, but the weekend’s crowds were off the scale.
UCI officials confirmed to VeloNews that an estimated 1 million people lined the route Sunday, and 1.4 million fans attended the racing that stretched from Sunday to Sunday across Belgium’s Flanders region.
More than 350,000 people packed into Leuven, literally tripling the size of the city’s population for a few hours Sunday.
Was it the greatest worlds ever? VeloNews’ editors dive in. Let’s round-table!
— Tomas Van Den Spiegel (@tomasvds) September 27, 2021
So was this the best world championships ever?
Jim Cotton (@jim_c_1985): Best worlds ever? Who knows. Best worlds in my memory? Yes.
Just like when Brussels hosted the grand départ of the Tour de France in 2019, the Belgians know how to throw a bike bonanza.
The parcours for the road races were perfectly poised to leave the race open to all but the most spindly of climbers, and the double-loop route was a masterstroke. The steep cobbled bergs of the Flanders circuit combined perfectly with the maze-like chaos of Leuven to deliver pure racing – if not perhaps a few too many crashes. Of course, having home favorite in Wout van Aert and rising stars Lotte Kopecky and Remco Evenepoel on the road dialed up the frenzy even further.
Although it’s the riders who make the races, it was the public that made the party last week. Kudos to every one of the million-strong crowd that came out to cheer the riders like the good ol’ pre-pandemic days.
Sadbh O’Shea (@SadhbhOS): It’s definitely the best one I can remember, for so many reasons. Maybe it’s due to the closed off competition that we had at Imola, but the huge crowds we saw throughout the week were almost overwhelming and made me feel quite emotional. It reminded me of the 2012 Olympic Games, which until this last week, had been some of the biggest crowds I’d ever come across at a bike race.
It wasn’t just the crowds that made this worlds great, the racing was fantastic from start to finish. From the time trials in the opening days, which saw Filippo Ganna and Ellen van Dijk claim their second rainbow jerseys, to Elisa Balsamo and Julian Alaphilippe winning the road races. My favorite moment, however, came in the mixed team relay with Tony Martin winning with a brutally strong German team to be crowned a world champion on the final day of his career.
Andrew Hood (@eurohoody): Flanders, beers, spring-like weather, and bikes — how was it not going to be amazing?
What pushed these worlds to 11 was the decision by Belgian health authorities to ease health restrictions and allow everyone to celebrate cycling, and by extension, life, for the first time an absolutely unbridled and without limitations way for the first time in nearly two years.
The worlds were more than a bike race. They were a celebration of life.
Whoever saw this coming?! 🤯
— UCI (@UCI_cycling) September 25, 2021
Who won the rainbow? Did Italy own it, or the Netherlands blow it?
SOS: I’m going to say that it was the Italians that won it by a clear margin. OK, there were some questionable moments from the Dutch, such as Annemiek van Vleuten chasing down Ellen van Dijk, but the Italians also did pretty much everything right.
The women in blue had some serious firepower in the key group at the end with five riders, including Balsamo, and they all rallied around the 23-year-old with full confidence that she could pull it off in the end. Almost every move that went off the front, there was a rider in blue close behind it.
Whereas the Dutch were working hard to rip the race apart, a job they probably left it too late to do, the Italians were doing their best to keep it together. They rode a near-perfect race and won it outright. This was no gift from the Dutch.
AH: Like in most sport, there’s a lot of hand-wringing about a team or an individual who “lost” something. That’s wrong, and even more so in a bike race. There’s a finish line, and the first one over it wins — end of story. The Italians executed perfectly, and Balsamo had the kick to win. Perfetto!
JC: That’s a tough one to say – can I go with 51 percent Italians won it, 49 percent Dutch lost it?
The Dutch team repeated their Olympic turmoil and again somehow got it wrong Saturday. The orange armada was perhaps too ready to step up to the role of all-out favorites, like how the Belgians blew it in the men’s race a day later.
Sure, you can have the numbers to hammer on the front, but you’ve got to have the patience to make it work. The Italians were happily sitting in the wheels when Ellen van Dijk, Annemiek van Vleuten and Lucinda Brand stomped their way through the final, and they only moved up when it really mattered – in the final circuits, massing to the front and marking every move.
That it was the young up-and-comer Maria Confolanieri and the veteran champ Elisa Longo Borgini that led out Elisa Balsamo’s winning sprint as the Dutch team faded behind them drove the point home. The Italians beat the Dutch through a perfectly timed team effort.
— FLANDERS 2021 (@flanders2021) September 27, 2021
What was your favorite tactical moment in the men’s race?
AH: For me, it was Sonny Colbrelli’s che cazzo! arm-shot in the air when he and Julian Alaphilippe were reeled in by the chasing bunch late in the race. That revealed just how well Alaphilippe was reading the race.
No way was he going to tow the faster Italian to the line. So he sat up, waited for the right climb, and bolted clear to drop everyone. The best way to assure you’re going to win is to be alone at the front. Alaphilippe played that finale like a Stradivarius.
JC: There’s so much to pick apart in the men’s race that it’s almost too hard to say. If anything, the Belgian team’s mistake was made before the race rolled out.
The Belgian ballers dramatically slashed their odds when they put all the chips on the Wout van Aert card several weeks before the worlds. Writing outside contenders Remco Evenpoel, Jasper Stuyven, and Victor Campenaerts out of the race while the Danes and Italians chose to go with multiple options seems a move destined for disaster.
How would the race have played out if Belgium had played it a la Deceuninck-Quick-Step and taken a “pack” approach? Who knows, but Remco Evenepoel and Tim Declercq might have ridden clear in the early break or Jasper Stuyven may have been quicker to step up when WvA had his bad day.
Wout van Aert is one hella rider, but limiting your options on a six-hour slugfest like the worlds seems to be an oversight.
SOS: Where to begin with this explosive and chaotic race? I might be wrong, and I don’t believe I am, but it was perhaps the single most aggressive worlds road race I’ve ever seen. I think that the key moment for me was the way France drove into it with the whole team intent on getting stuck into this chaos.
Maybe helped by the chatter and hype that surrounded Wout van Aert and the Belgian team, the French squad lit up the race from very early on. It led to the unusual sight of Arnaud Démare getting into a breakaway with Remco Evenepoel and Primož Roglič. It was a performance that French national coach Thomas Voeckler would have been proud of.
Despite being the defending world champion, Julian Alaphilippe was not their only option. They had Florian Sénéchal as a backup if it ended up in a sprint with Valentin Madouas covering the domestique duties toward the end. The free approach allowed Alaphilippe to do what he does best and attack, leaving everyone else behind.
Le pays du Vélo !!! 😘🤩pic.twitter.com/t1gps5fOzr
— Guillaume di Grazia (@GDiGrazia) September 26, 2021