MILAN (VN) — Belgium, in its blue, black, and red kit remains on top of the world championships road race gold medal count, but the nation failed to add to the tally in Richmond, Virginia, on Sunday or any other day last week.
The small cycling-mad country counts 48 medals in the history of the men’s elite road race that began nearly 90 years ago in 1927. Of those, 26 shine with a golden hue. The last gold medal came thanks to Philippe Gilbert in 2012 in Valkenburg, the Netherlands.
Italy, though it holds more total medals in its worlds road race chest, boasts only 19 gold medals. France has eight, the Netherlands seven, Spain five, and the United States is tied with Switzerland with three victories.
Fans roadside in Richmond and those watching until the evening hours back home in Belgium must have hoped for more with former world champions Tom Boonen and Philippe Gilbert, along with Greg Van Avermaet, leading the team.
“We rode a strong race,” Gilbert told Het Nieuwsblad newspaper, “but unfortunately, we did not achieve good result.”
Gilbert led the team to the line with a 10th-place finish, Belgium’s lowest place since Peter van Petegem rode to 28th at the 2004 Verona worlds.
Van Avermaet, who was fifth last year and won a Tour de France stage this year, stood out in the final. He led the thinning group onto the 23rd Street climb, which Slovak Peter Sagan used as his winning launchpad, and chased with an “uncooperative” Edvald Boasson Hagen of Norway.
Boonen, who won the 2005 worlds race in Madrid, escaped with two laps to go in an all-star group that included Spain’s Joaquím Rodríguez, 2014 champion Michal Kwiatkowski of Poland, and Briton Ian Stannard. Germany, the missing element, quashed the move ahead of the final circuit.
Belgium’s national newspapers Het Nieuwsblad and Het Laatste Nieuws could have run “Belgium in turmoil” articles with one teammate stabbing the other in the back with black-and-red colored knives, but they did not. The cycling-wise nation has seen worse times.
At the home 1975 worlds in Yvoir, the team refused to work fully for Roger De Vlaeminck when Dutchman Hennie Kuiper made the winning attack. In Barcelona in 1973, Eddy Merckx and Freddy Maertens made the winning group of four and Merckx agreed to work for Maertens in the sprint, but when they approached the white line, Merckx blocked Maertens and Italian Felice Gimondi won the rainbow jersey ahead of Merckx in second.
Belgium may still hold its head high. Italy found the podium in 2008, when Alessandro Ballan won solo and Damiano Cunego placed second. It may be hard to celebrate that result given Ballan’s doping program. In the next season, according to leaked documents in an investigation that led to a two-year suspension, Ballan used human growth hormone, blood transfusions, and EPO.
The U.S. has to look much further back, to 1993 in Oslo when Lance Armstrong won the worlds road race. His story in subsequent years is even more colorful than Ballan’s.
However, the team in blue, black, and red returned home with one bit of hardware. Belgian team Etixx-Quick-Step placed second in the team time trial on the opening day of racing behind American team BMC Racing.
Belgium can also bank on young developing talents. Tom Van Asbroeck, now with team LottoNL-Jumbo, won the bronze medal in the under-23 time trial in 2012, while Tiesj Benoot, fourth last year in the U23 road race and now a professional with Lotto-Soudal, debuted in the elite event with Boonen, Gilbert, and Van Avermaet.
The week spent in Richmond was not the best for Belgium, but it was not all bad.