Road

Julian Alaphilippe, Anna van der Breggen were all alone in their finish line photos

The circuit racing of road cycling world championships delivers unique — and sometimes surprising — race dynamics.

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Julian Alaphilippe and Anna van der Breggen won their well-deserved world titles this weekend in the best way possible — and they each were all alone in their respective finish line photos.

There’s no better way to win a race.

World championship racing is unique among the elite pros in that it’s held on a circuit course. And more often than not, that style of racing tends to deliver a reduced bunch or a mass gallop.

On Sunday, Alaphilippe dropped the hammer at the hardest part of the race, and no one could answer. The day before, Van der Breggen showed him how to do it, gapping the field to win in a picture-perfect way.

That doesn’t mean that the victory is any less or more significant if it’s won in a small bunch or out of a group, but winning all alone ends any discussion about who was the strongest in the race.

Alaphilippe is the first solo winner in the past several year’s in elite men’s worlds competition.

Last year, Mads Pedersen won the battle of attrition in the cold and rain in Yorkshire winning in a three-up sprint. Alejandro Valverde won in 2018 out of a four-up sprint in another brutal fight on a climb-heavy route in Austria. Two of Peter Sagan’s titles came out of large groups, in 2016 and 2017, but it was his 2015 win when he attacked alone in the closing kilometers that was most memorable.

Who could forget Sagan jumping off his bike in Richmond, and high-fiving his rivals as they came across the finish line?

On the women’s side, the powerful Dutch squad has been delivering a string of solo world champions. You have to go all the way back to 2016 to find the last rider — Amalie Dideriksen of Denmark — who won the stripes out of a mass gallop.

Julian Alaphilippe was well clear of the chasing bunch when he soloed across the finish line at the 2020 UCI men’s elite world road cycling championships. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

There are a few things that make the world championships unique.

First off, the races are long. Sunday’s men’s race at 258.2km distance is among the longest on the entire 2020 calendar. Only the “monuments,” such as Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Paris-Roubaix, or a race like Amstel Gold Race, are longer. That means only the strongest can win, and the distance can provoke some surprising “cracks.” Primož Roglič struggled this year. And last year, pre-race favorite Mathieu van der Poel suddenly blew up late in the race after riding into the pole position for the win.

Worlds are one of the few races of the year in which riders from various trade teams come together under national banners. So it’s no wonder that the Dutch women dominate so much. All season long, they face off as rivals, but once a year, they come together to race as one. And so far, they’ve been untouchable, winning four world titles in a row. The Dutch women have been able to avoid some of the inside-the-bus foibles than can often tear apart a team with many captains.

Racing under national banners can also pit pro-team teammates on the road against each other, when Wout van Aert was racing against Roglič on Sunday after racing the Tour de France together as allies. Some wondered if Roglič could have done more to help van Aert, but the Slovenian was racing for his team’s interests, and simply didn’t have the legs under the long distance to make much of an impact one way or the other.

Circuit racing also sees a different tactic. The pacing on a circuit course is more controlled than in a point-to-point race, and because it’s a one-off event, riders often commit to doing work early, and then pulling out after doing their job. A few years ago, the UCI reduced the number of riders for the major teams, and that’s helped loosen up the domination from the old-school European squads. That’s helped open up the dynamics of the worlds which were often tightly controlled by the Italians, French, and Belgians.

With the mass of the big teams, however, the world championship race can be pretty boring for several hours racing over the same course. There’s no variety of terrain or mixture of elements that naturally goes with point-to-point racing.

Of course, it’s the wild, give-all final hour or so of racing that makes the world championships so thrilling to watch.

Behind the yellow jersey, the rainbow jersey is perhaps the most prestigious garment in cycling. No matter how a rider wins it, it’s typically a career highlight.

Winning alone means a better photograph to hang on the wall.