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Massive crowds turn out in Flanders to cheer thrilling worlds race

At estimated 500,000 fans lined the finishing loops in and around Leuven for the elite men's road race Sunday.

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LEUVEN, Belgium (VN) — Bike racing was back with a flourish this weekend as the massive crowds turned out to celebrate the road world championships in record numbers.

Officials estimated more than a half-million fans showed out Sunday to watch the elite men’s road race, which started in Antwerp and looped around Leuven in two circuits.

Both loops were absolutely packed with fans, sometimes 10-deep along the steep climbs.

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Fans were decked out in hats, costumes, and painted faces and brandished flags. The majority were cheering for Wout van Aert and the hometown Belgian crowd, with a generous mix of Dutch and French fans as well.

Authorities lifted months-long masking and social distancing restrictions just days before the worlds started last weekend with time trials in Bruges.

Springlike weather also helped draw out the crowds all week, but Sunday’s throngs were the biggest of the week.

Illustration picture shows Leuven's city hall during the elite men road race of the UCI World Championships Road Cycling Flanders 2021, 268,3km from Antwerp to Leuven on Sunday 26 September 2021. The Worlds take place from 19 to 26 September 2021, in several cities in Flanders, Belgium. BELGA PHOTO POOL KRISTOF RAMON (Photo by POOL KRISTOF RAMON/BELGA MAG/AFP via Getty Images)
Crowds line the road en route to Leuven in Sunday’s road race. (Photo: KRISTOF RAMON/BELGA MAG/AFP via Getty Images)

The fans saw an amazing race, with a big break of favorites pulling clear as the race hit the first circuits around Leuven. Brandon McNulty (USA) was among a group of riders that pulled clear that included Remco Evenepoel (Belgium), Primož Roglič (Slovenia), Kasper Asgreen and Magnus Cort (Denmark) .

Italy buried its team to bring back that potentially dangerous group.

Belgium held a steady pace until just under than 100km to go, when Evenepoel pulled clear again.

Among the names following the wheel were Neilson Powless (USA), Jan Tratnik (Slovenia), Neils Politt (Germany), Ivan García Cortina (Spain) and Dylan van Baarle (Netherlands).

The brutal pace led to a high rate of attrition.

Several big names pulled out early, including 2019 world champion Mads Pedersen (Denmark) and runner-up Matteo Trentin (Italy).

Mark Cavendish (Team GB), Marc Hirschi (Switzerland), Robin Carpenter and Quinn Simmons (USA), and Rigoberto Urán (Colombia) also pulled out.

Belgian Remco Evenepoel pictured in action during the elite men road race of the UCI World Championships Road Cycling Flanders 2021, 268,3km from Antwerp to Leuven on Sunday 26 September 2021. The Worlds take place from 19 to 26 September 2021, in several cities in Flanders, Belgium. BELGA PHOTO POOL KRISTOF RAMON (Photo by POOL KRISTOF RAMON/BELGA MAG/AFP via Getty Images)
Remco Evenepoel was active in decisive breaks for the favored Belgian teams. (Photo: KRISTOF RAMON/BELGA MAG/AFP via Getty Images)