It was all going so well for the Belgian team at Sunday’s world championships road race.
The streets of Leuven were six-deep with spectators, the beers were flowing, and the Belgians were in charge – until Julian Alaphilippe threw a world title-winning wrench into the works.
Home hero Wout van Aert and his all-blue wrecking crew were dismantled by a series of assaults from the defending champion in a ride that saw the party relocate a few hundred kilometers southwest into France.
And so the Belgian inquest began. What went wrong?
“I’m only human,” van Aert said after the race, disconsolate with 11th place. “I wasn’t bad but I wasn’t good enough. There are two reasons we didn’t win: Alaphilippe was much stronger than the others and I wasn’t as good as I hoped I would be.”
The dream didn’t come together but the teamwork certainly did 💫
— UCI (@UCI_cycling) September 26, 2021
The Belgian team had given around one million home fans something to cheer for through the start of Sunday. Remco Evenepoel marked the moves up front, and Tim Declercq and Victor Campanaerts kept a lid on the firecracker French team behind.
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But when Alaphilippe turned on attack mode in the final 60km, the Belgians blew hard.
“We had come to win, and at some point we were in control and everything went pretty much the way we wanted,” national coach Sven Vanthourenhour told Het Laatste Nieuws. “Dominating a world championship but still not winning is possible – that’s just sport.”
Evenepoel flamed out after some 240km of superdomestique-ing, and van Aert suffered the rarest of malfunctions after being forced to mark the defending champ’s first flurries.
Jasper Stuyven stepped up to lead the home charge, but it was all too late. When the Leuven rider was squeezed out of the medals on his home roads it seemed a symbol of a race gone awry. Van Aert and his Belgian ballers had gone from heroes-in-waiting to zeroes with nothing.
Finger-pointing and a French press: ‘Evenepoel rode in Alaphilippe’s service’
Van Aert and the Belgian team had been tipped to dominate the 270km trek through Flanders but somehow seemed destined to disappointment. The home nation and its fervent fans and media dialed up the expectation and only the most spectacular of gold medals would have been good enough.
Sure enough, the inquest began as the Belgian riders, media and commentators picked over the bones of a spectacular world championships week annihilated by Alaphilippe.
Patrick Lefevere, manager of Evenepoel and Alaphilippe’s Deceuninck-Quick-Step squad and VIP of Belgian cycling was as dissenting as ever when speaking with TVM Nieuws after the race.
“The team rode beautifully,” Lefevere said – before adding that Evenepoel was racing “in the service of Alaphilippe, of course.”
“Why did the Belgians want to break open the course so early? And above all: why did they throw Remco into the fray so early? Remco was the best man in the race after Julian. But they just sacrificed him and rolled out the red carpet for Julian,” Lefevere said.
“The Belgians got the race they asked for. But you have to be sure you have a few bullets left at the end. They weren’t there. Wout is a world-class rider, but he had to get Alaphilippe twice himself. That’s not up to him, is it.”
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. I gave it really my all. I tried to convert the decibels of your cheers into watts! The crowds were amazing! Thank you Belgium 🇧🇪❤️ #Flanders2021 pic.twitter.com/3P2GvKxNTS
— Remco Evenepoel (@EvenepoelRemco) September 26, 2021
With the race breaking open after just two hours of racing and the French pounding away in the bunch behind, van Aert and co. were caught at a crossroads. Without committing riders to the break, the race could have escaped them, but putting riders in the moves left them short-handed when it mattered most.
“The French seemed to show up with a clear plan and that was getting rid of Wout. That’s what they did straight from the start,” Evenepoel said. “We didn’t want to open the race from that far out.”
The final nail in the coffin was far simpler than a deep dissection team tactics.
Van Aert felt he should have given Stuyven the captain’s armband sooner after feeling the fatigue of Alaphilippe’s attacks. But Stuyven wasn’t so sure it would have made a difference.
“There was just nothing to do about Alaphilippe,” said the fourth-place finisher. “Whether van Aert should have indicated earlier that he did not have good legs? It’s easy to say in hindsight, of course. It might have gone a little differently if he’d stated it earlier, but who knows.”
Evenepoel could have been kept back, and the Belgian team could have left other strong nations to do the pulling. But the race still all boils down to one thing.
“Alaphilippe was simply stronger,” van Aert admitted.
— Deceuninck-QuickStep (@deceuninck_qst) September 26, 2021
The Belgian team blew up and Alaphilippe turned it on when it mattered most. Van Aert and Vanthourenhout took some consolation in knowing that they weren’t the only ones left empty-handed. Pre-race contenders Mathieu van der Poel, Sonny Colbrelli, and Tom Pidcock were left trailing in Alaphilipoe’s wheel tracks.
“Van Aert had to pass, but so did van der Poel and Pidcock,” Vanthourenhout said. “The best man in the race has won, especially when you look at the way in which it is done.”
Sometimes there’s just no answer for a rider like Julian “Alapanache.”
Van Aert and Vanthourenhout have one year and a flight to Wollongong to figure out how to answer him next time.