In an astonishing solo style reminiscent of one year ago, Julian Alaphilippe (France) went on the attack and claimed the rainbow bands for the second consecutive year. The Frenchman attacked thrice in succession with around 20km to go, and no one could follow his final move on the Sint Antoniusberg climb with two laps remaining.
Behind, a disorganized chase group came in sprinting for the medals, with Dylan van Baarle (Netherlands) and Michael Valgren Hundahl (Denmark) taking the second and third spots on the podium. After being in the lead group for more than 80km, Neilson Powless finished 5th, earning the best world championships finish by an American man since 2011.
The 2021 UCI Road World Championships was one of the hardest races we’ve seen this year, with the peloton racing full gas from 180km to go. A few of the biggest pre-race favorites missed out on the podium – namely Wout van Aert (Belgium) and Mathieu van der Poel (Netherlands) – while other riders sprung a big surprise.
This is the 2021 UCI Elite Men’s Road World Championships, by the numbers.
The world championship road race is such a unique event because it is one of the longest races of the year. Of course, every route is different – from Doha and Innsbruck to Leuven and more – but the typical distance is between 230 and 280km, with 2,000m to 5,000m of climbing. This year’s route from Antwerp to Leuven covered 268km and 42 climbs that totaled more than 2,500m of climbing. None of the climbs were long – in fact, many of them were less than 500m – but the gradients were steep, and the race blew to bits with over 150km to go.
We won’t cover the immensely complicated, looping, and overlapping route of the race in detail, but all you need to know is that the route is incredibly narrow, twisting, and technical. This made it difficult for teams and groups to chase in between the climbs, especially on the finishing circuit in Leuven.
In typical world championships-style, an early breakaway went away containing little-known riders from small cycling nations – on this day, it was Jose Tito Hernandez (Columbia), Joel Burbano (Ecuador), Kim Magnusson (Sweden), Jambaljamts Sainbayar (Mongolia), and a few others who made the move. But then, it was “Tractor” time, and Tim Declercq (Belgium) came to the front to keep the breakaway in check. In Declercq’s power file, we can see how steady he rides on the flats.
Declercq – setting pace in the peloton
Average Power: 297w (3.8w/kg)
Normalized Power: 348w (4.5w/kg)
Pulls on the front of the peloton: 280-300w at 44-45kph
Not long after the early break was established – with 200km still to race – France attacked. Declercq pulled back Anthony Turgis, but was countered by Benoît Cosnefroy, who was joined by Remco Evenepoel (Belgium) and Magnus Cort (Denmark). Evenepoel’s power is frankly ridiculous – on a course that suits him, I’m not sure anyone can stop the 21-year-old Belgian. But on this day, he was burning his 7w/kg matches in service of Belgium’s team leader, Wout van Aert.
Evenepoel – following Cosnefroy into the breakaway
Average Power: 352w (5.7w/kg)
Normalized Power: 461w (7.3w/kg)
“Thermonuclear attack” on the Smeysberg: 862w (13.9w/kg) for 40 seconds
With 175km to go, the peloton split on the flats as a group of 10 bridged across to the trio containing Evenepoel. This was a huge effort by every rider involved, and most of them would DNF the race. Jan Tratnik (Slovenia) was among them.
Tratnik – bridging to Evenepoel group
Average Power: 325w (4.8w/kg)
Normalized Power: 388w (5.7w/kg)
Peak 10min Normalized Power: 436w (6.5w/kg)
That breakaway didn’t last long, and what was left of the peloton all came back together as they re-entered the Leuven city circuit. The attacks kept coming, and soon another break went containing Evenepoel, Powless, Andrea Bagioli (Italy), van Baarle, and a handful of others. Nearly half of this group would finish in the top-10 at the end of the day – perhaps this breakaway, at a crucial point in the race, showed who had the best legs on this classics-style route.
Powless – “full-gas hour” in Leuven with 100km to go
Average Power: 311w (4.7w/kg)
Normalized Power: 366w (5.6w/kg)
Peak 10min Normalized Power: 436w (6.5w/kg)
If we zoom into Powless’ file, we can see that the last three hours of the world championships in Leuven were like one giant set of micro intervals. Every 15-60 seconds Powless was either doing 500-600w or 0w. It’s incredible how punchy this course was. In fact, the Leuven city circuit is almost the definition of “punchy.”
In the last kilometers of the Flandrien circuit, the peloton tackled the longest climbs remaining, including the Moskesstraat where Alaphilippe attacked and bridged across to the lead group. Van Aert and many of the other favorites followed, and Powless was likely grateful for his head start. Michael Valgren (Denmark) missed the initial split but was able to bridge across, on the flats, at over 50kph.
Valgren – making the split on the Moskesstraat
Average Power: 431w (6w/kg)
Normalized Power: 462w (6.4w/kg)
Moskesstraat: 556w (7.7w/kg) for 1:36
Riding for Van Aert, Evenepoel drilled it on the front of the breakaway, extending their gap to the peloton from 15 to over 60 seconds. The diminutive Belgian is both a powerhouse and aerodynamic machine. Evenepoel doesn’t have the highest power output in the peloton, but he is able to maintain a narrow and low-down position that equals speed on the flats. At just 5w/kg, Evenepoel was able to pull at over 50kph, and hold off the attacks until he blew up with 25km to go.
Evenepoel – driving the breakaway
Average Power: 315w (5.1w/kg)
Normalized Power: 339w (5.5w/kg)
Average pull on flats: 310-330w (5-5.4w/kg) at 45-50kph
The Belgium show, while temporary, was a delight to the home fans. But it was simply a sweet appetizer to horrible entrée. Alaphilippe attacked on the Smeysberg, forcing Belgium to chase. Then, van Aert closed the gap himself when the Frenchman attacked on the Wijnpers climb. And finally, on the Sint Antoniusberg, Alaphilippe was gone. Powless was the only man who even tried to react, but no one could match the World Champion’s acceleration.
While we don’t have the world champion’s power file, we do know that Alaphilippe completed the climb in about 30 seconds, which is the same amount of time that it took Florian Vermeersch (Belgian) when he attacked in the men’s U23 race. Here’s a quick look at the Belgian’s power numbers from that very climb.
Vermeersch – Sint Antoniusberg (U23 race)
Average Power: 1,064w (13.1w/kg)
The lead group exploded under constant pressure from attacks and counters, and eventually, it was Powless, van Baarle, Valgren, and Jasper Stuyven (Belgium) who went after Alaphilippe. In hindsight, the Frenchman’s win was never in doubt. He hardly lost any time over the last 20km, and the chasers were disorganized at best, exhausted, and incoherent at worst. Powless yo-yo-ed off the back of the group, but still managed to hang on until the final sprint, where van Baarle and Valgren claimed the silver and bronze medals, respectively.
Powless – final 20km
Average Power: 349w (5.3w/kg)
Normalized Power: 387w (5.9w/kg)
Chasing Alaphilippe: 453w NP (6.8w/kg) for 7:40
Powless’ ride was one of the best of his career, and showed that his victory at the Clásica de San Sebastián was no fluke. The American just turned 25, and is blossoming into one of the best all-rounders in the world, and the 2022 Road World Championships in Wollongong could suit him even better.
Powless (5th) – 2021 UCI elite men’s road world championship
Average Power: 266w (4w/kg)
Normalized Power: 331w (5.1w/kg)
Energy Burned: 5,947kJs
Average Power: 296w (4.5w/kg)
Normalized Power: 351w (5.3w/kg)