With only a few kilometers to go in the Elite Men’s Road World Championships, Julian Alaphilippe (France) was racing solo onto the Imola Autodrome. The Frenchman held a 20-second gap over the uber-strong chase group that included Grand Tour winners, former World Champions, and Monument specialists. Wout van Aert (Belgium) was one of those chasing, but even he couldn’t close the gap to Alaphilippe. The charismatic Frenchman held nothing back as he entered the final few hundred meters. The look on his face said everything – it was a mix of happiness, sadness, relief, and grace – a picture painted in suffering, and one that ended on the beautiful brushstroke of perfection.
Alaphilippe did exactly what everyone thought he would do, and yet no one could stop him.
The 2020 UCI road world championships were slated to be one of the hardest championship races of all-time. A last-minute venue change in lieu of Switzerland’s coronavirus regulations meant that the worlds were headed to Imola, Italy. The new course would total 259.2km of racing for the elite men, with a total of nearly 5,000m of climbing.
After passing through the finish line on the Imola Autodrome, the men tackled nine laps of the hilly Worlds circuit which included the Mazzolano and the Cima Gallisterna climbs. The former lasted 2.2km at an average of 7.1 percent, while the latter was 2.3km at 7.3 percent. Despite being nearly identical on paper, the Gallisterna was the climb that everyone feared.
After a gentle run-in, the Gallisterna kicks up for over a kilometer at an average of 11.5 percent, and a maximum of over 15 percent. The crest of the Gallisterna comes with 12km to go, followed by a rolling descent back onto the Autodrome. Many saw the Gallisterna as the final springboard to the finish, the last chance to attack for any rider wanting to go solo to the line. Oh, how right they were.
An early breakaway of seven riders formed in the race’s early goings, but with nearly seven hours to go, they never stood a chance. Nevertheless, the pace in the bunch was stiff, enough to put plenty of pain in the legs before lunchtime. Tucked in the bunch was home rider Fausto Masnada (Italy) – coming off of a 6th place finish in last week’s Tirreno-Adriatico, the 26-year-old would mainly be riding for race favorite Vincenzo Nibali (Italy), but might have a chance of his own in the finale if his legs came good.
Fausto Masnada – opening 3 laps:
Average Power: 223w (3.4w/kg)
Normalized Power: 273w (4.3w/kg)
Average Heart Rate: 124bpm
Max Heart Rate: 167bpm
A couple hours at 3-4w/kg would be a solid endurance for most experienced cyclists, yet this is just the warm-up for the best riders in the world. The numbers are deceiving, however, because the pace in the peloton is anything but steady. Masnada coasts down the descents with the rest of the group, his heart rate getting as low as 70bpm, which is even more impressive when you consider that they’re descending on narrow roads at 75kph.
On both of the two major climbs, the pace in the peloton hovered between 5-6w/kg during the opening laps. Lap 3 was the fastest of the trio, with Masnada climbing the steep section of the Gallisterna in under five minutes. In just a few hours’ time, the front group will be climbing this section in well under four minutes.
Fausto Masnada – first 3 laps on the steep section of Gallisterna:
Lap 1: 5:19 (5.1w/kg)
Lap 2: 5:12 (5.2w/kg)
Lap 3: 4:59 (5.4w/kg)
On Lap 4, the early breakaway is beginning to crumble, and Poland came to the front to start pulling for their team leader and former world champion Michał Kwiatkowski (Poland). The fifth time up the Gallisterna was the fastest again, with the front group cresting the steep section in just four and a half minutes. American hopeful and one of the strongest climbers in this year’s Tour de France, Sepp Kuss was still in the front as the race reached its halfway point.
Sepp Kuss – lap 5 on the steep section of Gallisterna:
Average Power: 367w (6w/kg)
Inside the final 100km, the race truly began to take shape. There was a fight for position approaching each climb, with the powerhouses of Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, Slovenia, Denmark all beginning to show their hand. Kuss and Masnada continued to follow the wheels, but that hardly makes it easier on the climbs that reach 15 percent.
The early breakaway was finally caught on Lap 7, and then it was France who came to the front and drilled the pace up the Gallisterna. The French injection shaved another 30 seconds off the time up the steep section of the climb, and the peloton whittled down to less than 100 riders with 69km to go.
Sepp Kuss – lap 7 on the steep section of Gallisterna:
Average Power: 425w (7w/kg)
With 42km to go, Tour de France winner Tadej Pogačar (Slovenia) attacked on the Gallisterna after being led out by Luka Mezgec. The 22-year-old Tour de France champion quickly gained 15 seconds on the peloton who was being led by Belgium, who looked strong and controlled in the chase. Pogačar’s lead never made it above 30 seconds, and it was clear that he didn’t have the magical legs that propelled him to victory atop La Planche des Belles Filles.
The final time up the Mazzolano, Tom Dumoulin (Netherlands) bridged across to Pogačar who was struggling to maintain his 15-second lead. Not long after, all of the favorites and Tour de France superstars came to the front, lined out in single file fashion as if they were riding onto the podium in Paris. Guillame Martin (France) closed the gap, and on his wheel were Rigoberto Urán (Colombia), Wout van Aert (Belgium), Richard Carapaz (Ecuador), Marc Hirschi (Switzerland), and Kwiatkowski (Poland). Also near the front was Michael Valgren (Denmark), working to keep his team leader and race favorite Jakob Fuglsang (Denmark) in good position.
Michael Valgren – lap 9 on the Mazzolano:
Average Power: 458w (6.4w/kg)
Middle section of Mazzolano:
Average Power: 492w (6.8w/kg)
While these numbers are impressive on their own, what really separates professional riders from mere mortals is their resistance to fatigue. When the peloton hit the bottom of the Mazzolano for the final time, they had 235km and over six hours of racing in their legs. This makes what we saw on the final climb of the world championships road race even more incredible.
In between the Mazzolano and the Gallisterna, the peloton stretched out and came back together more times than a slinky on a stairway. There were more attacks than the cameras could follow, but by the bottom of the Gallisterna, the reduced group was all back together.
Greg Van Avermaet (Belgium) took control of proceedings as the gradient reached 12 percent, but it was 23-year-old Hirschi who attacked up the right-hand side of the road. The Swiss rider’s move immediately put every rider into difficulty, with only a select group of five able to hang on to Hirschi’s wheel. Despite pushing over 500w, Valgren was banished to the second group as the leaders went up the road.
With 500m left to the summit, Kwiatkowski attacked in the drops ala Marco Pantani, stringing out the group of now six after Jakob Fuglsang bridged across. Under the Mapei banner, Alaphilippe counter-attacked, instantly putting daylight between himself and the rest of the group. The Frenchman crested the climb with just a few seconds’ gap, but he was already flying.
Using time differences and VAM-based calculations, we can estimate that the front group was riding at well over 7w/kg on the final climb of the Gallisterna, with Alaphilippe’s attack coming at over 8w/kg. Compared to Kuss’ time of 3:58 (at 7w/kg) on lap 7, Alaphilippe climbed the Gallisterna in a time of 3:30, with a ridiculous VAM of 2177 meters per hour.
Michael Valgren – lap 9 on the steep section of Gallisterna:
Average Power: 478w (6.6w/kg)
Julian Alaphilippe – lap 9 on the steep section of Gallisterna:
(Estimated) Average Power: ~465-500w (~7.5-8w/kg)
Keep in mind that this is effort comes after six and a half hours of racing at an average of ~4.5w/kg. Out of all the data that I’ve ever sifted through, this is one of the most impressive performances I’ve ever seen. On short and steep climbs, there is no other better than Julian Alaphilippe.
In the final 12 kilometers to the finish, Alaphilippe sprinted over every hill, super-tucked through narrow corners, and pulled more grimaces than the entire chase group combined. Van Aert and co. tried as they could, but no one could bring back Julian Alaphilippe who crossed the finish line in Imola to win the 2020 UCI road cycling world championship.
Michael Valgren – world championships road race
Position: 11th (+0:53)
Time: 6:50:38 (includes neutral start)
Average Power: 272w (3.8w/kg)
Normalized Power: 333w (4.6w/kg)
Fausto Masnada – world championships road race:
Position: 23rd (+1:34)
Average Power: 246w (3.8w/kg)
Normalized Power: 301w (4.8w/kg)
Average Heart Rate: 137bpm
Max Heart Rate: 185bpm