Julian Alaphilippe attacked over the top of the final climb and soloed to a sensational victory in Imola on Sunday to become France’s first world champion in 23 years, as Britain’s Tom Pidcock “blew up” in the final kilometres of a gruelling race.
Alaphilippe, 28, is one of the sport’s most charismatic characters, a showman, his stints in the yellow jersey at the 2019 and 2020 editions of the Tour de France making him one of the most popular riders in the world. Although he was judged by many to be off his game at the recent Tour, where he won a stage and the yellow jersey in the first week before losing it in bizarre fashion when he was penalised for an illegal feed, he showed all of his famous panache in Italy.
Attacking in trademark fashion near the top of the Gallisterna climb on the ninth and final lap of the 260km race, Alaphilippe opened up a slender advantage over an elite group that included pre-race favourite Wout van Aert [Belgium], Jakob Fuglslang [Denmark], Primoz Roglic [Slovenia], Marc Hirschi [Switzerland], and Michal Kwiatkowski [Poland].
There were still 12km remaining, but with no one willing to bring van Aert back to the front - given the Belgian was almost certain to win a final sprint - and with van Aert unable to bring Alaphilippe back on his own, the Frenchman was allowed to stay out ahead. As they entered the Imola motor racing circuit with 3km remaining, the gap was still hovering around 13sec and it was game over.
Everything about Julian Alaphilippe is beguiling. His hide-nothing style, his unfettered sense of adventure, his preparedness to lose. You can read his every twitch like a book. You are on the bike with him. I am delighted for him that he is the champion of the world.— Ned Boulting (@nedboulting) September 27, 2020
Alaphilippe was hugely emotional after crossing the line, punching the air and breaking down as he was asked what it meant to become France’s first world champion since Laurent Brochard in 1997. He had come close once before in Bergen, Norway, three years ago, when he was reined in with one kilometre to go. This time he profited from excellent work by the French team, with Guillaume Martin in particular covering off opponents' attacks on the penultimate ascent.
“At the moment it’s really hard for me to say something,” said Alaphilippe, whose father died in June. “I just want to say thank you to my teammates. It was a dream of my career. Sometimes I was so close but never on the podium [at the worlds]. But I came here with a lot of ambition. It’s for sure a dream for me.”
Van Aert eventually won the sprint for silver, with Hirschi taking bronze.
Behind them, Pidcock lasted for around 240kms before “blowing up” as the leaders accelerated into the final climb of a day which featured an eye-watering 5000m of climbing. He had admitted beforehand that he did not know what to expect given he had never raced anything like this far before. “I might blow up after 200km,” he told reporters on Friday. “We’ll see.”
In that context, 240km was a very decent effort. “There was no result but we learnt a lot,” he said. “I certainly learnt a hell of a lot. I didn’t really have any legs to be able to race at the end. But I think secretly that was to be expected. We rode as if we expected to win.”
Luke Rowe, who put in a huge shift looking after Pidcock, said the youngster could hold his head high given he is not even a professional yet - Pidcock has signed to join Ineos Grenadiers next year - and given the fact that only 36 riders made it to the finish.
“I hope he’s not disappointed because for a young lad to go to the world championships - 270km race - and blow up after 250km, there’s no shame in that.
“This is a team for the future and I think he can be proud of what he’s achieved there. He’s gone 250km into the race and exploded but I think up until that point he had done everything right. My job was to stay with him as long as possible and try to nurse him around and I think we worked well together. Obviously that’s exciting for years to come and we’ll be teammates next year at Ineos.”
Rowe added: “I just told him to eat and to stay on my wheel. I said: “Have faith in me and trust in me, and I promise I will put you in the right place at the right time. And just that trust - he bought in straight away and we stuck together well. It’s the first time I’ve raced with him and it’s something a lot of guys take a long time to develop that trust. We had it straight away really.”
It had taken a while for any real action to unfold in the race. A break of seven got away early on and were not reeled in until 70km to go. It was only then that the big teams started coming to the fore.
On the penultimate ascent of the Gallisterna climb, with around 40km remaining, Slovenia’s new Tour de France champion Tadej Pogacar attacked - at almost the exactly same point as Anna van der Breggen had the previous day. But whereas van der Breggen managed to open up a two-minute lead over the bunch before soloing to victory, Pogacar was never allowed that sort of leeway. As he took the bell, after nearly six hours of racing, his lead was just 26sec and he was caught soon before the foot of the final ascent of the Gallisterna, where Alaphilippe made his decisive attack.