Every Day, I Think About the 2020 UCI World Championship Men’s Road Race: The French Offensive
[Author’s Note: This is a piece about a bicycle race, however, it’s not meant to be a piece of sports journalism — rather it’s better classified as a work of creative non-fiction. We can never know what goes through a cyclist’s head when they race. We can never truly understand their motives, their inspirations — yet their actions tell a story, and my goal here is to distill those storytelling elements into a broader, if somewhat embellished narrative.]
The French Offensive
Fact: The last time a Frenchman won the World Championship’s Mens Road Race was 23 years ago in 1997 when Laurent Brochard beat the Danish rider Bo Hamburger in the final sprint. Since then, Worlds marks one of the longest droughts in French cycling, on par with the Tour de France, which hasn’t been won by a Frenchman since Bernard Hinault took the maillot jaune in 1985.
Another fact: With 74 kilometers left to go of the 2020 UCI World Championships Men’s Road Race, Julian Alaphilippe feels pretty damn good today. So far, the Frenchman hasn’t drawn much attention to himself. He hasn’t needed to — there’s still a lot of race left, and for now, it’s still the breakaway’s moment in the sun. Thus, Alaphilippe chooses to quietly grind down the distance, biding his time in the anonymizing comfort of the peloton. Gradient increasing, he works his mouth into a subtle half smile. He won’t have to lay low for much longer.
It has taken 184 kilometers for this race to really kick off, and despite the last five hours of grueling riding, the peloton is vibrating with excitement. Everything could blow up at any minute — they can just feel it.
Once Yukiya Arashiro, the breakaway’s tenacious hero, is pulled back, the bunch knows that the last two riders up ahead — the German Jonas Koch and the Norwegian Torstein Traeen — will soon also be assimilated into the mass of rushing wheels and colorful jerseys. The conclusion of a breakaway is a pivotal moment for any race, and the question each rider asks himself in anticipation of that moment is the same: Who is going to take control when it all comes back together, and how?
Seventy-four kilometers is still a long ways to go, however, and there are risks involved with making a big move so early on.
Julian Alaphilippe and his second-in-command Guillaume Martin sit in the middle of the pack. Flanked by their ready and willing domestiques, the two consider their options. The number — in seconds and in meters — separating the peloton and the breakaway is dwindling precipitously. Clearly, something has to happen and soon— but do they want to be the ones to set things off, or should they wait for someone else to take initiative?
One can easily imagine a hypothetical tête-a-tête between the French team’s two leaders as they take stock of the situation, join forces, and scheme:
Alaphilippe: Something is about to happen. Should we go, Guillaume?
Martin: Perhaps, but it might be too soon.
Alaphilippe: The breakaway is going to be caught. Someone is going to take the reins after that, may as well be us.
Martin: Strategically speaking, it is a toss up. If we hang in the back for another ten or fifteen kilometers, we can conserve our energy, let other teams battle it out, show their cards — there’s a lot of race left, Julian.
Alaphilippe: That’s true. However, when we are this far back, we’re at a disadvantage should there be any attacks. It’s very likely that the intensity will ramp up at the foot of the next climb, or after we reel in the breakaway, whichever comes first.
Martin: The question then is: do we want to conserve energy or be in control? Fortunately, we’ve still got a while before we have to make that decision. How much time is there between us and the break?
Alaphilippe: Surely under two minutes now — but if we act sooner, we can catch the break and set things up at the start of the climb. Think of it this way, if we are at the front, we can punish everyone else for around five kilometers or so of climbing, continuing on if needed. The peloton is still too big and many riders are hanging on solely because the pace has been relaxed all day. I’m sure we can thin things out with a short attack and then decide from there how to proceed.
Martin: I saw some strong riders further back that we could definitely put the hurt into, surprise a little bit. Carthy, Dumoulin. A question for you, though: if we don’t go out front, who will? Denmark, Switzerland, Slovenia — they’ve been on the front all day with nothing to show for it. Belgium is the strongest, and they are more than content to sit in the wheel, biding their time. Do we really want to take the wind for them?
Alaphilippe: I see your point, but if we up the pace, we’ll still tire them out, regardless. As for strength, let’s be realistic. Slovenia has Roglič and Pogačar but they have been burning through domestiques one after the other. Italy and the Netherlands are behind us, will be later to react. Spain is a threat, and it would be wise to stop them from coming any closer. If we attack, the main goal should be to cause gaps within the larger teams and wear down the smaller ones. Once we succeed at that, we can cede the front to someone else and take time to recover.
Martin: To that point, if we go before we catch the breakaway and before the climb, we’ll catch everyone by surprise. They’re all waiting for someone to make a move, but not at this particular moment. Perhaps it would be wise to send one of our men up to gather information and see if the groups ahead are planning anything suspicious. Peters is agile and nobody is expecting him. He should go.
Alaphilippe: I agree. Send Nans, and, should we decide to act, we send Pacher with him — he’s aggressive, but not important enough to arouse suspicion when he heads towards the front.
Martin: So, we’re going to make a move, then — that much is settled. It would be wise for us to split up and manage the effort, maintain communication. You ride closer to the front with Peters and Pacher and I’ll stay back here to keep track of what’s happening behind us.
Alaphilippe: Good idea. We’re entering the feed zone soon and that’s the perfect opportunity for Nans to ride up alongside as though he’s planning on taking a musette. Meanwhile, the pace will slow and he can head to the front.
The two nod and separate with 74 kilometers to go. Alaphilippe smiles. Their plan is brilliant.
Julian Alaphilippe and Guillaume Martin are two very different people, both on and off the bike.
On the bike, Martin is more of a pure climber — a rider with great endurance but little explosivity. In contrast, Alaphilippe is a puncheur — that is, he specializes in rollicking courses with short but steep climbs, able to attack on the hills as well as compete in a sprint at the end, should there be one. As a person, Alaphilippe can best be described as a showman — bombastic, cocky, prone to public displays of emotion. Martin, on the other hand is demure, quiet, and shy.
Regardless of his apparent impulsivity, Alaphilippe is, in fact, very clever. This is something he shares in common with his compatriot, who, in addition to being a professional cyclist, holds a Master’s degree in philosophy and has written a successful book, Socrates a Vélo, which looks at cycling through the eyes of the great philosophers. Martin’s odd path in life has worked to his advantage in that he is a well-rounded and self-actualized human being with a decent backup plan in place should cycling not pan out for him. In some ways, however, his background has disadvantaged him.
Despite his talent, Guillaume Martin has been relatively overlooked as a cyclist until somewhat recently. In 2014, he spent a summer training with the prestigious French team Groupama-FDJ, who, for reasons unknown, did not call him back. Shut out of the big leagues, Martin spent four years on the less elite continental team Wanty-Groupe Gobert, before finally returning to the World Tour level in 2019 when he joined Cofidis, another French team, as a team leader. Since then, he has been slowly climbing up the general classification, winning bronze in this year’s Criterium du Dauphine and 11th in the Tour de France. 2020 is Guillaume Martin’s first time racing in the World Championships for France and — considering his cleverness as a tactician as well as the important role he will play later on in the race — his past omission from the roster will prove to be one of French cycling’s most glaring mistakes.
Unlike Martin, Julian Alaphilippe (whom we will discuss in greater detail later in this series) has ridden the World Championships for France since 2017, with mixed results, depending on the course and the composition of the teams he’s been on. So far, his best placement has been 8th, which he achieved in 2018, beating out his teammate Thibaut Pinot, who came in 9th. Another Frenchman from their team, Romain Bardet, won silver.
This year, however, Bardet and Pinot were both victims of nasty crashes at the Tour, and the vacancies left by them gave the French team an opportunity to rethink their choices. The 2020 team is composed of more riders better known for their aggression, such as Nans Peters and Quentin Pacher, and most of the cyclists on the roster are older — in their late 20s. Almost all of them ride as climbers or puncheurs, and for good reason: the Imola course is far too brutal for the sprint and time trial specialists. The 2020 team proves to be terrific in its composition, with great chemistry and much clearer hierarchies between its riders.
The French riders don’t know it quite yet, but their team’s new strategic pivot from endurance to aggression will end up paying dividends.
At 70 kilometers to go, Nans Peters slips off to the side and pulls himself to the head of the peloton. After a little bit of reconnaissance, he discovers that none of the other teams have decided to do anything. Denmark sits at the front simply because they were sitting at the front before. Peters lingers on the sidelines and Pacher and Alaphilippe understand through fleeting glances and pure body language that Peters is holding a place for them, securing an opening. With a quick burst of speed, they take it. Now, they are in control.
The commentators wonder if the French squad is going too early, and it’s a valid question, because France immediately ups the tempo. Slovenia makes an attempt to merge and regain their position — their heroes Primož Roglič and Tadej Pogačar clearly worried by the sight of Alaphilippe at the front — but the Slovenians are unable to maneuver themselves in time to neutralize the French threat. Roglič and Pogačar move up, impatient, anxious, both sensing that something important is about to happen.
The brinkmanship escalates. The Belgian team sends Tim Wellens, Greg van Avermaet following; Britain’s wunderkind long-shot Tom Pidcock claws his way up there with Luke Rowe; Poland brings forward their champion, Michal Kwiatkowski. Italy realizes the danger and furiously attempts to get riders where they need to be before this whole race blows apart.
Suddenly, the situation becomes very, very serious. Everything up to this point has been nothing but an overture, instrumentalists killing time while the stars of this four-part opera ready themselves backstage. Now, the final phrases of music tumble towards their feverish conclusion. The lights dim in the theater, the curtains are drawn, and the proverbial fat lady begins to sing.
Immediately after the increase in pace, riders fall off the back of the peloton, drifting away into the dark zone of failure where the motorbikes don’t go. There’s so much happening ahead that the only comments the announcers make are the nationalities of the losers — one from Denmark, one from Switzerland, one from Luxembourg, and two from the USA.
Meanwhile, out at the front of the race, the lead of the two breakaway riders is eviscerated to under half a minute.
Young Tadej Pogačar, the unexpected winner of the 2020 Tour de France and one of the main protagonists of this story, grows restless. He wants to be at the front, needs to be at the front, and he acts on his need. With a little jolt in the legs, he grabs onto the wheel of Quentin Pacher. Pogačar’s presence adds a bit of kindling to the fire the French ignited a few moments ago, but more importantly, it escalates the anxiety of the riders behind him.
At 69 kilometers to go, the peloton reaches the base of the Cima Gallisterna. Almost all of the French team is there now, the stragglers having cleverly maneuvered themselves to the front, following the plan set in motion by Alaphilippe and Martin to a T. They fan out across the road, cutting off potential attackers like Pogačar and Wellens. Meanwhile, the Spanish team arrives, bringing all-rounder Mikel Landa with them. The French are unfazed by this. They’re calm, they’re fast, and they’re in control as the Cima Gallisterna begins to inflict its punishing gradient upon them.
Pacher and Peters are careening up the climb, their tempo relentless. Pogačar and Wellens follow, sandwiched in by French domestique Kenny Elissonde. Landa makes his move and jumps across to Elissonde, sticks in his wheel, another Frenchman close behind him, keeping sentry. Within seconds, the last two members of the breakaway, Koch and Traeen, are caught, all but forgotten about over the course of the last few minutes’ madness.
At 68 kilometers to go, Nans Peters empties the tank, gives it everything he’s got in an attempt to wear down on his immediate pursuers and the peloton behind them. He’s out of the saddle, bike rollicking from side to side as he burns through every kilojoule of energy stored in that compact, powerful body of his. Peters is suffering — muscles aching, head down, teeth clenched — but there’s a joy in it. Nans Peters feels as alive as a cyclist can feel, for he’s accepting and fulfilling the domestique’s most noble, most heroic task: he’s sacrificing himself for his team leader.
At 67 kilometers to go, Nans Peters seeks a brief reprieve and he drops back a position, taking comfort in the slipstream of Quentin Pacher, who now takes a turn at the head of the race. They’re still full-out sprinting, and the ensuing chaos has exactly the effect France predicted it would: it surprises and upsets the peloton. In other words, France has whacked this bees nest of a race with a broomstick, and the swarm is buzzing.
The peloton is stretched out like a rubber band, expanding and contracting at each corner, careening down the the other side of the climb. Small gaps begin to form within its strand and riders are desperate to try and close them, fervently praying that whatever’s happening up front will subside, that this insanity will all be over soon.
At 66 kilometers to go, Peters returns to the front and the Belgians begin to recover from the surprise of the French assault. More of their riders power their way forward, forming a contingent around Wellens and van Avermaet. The Belgian team, despite being caught off-guard by the recent turn of events, finds themselves rather pleased with them. They’re predicted to win this race, with several potential contenders among their ranks: Tim Wellens, Greg van Avermaet, Oliver Naesen, Tiesj Benoot, and, of course, the race favorite, Wout van Aert.
If, the Belgians think, the French want to waste their energy this far out, burn through their domestiques like children playing with matches, that’s perfectly alright. Why not let the French do the hard work of thinning the herd, taking the wind for the Belgians as they do it? It’s the best of both worlds, really. Thus, the Belgian team sits in the wheels of the French, both teams safe in their numbers, safe in their strength, unfazed by whatever’s unfolding further down the line.
The Mishap at the Autodrome
Now is the moment of narrative transition. Just as the concluding events of the last chapter and the initial events of the current one converged in the singular moment of Nans Peters’ attack, it is here, in the mishap at the autodrome where the stories told here and the stories to come overlap.
What happens in the beginning of the penultimate lap is, for the time being, rather vague. At 58 kilometers, the camera pans to the Slovenian cyclist Primož Roglič — second in this year’s Tour de France, and a favorite to win today. He’s suspiciously far behind in the peloton, legs spinning something fierce in his attempt to catch back up. Did he miss the attack? Did he get dropped? We do not know. Meanwhile, when the camera pans up to the front of the race, Tadej Pogačar is not there. At 57 kilometers, we finally see him, distanced behind the peloton, shoving his bidon in his jersey pocket, trying to get the attention of his team car. Has he had a mechanical? Is he injured? Again, we do not know.
Something has happened between the two Slovenian team leaders.
The camera jumps back to the front for a stint, the Belgians creeping towards the front as the race enters the autodrome. At 56 kilometers to go, it jumps back to Pogačar just in time to see him abandon his bike on the side of the road and hop gracefully atop a new one. He’s had a total bike change. Why? The reason is unclear, and too much is happening at the head of the race for us to wait for answers. For now, all we know is that Pogačar is going full gas trying to rejoin the tail end of a rapidly accelerating peloton. Fortunately, It doesn’t take him long.
With 54 kilometers to go, Tadej Pogačar arrives at the back of the bunch, his pursuit efficient and successful — effortless, even. Meanwhile, at the front, after a long campaign of fearless aggression, the beleaguered French team cedes control to the Belgians.
The explicit goal of the French team’s aggressive strategy was to whittle the peloton down as much as possible as quickly as possible, splitting the other teams apart and knocking off their weakest links in the process. When Nans Peters goes on the attack, the peloton still has over a hundred riders counted within its ranks. Now, the main group numbers around fifty, with small gaps emerging here and there, depending on the tempo.
Guillaume Martin and Julian Alaphilippe are reunited in the middle of the bunch, neither quite sure whether the means of their attack justified the ends.
Quentin Pacher and Nans Peters allow themselves to get swallowed up, too. They try to hold on a little longer, try to fight the fatigue that reaches from their clenched jaws down to their numb, balled-up toes. In their exhaustion, they are satisfied. They have done their jobs to the best of their ability. The sight of suffering — evident in the knitted eyebrows and open mouths of every rider passing them by — brings the two Frenchmen glee. It’s suffering they’ve inflicted, hardship they’ve brought to fruition. In a race they have no chance of winning, schadenfreude is their only prize. They accept it with honor as they relax their legs and allow themselves to drift towards the rear of the pack, thankful for the respite of the wind.
Whether or not the French offensive was successful is irrelevant to the fact that it was necessary. Without it, the race would have stagnated for an indefinite amount of time in a stalemate between several powerful teams, each wary of the other. Alaphilippe’s decision to act when and where he did ignited the race, demonstrated his team’s strength, created a turning point at which many of the teams revealed their hands — with rather bad poker faces to boot.
Julian Alaphilippe and Guillaume Martin, in this embellished account, have gleaned several key pieces of information by way of their exercise in brinkmanship. First, they learn which teams are strong. Neither Belgium nor Switzerland seemed to struggle with recovering from the attack’s initial shock. Second, they learn which teams are less strong than they had anticipated. Italy and Spain, despite their star-studded rosters, failed to meet the French challenge in a way that demonstrated a legitimate threat, and Slovenia, though powerful, appeared to be totally disorganized. Finally, they learn which teams are downright weak. Neither the Dutch nor Colombians, once formidable opponents, established themselves as serious contenders at any point prior or during the attack.
Each of these kernels of knowledge will serve Martin and Alaphilippe well as they formulate a strategy to sustain them for the remaining 54 kilometers of the race. However, 54 kilometers is still a long ways from the finish line and so, for now, the French return quietly to the center of the pack, thankful to be relieved of the wind.
While the French team never quite fades into the background, the next chapter of this tale does not involve them. Similarly, while the Belgian team is, at present, maintaining strict control of the front of the race, the next chapter of this tale doesn’t really involve them either. What it does involve is a single, short-lived act — an act of bravery, an act of perseverance, an act of profound love.
The perpetrator of this act is the twenty-two year old boy gradually weaving his way back up through the peloton, blond-brown hair poking through the slats of his helmet. He lets out a deep breath and rests his hands calmly on the brakehoods of his bicycle. With 54 kilometers to go, Tadej Pogačar commits himself, eyes clear, cadence high, to the task ahead.