Every Day, I Think About the 2020 UCI World Championship Men’s Road Race: The Victory
[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.]
Brief Recap: The Strategy
Cycling is rather like chess. It’s a game of strategy, a game of brinkmanship. It is a game which rewards big picture plans and elastic responses, whose goal is positioning one’s pieces as cleverly as possible in anticipation of the other player’s moves.
While there are many different strategies for approaching a bicycle race, in the contemporary era, the most common configuration is the train. The train involves one team (often the strongest) forming a mass or line of riders at the front of the peloton. The goal of the train is two-fold: protect the team leader from both the wind and attacks while retaining control of the bunch and its pace for as long as possible.
The train is simple and it is extremely effective, to the point where many cycling fans complain that its use has made the sport more boring. It is a strategy of endurance, of marginal gains, of complete and total dominance through sheer strength in numbers. However, it only succeeds if every link in the chain is able to sustain the momentum and do their turn at the front. The train is, for most of the duration of its execution, a defensive strategy, but its end goal is offensive: positioning one’s team leader in the right place and the right time (and in good condition) to win.
Should a train form, the strategy of every other team in the peloton becomes simple: how can we find chinks in this armor? How can we break this thing apart? So far in our race, the French and the Slovenians are the only ones with answers to those questions.
In a one-day race as long as the World Championships, the strongest team is content to save their energy, let other teams claim the front of the peloton and burn through their domestiques one by one. Hence, the Belgians wait in the wings, biding their time before they’ll assemble their train later on in the race. The pace in the peloton for the first half of this race is relaxed — it’s far too early to put the hammer down, after all. However, as the kilometers disappear, it becomes clear that someone has to make a move, hence, the French Offensive.
The goal of the French Offensive was three-fold: use the pace and the climb to pick off the stragglers at the back of the peloton, put distance between the members of other teams, and tire out the other race favorites with the pursuit. How do the French get the other teams to go along with their attack? It’s simple: they bring Julian Alaphilippe to the front and threaten the other team leaders with the possibility that he’ll launch and go clear. The other teams fall for it, hook, line and sinker.
With the peloton now diminished, and the critical part of the race upon them, the Belgians decide upon entering the autodrome that this penultimate lap is the time for them to form their train and take control of the front of the race. Unfortunately for them, the other teams anticipated this and are therefore making moves left and right. The British team brings forth Tom Pidcock and the Belgians are too distracted by this to notice Mezgec guiding Pogačar to the front. Whether the Belgians didn’t see Pogačar coming or whether they simply thought the Slovenian was bluffing we do not know, but when Pogačar goes clear, the newly formed Belgian train is not able to reel him in. Thus, they have to expend their precious energy for twenty more kilometers in an attempt to bring the race back together.
Hence, we arrive at our current circumstances.
The Road Captain
At 27 kilometers left to go, Julian Alaphilippe and Guillaume Martin drop to the back of the bunch to have a chat. They both know that soon after they arrive at the start of the Mazzolano, Pogačar will likely be caught. They also know that once the race comes back together, the other teams will vie for control, send their team leaders forward, launch attacks left and right. The end is so close now that any move could be the decisive one.
Throughout the race, Guillaume Martin has been weaving his way up and down the peloton, shepherding domestiques and relaying information. He is the conduit linking the French team together. Martin is the team’s road captain, and it’s a role he excels at. He has one job: making sure everyone is in the right place at the right time so Julian Alaphilippe can win this race.
Martin quite likes Alaphilippe, finds him interesting and clever, enjoys riding alongside him as his teammate rather than as his opponent. The strategy the two decide on is simple. It is a replay of what they did earlier in the race. Someone will attack at the front and Alaphilippe will come forward once more, except this time, he’s not bluffing. The only question that remains is: how, and when?
22 kilometers to go: The Belgians retain control of the front as the French fan out across the center of the peloton, Julian Alaphilippe in the middle. Dumoulin weaves his way up the right hand side.
21.9 kilometers to go: Belgian riders Greg van Avermaet and Wout van Aert are too busy shutting down attacks on either side of them to see Tom Dumoulin on the far right of the peloton. The road clears before Dumoulin and he strikes.
21.7 kilometers to go: Dumoulin catches up to Pogačar and locks him down.
21.6 kilometers to go: Guillaume Martin sees an opening on the left and seizes it, and Colombian team leader Rigoburto Uran follows on the right-hand side. In the chaos, the Belgian train is absolutely eviscerated, having shrunk from four riders to two. Martin manages to gain control of the bunch, which lines up neatly behind him.
21.3 kilometers to go: Dumoulin and Pogačar are caught.
21.2 kilometers to go: Italian road captain Damiano Caruso is sick of this game of cat and mouse. The race is on Italian soil, and by God, an Italian has to do something before it ends. One is not sure whether he’s thinking of his leader, Vincenzo Nibali, or for his own glory, but one is definitely sure that Caruso is done waiting in the wings. He launches an explosive attack from the right hand side of the peloton. Nibali is quick to follow, though he has to admit to himself that he’s not sure he’s got the legs to hold on much longer — much to the disappointment of the Italian fans lining the road.
Ecuadoran team leader Richard Carapaz locks onto Caruso’s wheel. Belgian favorite Wout van Aert goes with him, and Julian Alaphilippe, set up perfectly by Guillaume Martin, tries to get across. It’s attack after attack, but ironically, all of these attacks end up bringing the race back together as Guillaume Martin fights to lock things down at the front. He finally succeeds.
The camera pans to the rear of the peloton. Exhausted, Tadej Pogačar sits up. He gets out of the saddle a bit, straining as the group around him scrambles to stay intact. He exhales deeply, tries to quell the burning in his lungs, pain now seeping deep into his belly, but it’s alright, really. Pogačar’s work is done. When he observes the suffering on the faces around him, he considers his act of self sacrifice a roaring success. He cranes his neck a bit to try and see if he can locate his comrade and for a split second he spots the outline of Primož Roglič’s tricolor helmet near the front of the bunch. Pogačar smiles softly to himself. It’s all up to you, Rogla. You can do it. I know you can.
20.7 kilometers to go: Italian team leader Vincenzo Nibali breaks free, Mikel Landa, Richard Carapaz, and Wout van Aert immediately following. They’ve opened up a small gap at the front of the race, but Guillaume Martin is quickly clawing them back. Landa attacks, then Uran, as they enter the descent. Martin burns through every cell in his body, pedaling through one hairpin turn after another, form compact, eyes locked onto the bike of Wout van Aert who’s only seconds ahead of him now. They’re careening down the hill at 70 kilometers an hour, and by the end of the descent, Martin stitches the race back together.
All that remains now is one more climb up the Cima Gallisterna.
16.5 kilometers to go: Martin drops back to touch base with his domestique Valentin Madouas, briefly giving him instructions for the next part of their plan before returning to the front of the pack just in time. He’s so quick, so efficient at this, that it’s almost like he’s teleporting between each switch of the camera’s view.
Caruso groans inwardly. His first attempt may not have been successful, but he’s got no choice but to try again — they’re quickly running out of race to ride. He looks over for Nibali, gives him a nod of the head. It’s all the older man needs. The Italians strike, the Slovenian domestique Jan Polanc and Carapaz behind them. Van Avermaet, Alaphilippe, Landa, are all there. Martin follows. Gaps are opening everywhere. It’s absolute chaos, complete and total pandemonium, happening far too fast for the camera to truly capture. Polanc heads to the front to try and shut the attack down on behalf of Primož Roglič. The Slovenian sits up, looks back, and with an expression of surprise, notices that Roglič is not behind him. He shakes his head, throws his hands up in frustration. It’s a botched move for Slovenia.
15 kilometers to go: There’s a split between the front group and the rest of the peloton. The pursuing Belgians assume the helm once more, hellbent on closing this gap. Guillaume Martin is starting to get a bit annoyed, but he perseveres in his duties and attacks once more, this time going clear. Alaphilippe is content to let him, watching carefully as he sits comfortably in the wheels of Australian team leader Richie Porte. Martin’s attack once again forces the Belgians to reconvene and pursue, burning through more and more of them, closer and closer to the finish line. It works. Van Avermaet and van Aert seize control of the bunch once again. The Italians, after two foiled attacks, are more than content to let the Belgians take the wind for them.
14 kilometers to go: The Belgians catch up to Martin at the base of the Cima Gallisterna. Martin lets them reel him in as he switches gears back to securing an opening for Julian Alaphilippe. On the right hand side, Madouas is exactly where he needs to be — he’s jumped near the front of the bunch to serve as the final wingman for his team leader. France reassembles as van Avermaet locks down attack after attack at the front for Belgium. Everything is happening at once, and the critical moment — the moment that will determine who wins and who loses this race, is about to transpire.
12.9 kilometers to go: the young Swiss rider Marc Hirschi, still basking in the glory of his epic solo rides in the Tour de France a week earlier, attacks at the base of the Cima Gallisterna. Greg van Avermaet grimaces. This time, he can do no more for his teammate Wout van Aert. The riders able follow Hirschi will be the final contenders of this race. Everyone else will be shut out.
Wout van Aert snags onto Hirschi immediately. The Belgian team leader thinks that this is the attack that will determine everything, and in some ways he’s right. It sets up the conditions for the win, sorts the weak from the strong, and in this, it is decisive. However, Marc Hirschi’s attack is not the winning move, and in this, Wout van Aert is mistaken. It’s a costly mistake.
A gap quickly forms between the Hirschi group and the rest of the peloton, now led by Tom Dumoulin. This is the last time we see the Dutchman, the hero of our last chapter, for the rest of the race. Polish team leader Michal Kwiatkowski takes control of the front and, with the punishing pace he rides up the climb, two more riders, Vincenzo Nibali and German team captain Maximilian Schachmann are dropped. They will not recover.
The stage is now set.
A few moments later, all of the French team’s planning — all of its scheming, all of its back and forth up through the peloton, every blistering kilometer it’s inflicted on the rest of the bunch — has come to a head.
Julian Alaphilippe’s face is one of pure grit, but he’s sure his legs are good. He’s confident in himself, and he knows his companions won’t see his move coming. They’ll think he’ll pull a Kwiatkowski — launch to the front so as to seize control of the breakaway, set the pace, but no. Julian Alaphilippe has other plans. The riders are so strung out that it’s not hard for him to swing around Kwiatkowski on the right. It’s easy really, and he finds a humor in the whole thing. He’s used this boy who cried wolf trick dozens of times, and by golly, it still works.
It’s his favorite strategy: he’ll threaten the race earlier on, then use the domestiques to tire people out while he retreats to stays in the wings. After that, he’ll send one of his guys up to attack, cause more panic, and then wait again. Bluff the peloton enough times and they’ll stop responding, and then, at that moment, go. It’s funny, Alaphilippe thinks as he sits patiently behind Kwiatkowski, preparing himself— no matter how many times he’s done this, the bunch never catches on. They’re never able to call his bluff at the right moment. Every time they guess, they guess wrong.
Alaphilippe would chuckle to himself if his legs weren’t in searing agony on the climb’s ten percent gradient. Kwiatkowski swerves to the left, and that’s all the Frenchman needs. He lunges out of the saddle and goes in for the kill.
The attack is absolutely explosive, the effort monumental. It only takes seconds for Alaphilippe to leave his stunned competitors in the dust. Danish team leader Jakob Fuglsang is the first to react, followed by Kwiatkowski. Wout van Aert fights tooth and nail to stay with them as Hirschi and Roglič trail behind. As they round the corner, the pursuing group coalesces once more.
Everybody Hates Wout
None of the riders left in contention are on the same team. However, that does not stop alliances from being formed. What happens in the last ten kilometers of this race is a classic example of cycling brinkmanship.
Julian Alaphilippe may be breaking away, but Julian does that pretty frequently. He could still burn out, and often, he does. The main threat to the rest of the group is the same rider it’s been this whole time: Wout van Aert. Very quickly, the race becomes less a matter of winning or losing and more preventing the race favorite, Wout van Aert, from going after Julian Alaphilippe.
The other riders have good reason to be so wary of van Aert. He was second in yesterday’s time trial; he’s won two stages in this year’s Tour, all while serving as a super-domestique for Primož Roglič. He’s the winner of Strade Bianche and Milano-Sanremo. In cyclocross, he’s been the wearer of the rainbow bands no fewer than three times. Plus, Wout’s been shepherded all day by a team of extremely powerful classics riders — Tiesj Benoot, Greg van Avermaet, Oliver Naesen — and thanks to their assistance, he’s still fresh enough to put out a strong ride.
Everyone in the chasing group will try their very best to keep Wout van Aert locked down. Everyone except one man.
By this point in the race, Primož Roglič feels absolutely awful. After six hours in the saddle, he’s tired as hell. Slovenia’s team, in theory, is one of the strongest, but in practice, it’s middling at best. Primož, when left to his own devices, is stubborn, independent — guided solely by an unwavering, unyielding faith in himself and his own abilities. As the leader of Team Jumbo Visma, he’s used to having a well-oiled machine of domestiques and road captains at his disposal, all linked together via an intricate system of of inter-team communication. At World’s, there are no radios. Each man rides instinctively unless given directions to do otherwise.
Primož is excellent at minutiae — at seizing a moment, at marginal gains — but a big picture guy, he is not. That would be Tadej Pogačar, and while the latter’s experience as a cyclist is more ingrained and intuitive because he started so young, he’s not a particularly good road captain either. Roglič tries to run his Slovenian team like his Jumbo Visma team at the beginning of the race, positioning his domestiques in a train at the front, trying to gain control — but it’s a stupid plan. The riders don’t have the cohesion or the stamina for it, and many of them are dropped by the time the race is half over.
At the autodrome, shortly before Tadej makes his bike change, Roglič is at the back, and the commentators wonder why. The answer is: he’s trying to regroup his fractured team after he and Pogačar decided to go to the front all by themselves to keep an eye on Alaphilippe. It’s a dire situation. The only other Slovenians to make it to the 50 kilometer mark are Pogačar, Mezgec, and Polanc. Hence, a weakened Slovenia reassembles. Desperate times call for desperate measures and the team has no choice but to try a different move. Pogačar is its architect, sacrificing himself and Mezgec in the process. At 16 kilometers left to go, Polanc burns his candle at both ends to set Roglič up before the beginning of the Cima Gallisterna, only to look back and see that the other man is not there. Well shit, Polanc thinks, throwing his hands up, shaking his head. That’s it for him, too.
Roglič is finally alone — reliant only on his legs, his lungs, and his psyche — for better or for worse.
After Julian Alaphilippe attacks, Roglič knows that he is not going to win this bike race. He has no energy left. He hasn’t managed his effort well all day, and now he’s fighting tooth and nail just to cling to the back of the group. The best thing he can do at this point is hang on long as possible for a top 10 finish, maybe try and help out his Jumbo Visma teammate Wout van Aert along the way. At 10.7 kilometers to go, Roglič rides alongside Wout, gives him a friendly tap on the butt, and says something to him, probably along the lines of “Man, this sucks, huh?”
Roglič knows he won’t be much use to Wout, but without him, it’s Wout versus the world, and Wout deserves better than that. Thus, when Wout goes to the front of the group at 10.6 kilometers to go, Roglič goes with him, fends off Fuglsang before taking a turn at the front, shielding his comrade from the wind.
9.1 kilometers to go. Alaphilippe grows his lead to 15 seconds on the descent. Meanwhile, in the group, Roglič veers to the side, letting Wout through, but Fuglsang has none of it, sticks in his wheel, takes over. The Slovenian, totally on his limit, drops to the rear once more, trying to recoup some strength for later. Van Aert decides to let Fuglsang do the work at the front and joins Roglič moments later. Fuglsang lets Hirschi take a turn, Hirschi, in turn, cedes the front to Kwiatkowski, who cedes the front to Roglič again. A constant rotation, over and over. It quickly becomes clear that none of them are able to launch an attack — each is far too wary of the other.
No matter. That suits Juilan Alaphilippe just fine.
7 kilometers to go: Roglič is suffering. He’s doing his damnedest just to hold on. Every time Wout van Aert gets to the front, he’s shut down by Kwiatkowski and Fuglsang. Hirschi, in pure Swiss fashion, appears neutral to the whole thing. He takes his turn at the front like everyone else and doesn’t cause a fuss.
Alaphilippe gets into the super tuck on the descent, approaching 80 kilometers per hour as he careens downhill. He wrenches every bit of speed out of each corner, and as he looks behind and sees no one, he starts to think, Holy shit, I’m going to do it. Not far from the autodrome now, the end is in sight, but Alaphilippe’s a veteran — he knows it’s not over until it’s over, and it’s not over yet. He asks the motorbike for information on his time gap, but the answer’s unclear, and frustration spreads across the Frenchman’s face. He’s in the dark — everything behind him is a mystery. All he can do now is commit and hope for the best.
5 kilometers to go: The lead is elastic — 15 seconds, then 10, then 12. As he rounds a hairpin, Alaphilippe catches the faintest glimpse of Kwiatkowski’s white jersey in the corner of his eye. He immediately gets back into the aero tuck, hovers his body precipitously above his top tube, his torso extending in front of the handlebars in a risky gymnastics routine with the wind.
3.5 kilometers to go: Alaphilippe enters the autodrome. The camera captures his face, and his expression is one of anger and determination mixed with agony. He’s near his limit, but he’s near the finish line too. Wout van Aert tries again. He assumes his turn at the front and tries desperately to gain some speed in an attempt to claw Alaphilippe back, but the Belgian is soon shut down by Jakob Fuglsang, who sees the move as a threat.
2.5 kilometers to go: The Frenchman prays to any deity who will listen that he has enough time. He can’t decide whether or not he wants to stay in the saddle. He rises up as if in a panic for a few seconds, but there’s only so much his legs can take, so he sits back down again. He’s constantly looking back, and he can barely make out the outline of the chasing group, which only spurs him on further. Out of the saddle again, so it goes, so it goes.
Wout van Aert takes the lead one more time, but Kwiatkowski isn’t letting the Belgian go anywhere. Van Aert is in disbelief — are they really going to let Alaphilippe ride away with this? He finds the whole thing petty, and it is. It’s petty, yet effective. Van Aert realizes that even if he attacks and goes clear, his chances of reaching Alaphilippe before the finish are getting slimmer and slimmer with each passing rotation of his wheels, and regardless of whether or not the Belgian gets there, he’ll certainly be too tired at that point to win against his competitors in a bunch sprint. Thus, van Aert decides a sprint for second is his best bet, and when Kwiatkowski sidles up alongside him, the Belgian is more than happy to let the Polish team leader take his turn in the wind.
At 1.7 kilometers to go, Alaphilippe still can’t stop glancing behind him. He can’t stop checking to make sure that this is indeed his reality — that his pursuers are not, in fact, succeeding at pursuing him. If the Frenchman had any breath left in him, he’d laugh at them.
Meanwhile, in the chasing group, everyone is finally on the same page. They’re not going to get Alaphilippe back, and this is no longer a team sport. They stop working for one another. The time for the sprint is upon them, and now it becomes a matter of being wary, of watching each little movement flashing in the corners of their eyes like a hawk. Thanks to this new stalemate, Alaphilippe grows his advantage back up to 13 seconds.
1 kilometer to go — la flamme rouge: Roglič pushes hard, tries to see if he can get any more juice out of his legs, tries to see if there’s anything left in that lithe, weary body of his. There’s not. He finds nothing. He swings to the side, not wanting to get caught up in the mess that’s about to unfold.
Julian Alaphilippe sees the finish line in front of him. He cranes his neck over his shoulder one more time just to make sure. Closer and closer he comes, his body absolutely wracked with exhaustion, his heart reaming against his ribcage but the pain doesn’t matter, no, not anymore. He crosses the line, throws his hands into the air and, in pure Julian Alaphilippe fashion, bursts into tears. He’s done it. He’s fucking done it. He smiles, he punches the air, and for the first time since 1997, a Frenchman wins the UCI World Championship Men’s Road Race.
However, the race is not over yet.
Wout van Aert checks behind him. He does it again. He’s in the perfect position. Fuck these guys, he thinks, and he strikes. He’s a great sprinter, and he has a pretty good shot to win any sprint with a leadout as long as the one he’s just set off. Hirschi’s behind him, locked onto him as Kwiatkowski tries to sneak his way around the left hand side, but he doesn’t quite get there, doesn’t quite have the gas to cut either man off. Wout van Aert wins silver handily, a consolation prize for the bullshit he’s had to put up with all day. It’s a bike throw between Hirschi and Kwiatkowski for third, but the photo finish confirms that Marc Hirschi’s the victor. Fuglsang finishes fifth, and is followed shortly by a defeated Roglič.
One might find the ending of this race to be a little disappointing. However, as we can see by means of our earlier discussion of strategy, it was inevitable. Any one of the six riders at the end could have won the rainbow bands, but only France had decent enough planning and team management to compensate for their internal weaknesses and any setbacks encountered along the way.
However, sometimes, the thrill of a bike race does not revolve around the final moments at the finish line, but rather in the varying dramas that unfurl along the way. Such is the case with the 2020 UCI World Championships Men’s Road Race.
Cycling is all about great stories, and this race contained multitudes.
It’s a story about the Tour de France and its relitigation — a story about Team Jumbo Visma — unfolding in a number of actions that blur the lines between allies and competitors. Among its pages one finds the critical attack of Tom Dumoulin and the final act of solidarity between Primož Roglič and Wout van Aert.
It’s a story about the Belgians— one of hubris, one of brinkmanship gone wrong — a story whose main character, Wout van Aert, is transformed from enemy number one of the entire peloton into a sympathetic figure who, despite getting shafted out of the rainbow bands, still manages to walk away with something.
It’s a story about two men — Tadej Pogačar and Primož Roglič and the nuanced relationship they share, now clearly on display when the protege-usurper Pogačar sacrifices himself for his discouraged mentor in a spectacular act of bravery and power, an act that changes the composition of the race irrevocably.
Finally, it’s a story, of course, about the victory of the French team — the panache and superhuman effort of its leader Julian Alaphilippe, but also the cleverness and perseverance of its domestiques and its tenacious road captain, the no longer overlooked Guillaume Martin.
The UCI World Championship Men’s Road Race is all of these things, and — as Julian Alaphilippe wraps his arms around his road captain, tears streaming down his face — it’s over, too.
The emotions run high as the sun hangs low in the sky, the rain predicted earlier by the announcers nowhere to be found. It’s a shuffle of camera views — panning back to the tail ends of the dejected peloton now crossing the finish line, cutting to Alaphilippe crying, cutting to Wout van Aert patting Greg van Avermaet on the back, cutting to Primož Roglič’s exhausted face, his brown eyes cloudy, his cheeks pink. The commentators make small talk about the riders, about the race, about the races still to come. It’s all just filler before the podium ceremony, anyway.
Finally, everyone’s accounted for, and Julian Alaphilippe takes the stage. The French national anthem begins to play, and tears roll down his cheeks as he soaks in the moment, one of the most important in his career. The presenter pulls the rainbow jersey taut around Alaphilippe’s heavy shoulders, zips it up. The rainbow bands are a trophy. They’re an icon of cycling. They’re confirmation that Julian Alaphilippe, is, in fact, the best cyclist in the world. They’re also a new burden to carry, but he’ll carry that burden with pride — the same pride with which he carries himself, always has, always will.