“Long, wet and cold,” former world champion Remco Evenepoel commented at the end of the race. He’d distilled the events of the day into three, refreshingly simple words, it was as if there was so much to say, it was easier to say almost nothing at all. The Belgian rider stood there in his blue kit covered in the dirty grime of the day, shivering, his eyes red and bloodshot looking deeply at journalists with a sense of pleading. Just let me go, Evenepoel’s expression said, I’ve done enough today.
One by one as the riders trickled through the mixed zone where journalists were eagerly waiting to question them, they all seemed to share the same sentiment as Evenepoel. They sported the sorts of looks that could be compared to the faces that enter the velodrome at the end of Paris-Roubaix earlier in the season: shell-shocked, weathered and with a shared. mutual understanding between them about how hard what they have just done really is. Something that only the riders will understand, and that no number of probing questions will get to the bottom of.
We feel this sort of atmosphere between the riders after the one-day Classics in spring, when the weather has been biblical and the racing has been non-stop from the flag dropping. Today’s World Championships road race was akin to a Classic, a race of attrition with pain etched on rider’s faces when the day was done.
The very nature of the course itself should, perhaps, have given us an inkling that this is what we should have expected from the race today. A short, punchy, city-centre circuit with a maze of wiggling corners and narrow roads when combined with the world’s best cyclists is a recipe for chaos. After the race, Belgium’s Jasper Stuyven expressed his frustrations about the route: “I don’t think this was the best course for a World Championship,” he said with a rueful shake of the head. “There were really a few too many corners.”
What few could have expected, however, was for a large part of the drama of the day to come on the rolling part of the course before the riders even hit the slippery roads of central Glasgow. It came with 190 kilometres of racing when things looked like they were beginning to settle into a rhythm. A break had established itself and was steadily building a gap of over five minutes, when suddenly, abruptly, everything came to a halt. Confusion ensued, until it was revealed that there were protesters who had glued themselves to the tarmac ahead, blocking the road and stopping the racing entirely.
“They picked a good part of the course to do it on, it was the narrowest part of the course and it was very isolated, so it made sense,” Owain Doull of Great Britain said after the race after being one of the key riders in the break. “It was a little bit bizarre, I was really cold when I had to get going. They told us there was a protest but it was all under control and the police would have to use special solvent or something to remove them and it is probably going to take half an hour to get the race going. They said they’d practised this scenario so were pretty organised and pretty drilled. If I’m honest I was busting for a pee so I was quite happy to stop, they did me a favour really!”
Eventually, when the racing did get back underway, change was afoot. Multiple teams came to the front of the bunch, seemingly refreshed by the stop and with a newfound zeal. Shoulder to shoulder they raced, fast and hard, and this was the start of the next phase of chaos.
As the riders entered the city circuit, the roads were lined with fans, screaming and cheering like animals, Glasgow was alive. The rider’s faces were showing pain and discomfort, the clatter and whoosh of their bikes as they fired through the turns echoed through the high buildings. The crowds were laced with a type of madness and delirium, as the riders crashed and kept crashing. They got back up and crashed again. It was pure, violent carnage.
“It was a love, hate relationship [with the course],” Nielson Powless of the United States said afterwards. “I knew what you had to do, you had to use energy really early on and a lot of guys don’t like that. A crash decided my race, I was really disappointed by that, but I still had fun racing, along with all the suffering.”
Powless was not the only rider to suffer misfortune on Glasgow’s slippy city streets. Remco Evenepoel had grand ambitions to defend the rainbow stripes he won in Wollongong last year, but the Belgian believes his race was crucially impacted by the crashes too.
“It was too technical and too explosive for me, the course was not really in my favour,” Evenepoel said. “It split with crashes and we couldn’t close the gap anymore on the four leaders that were in front. It divided the group in two pieces and that’s how it goes, but it is a shame.”
Through all the disarray and mayhem, however, emerged one rider in orange: Mathieu van der Poel. The Dutchman’s winning attack with 20 kilometres of the race remaining was ruthless and brave, and it destroyed the likes of Wout van Aert and Tadej Pogačar who fought and failed to stay on his wheel. Van der Poel time trialled to the finish line with excellence, finessing the corners with skill and riding with an utter, tunnel vision focus.
With an all-or-nothing attack like Van der Poel produced, however, comes a necessary amount of risk. The 28-year-old was pushing the limits on every corner, squeezing seconds and milliseconds where there should have been none to gain. At one point, he took things too far, cutting a corner too fast and ending up face-to-face with the cold, sodden tarmac.
“I was not taking risks, I don't know, all of a sudden I was on the ground. It was super slippery,” Van der Poel said after the race. “To still manage to pull it off, I wouldn't say it makes it nicer as I would have loved to have stayed on the bike. But if it cost me a world title, I would have not slept for a couple of days.”
In the end, Van der Poel still made it. He still took rainbows and will go home and forget the crashes and how close he came to losing it all. Winning is what matters. “It means everything. It was one of my biggest goals and to win it today is amazing. It almost completes my career in my opinion, it's almost my biggest victory on the road,” he said.
Van der Poel’s victory is the main headline, but this was a day which raises many questions about the sport as a whole. The protests serve a real risk to the sport, how many more times will they happen until it really impacts the result of a race? Was the Glasgow circuit safe for riders? How on earth did Van der Poel hit the deck, stand up and still win the race with only one shoe functioning? Time will give us some answers to these questions, but some will never be answered at all. That’s cycling – confusing, shocking and often completely, utterly, crazy.