Anyone with at least a passing interest in cricket will by now, after a summer of England and Australia playing against each other in the Ashes, be aware of the concept of ‘Bazball’. Named after England’s new coach Brendon ‘Baz’ McCullum, it expresses a bold tactical approach adopted by the English that aims to play ultra-attacking cricket and challenge many of the old orthodoxies about how the game should be played, while also intending to try and attract more fans to follow the sport by prioritising not just winning but entertainment as well.
It’s easy to see parallels with this new cricket and the way men's road cycling has evolved in the last few years, and yesterday’s World Championships race was perhaps cycling’s purest example yet of its very own brand of Bazball. It had everything spectators would have hoped for — it exploded into life early, never relented with constant attacks, featured many of the world’s most exciting and popular racers at the forefront, and ended with arguably the three biggest stars of all taking the podium places.
Of those riders, it was perhaps the most ‘Bazball’ of the three who took the victory, although Mathieu van der Poel is no longer the gung-ho rider who stunned the peloton with some of his performances upon breaking into the scene four years ago. He quickly earned a reputation for being an outrageous, attacking rider, making impulsive, early and often seemingly counterintuitive moves. However, this year we have seen a more calculating, ruthless version of Van der Poel – one better equipped at converting strong legs into results.
The way he raced to take victory in Glasgow was no exception. Initially, he seemed to have gone with the flow of the race and reverted to the Van der Poel of old, joining in the fun by making powerful attacks 91km and 74km from the finish, the latter forming what looked like it might have been the selection of the day with only Wout van Aert, Mads Pedersen, Tadej Pogačar and Alberto Bettiol going with him. But when they were brought back a few kilometres later (following a committed chase from France’s Benoît Cosnefroy), Van der Poel stayed out of the limelight, sat back and preserved energy while Pogačar, Pedersen, Van Aert and his Belgian teammate Remco Evenepoel traded blows with frequent attacks and counter-attacks.
Instead, Van der Poel picked his moment perfectly, waiting until lone-attacker Bettiol was just about to be caught (following a bold 33km attack from the Italian) to launch his next move. This perhaps caught the other three chasers (Van Aert, Pogačar and Pedersen, in a repeat of the earlier selection) by surprise as he made his attack on one of the shorter uphill roads, rather than on the circuit's hardest ride on Montrose Street. He secured a gap over everyone else left in the group, pressed on and soloed the remaining 22km to take victory.
Indeed, his tactics were astute, but it’s also true that he was simply the strongest rider on the day, in a race that was ultimately not especially subtle or tactical in determining the final outcome. There might not have been a single headline climb to compare to other past Worlds courses, but the constant corners, rises, and commitment to attacking racing was enough to see the race split into pieces. The Worlds hasn’t seen the likes for decades: 51 finishers were the fewest number since 1999; not since 1998 have as few as 23 riders finishing within 10 minutes of the winner; and the gap of 3:48 between first and fifth was the largest since 1980. And so Van der Poel was so dominant that even a heart-stopping crash going around one of the many corners just before the final lap was not enough to stop him not only taking victory but by a huge margin of 1:37, the biggest of any Worlds road race since (except Evenepoel’s 2:21 win last year) Vittorio Adorni way back in 1968.
It’s been a similarly long time since cycling has seen a rider with a palmarès comparable to the one Van der Poel has now built. By adding the World Championships road race to his two Tour of Flanders titles and the Milan-Sanremo/Paris-Roubaix double he completed this spring, the Dutchman becomes only the seventh rider in history to have all four of those races on his palmarès, and the first since his compatriot Jan Raas in the 1980s. The likes of Peter Sagan, Philippe Gilbert, Fabian Cancellara, Tom Boonen, Johan Musseuw, and even Sean Kelly all came close in the time since and made those races among the very top targets of their careers, but none could win all four. And that’s not to mention all of his Cyclocross achievements: by winning yesterday, Van der Poel also becomes the first man to claim World titles in both disciplines. It was enough for him to say during his post-victory interview that, despite still being just 28 years old, he felt he had "almost completed his career". In terms of the Classics, it’s difficult to argue against that conclusion.
One rider who hasn’t completed his career is Wout van Aert. As has happened so many times throughout his career, both as a senior and a junior, the Belgian found himself denied victory by his eternal rival. Losing to Van der Poel has been a depressingly familiar occurrence this year in particular: the way he slumped back into his saddle and let the gap go to Van der Poel at the pivotal moment mirrored both his inability to follow him on the Poggio a Milan-Sanremo and the sight of him riding away from him on Carrefour de l'Arbre at Paris-Roubaix. Though he did well to steal a march on chase competitions Pogačar and Pedersen by riding clear from them just kilometres before the finishing straight to seal silver, having earned the same colour medal once in the road race and twice in the time trial, he will surely be bitterly disappointed.
Nor is it the result his Belgian team wanted. Although they were clearly the strongest team in the race, with Jasper Stuyven and Tiesj Benoot managing to offer their leaders assistance and stay at the business end of the race (so much so that they themselves ended up finishing sixth and ninth respectively), they needed defending champion Remco Evenepoel to have his best legs.
If Belgium had that extra card to play, the race would have been far more tactical, and the pair might have been able to work over and ultimately defeat Van der Poel by attacking him in tandem. But with a bad day for Evenepoel preventing them from playing that tactical ploy, there was little Van Aert or anyone else could have done differently. Van der Poel was the strongest rider on the day, as he has been in most of the one-day races this year and will surely make for a world champion worthy of cycling’s Bazball era.