Blacklisting, birds, broken bones and a night in a police station: The weirdest World Championship week in history?

The Wollongong Worlds will never be forgotten, for reasons both good and bad

Perhaps the video of Bauke Mollema being attacked by a magpie while out on a training ride ahead of the World Championships was the first sign. There’s a famous rhyme about this type of bird in the UK, relating to how many magpies one person sees in a day. It begins with the line: “One for sorrow, two for joy…” In an ominous way, the rhyme continues with the lines switching between good and evil as the number of magpies goes up. It’s like the bird represents a sort of malicious uncertainty: does it bring good or foul luck? The rhyme ends with 13 magpies and the line “...beware it’s the devil himself.”

Going by the rule of the rhyme, it seems that Mollema saw an odd and unlucky number of magpies. His, and much of the Dutch team’s week, was plagued with sorrow. The bad omen first came to fruition in the Mixed Team Relay event, when Mollema suffered a mechanical early on in the race forcing him to change bikes and leaving just his two of his male Dutch teammates to continue their side of effort. Then, in a series of events that became so unbelievable they are almost comical, as Mollema rolled towards the finish line alone, he had a second run-in with a feathered friend. A seagull swooped down and attacked the 35-year-old causing him to duck and dive to avoid its flapping wings.

That would have been enough to ruin the day of the Dutch team, but whatever curse those magpies had cast upon them continued as the women’s team rolled down the start ramp, aiming to rectify the time lost due to Mollema’s run of bad luck. But, in a freak crash, the cause of which still remains largely unsolved, Annemiek van Vleuten hit the deck after completing only 22 pedal strokes. As she clattered to the ground, her tyre hit the curb and left the tarmac, and Van Vleuten’s Canyon bike, splattered dramatically in white sealant. The team in orange, once favourites for the event, finished in fifth place eventually.

With that crash, Van Vleuten suffered a dent to her pride but most worryingly, a heavy dosing of road rash, bruising and a fractured elbow. The consequences of this mishap also threatened to be far greater than just the loss of a potential world title in the Mixed Team Relay, it put question marks over her participation in the road race.Image: Alex Whitehead/SWpix

It was eventually announced that Van Vleuten would start the race on the weekend, but she’d work as a domestique for her Dutch teammates, as the pain in her arm was hindering her ability to get out of the saddle and she was in no place to be fighting for victory herself. She took to the line heavy with bandages, the injured elbow sticking out at an unnatural and jaunty angle, Van Vleuten didn’t look like a rider who was going to win a rainbow jersey.

Each time the peloton passed over the short climb on the final lap, the Dutchwoman found herself distanced from her key rivals. She laboured over the bike, struggling and pulling her body from side to side in order to haul herself over the summit. Based on physical ability alone, Van Vleuten should not have won the race, but her stubborn resolve to make it back to the bunch, and her last ditch attack in the final hundred metres shocked her rivals. She could barely believe it when she crossed the line a few bike lengths ahead of a panicking, sprinting reduced bunch. Her eyes were wide with surprised elation as she celebrated the fourth rainbow jersey of her career, won with a broken arm.

Image: Getty

But this was a week that was plagued by things that no one really expected to happen. A few days earlier, Ethan Hayter almost won the men’s individual time trial, but he had a mechanical after not having time to set up his gears correctly ahead of the race. A few days later, UCI was accused of allegedly blacklisting journalists who they feared might report negatively on the event. Colombia’s Nairo Quintana put cable ties on his helmet to try and fend off the magpies. Strange events swirled around Wollongong.

Image: Simon Wilkinson/SWpix

As time went on, more and more things contributed to one of the most dramatic weekends in cycling in a long time. In the men’s road race, stories emerged before the start that Mathieu van der Poel had been in a Sydney police station all night after the authorities had been called to his hotel. There were reports that he had assaulted two girls who had been knocking on his hotel room door. Van der Poel, a pre-race favourite, started the race, but abandoned early on. He’s since been allowed to travel home from Australia, paying a fine of A$1,500 to the authorities.

While Van der Poel was sidelined, Remco Evenepoel put himself on centre stage. He was supposed to be fatigued from his recent win at the Vuelta a España, supposed to be acting as a foil for Wout van Aert who would be Belgium’s dedicated sprinter, he wasn’t supposed to ride away from his more experienced rivals and win his first elite rainbow jersey at 22-years-old. But what was supposed to happen at these World Championships, simply did not happen. 

Image: Zac Williams/SWpix

Evenepoel instead attacked on the penultimate lap of the race, just before the short but sharp Mount Ousley climb and was joined only by Alexey Lutsenko. After a couple of kilometres of the duo sharing the workload, Evenepoel decided to go at it alone, ensuring himself an unassailable lead with just one lap to go. In the end, he won by more than two minutes, the biggest winning margin at the World Championships since 1968. Performances like this rarely happen in modern cycling, especially not by riders who are only just into their twenties.

Good or bad, the 2022 World Championships in Wollongong was shocking, surprising, and in some ways, downright strange. Maybe it was the mischief of the magpies, or maybe it was just a coincidence, but one thing after another meant that curious things kept happening. Annemiek van Vleuten herself summed it up in her post-race interview. “I just was the domestique today with the broken elbow, and now I’m the world champion. I still cannot believe it.”  And as we reflect on the week of racing, and the events that occurred, to be honest, neither can we, Annemiek.

Cover image: Tim de Waele/Getty Images