Julian Alaphilippe attacked towards the top of the final climb of the men's road race at the UCI Road Cycling World Championships in Imola today to become the first French winner of the title since Laurent Brochard in 1997.
Around 20 seconds behind, Belgium's Wout Van Aert took silver for Belgium in a select sprint for second place, with Marc Hirschi of Switzerland just pipping Polish former world champion Michael Kwiatkowski to bronze.
With Van Aert, the most powerful sprinter left in the race as it reached its climax, still riding strongly in a select group of riders on the ninth and final climb of the Cima Gallisterna, only a solo attack seemed like denying the Belgian victory.
First Hirschi, then Kwiatkowski moved to the front of the group to try and dislodge the Belgian, but it was Alaphilippe – denied victory by Van Aert at Milan-San Remo last month – who made the decisive move.
The Frenchman began this month in the yellow jersey after winning Stage 2 of the Tour de France in Nice, but in the latter stages of the three-week race his trademark attacks misfired.
Not so today following a race in which the Belgians had controlled the front of the bunch in the 252.8km race which started and finished in the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari in Imola.
The venue was only selected less than four weeks ago after Aigle-Martigny in Switzerland was forced to withdraw due to government restrictions over COVID-19.
The scenery of Emilia Romagna provided a stunning backdrop, however, and the two climbs on the nine-lap loop a test that produced a thrilling finish.
With two and a half laps remaining, it was Alaphilippe’s French team-mates who forced the pace on the Cima Gallisterna that saw the last of the day’s break swept up.
At this stage, there was still a sizeable front group, a number of countries still boasting a near-full complement, but the next time up the climb Slovenia’s Tadej Pogacar, who only turned 22 on Monday, attacked, and led by 25 seconds as he took the bell with 28.8km remaining.
Behind, Belgium were setting the pace at the head of the group to keep his advantage in check, the bunch still containing most of the favourites – including Pogacar’s team mate for the day, Tour de France runner-up Primoz Roglic.
Also in the bunch was Great Britain’s team leader, Tom Pidcock, expertly marshalled throughout the day by his future Ineos Grenadiers colleague, Luke Rowe, although the 21 year old from Yorkshire would be tailed off before the last ascent.
On the final circuit, Pogacar was caught after Tom Dumoulin of the Netherlands attacked from a now depleted bunch on the final climb to Mazzolano, a move involving Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali and Rigoberto Uran also brought back.
The lead group still comprised around 40 riders heading onto the Cima Gallisterna, but was quickly whittled down as Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet, his Belgium team-mate Van Aert in tow, came to the front.
Marc Hirschi of Switzerland was now at the front, Van Aert on his wheel, in a small group also containing Roglic, France’s Julian Alaphilippe, former world champion Michal Kwiatkowski of Poland and Denmark’s Jakob Fuglsang.
After Hirschi and Kwiatkowski had tried without success to get away, Alaphilippe, who had been biding his time all day, launched himself towards the top of the climb and no-one could go with him.
Denmark’s Jakob Fuglsang, plus Kwiatkowski, Van Aert, Roglic and Hirschi led the chase, bringing the Frenchman back to within 10 seconds with 5km remaining as they headed down towards the motor racing circuit in Imola and the finish.
Alaphilippe eked out a few seconds on that descent and had an advantage of 15 seconds heading into the final 2 kilometres, while behind his pursuers began looking at each other as they realised they were fighting for the remaining two podium places – with Van Aert, to no-one’s surprise, taking silver to add to the one he won in the time trial on Friday.
World champion, Julian Alaphilippe
It’s hard for me to describe how I am feeling right now, there are so many things I think of now, so many feelings.
This is my greatest victory, a win which I promised to my father I will get one day.
Once I attacked with 12 kilometres to go and opened a gap, I was focussed on staying at the front and going close to my limit.
When I arrived alone at the finish, I couldn’t believe that my dream came true.
The coveted rainbow jersey is the most beautiful one in cycling and to know that I will wear it for 12 months gives me huge pride.
Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.