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Road racing is a team sport but it’s always good to have a winning strategy. In Sunday’s men’s Road Race World Championship, Belgium may have had the best rider in Wout van Aert but the French had the best strategy, enabling the exciting Julian Alaphilippe to win his second world championship in a row.

Hosting this year’s Worlds, the Belgians were under a lot of pressure to give their home fans a thrill by having the multi-talented van Aert win both elite titles, the time trial, and the road race. The 27-year-old native of Herentals did his best, coming second in the ITT behind Italian Filippo Ganna. But a questionable strategy by the Belgians left him a disappointed onlooker as Alaphilippe took off in a breakaway and ultimately won the 268-km road race by 32 seconds over Dutchman Dylan van Baarle, with Denmark’s Michael Valgren getting the bronze medal in the same time.

UCI 2021 Road World Championships
Julian Alaphilippe, Dylan Van Baarle and Michael Valgren Hundahl on the podium. © Profimedia

Belgium’s Jasper Stuyven, a native of the city of Leuven where the race was held, finished a frustrating fourth. A visibly dispirited van Aert finished 11th, 1 min 18 secs behind. British rider Tom Pidcock who finished sixth in the race believes the pressure the Belgian team was under made it nearly impossible for van Aert to win. “They kind of shot themselves in the foot with the pressure they put on their team,” he said. “I mean, [the team] did an unreal job but [Belgian expectations] made it near impossible for Wout to win. If he’d won, it would’ve been the best ride ever, let’s face it.”

While the French team dynamized the early part of the race, the Belgians put pressure on the entire peloton for most of the distance, trying to eliminate sprinters who might contest a mass sprint to the finish. However, they had no answer (and probably little strength left) when Alaphilippe – as he did when he won last year – made his move on one of the course’s modest climbs.

There is no better rider on short, steep climbs than the 29-year-old Frenchman who rides for the Deceuninck–Quick-Step team and he made three similar moves on similar climbs that, first, eliminated van Aert and then put distance between himself and the riders who had been part of his breakaway. Ironically, the pressure that hurt van Aert’s chances apparently inspired Alaphilippe. “A lot of Belgian fans asked me to slow down and they weren’t very nice,” he said after the race. “That gave me extra motivation.”

He said that before the race, he did not think he would win another rainbow jersey. “It wasn’t something I had in mind,” he said. “I didn’t think it would happen, I didn’t think it would be possible.” But he added that having won last year took the pressure off him. “Last year it was a dream come true for me. It was very difficult but [what] a fantastic feeling. I know what it is to have a year in the rainbow jersey, so I had a lot of motivation but I didn’t have any pressure really.”

Van Aert said that he didn’t have the legs to follow when Alaphilippe took off. “Once Alaphilippe kept attacking, I wasn’t able to follow and it was hard to fight because I knew it wasn’t for the win,” he said. “I felt my legs getting empty and told Stuyven I didn’t have the legs. I’m only human, after all.” It may very well have been the Belgian team strategy of constant pressure that cost him. While van Aert spent most of the race near the front of the peloton as the Belgians rode at top speed, Alaphilippe could be seen riding so calmly at the tail end that some commentators thought he would be left behind. The Frenchman didn’t move to the front until with about 50 km to go.

Because he has put himself mostly at the service of his team in the Grand Tours – he was one of the lead-out riders in Mark Cavendish’s Tour de France ŠKODA Green Jersey triumph this year – it’s easy to forget just how good and entertaining a rider Alaphilippe is. When he rises out of the saddle on a climb, you hold your breath because you know something thrilling is about to happen. That is, and will always be, his style, he said. “Since 2014, I’m still the same rider. I don’t want to change anything. I take a lot of pleasure to ride like this… I want to attack, with panache and I want to give everything to try and win and it’s even more beautiful when you have the rainbow jersey on.”