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Van der Poel Overcomes Crash and Protest to Win World Road Race Championship

By Siegfried Mortkowitz

Dutch multi-discipline cyclist Mathieu van der Poel overcame protestors and a late crash to win the 2023 UCI Road Race World Championship on Sunday and become the first rider to hold world championships in both cyclo-cross and road racing. Belgium’s Wout van Aert finished second, 1:37 behind, while Tadej Pogačar (Slovenia) took the bronze medal, at 1:45, after outsprinting Denmark’s Mads Pedersen to the finish line. Van Aert had also finished second behind van der Poel in this year’s cyclo-cross world championship.

The protest, the many punctures and, especially, the seemingly endless turns and corners made for a strange but highly entertaining race, which seemed to be turned on its head with 16.5 km to go when van der Poel lost control of his bike on the rain-slick road surface as he navigated a curve and hit the ground. He slid into a barrier, picked himself up and rode away with a torn jersey and a damaged shoe. Otherwise, he was unhurt and, just as important, his bike was not damaged. “All of a sudden, I was on the ground,” van der Poel told Eurosport. “I wasn’t really taking risks but it was super slippery. If this had cost me the race, I wouldn’t have been able to sleep for a few days.”

The final 14.1-km section of the 271.1-km course from Edinburgh to Glasgow was a treacherous maze of sharp curves and turns, and the riders had to pass through it 10 times. With 23.5 km left to race, van der Poel was part of a group of four, with van Aert, Pogačar and Pedersen, chasing the Italian Alberto Bettiol. When they caught him on one of the numerous short, steep climbs of the Glasgow course, van der Poel took off on his own, immediately opening up a substantial lead. “I didn’t expect to have a gap right away but then I saw that nobody was following me,” he said. “It gave me wings.” Van der Poel said the world championship meant everything to him, adding: “It was one of the biggest goals I had left and to win it today was amazing. It’s maybe my biggest victory on the road.”

UCI Road World Championship
The Glasgow circuit was filled with drama, including sweeping bends, fast-flowing corners, and steep climbs. © Profimedia

The crash wasn’t the only mishap the winner had to overcome. All the riders had to dismount and wait nearly an hour not long after the start of the race because environmental protestors had glued themselves to the road surface. When the race finally resumed, a nine-rider breakaway, which had formed after 21 km, continued on its way with a lead of 7:35 over the peloton. They were finally caught with 74 km left to ride.

The difficult Glasgow section of the course proved to be a story on its own, as several participants had criticized it before the race because of the many turns. “I don’t like the course,” said the manager of the French team, Thomas Voeckler. “I don’t think it’s a World Championship course. It’s a Criterium course when we’re at the World Championships.”

Opinions remained the same after the race. “It was the hardest race of my life,” Latvia’s Krists Neilands said. “It was too much.” Neilands finished 23rd. The race proved too difficult for many riders, including one of the pre-race favorites, Jasper Philipsen of Belgium, who dropped out with more than 100km left to ride. Of the 193 riders who started the race, only 51 made it to the finish line, many of the riders dropping out because of fatigue or to save their energy for later world championship competitions.

The race also took its toll on the usually indefatigable Pogačar, who said after his post-race interview that he was about to faint from exhaustion and had to be assisted out of the press area. Asked before his dizzy spell if he had enjoyed the race, he replied, ” Phew, no. This was one of the toughest races I’ve ever ridden. It was really crazy. I enjoyed it up to 70 kilometres from the end; after that it was a struggle to the finish.”

It was a disappointing race for the defending champion, Remco Evenepoel, who finished a distant 25th, 10:10 adrift. It has generally been a difficult year for the 23-year-old Belgian who had to drop out of the Giro d’Italia because of Covid and finished only third in the Tour de Suisse. Evenepoel said that the course did not really suit his riding style. “It was always turning, so you couldn’t keep the speed,” he said. “It was really brutal with all these stops-and-gos.” He will now look for gold in the individual time trial, scheduled to be held on the final day of the world championships on August 13.