Ahead of the elite men's road race at the 2021 UCI Road World Championships in Leuven, there was one clear top favourite and that was Wout van Aert. The Belgian rider had a tremendous season and many picked him as the rider who would storm to victory in front of the home crowd on Sunday afternoon.
A super strong Julian Alaphilippe (France) decided differently, however, prolonging his reign on the world title for a second consecutive year.
Van Aert ended up showing that he is only human, after all. Just before the decisive move from Alaphilippe, he gave compatriot Jasper Stuyven the go ahead to hunt the world title, too. Stuyven ended up sprinting for second place, but finished just outside of the medals in fourth, and so the home country Belgium ended up empty-handed.
“I’m only human, too. Obviously I wasn’t bad but not good enough. I rode the finale and behind Alaphilippe the differences weren’t massive. I didn’t make a fool of myself but it wasn’t good enough. There’s two reasons we didn’t win: Alaphilippe was much stronger than the others and I wasn’t as good as I hoped I would be,” Van Aert said shortly after the race in the mixed zone in Leuven.
He stated that he felt really bad about the other guys in the team. “I’ve been cursing a lot. Now I’ve got to be a team leader too and talk with the guys.”
To the surprise of most followers, the race opened far out in the men's 268km race. The French team attacked several times and kept attacking until the end of the race. The Belgian team marked every French move, and when Alaphilippe attacked it was Van Aert who jumped on his wheel.
“I didn’t expect we would be put under pressure that early. It was as if they did a wrong count of the laps. Already when we did the first Flandrien loop at 200 kilometres from the finish the race was exploding. The pressure certainly was on but we didn’t collapse under it. We kept our heads cool and when we moved to the front the other countries were under pressure, too. We were able to deploy our tactics in the way we wanted to do it,” Van Aert said.
The tide turned for the Belgian team at about 50km from the finish when the lead group of 17 riders concluded the second so-called Flandrien loop with a climb over the Smeysberg, a 600-metre-long climb with a 16.3 per cent gradient section featuring in it.
Once again, Alaphilippe attacked but this time only Italian leader Sonny Colbrelli followed. Van Aert explained that until that moment he thought he had super legs.
“Yes, I did. On the Smeysberg I wasn’t able to follow. Alaphilippe and Colbrelli were certainly among the guys on who’s moves I wanted to react. It was probably a sign but then again, the hardest part of the race was over," Van Aert said.
"Jasper and I were able to set the situation straight quickly. We were still in a good situation. Remco [Evenepoel] was able to keep the group together for a very long time. Jasper and I were the guys who had to try something to finish it off in Leuven. That’s what we tried."
Before and during the race it was clear that the Belgian team was racing with one sole leader, being Wout van Aert. That was the so-called plan A. At about 20km from the finish, Stuyven received the green light from Van Aert to battle for the win.
Van Aert was asked if he shouldn’t have talked earlier with Stuyven to share the leadership.
“After the Smeysberg climb I could’ve made that call but at that moment the situation was still in our favour. I should’ve indicated earlier [that I wasn’t super]. It was always the goal to take turns when there were moves, in order not to be in a defensive position but still with the idea that we were riding for me. Just before Alaphilippe made his decisive move on the St Anthony climb I told Jasper to race for it because I thought I wasn’t good enough to finish it off. Alaphilippe was simply stronger. It would’ve been a nice consolation price - certainly for Jasper - to be on the podium. That’s a bummer,” Van Aert said.
Stuyven lives in Leuven, which makes it clear why it’s even more disappointing for him to miss out on the podium.
Alaphilippe attacked on St Anthony and shortly afterwards Stuyven joined the reaction from Neilson Powless (USA). He was joined by Dylan van Baarle (Netherlands) and Michael Valgren (Denmark).
The four would sprint for the two remaining medals at stake. Switching away from the so-called plan A with Van Aert as the sole leader, it happened late in the race and Stuyven surely would’ve loved to have known earlier that he was allowed to race for the win, too. When walking up to the Sporza cameras Stuyven was emotional.
“I’m devastated. It’s really sad,” Stuyven said. “Plan A was to race for Wout and in the end that might have cost me the energy in the sprint for second place. The three of us were crawling towards the line in the sprint and I’m the one who’s missing out on a medal. That’s really sad. I really would’ve loved to get a medal here.”
Later on, Stuyven added that, "Alaphilippe was on another level.”
When asked about the communication with Van Aert, Stuyven pointed out that he no longer had enough energy to fight for the win.
“The moment Julian goes, he just told me that he wasn’t having a great day. That was a bit annoying or hard because I felt that I had to extinguish a few fires earlier, using a few ‘cartouches’. It’s a pity because we rode a really good race.
"I don’t think there was much we could do against Alaphilippe if you see how many ‘cartouches’ he had today. He was the strongest man,” Stuyven said.
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