Belgian Remco Evenepoel has soared to a spectacular solo victory in the 2022 World Championships Elite Men Road Race, with Christophe Laporte taking silver for France and Michael Matthews taking bronze for host nation Australia.
In a memorably dominating and clinically efficient performance, the 22-year-old claimed the victory alone and by more than two minutes ahead of the field.
As the first Belgian Grand Tour champion in 44 years in the Vuelta a España this September, as well as being the winner of Liege-Bastogne-Liege this spring, Evenepoel’s latest victory culminates a dramatically successful year.
And as the youngest World Champion in nearly three decades, taking the rainbow in Wollongong also augers more than well for the future of a rider already being dubbed one of the modern-day greats of the sport.
A double junior World Champion in 2018, afterwards Evenepoel simply described his third rainbow jersey and 37th professional win as “another level.”
“It’s three more hours of racing – much, much harder. It’s been a long season, and it’s amazing to finish it like this. I was there with Alexey but I felt quite quickly that I wanted to be alone.”
“It’s a pity the [same] race next year is in August, so it’s one of the shortest years as World Champion, but it’s something I’ve been dreaming of and I’ve won everything I could this year. I don’t think I will ever have such a good year again:”
How it Unfolded
More than six hours earlier in Dharawal Country in Helensburgh, the peloton rolled out under glorious blue skies, a return to the classic Australian weather that had eluded the Championships in recent days.
Joining UCI President David Lappartient for a front row view of the 266km race was Australian Governor General David Hurley while the Vatican City rider Rien Schuurhuis was tucked in behind the car in the front row. Compared to the big teams who swarmed the front of the women’s race yesterday, the front line of the race contained a number of single-rider nation representatives.
A volley of immediate attempts to force the first break of the day included ill-fated moves by Lithuania, Swiss and Slovakia. Towards the back of the strung out bunch, was Mathieu van der Poel. News was filtering through that the pre-race Netherlands favourite had spent most of the night in police custody after an altercation at the team hotel in Sydney and he clearly looked affected by what had occurred.
Meanwhile in the opening phases of the race, an early break finally went with the big nations deciding the composition as they blocked the road. The 12-rider break included Jaka Pimozic (Slovenia), Simon Pellaud (Switzerland), Scott McGill (USA), Pier-Andre Cote (Canada), James Fouche (New Zealand), Lukasz Owsian (Poland), Michael Kukrle (Czech Republic), Emils. Liepins (Latvia), Juraj Sagan (Slovakia), Bilguunjargal Erdenebat (Mongolia), Guy Sagiv (Israel), and Nicolas Sessler (Brazil). At the other end of affairs when passing through the finish line to commence the Mt Keira lap towards the back of the bunch, Van der Poel pulled the pin as the first DNF of the race.
Large crowds greeted the riders on the lower slopes of the climb up Mt Kiera but as the numbers thinned, Pavel Sivakov (France) forced the pace. He was immediately marked by the Australians and the Netherlands as the bunch strung out behind. At the top of the climb, the aggressive French tactics trimmed the breakaway’s lead but it was in the peloton where the most damage was done.
Following moves by teammates Sivakov and Bruno Amirail, Romain Bardet (France) made a move that forced Wout van Aert into a closing down role. But it was the action not captured by the TV cameras that was proving far more dramatic.
Not only was the French leader Julian Alaphilippe distanced by the move of his teammates, the big names of Michael Matthews (Australia), Evenepoel, Alberto Bettiol (Italy), Biniam Girmay (Eritrea), and Peter Sagan (Slovakia) were all caught out.
With no race radios, the front group looked to be asking questions of each other to determine exactly who had missed the move and who was going to work to ensure the action on Mt Keira would not amount to nought with over 200km left to race.
On the road onto the city circuit for the first of 12-laps, a front group of Van Aert and Tadej Pogacar (Slovenia) held a two-minute lead over the group of favourites who had been caught out behind.. The original breakaway continued to hold firm at the head of the race, unaware of the drama that had unfolded behind.
Sivakov, Pieter Serry (Belgium), Samuele Battistella (Italy) and the Australian duo of Ben O’Connor and Luke Plapp finally clipped off the front of the second group with Pogacar taking on the responsibility to try and bring them back on the Mt Pleasant section of the city circuit. However, he was unsuccessful and the quintet rode away.
Calm before (and after) the storm
Following the explosive start, the race settled into a steadier state of affairs.
With ten laps to race, the major peloton crossed the line seven minutes in arrears to the leading group of 11, which was joined by the five chasers while Nico Denz (Germany) toiled away on his lonesome in his attempt to also link up with the leaders.
As the lead dropped, and with 77km to go, O’Connor started splitting the breakaway on Mt Pleasant with the riders to feel the pain including his teammate Plapp. With the assistance of Battisella, O’Connor’s move cut the group numbers down to eight.
Meanwhile, in the peloton, it was Quentin Pacher who resumed the aggression for France with Stewart glued to his back wheel and the peloton strung out in a long line behind. This led to a crucial split in the bunch with a select 19-rider group including the likes of Evenepoel, Bardet, Jai Hindley (Australia), and Alexey Lutsenko (Kazakhstan) going clear.
The final battles
This 19-rider group of counter attackers was extremely dangerous, with Belgium having three men including Evenepoel and two domestiques, Pieter Serry and Quinten Hermans in the lead after they bridged across to the break in the blink of an eye. Suddenly with 58km to go, a 25-strong group had a 1-30 move on a bunch that could not decide whether to chase or not.
Australia, Italy and France were all well represented with three riders apiece, albeit not their leaders Matthews, Bettiol or Alaphilippe, and other racers like Hindley, Lutsenko and Sivakov had already proved dangerous. But the key nation to watch was clearly Belgium.
Once in the lead, Evenepoel’s boundless enthusiasm for attacking on the climb initially unsettled the group, even if finally their advantage steadied at around two minutes and his Belgian teammate Serry set a strong but not overfast pace to ensure it stayed away.
There was a moment of doubt about Evenepoel’s intentions when a visibly exhausted Serry dropped back with 42km to go and there was a noted drop in speed as the break waited for Evenepoel to move. Meanwhile, the bunch, realising the race was slipping away, suddenly upped their pace courtesy of Tadej Pogacar and Fred Wright (Great Britain) began trying to bridge the gap.
But their efforts proved in vain. Instead, the key change in a fascinating strategic battle came when Evenepoel launched a searing attack at 34km to go, with Lutsenko, who’d tested the waters alone shortly beforehand, quickly latching on behind.
Yet Lutsenko’s chances of sticking with the Belgian proved illusory. On the climb of Mount Pleasant, it all proved too much for the Kazakh, as Evenepoel drove away alone and ultimately towards victory, 25 kilometres from the finish.
Visibly gritting his teeth on the climb, as Lutsenko headed backwards, there seemed to be no end to the damage Evenepoel could do. On Mount Pleasant alone, tripled his lead on the most dangerous group of four chasers to a minute and the Belgian’s battle for the rainbow was on with a vengeance.
Meanwhile, in the peloton, Wout van Aert made a brief surge and Pogacar did his utmost to try to shake some life back into the chase. But despite some vigorous arm waving by Kevin Geniets of Luxembourg in the main group, it was effectively all over bar the shouting.
As the bell went, Evenepoel’s lead over Lutsenko had reached 45 seconds, and his advantage over Pascal Eenkhorn (Netherlands), Mattias Skjelmose (Denmark), Lorenzo Rota (Italy) and Mauro Schmidt (Switzerland) had now reached well over a minute. The kilometres ticked by seemingly effortlessly for Evenepoel, putting his well-known time trial skills to full use as he relentlessly increased the gap.
There was encouragement from the Belgian team car as it drew alongside, but everything suggested he did not need it, as he drew ever closer to a jaw-dropping powerful triumph. Then as Evenepoel crossed the finish with his arms aloft, the game was definitively over.
Lutsenko was finally caught behind at five kilometres to go, and the peloton then fought it out for the lesser placings in a predictably chaotic small group sprint. But essentially the interest in the 2022 World Championships remained ahead in one of the most dominating performances in the elite men’s road race in years. And as the first rider to win a Grand Tour and World Championships in the same season since Greg LeMond, at 22, Evenepoel’s victory had all the feel of a start of a new era for Belgian cycling, and for himself.
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