October 1, 2014 – For a competitive cyclist, there’s no better feeling than crossing a finishing line in first place and thrusting your arms in the air. The subsequent rush of adrenaline is a natural high. And for an athlete who wins a word title and pulls on a rainbow jersey that high marks a supreme achievement—whatever the discipline or category you race in. For a pro cyclist, the most prestigious title of all is the one that was contested last Sunday in Ponferrada, Spain: the elite men’s road race.

John Wilcockson/Yuzuru Sunada

After a week of surprises at the 2014 UCI world road championships, where all the reigning individual champions lost their crowns, no one really knew what to expect on Sunday. Pundits said there’d be a sprint finish, most likely contested by a smallish group, perhaps 20-30 riders, and that an all-terrain sprinter such as Norway’s Alexander Kristoff would emerge with the gold medal.

That prediction was based on the characteristics of the Ponferrada course: 14 laps of an 18.2-kilometer circuit that featured two climbs, the first averaging only 3.3 percent for 5.2 kilometers, the second 5.5 percent for 1.14 kilometers. If the downhill sections were added to the climbs, that left less than 5 kilometers of flats each lap, either side of the start/finish line.

Although not a particularly difficult course, the world’s top sprinters Mark Cavendish of Great Britain and Marcel Kittel of Germany didn’t travel to Spain, which left sprinters who can also climb such as Kristoff, Germany’s John Degenkolb and France’s Nacer Bouhanni as the medal favorites should it come down to the expected group finish at the end of six-and-a-half hours in the saddle. In the event of a more aggressive race or tougher weather conditions, fast finishers such as home favorite Alejandro Valverde, the on-form Australian Simon Gerrans and Belgian Greg Van Avermaet were the popular picks. And should a lone rider manage to beat the odds, the most-mentioned candidates were Switzerland’s Fabian Cancellara and Belgium’s Philippe Gilbert.

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Predicting the outcome of the elite men’s road race is notoriously wayward. Over the past six years, a solo rider has crossed the line first four times: Alessandro Ballan in Varese (2008), Cadel Evans in Mendrisio (2009), Gilbert in Valkenburg (2012) and Rui Costa in Florence (2013). The only top favorite to win during these years was Cavendish, who took a mass sprint on a flat course at Copenhagen in 2011. Even the victory taken in an uphill, 18-man sprint by Norway’s Thor Hushovd in Geelong the previous year was unexpected after everyone predicted that Gilbert would take the rainbow jersey.

Adding to the difficulties of forecasting the championship’s outcome is the dual team affiliation of every rider: country and trade team. Each country has a designated number of starters based on the various UCI rankings (WorldTour and Continental calendars), with 10 countries getting the maximum of nine riders; these included Spain (Valverde), Australia (Gerrans), Belgium (Gilbert and Van Avermaet) and Germany (Degenkolb). In contrast, Cancellara and Kristoff both had three-man teams.

Partly countering the national affiliation was each favorite’s trade team. Kristoff is on Team Katusha, which had eight riders (from five countries) at Ponferrada, whereas Cancellara’s Trek Factory Team had only four representatives (from four countries). At the other end of the spectrum, besides coming from nine-man national squads, Gerrans was one of 11 Orica-GreenEdge men, Gilbert and Van Avermaet had 10 other BMC Racing teammates with them, Degenkolb was one of eight Giant-Shimano riders on the start line, and Valverde was one six Movistar riders. Strictly speaking, trade-team colleagues can’t help each other in a nation-based world championship, but rules can be bent….

All of these various factors pointed to a win by Gerrans rather than Valverde, and Kristoff rather than Cancellara. So what actually happened on Sunday?

A RAINY DAY

First off, it rained for most of the 59-degree day, which accentuated the usual rate of attrition—fewer than half the 204 starters would make it to the finish. The wet roads also made riders more circumspect than usual on the two descents, particularly the one from the top of the longest climb, which dropped 100 meters (328 feet) in just over a kilometer on a narrow, slaloming road to the Bárcena hydroelectric dam. The second descent dropped 180 meters (590 feet) in 3 kilometers on a wide, curving highway into the streets of Ponferrada. Both of these downhill sections would play a major part in the result….

Like many world elite championships on circuits that have undemanding climbs, most of the peloton was able to tackle them on the big ring and stay comfortably with the early pace. So much so that, after four laps (73 kilometers), 200 riders were still in the peloton—though they were 15 minutes behind the day’s early, four-man breakaway. Clearly, the speed had to be picked up or the four leaders might have lapped the field!

Everyone was expecting that a traditional nation, maybe the Belgians, the Dutch or the Spanish, would crack the whip. Instead, it was the nine-man Polish squad that went to the front en masse—and stayed there for six laps, pulling the peloton for more than two-and-a-half hours. Clearly, Poland’s team manager Piotr Wadecki had great confidence in his team leader Michal Kwiatkowski—who was considered one of the outsiders for the rainbow jersey, even though the only Pole ever to medal in the pro road championship’s 87-year history was Zbigniew Spruch, who didn’t win a single race in his pro career but placed second in a mass-sprint finish at the 2000 worlds in Plouay, France.

Fourteen years later, Kwiatkowski, 24, is at a completely different level. In his third season with the Omega Pharma-Quick Step team, he has been outstanding in everything from time trials, to one-day classics, to short stage races, to grand tours. This year, he brilliantly won Italy’s Strade Bianche in March, and placed third in both of April’s Ardennes classics, the Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. His preparation for the worlds came at the Tour of Britain, where he took over the race leadership after winning the stage into Bristol on an uphill finish and finally took second overall in the weeklong race.

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With the input of Wadecki, whose regular gig is sports director of Polish second-division team CCC Polsat, Kwiatkowski had worked out a plan to make a solo attack over the final climb on the final lap.

That tactic worked perfectly in the under-23 men’s race two days before in the 10-lap, 182-kilometer race for Sven Erik Bystrøm of Norway—who prepared for the worlds as a stagiaire with Team Katusha at the Arctic Race of Norway and then with his national team at the Tour de l’Avenir. Inside six kilometers to go, he joined a small group chasing a solo attacker, Brayan Ramirez of Colombia, then sprinted away from the chasers and went straight past the Colombian to top the climb about 25 meters ahead of the chasers and some 150 meters ahead of the splintered peloton. Bystrøm used raw power and an aerodynamic tuck on the ultra-fast descent to extend his lead to 11 seconds on a regrouping bunch and then showed great courage to maintain his lead in the last kilometer to hold off the 38 chasers.

The following day in the elite women’s title race, that pattern was repeated except that, not one, but four riders attacked up the last climb: defending champion Marianne Vos of the Netherlands, the 2014 UCI World Cup champion Lizzie Armistead of Great Britain, World Cup runner-up Emma Johansson of Sweden, and Elisa Longo Borghini of Italy. They had a 12-second lead at the end of the descent but inexplicably eased up, looking around, and were caught by 11 chasers. That elite quartet’s lack of fight and cooperation badly tarnished the growing reputation of women’s racing.

A TORRID FINALE

There were no such qualms in the elite men’s race. Going into the final lap, a four-man breakaway led a six-man chase group by 36 seconds, while a 75-strong peloton was 44 seconds behind the leaders. The Australian, Belgian, French, Italian and Spanish teams all had riders in the two groups ahead, forcing the other strong teams to lead the chase. And right at the front of the peloton was Poland’s Maciej Paterski, with Kwiatkowski on his wheel, immediately followed by Portugal’s Nelson Oliveira and his teammate, defending champ Costa, who was still harboring hopes of keeping his title. There were 18.2 kilometers to go.

With the rainfall ended, the six-man group was soon caught, leaving just four leaders—Belorussian Vasil Kiryienka, Dane Michael Valgren Andersen, Frenchman Cyril Gautier and Italian Alessandro De Marchi—with a gap that was whittled down by the Spanish (including Valverde) to about 10 seconds atop the first climb. The field was stretched out in a long line down the damp, swishing descent to the dam and Valverde was one of the few riders to see Kwiatkowski make an audacious acceleration when the gap was six seconds. There was exactly 7.6 kilometers to go.

The lithe Polish rider was less than 50 meters ahead of the pursuing pack as he crossed the dam, but he had the four in his sights, and by the time Kwiatkowski tagged on the back of the foursome, the gap was only five seconds. There was 6.6 kilometers to go.

Kwiatkowski then took a short breather, but seeing that the Spanish riders were pulling the peloton even closer and with the final climb about to start, he pulled to the left and then dashed straight past the other four men, with only Andersen and De Marchi able to chase him. There were 6.1 kilometers to go.

With 300 meters of intense effort, Andersen managed to catch Kwiatkowski’s wheel, but when the grade kicked up to 10 percent the Pole punched it hard and rode away solo. As he sprinted out of the saddle, the gap widened inexorably. Behind, Valverde counterattacked after teammate Joachim Rodriguez split the peloton, and the next five strongest riders joined him: Australia’s Gerrans, Belgium’s Gilbert and Van Avermaet, and two outsiders who had teammates in the earlier break: Matti Breschel of Denmark and Tony Gallopin of France. This six-man chase group was seven seconds behind Kwiatkowski at the summit. There were 4.7 kilometers to go.

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Gilbert did most of the work chasing the leader but, like Bystrøm before him, Kwiatkowski was superb on the last downhill on roads that had dried out. He didn’t cede a single second, but he still had to battle hard over the final flat 1.7 kilometers, urged on by an almost hysteric Wadecki, driving no hands in the Polish team car while a friend on his cell phone appeared to be relating the unfolding, historic story on a television (see link below). Kwiatkowski joyfully made it to the line, and just had time to sit up and celebrate, his arms in the air, before Gerrans outkicked Valverde and Breschel for the silver medal. A handful of seconds later, Kristoff duly out-sprinted Degenkolb, Bouhanni and Cancellara for eighth place.

IN VIRGINIA NEXT YEAR

Because of the rain, the six-and-a-half hours of racing, the 4,284 meters (14,000 feet) of climbing and the torrid tension of the finale, it was an extremely grueling championship. In his column for the Irish Independent newspaper, the notoriously durable Nicolas Roche wrote: “I tried to move up…to get the best possible from the sprint for eighth place but when we turned right at the 500m to go mark, I had absolutely nothing left in my legs and had to make do with 26th, not the best ever result of my career but a respectable enough one in a very tough race.”

So another UCI world elite men’s road championship was over. Next year, the excitement of worlds week will be in Richmond, Virginia (see link below). It’ll be a week you won’t want to miss, especially the road race on the final day, next September 27. The 16.5-kilometer circuit, entirely within the city limits, is very different from the one in Ponferrada. Being 1.7 kilometers shorter, the Richmond course will likely be lapped 16 times in the elite men’s race for a 264-kilometer distance and total climbing of 3,808 meters (12,493 feet). The biggest differences are the number of sharp turns, about 30 every lap, and the circuit’s three climbs all coming in the final 4 kilometers. They’re not demanding climbs, but at the end of a long day, only a true champion will emerge from attacking those short, steep hills: the twisting, cobblestone ascent in Libby Hill Park; the partly cobbled haul up 23rd Street, with its steepest pitch of 20 percent; and the more gradual climb up Governor Street to the 650-meter-long finishing straight on a false flat.

Perhaps Kwiatkowski will win again but, like at most worlds, the outcome will likely be a big surprise. There’s a reason why the elite men’s road race is the most prestigious world title of all.

Piotr Wadecki’s victory celebration.
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Link to next year’s world road championships in Virginia.

You can follow John at twitter.com/johnwilcockson