Alejandro Valverde has finally won the World Road Championship road race. Heading into the race he was one of the most decorated riders to have never won the rainbow jersey, but he took the win ahead of Romain Bardet and Michael Woods; as George Bennett completed a very strong day for New Zealand by finishing 18th.
The 252.9km race from Kufstein to Innsbruck that comprised the elite men’s road race at this year’s UCI World Road Championships brought the curtain down on a week of racing with a brutal test for riders. Six laps of the main short circuit featured with a climb of the 7.9km Igls ascent to tackle each time. Finally the final long lap would take in both the Igls climb and then the climb of the Gramartboden; 2.8km in length but averaging 11.5%.
It didn’t take long for the break of the day to establish as the peloton seemed happy and content to ride at a very pedestrian speed. While Luxembourg and France marshalled their riders towards the front of the race the pace was kept extremely light in the early stages as a breakaway of eleven riders went up the road. Ireland’s Ryan Mullen and Conor Dunne as well as South Africa’s Jacques Janse van Rensburg and Sweden’s Tobias Ludvigsson featured in the break along with Kasper Asgreen of Denmark, Rob Britton of Canada, Daniil Fominykh of Kazakhstan, Vegard Stake Laengen of Norway, Karel Hnik of the Czech Republic, Ilia Koshevoy of Belarus and Laurent Didier of Luxembourg. Together the break managed to build an advantage that stretched to an enormous 19 minutes.
Despite the enormous lead for the breakaway, the peloton were so loaded with talent that there was little threat that the break would go all the way to the line. Austria, Great Britain and France were all among the chase effort that eventually formed in pursuit, with Ian Stannard of Great Britain working for the Yates brothers. The gap steadily trickled down initially, with the break’s lead dropping to the 15 minute mark inside of 125km remaining. There was a growing sense of the intensity rising in the bunch though as Austria brought a number of riders forward.
With 4 laps to go the break’s lead to the peloton was dropping further and so too were the numbers in the move. The race was taking its toll on a number of riders as the gap dropped to 10.45mins with 100km left to ride. At this point George Bennett had Patrick Bevin alongside him for company and was positioned at about halfway down the peloton behind the Spanish train who had yet to show their hand.
Peter Sagan started the day with three consecutive world championships to his name, but there was little chance that he would make it a fourth. At 93km to go the Slovakian cracked as the break’s lead dropped further to 7.20mins with the peloton now a shadow of what it had been before in terms of size.
The race for Kiwis Patrick Bevin and Dion Smith ended at around the 80km to go point, with George Bennett still holding fast in the peloton at around 30-40 riders back in the bunch. At this point Slovenia had the lead of the peloton with Spain just starting to show themselves on the front for the first time.
"We gambled in an attempt to do something really special but it didn't come off today. But I had great support and awesome to ride with my Kiwi mates," said @georgenbennett after placing 18th at #InnsbruckTirol2018 pic.twitter.com/EzeTzAT3qU
— Cycling New Zealand (@CyclingNZL) September 30, 2018
With 56km to go the gap sat at 5 minutes and was now in relative freefall as the now much-shrunken group made it to two laps remaining. Behind them though a stinging attack from Greg van Avermaet of Belgium drew out just two riders in Omar Fraille of Spain and Damiano Caruso of Italy with Karel Hnik of the Czech Republic joining them after being caught. The group were threatening and perhaps too threatening too soon, and they found themselves caught 10km later.
The gauntlet had been thrown down now though, as the gap to the leaders continued to drop to 2.57mins with 45km remaining. The leaders were now just two-strong with Kasper Asgreen and Vegard Stake Laengen of Norway holding on. George Bennett was getting amongst the aggressive racing at 45km to go as well, going across to the chase group in a small group of four that formed just ahead of the peloton.
Laengen and Asgreen lasted to the bell lap with just over 30km to go with a lead of 2.30mins. Behind them the attacks had been calmed somewhat as Italy and France combined to prevent any further attacks. Italy were the most prominent on the front though and they chewed up the break’s lead, down to 1.24mins with 26km to go and down to 1 minute with 24.5km to ride.
Steven Kruijswijk was the next to launch an attack with 24.3km remaining for the leaders. The Dutchman got a bit of a gap but the reaction came from Ben Hermans of Belgium and a handful of others including Alejandro Valverde. The attacks were flying behind them and eventually for Laengen and Asgreen were caught with 22.8km to ride. A handshake between them and their day was done.
22km from the finish Peter Kennaugh of Great Britain launched a big move and was joined by Michael Valgren of Denmark. The Dane was the stronger of the two though, and he hit for home solo; reaching the bottom of the Hottinger Holl with a 30 second lead as France hit the front with the Netherlands still there with about six riders. All the while George Bennett was doing a superb job to hold on with the remnants of the main field and stay in contention.
At 10km to go France put in a big turn of pace on the front, breaking the group up as Valgren continued to push on the front. The chase group had now capitulated to just a handful of riders including Romain Bardet, Thibaut Pinot, Julian Alaphlippe, Michael Woods, Alejandro Valverde and Gianni Moscon. Together the group caught Valgren with 9.5km remaining; with Bardet leading the way. Valverde, Woods, Bardet and Moscon led with Tom Dumoulin digging deep to remain within touching distance. Michael Woods turned the screw on the final stages of the Hottinger, with Moscon finally cracking.
The three crested the summit together with Moscon and Dumoulin still in pursuit. At 3km to go the three leaders still had control of the race as Dumoulin gradually pulled the gap back; getting on board with 1.6km to go. A lull in the pace for the leaders gave Dumoulin enough time to regain a little strength and the Dutchman even had the power to launch one final attack at 1km remaining; although the other three were quick to shut that down.
Valverde was forced to lead out the sprint for the line, with the others knowing he was clearly the strongest sprinter. Finally the Spaniard wound up for the finish and when he did Woods tried to go with him, but simply didn’t have the pace. Bardet was able to pass the Canadian, but no one could stop Alejandro Valverde from winning the world championship after 6.46.41 hours in the saddle. Bardet took second and Woods third, with Tom Dumoulin just out of the medals in fourth.
George Bennett finished in the second chase group on the road to take 18th place ahead of Jakob Fuglsang and Domenico Pozzovivo.