At his twelfth attempt, having first aimed for victory in Hamilton in 2003, Alejandro Valverde was crowned world champion in Innsbruck on Sunday. After nine previous top tens and six previous podiums, the most consistent rider in world championship history finally pulled on the rainbow jersey.
The day before, Anna van der Breggen, a decade younger than Valverde, also won her first championship. For her, it was at the sixth attempt, with four previous top tens and one previous podium – in the road race. She also held three silver medals from the world championship time trial and, like Piti, could have been forgiven for thinking that her day would never come.
Van der Breggen won in glorious solitude, nearly four minutes ahead of second-placed Amanda Spratt, with the women’s field spread over much of the Tirol and just six riders finishing within seven minutes of the winner. Her Dutch teammate and main rival, Annemiek van Vleuten, finished seventh, hobbled by a crash and unable to compete. Tatiana Guderzo took bronze.
Earlier in the week, Mark Hirschi of Switzerland took gold in the men’s U-23 race. He’ll join Sunweb (from their development team) next season. Bjorg Lambrecht and Jaako Hanninen rounded out the podium. The women’s junior race gave a road rainbow jersey to Austria’s Laura Stiggler. The home favourite is still more at home on a mountain bike and that’ll be her focus at least until Tokyo 2020, but her potential on the road is now obvious too. Behind her were France’s Marie le Net and Simone Boilard of Canada.
In the men’s junior, Remco Evenepoel added to his legend and somehow raised the level of expectation still higher with a solo win ahead of Marius Mayrhofer (Germany) and Alessandro Fancellu (Italy). Still 18, he’ll be taking road and time trial rainbows with him when he heads to Quick Step next year after a junior season that has everyone in Belgium understandably giddy with excitement. He won on Thursday despite a poorly timed tumble that saw him clawing back time before going clear. This kid is very special, and even borrowed future teammate Philippe Gilbert’s celebration.
Sunday, though, was all about Valverde. The race took some time to get going, in truth, with the early break as much as fifteen minutes ahead, and the last remnants (take a bow, Vegard Stake Laengen and Kasper Asgreen) only pulled in during the last climb of Igls. As they were brought in, the counter attack was led by an impressive and rejuvenated Peter Kennaugh, before Michael Valgren passed him and was the only rider to stay clear approaching the foot of the infamous Höll climb.
Valgren was recaptured and the large peloton quickly reduced, with Thibault Pinot pulling for Romain Bardet and Julien Alaphilippe. The latter, though, was unable to stay at the front on the steepest slopes, and soon just Michael Woods, Valverde, and Bardet were left. Dumoulin would rejoin the trio on the flat run-in to the finish but by then the sprint was inevitable and it was Valverde who led it out and was unpassable. Bardet took silver and Woods bronze.
Neither of those watching in my house were celebrating this win. Unrepentant, Valverde speaks to a darker era of cycling and his continued success at 38 is not to my taste. For all that, though, on the bike he’s a canny tactician, and throughout this race was well-positioned, deployed his team well, and looked confident. He deserved to be, on a course that could have been made for his ability to out-climb anyone who can sprint with him and out-sprint anyone who can climb with him.
Bardet has shown signs for a while of being a tough and impressive one-day rider as well as a strong grand tour specialist and this podium goes alongside his Strade Bianche ride from the spring in the “eye catching but ultimately fruitless” collection. Michael Woods, meanwhile, outperformed anyone’s expectations, looking the most comfortable on the awful slopes of Höll.
Honourable mentions should also go to another impressive rider and unpopular member of the peloton, Gianni Moscon, who justified Italy’s faith in him with fifth place. I was far happier to see the success of Peter Kennaugh (eventually 16th) and of Michael Valgren (7th).
It is also worth finishing with praise for Innsbruck, who provided great crowds, exciting racing, worthy winners, and beautiful scenery. Let’s hope we see all of that in Yorkshire next year. We won’t see mountains like these for a few years, and we probably won’t get weather like this, either.