Right on cue, the skies cleared for the final rainbow of the Wollongong 2022 UCI Road World Championships. The much-talked-about bumper crowds finally descended on the 267km course, bordered by the Illawarra Escarpment to the west and Tasman Sea to the east, bathing riders and spectatorsin glorious Spring sunshine from start to finish.
The officials from ‘Visit NSW’ must have been punching the air with delight. This really was the South Coast at its glistening beston cycling’s biggest global stage.
Yet, while the gloomy weather of previous days in Wollongong had lifted, there was nonetheless a large cloud hanging over much of the elite men’s race. The rumours were already swirling at the start line in Helensburgh and, barely 30km into the race, a Cat 5 media storm struck as one of the pre-race favourites Mathieu Van der Poel sensationally abandoned following, what the TV commentators would euphemistically refer to as, a ‘troubled night’.
After a lighting fast start and several early skirmishes, a modestly-credentialled 12-man breakaway was finally allowed off the leash along Lawrence Hargrave Drive. But as the peloton rolled under the finish gantry for the first time, details began to emerge of a disturbance the night before at the Dutch team hotel in Brighton Le Sands in Sydney’s southern suburbs.
Then as the bunch made its way up Mount Keira and first serious moves of the race took place, led by Italian-born Russian-come-Frenchman Pavel Sivakov, the picture began to become clearer of Van der Poel’s arrest, late-night questioning by police, passport confiscation and court appearance scheduled for this upcoming Tuesday.
A major cycling news story was breaking smack bang in the middle of the biggest one-day race of the year. Luckily, we have two eyes: one for the race, one for the news feed. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it.
The roadside scuttlebutt and online clicks grew in time with the swelling crowds, five-people deep in many places, with some cheeky fans quickly emerging on the Ramah Avenue climb with hastily written ‘FREE MVDP’ signs. Thankfully, as the kilometres ticked down and the suspense of the race built, the emerging scandal took a back seat.
With a five-man chase including Lucas Plapp and Ben O’Connor bridging across to the leaders with 150km still to go, Australian fans certainly had plenty of on-road action to cheer in the middle stages of the race. Things looked promising for the green and gold, setting things up perfectly for the likes of Michael Matthews to get dragged effortlessly into the race on the closing laps.
Of course, theory and reality are very different beasts. Cycling loves to deviate from the script and World Championships, not unlike Monuments, tend to bubble away before coming to an inevitable boiling point. In Wollongong, that moment came a little earlier than most onlookers, and riders no doubt, had anticipated.
The most critical selection of the race happened a full 76km from the finish, when aggressive riding from France’s Quentin Pacher saw the front of the peloton splinter on the brutal 14% slopes of Ramah Avenue. Several big names were shelled. Others were simply caught out of position as the rainbow cards were being dealt.
In hindsight, quite how a group containing the likes of Remco Evenepoel, Romain Bardet and 2022 Giro d’Italia winner, Jai Hindley, was allowed to get off the front – and not be immediately reeled back in – will be a question that long burns for many of the vanquished teams. But off the front they went, eventually bridging to what was left of the day’s original break which, by that stage, had suffered its own cull thanks in large part to the vertical exertions of Ben O’Connor.
What now? Would the chasers take pause to catch their collective breath and ride tempo until, inevitably, being reeled back in by the peloton? Maybe that was the thinking, for a while anyway. But it never happened.
Resplendent in red shoes and helmet in honour of his recent Vuelta victory, Remco Evenepoel, clearly no longer required to wait in service of teammate Wout Van Aert, turned the screws by launching a searing attack along the approach to the finish line with just over two laps to go.
Only Kazakhstan’s Alexey Lutsenko had the legs to follow, with Hindley, Bardetand others watching as their chances of victory disappeared up the road, despite the screams of encouragement from the now-heaving beachfront crowd. Half a lap later on the penultimate rise of Ramah Avenue, the story that began with more than 169 riders in Helensburgh, became a soliloquy.
The time was right for Evenepoel to jettison his plucky Kazak shadow. “I was there with Alexey, but I felt quite quickly that I wanted to be alone,” Evenepoel explained after the race. No kidding. The young Belgian was off, never to be seen again by Lutsenko – or anyone else.
For the final 25km of the race, the only thing likely to stop him from securing Belgium’s first elite men’s victory since Philippe Gilbert in 2012 was the local magpie population. Mercifully, after a week or tormenting the young Belgian, they left him to his own devices and, never threatened by bird or bike, he prevailed solo with a handsome winning margin of 2 minutes 21 seconds.
The French were aggressive all day. The Australians were tactical all day. Both nations were ultimately rewarded with minor medals as the fast-finishing bunch saw Christophe Laporte seize silver and Michael Matthews bronze.
As always there are sure to be excuses, regrets and hard-luck stories. But the in-form Evenepoel was in a world all of his own today. Quite simply, the best man won.
Looking back, the course and racing was superb. The volunteers brilliant. The weekend crowds magnificent. It was hard to believe this gripping global drama was unfolding right here in suburban Australia, and not Europe, except perhaps for the brick and fibro homes and gum trees.
When I arrived mid-week to find Wollongong eerily – and, frankly,disappointingly – quiet, I feared this was a World Championships that risked being remembered as a fabulous event on the road, but far-less-than-fabulous off it. Perhaps it still will be.
But having now watched the final weekendunfold, my view has softened a little. Yes, many things were far from perfect, some inexplicably so. But the skies finally cleared, the crowds finally came, and thrilling racing delivered two hugely worthy World Champions from neighbouring countries on the opposite side of the planet.
In the end, it seemed pretty much everyone had a great timethis weekend. Except perhaps for Mathieu Van der Poel.