Road World Championships 2021 - Julian Alaphilippe left speechless after sensationally retaining the rainbow jersey
Alaphilippe admitted the boos of the home Belgian crowd only spurred him on as he proved a class apart on a lumpy romp to Leuven. The outstanding Frenchman launched his decisive move after several previous accelerations and pre-race favourite Wout Van Aert was unable to follow, with Alaphilippe affording himself an elongated celebration as he retained his crown in some style.
‘I didn’t think it was possible!’ – Alaphilippe after stunning worlds defence
Julian Alaphilippe revealed that a vocal Flanders crowd helped motivate him to a stunning retention of his World Championships crown in Leuven.
The Frenchman stunned the rest of the field with another phenomenal dance to a rainbow jersey as he proved on another plane entirely with a relentlessly attacking performance at the climax of an extraordinarily high-tempo romp around the roads of Flanders.
Having burst away from a group of favourites including Wout Van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel, Alaphilippe, ever the grand entertainer, afforded himself the broadest of grins and a wave of the arms to the disappointed crowd.
He finished comfortably clear of Dylan van Baarle (Netherlands) and Michael Valgren (Denmark), who out-sprinted Leuven native Jasper Stuyven to claim the minor medals.
"Last year was a dream for me," Alaphilippe said 12 months on from securing his first rainbow jersey in Imola. "It was hard and it’s emotional.
"I was very motivated. I wanted to do well for the team and get the best result possible. The legs felt great and in the final I made the cut. This wasn’t planned. I went all out. I have no words.”
I thought of my little one on the final. There were many supporters for Belgium and they asked me to slow down. They weren’t sympathetic words but it gave me more motivation.
Former Tour de France champion Bradley Wiggins was full of superlatives for Alaphilippe.
The 29-year-old follows Peter Sagan (2015, 2016, 2017), Paolo Bettini (2006, 2007), Gianni Bugno (1991, 1992), Rik van Looy (1960, 1961), Rik Van Steenbergen (1956, 1957) and Georges Ronsse (1928, 1929) in retaining his men's road race crown.
Julian Alaphilippe of France celebrates at finish line as race winner during the 94th UCI Road World Championships 2021 - Men Elite Road Race a 268,3km race from Antwerp to Leuven / #flanders2021 / on September 26, 2021 in Leuven, Belgium.
Image credit: Getty Images
"It was sensational. What a rider. It was phenomenal. A true champion of the sport who animates the racing every time, and he spoiled the glory of Belgium today." Wiggins said after the race on Eurosport and GCN's The Breakaway.
"The main effort came in the last third of the race. Belgium did a fantastic job and hadn't really put a foot wrong.
"But it's not like Julian sat back all day. He was putting in attacks, always on the climbs, but his final attack was when everyone was starting to show fatigue from the race and from that point on it wasn't really in doubt. He was celebrating quite some way from the finish."
Favourite Van Aert failed to figure in the final selection with Stuyven instead harbouring home hopes.
The strong Belgian team had appeared to have set things up perfectly for their multi-talented star Van Aert with Remco Evenepoel doing a fine spoiling job in support, marking the attacks that came regularly.
However the Olympic silver medallist admitted he simply did not have the legs to go with Alaphilippe when the Frenchman launched his final, decisive surge.
Wout Van Aert of Belgium competes during the 94th UCI Road World Championships 2021 - Men Elite Road Race a 268,3km race from Antwerp to Leuven / #flanders2021 / on September 26, 2021 in Leuven, Belgium.
Image credit: Getty Images
"I didn't expect the attacking so early. We kept cool and we were always in control, but my legs just weren't good enough in the final," Van Aert explained.
However speaking on The Breakaway, expert Adam Blythe suggested that the brilliant Belgian could perhaps consider switching his tactics.
"The only rider you can fault from Belgium is Wout," said Blythe. "He doesn't go on the attack like Alaphilippe, he waits for the race to come to him. He's always chasing. It's just a question of not realising, almost, how strong he is."
"But I don't think I've ever seen a race that kicked off that early before. I think we keep forgetting that he is only human. It shows just how good a ride Alaphilippe did."