Super, mega, combined - whatever the word you chose to describe the 2023 Cycling World Championships there was no denying it was something new, something different. Would it make sense, bringing together the wildly disparate threads of cycle sport and attempting to braid them into an integrated event that inspired and invigorated fans both in person and around the world? Or was it simply organised chaos, too much cycling, an attempt at a two-wheeled Olympics that tried to awkwardly shoehorn ALL THE RACING into a one-size fits all costume with too many moving parts to gain any real traction?
Having returned home after a whirlwind of work and play in Glasgow experiencing the first of the new style of Cycling World Championships, it’s time to reflect, on the experience itself, and its relative success, as the dust settles and over 200 new rainbow jersey owners head back to their respective nations, and I return to my desk to contemplate my own interaction with the events from a fan perspective.
Day -1 and I arrived at Glasgow Queen Street station ready for the beginning of the whirlwind. There was a distinct buzz around the city and the sun was out which in itself was pretty miraculous, and I wandered down George Street and took the requisite photo of the finish line before settling into my accommodation, meeting my colleagues, and heading down to George Square to enjoy the opening ceremony, which was about as random as you’d expect, with giant penny farthings, hundreds of flags, and a flashmob involving a range of global dance styles.
As a road cycling fan first and foremost, the hype really began on day 1 ‘proper’, as while the racing got underway on the track, the first of the national road teams were spotted in the wild. Team cars and buses were spotted out and about, while the Shimano neutral service team were also in residence, but it was day 2 when the excitement reached fever pitch, as Friday saw the recon rides begin. The office was buzzing with reports of various riders being spotted out on the course, 'that' video of Mathieu van der Poel flying up Montrose Street went viral, and former World champion Peter Sagan was photographed signing autographs for fans, in what would be his final Championships, on the road at least.
The reality of city life intersecting with sport came to pass as the road closures came into effect and simply heading out to grab some lunch became a task fraught with complications, as marshals ensured that nobody caused a rider to crash while they were out on their way to Greggs (the public, not the riders – although who am I to judge, I’m partial to a chicken bake).
It struck me, as it does on the rare occasion I actually attend a bike race in person, the peculiarities of road cycling as a spectator sport, and its intersection with ‘normal’ life, as regular folks grumbled and tutted and looked mildly confused by all the barriers and hoardings, and cycle sport tourists took photos of random riders, the technicolour national kits resplendent in the afternoon sun (YES IT WAS STILL SUNNY).
For me, it’s just part of the magic. The promise of what’s to come, a significant step towards the drama, and the important division of audience and actors – basically the set design, the building of the stage on which the drama will be set.
It marked a stark contrast heading out of the city later on for my first ever visit to a velodrome, for the evening track session. Yet even there the road cyclists bled into the experience, as we queued round the building and members of both the French and Australian teams rode by, along with some of the track cyclists, out on warm-up or recovery rides. Cycling was truly in residence.
Diary of a Track Novice
I’ll keep this section brief. Track is of course a discipline that many cycling fans are evangelical about, and many will have spent plenty of time in the velodrome before. I love watching it on TV but have never attended in person and my first impressions of the velodrome were as follows: it was hot. I was prepared for this earlier on that day when a colleague informed me that someone had fainted during the morning session, and proceeded with trepidation, wearing a lot less clothes than the weather demanded in the hope I would be saved from a similar fate.
I was overjoyed that despite panic-buying tickets when they first went on sale, I’d somehow managed to bag us grandstand seats, just behind the primary start line and with an amazing view of the technical area for the bits between races which afforded a complete picture of the minutiae of preparing exceptional equipment to be used in anger (and yes, I mean the bikes AND the riders here).
It was genuinely thrilling to see the racing up close. Of particular interest, the team pursuit (where I had the opportunity to yell at Canada's Derek Gee for the first time that weekend – it would not be the last) and the team sprint, where the extreme quad power is something to behold, especially when you’re used to more sinewy limbs of the road cyclist.
Taking a walk around the full track was a pretty cool experience, as seeing the steep sides of the bowl from a bird’s eye view, while the women’s C3 scratch race was taking place below me, gave a much more accurate impression of the speeds the riders have to go at to maintain the mad levels of centrifugal force required to stay upright on those boards. I found it a bit weird that we were ushered on by the marshals - no hanging around by the barriers, apparently - so we were forced to maintain our momentum around the track too, albeit at a far more stately pace.
Finally, we visited the podium. The ceremonies were taking place downstairs in the arena, in what was essentially a massive loading bay, where I got to see Pinarello electric blue up close as I ogled the Italian bikeframes and tried to work out how I could reproduce such a colour and make clothes out of it, along with a man literally manufacturing clothes right in front of me, as the seamster stitched jerseys in a zen-like state of concentration despite everything else carrying on around him.
It was a different side to cycling that I hadn’t experienced before, and there was more of the same on day 3, as we returned for another session, and I continued to crap myself every time the gun went off, which seemed strangely haphazard in its deployment, and we watched endless rolling sprint qualification laps which were actually really fun, and had the pleasure of seeing local boy Neil Fachie claim yet another win in the men’s B individual pursuit (or was that day 2, I’ve already lost track of which day was which) and ride up to the barriers to give his gorgeous baby a kiss to celebrate.
It was in fact the first time the para-cyclists had shared the bill with the able-bodied athletes and it was a roaring success, as it was a chance for fans of track cycling to see a whole range of athletes competing at the top level of the sport, regardless of their levels of impairment. One of the unexpected bonuses was that this cross-pollination introduced audiences to a whole range of different information and knowledge as well as incredible tech – for example I learned about tandem track bikes and how they’re rigged to ensure that only the rider at the back is providing the power, while the pilot simply steers – something which I would never have known if I hadn’t seen it in person (knowledge that came about as a result of me wondering out loud how it was fair that Robert Forstemann’s thighs were involved in a tandem bike race. Before then wondering how it was fair that the visually impaired rider had to power those thighs in addition to his own weight). Overall, an excellent development for the sport.
The Race of Truth
Day 4 arrived and with it the men’s elite Road Race, the event that drew over 300,000 people to the roads of Scotland, an insane number that I struggle to fully compute even now.
The morning train dash across to Edinburgh throws us out onto quiet streets, quaint and picture-postcard narrow by contrast to Glasgow’s metropolitan city vibes, and as we approach the start the crowds grow, but there’s a weirdly relaxed vibe that is reminiscent of something akin to the Tour of Britain or even a provincial local race, rather than the most important one-day road race of the year.
Walking back through the start area and there’s time to call encouragement to a bashful, smiling Derek Gee, spot Ben Healy (not that it's hard in that shamrock green) who sits on his bike like he’s about to head off for a coffee ride, and Mathieu van der Poel, who holds himself like a movie star and poses for photographs in all directions, his face a mask behind the signature Oakley screen. Remco rolls up grinning like the happiest kid in the sweet shop. Pogačar is one of the last to arrive and immediately takes his place alongside Wout van Aert, the two deep in conversation. There are trade team mates sharing a laugh together, and a sense of just a big bunch of mates all catching up with one another after their various appointments in different races.
We had debated briefly, whether it would be worth the 2-hour round trip; there was no doubt in our minds afterwards that it absolutely was. It was yet another example of the strange and unique intimacy of the sport, that enables you to get close enough to say hello or wish good luck to a rider, and perhaps have them acknowledge you, even engage in a brief conversation. Also to marvel at the routine element of the sport that reminds you at the end of the day, it's just a job, they clock on for work and not every rider is there to go for the win, which may explain in part the lack of tension.
We travel back on the train as the peloton head westwards too, and it’s a strange sensation, to travel a similar route but know that the riders are racing, and that when you arrive back you have time to kill, while they are engaged in strategy, and the ever-changing chaos of a top-level race situation. It really puts into perspective the suffering of almost 300km of riding a bike.
The protests that slow down the riders give us extra time to gather ourselves and we frantically double-screen as Filippo Ganna takes the most dramatic victory in the individual pursuit on the track, while somewhere in the middle of southern Scotland the men's peloton chats and jokes once more, ready to start the race all over again once the authorities deem it safe for them to do so.
Statements of intent
And so we too start our day over, leaving our accommodation once again to watch the race arrive at the circuit, about to join the fray ourselves, albeit on the other side of the barriers. From here on out, I'll aim to piece together the story of the race using snapshots of what it was like to be there live, embedded within an impressionistic report of what I gathered during my second viewing, a few days later on TV.
With 133km to go, and as we were about to depart, Julian Alaphilippe attacks. It's still so early in the race and has the sense of a ‘greatest hits’ effort (because what's a race without a Loulou attack) and it’s almost confirmation of the fact we won’t see him later in the day. The peloton aren’t taking any prisoners in the multitude of tight corners, and there are the first crashes on the circuit, and bad luck for the Dutch, with mechanicals stalling their team effort. Denmark have clearly come for war – they’re drilling it on the front from the start.
In the end, we arrive on course just after the race, the blaring sirens and taca-taca of the helicopter bringing with them a rush of adrenaline as the anticipation rises and for many, it’s time to begin the business end of proceedings, while for others it's game over already. Australian Lukes Plapp and Durbridge have clocked off for the day after positioning Michael Matthews on the run-in to the city circuit, and we spot them taking it easy at the back of the race, though there's still in excess of 100km to go.
It’s an indication of how utterly bonkers the day is that when we finally settle for a while, hampered on our glacially slow progress towards Montrose Street by the road closures and blocked crossing points as various dribs and drabs of the back of the peloton roll through, the composition of the race has changed again, and a chase group has formed, featuring Mattias Skjelmose, Lorenzo Rota and Tobias Johannessen.
To try and define this mad city loop: it's a hang-on-by-the-fingernails for grim death hair-raising fling-around of a circuit, the aggressive riders among the bunch applying a kind of centrifugal force that throws others out at random angles never to be seen again, or at least that’s how it felt to observe it. The peloton is stretched out and urgent, a desperate piece of ever-stretching, snaking, frayed elastic. Abandons begin with over 100km to go – some, from riders having done their job for the day, others retiring injured or perhaps just realising ‘this isn’t worth it’.
119km to go. Neilson Powless had a crack. Nathan van Hooydonck reprised his workhorse role in support of Van Aert and his Belgian teammates, and with 110km to go there was a brief easement, before it was the turn of the Swiss to have a go.
And for the French, Christophe Laporte’s bad luck continues – it’s only a puncture, but in this frenetic boiling pot of a race, it can only spell the end, so too for his compatriot Julian Alaphilippe who drops out the back of the bunch with over 100km still to go, alongside Kasper Asgreen and Jasper Philipsen, as this punishing circuit takes yet more high-profile scalps.
The Danes take up their stranglehold once more as Asgreen steps off, and then it’s the turn of Remco Evenepoel to test his legs uphill, before Italy, still 4-men strong, up the pace, first through Simone Velasco, then Andrea Bagioli, and their injection of acceleration does yet more damage – the group of favourites has been trimmed to only around 30 riders, which shortly after is slashed to ten as Italy once again turn the screw, blasting the bunch apart via a belligerent Matteo Trentin.
In the breakaway, there's tragedy for Ireland’s Rory Townsend whose race is left in tatters as he suffers a mechanical, and British hopes are dashed shortly afterwards as national champion Fred Wright steps off the bike.
Meanwhile back at the front there's a shift as Pogi attacks on Montrose Street and despite the Italian pressure Bettiol is left to his own devices as Trentin crashes out.
Back out on course, we’d found a position over the top of Montrose Street with views in both directions, a kind of conveyor belt of elite cyclists going in both directions at once, while we were consistently befuddled by the action playing out on the big screen which was a good minute behind what we were seeing in person. Each time the cameras cut away, you never knew what you would see next time they focused in on the race; Stefan Kung was leading, with Skjelmose in 2nd; then Remco at the front again; then Van Hooydonck and Alex Aranburu attack.
Then the big boys come out to play. Mads Pedersen attacks, and Wout van Aert follows. There’s a sensation like you get in the final 10km or so of a spring classic. There is still 74km to go. It’s utterly, brilliantly, mind-bogglingly bonkers.
After initial forays by Remco and Pogačar, the first Pedersen attack seems to be the signal that the gloves are off vis-à-vis the main protagonists, and MVDP is the next to go on the attack and of course Van Aert follows, pulling Pedersen, Pogi and Bettiol with him, AND MATTHEW DINHAM! (The Glasgow 2023 version of ‘and Michael Gogl’ – see Strande Bianche 2021). And this is a serious move: they open up a big gap, sweep past the original breakaway and close down lone leader Kevin Vermaerke of Team USA who tags on to make it a group of 7.
In between the action riders climb off, or even over, literally – Germany's Jannik Steimle clambers across the barriers right in front of us lifting his bike after him, to try and escape the never-ending death spiral of Glasgow city centre.
Bettiol goes solo
From the 'peloton' of 30, only France have enough resources left to give chase. With Plan A presumably out of the window, Benoit Cosnefroy gives it everything for Valentin Madouas and closes the gap, dragging the two groups back together again, but it’s agonising for the chasers as the moment it comes back together, Mads attacks again. Van Hooydonck has benefitted from the work from the French though, and he’s back just in time to start pulling again – an amazing recovery on his part.
Cosnefroy’s job is done and it leaves around 20 back together again, with the Belgians leading once more, strength in numbers as they reap the rewards of having better luck and not having burned all their matches just yet.
The attacks fly in after that, first Pogačar, who gives it a shot going uphill, but it’s just not enough time to make a difference – making anything stick on this course will take a truly titan effort. Bettiol picks his moment with 60km to go but almost loses his back wheel, taking the sting out of his attack and leaving the crowd gasping.
More names enter the fray: Jhonatan Narvaez, Mauro Schmid, Dylan van Baarle, Tom Skujiņš. You cannot look away for a second. Remco tries again and again, Pedersen and Pogačar taking turns to close him down, and the thought occurs: is he playing this role for the team, taking the legs out of Van Aert's biggest competition? And with all the work that's going in, another thought persists: how many of these efforts can these riders sustain, before they run out of gas?
The rain comes and waterproofs and umbrellas are deployed in the crowd, which is quite well-behaved on the whole, despite the rowdy bunch of Danes back over the brow of Montrose Street, busy creating atmosphere all by themselves, as enthusiastic as their riders are belligerent.
Alberto Bettiol tries his luck for a second time, and he does the impossible and gets a gap. Skjelmose, Kung and Powless chase, then everyone comes back together. Madouas drops away, then makes it back on, then he’s off again. The most determined can make it back but it takes something special to get away. Bettiol’s gap is slender but he maintains it. There are 50km to go and the rain persists, the skies a grim patchwork of slate and stone though in other corners of the course, the sun still shone – Glasgow apparently enjoys numerous microclimates.
Despite his determination, there is a sense of inevitable doom attached to Bettiol’s effort, as his gap sticks at just over 30 seconds and the chasing group, still led by a Belgian contingent, conserve some energy and take on some fuel.
The attrition rate continues, as the promising effort from Narvaez ends in disaster as he crashes, and Skjelmose suffers a mechanical bringing an end to his instrumental role.
The eternal narrowing continues as less and less riders have a chance to go for the elusive victory. Wout van Aert ups the pressure and prompts the four horsemen of Milan-San Remo fame to get the band back together, albeit with Mads Pedersen reprising the role of Filippo Ganna. Second by second, they reel Bettiol back in.
Behind, an unlikely trio of Powless, Schmid and Skujiņš try to chase down the big 4, and it’s anything goes now, and there’s a very real sense of heroism vs madness to anyone still involved in the race at all.
Meanwhile out front, the gritty Italian Bettiol steals back a few seconds, and there’s a vain hope that maybe, just MAYBE – but no, it can’t be, not against these riders – the kilometres tick down and with 25km to go, his margin diminishes to 10 secs. They let him dangle for a bit, then MVDP catches sight of him on the climb and launches. And he goes over the top and away, with 22.3km to go. Little did we all know at that point… Though perhaps we might have suspected more, had we had the chance to peer into the exhausted faces of Wout and Tadej, and perhaps those watching on TV might have had more confidence in the MVDP attack – lord knows, the man knows how to launch a solo attack and make it stick when it counts. He grits his teeth up Montrose Street and his gap opens… under 20km and it’s heading up for 25 secs.
Fortune had not finished with the race that day, though, not yet. As Van der Poel rounds a corner – one that would become infamous over the series of road races that followed – he loses grip and slides out, careening towards the barriers and coming to a standstill on the ground.
The gasps that went up around the city and the silence that followed turned Glasgow into one giant amphitheatre, and the tension held everyone in thrall as the reaction to the crash played out:
The improbability of MVDP climbing back on, with a broken shoe, and barely losing any time; the chase group with no knowledge of the leader’s misfortune, unable to take advantage, their exhaustion palpable, pure misery on their faces as they endure the agony of the final kilometres; the continued charge of the injured man towards his destiny, undeterred by the setback, etching his name into history in the most dramatic fashion. And finally, the victory.
The legend of the rainbow stripes
It’s days like today where you end up wringing your hands over the imbalance that means just one rider takes away a rainbow jersey, when so many heroic performances have been witnessed; yet the sheer improbability of accomplishing the feat is what lends this iconic jersey such lauded status: yes, lady luck will play her hand, but there’s no denying that you have to be the very best rider in the race, of a huge field of the best riders in the world, to even come close.
Mathieu van der Poel is a worthy champion, overcoming adversity to stamp his authority on the race and prove beyond any shadow of doubt he was the best on the day. Van Aert, Pogačar, and Pedersen all vital pieces in the jigsaw of the race, their challenge and pressure ensuring that VDP couldn’t afford to relax even for a moment. And Bettiol, who deserves an honorary award for being an absolute warrior, taking it up from the front, his team doing the job of charging into the breach and asking the question: ‘who is strong enough to go the distance?’ even in the knowledge that perhaps none of them would be, against such titanic opposition. Matthew Dinham! Just that. And plenty of other performances worthy of medals, jerseys, plaudits and more. But there can be only one.
As for myself and my fellow fans, we inched our way back to the apartment through the throngs of fans, beginning to grasp the sheer magnitude of the live audience as they funnelled themselves towards the obvious exits – train stations, essentially – and marvelled over the fact it still wasn’t even 5pm. While we’d travelled a while, been on our feet for hours and been simultaneously drenched and reheated by the Scottish elements, we had no right to the post-race fog of exhaustion that descended.
As Pogačar staggered away from the scene like a casualty from a brawl, we took stock of what was a brilliant day's racing, though much of the nuts and bolts of what actually went on would become apparent until we watched back later - we cast our eye down the list of finishers, shocked at how few there were, despite seeing so many climb off, surprised at some of the names in the top 10, despite literally watching them pass before our eyes.
Such is the bizarre reality of live bike racing. You're a part of the action, living the sensory experience of a sporting occasion, and yet there's no way to experience the whole of it, unlike if you're watching a football match in person (or pretty much any other sport, if you think about it). The story of a road race is about all these elements in harmony, and it might explain, in part, why it's taken me about three weeks to put together this report.
This is probably the longest post I've ever written, and I haven't even covered the myriad other moments that made the first ever Cycling World Championships so unique and brilliant. BMX riders flipping, Gran Fondo riders mass participating, downhill mountain bikers staring gravity in the face without fear. And much, much more besides.
In the end, the success of this event will be told through its legacy, as was the case with the 2012 Olympics. The 'power of the bike' slogan used by the fabulous and hard-working digital and content team of which I was a part for some of the Championships aims to inspire everyone to get out and get on a bike. The fact that 13 disciplines were represented offered a kaleidoscopic vision of what is possible, with two wheels and the will to try to something new, or simply to get some fresh air and exercise. And that's what it's all about, really, isn't it?