Two mornings, two early alarm calls. Two bleary-eyed visits to the kitchen to make the first cup of tea of the day and catch up on two very important races.
The elite road race weekend has come and gone, and as always, it leaves in its wake a multitude of conflicting emotions, questions and talking points. It’s beyond doubt that we came away from Wollongong with two worthy winners: arguably the two top cyclists of year (those arguments are for another time and place) – Annemiek van Vleuten and Remco Evenepoel – were crowned World Champions, and donned the rainbow jersey to celebrate their achievements.
To have had access to a time machine a week ago, you’d have looked at those two names on paper and assumed they would win the race in the exact same style: both riding away solo, too strong for the others to follow. Both are capable of just that, as has been demonstrated many times in the past (less for Remco merely as a result of his relative youth – but he has form, nonetheless).
Yet take that same time machine and hope forward five or ten years, and look again at those names, and you will remember two very different races.
What makes a good race, anyway?
There exists a fragile dichotomy in the hearts of sports fans: the desire to see top level sporting endeavour – athletes pushing boundaries, going beyond limits, breaking records, achieving things never before achieved – combined with the need for meaningful competition. When one of the elements is missing, the imbalance can result in dissatisfaction and frustration.
Cycling is a strange and nuanced sport in its ability to frustrate, and to excite, in equal measure, within the space of single race days. To lean back on my old favourite football comparison (my main frame of sporting reference from childhood), it’s the difference between watching a thrilling nil-nil draw, and going away satisfied with the level of entertainment (if not the result) and being left a bit cold watching Man City thrashing [insert team name here] 6-0 in a dazzling display of footballing prowess – which, unless, you were a Man City fan, was ultimately like fancy cake decoration – aesthetically pleasing, but nothing compared to the taste of a really good cake.
To extend this metaphor to cycling Remco would be the pretty frosting on the cake – the dazzling display, the complete imbalance as he leaves swathes of talent in his wake. He’s not alone, of course, in an era which has served up young prodigies like courses at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Tadej Pogačar has been subject to the same criticism – if you can call it that – take the crowd-dividing Strade Bianche as an example. Plenty of people were quick to defend the Slovenian following his ‘race-killing’ performance on the white roads in March, lauding his prodigal talent, and making such bold statements as ‘do they even like bike racing?’ As if the fans looking on would not want to see feats of peerless athletic endeavour. Of course, we do. We all hope to see brilliant talents rise through the ranks and achieve greatness. Who doesn’t want to be able to say they were there, looking on, when a rider broke Merckx’s record, or eclipsed it? Or even became the rider who would in a generation become the one used as the comparator – who, in 20 years, will be ‘the new Evenepoel’ or the ‘new Pogačar’.
Watching these young prodigies who seem to defy our expectations is a privilege, but for every yin there needs to be a yang – perhaps part of the reason why Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel’s rivalry is so storied – both of them have prodigious talent, but perhaps one without the other may not have led either to greatness? Or may have left the watching public feeling hard done by – take this past winter in cyclocross as an example. Van Aert without his counterpart won all but one of the races he entered, proving his superior talent, but killing the competition.
It’s a delicate balance, finely poised between all-encompassing, breath-taking spectacle, and a race which in 5 years’ time, you might struggle to recall anything much of, beyond the enduring sense of exhaustion, and the sight of Remco powering along solo from 30km out. And it’s why I loved the women’s World Championship road race so much more than the men’s, despite the fact that the winner was Annemiek van Vleuten, a rider so dominant that she normally renders her competition moot on the first incline of note.
The Least Expected Way
Van Vleuten’s elbow injury, sustained just seconds into the mixed time trial earlier in the week following a crash caused by a mechanical issue, led to many doubting her ability to even take part in the race, and she herself expressed reservations as to her fitness, speaking in unusually muted tones in her pre-race interview on Saturday.
The Tour de France Femmes winner went on to work for her team mates despite apparently not being able to stand up out of her saddle – still she conquered Mount Pleasant with ease, on the final passage waiting at the top for Marianne Vos who laboured in her wake. She went on to catch the lead group of five along with a small select group and came from nowhere in the final kilometre, pushing a giant gear and delivering an incredible surge to the finish line to grab victory in the most dramatic fashion and regain the rainbow jersey for the first time since 2019.
Although some argued it sets a dangerous precedent to glorify riding while injured, let’s be clear on the facts: Van Vleuten was medically assessed and deemed fit to race. She made her own decision – in the penultimate season of her career – not to pass up an opportunity which she may only have one more time. Van Vleuten is a master of suffering and has been through a lot worse, so for her, the pain, while difficult to manage (she described the race as ‘hell’), was not something she was unable to cope with. She may have a few days or weeks recovering from the effort and allowing herself to heal; she may have done permanent damage – the risk was one she chose to take herself, on medical advice.
Personally speaking, I don’t feel it overshadowed her win, although I understand the arguments against the glorification of her succeeding despite injury. The discomfort for me arises in race situations where riders who are clearly unfit to be on a bike are put back on and told to ride on – Marta Cavalli after the shocking crash at the Tour de Frances Femmes; George Bennett, shaking his head after a crash in 2021 Paris-Nice; Marc Soler with two broken arms, or vomiting repeatedly off his bike – all of these, to varying degrees, felt far worse in terms of setting ‘an example’ than Van Vleuten risk assessing herself and choosing to be there for her team – and in the end, prove that she can win against adversity. After all, pain management is part and parcel of elite level sport to a lesser or greater extent – pushing through boundaries, carrying on when you don’t feel as though you have anything left, burning through the pain barriers. The language of pain is synonymous with this sport, for better or worse.
The manner and style of Van Vleuten’s win was unexpected, dramatic and scintillating – she employed race strategy, calling on her years of experience, to turn a situation which wasn’t ideal into a winning move. The power she pushed in her final attack was astonishing and with the pack closing in behind her in those last few metres, it delivered an outstanding piece of sporting entertainment and one which will stay with me for a long time. It was my favourite win of Van Vleuten’s simply because she had to find a way around her less than ideal circumstances – to fight her way back despite the race not going her way. Isn’t that what makes sport great? If there’s any discomfort at all, it’s in admitting that it was the elbow injury that led to the more satisfying race experience, from a spectator’s perspective. As if to find a way to hamper Van Vleuten is the only way to ensure a level playing field. Such is the greatness of the rider.
Which brings us back to Remco. We can’t criticise Evenepoel for being too good, or for making the race boring – for those of us who may have found it so; he was demonstrating incredible power and determination, and he was astute tactically, despite his relative youth, but alongside respecting his performance, and applauding his brilliant season, we have every right to feel aggrieved that it wasn’t the battle we had hoped for, in one of the biggest races of the year. It was up to other teams to find a way to beat him – which began and ended in their collective decision to allow him up the road in the first place. He simply made the most of a favourable situation.
Cycling is a sport of ambivalence – many, many times we will watch a rider who may not be our favourite cross the line first at the expense of someone we might rather have won, but never does that take away from the ability to nod and clap and say ‘fair play’ to the winner. As long as it’s a good race, right? So are we doomed to these kinds of dominant non-events in future seasons, or will a new kind of balance arise in the peloton? In short, what will the rest do about it? How do other riders and teams find a solution to the young prodigies who burst through and are seemingly invincible?
It didn’t take all that long for Jumbo Visma to solve the Pogačar ‘problem’ – this summer at the Tour de France they proved that he could be beaten, banishing the claims that he would win every Tour for the next decade that had been bandied about on social media. True, it took considerable resource and an audacious plan, and it was still only down to the superior skills of a better rider in the end, in Vingegaard, who was able to hold on for the three weeks of competition.
Now, we are asking the same of Evenepoel. What can others do to beat him? Or perhaps, to frame it differently, can he and Pogačar provide the same foil for one another that Van Aert and Van der Poel do, and offer us balance once again – and some really exciting racing.
As for Van Vleuten, since her victory on Saturday she has indicated that she may not retire as planned, after next season, and, once healed, the women’s peloton will go back to facing the same problem they have grappled with for many seasons: how to solve a problem like Van Vleuten. Answers on a postcard!