World Championship Men’s Elite Road Race
Taking something of a left-field approach to this category, we want to return to the recent World Championship road race in Richmond, Virginia, to offer it as our favourite one day race of the year. As we noted in our race report, the world championship road races are traditionally soporific affairs, with long and drawn-out parcours designed to slowly whittle down a bunch before an inevitable sprint finish. Certainly, with the 2016 race taking place in pancake-flat Doha, it’s hard to see the 2015 race as anything other than a momentary reprise within the long history of dull world champs races. Because it really wasn’t dull.
The race was characterised by repeat attacks from a swelling mass of the biggest names in world cycling, with the focus constantly shifting from one powerful and plucky rider to the next. The three sharp climbs, two of which featured cobbled sections, ensured that attacks were plentiful and frequent. Differing combinations and permutations of riders would go off the front, and every time it felt like we might be watching the winning move. Of course, the winning move didn’t actually emerge until the final three kilometres.
Peter Sagan’s winning attack was a display of sheer brilliance, in timing, tactics, power, and sheer gusto. With riders like Greg Van Avermaet bearing down on him right up until the final sprint, few would have had the nerve and the self-confidence to think they had made the right move at the right time. But Sagan surged on, cresting the penultimate climb with only a handful of seconds, but taking more time on the pack thanks to his unparalleled descending skills. And it was a day-long exercise in patience for the Slovakian rider, too — he’d sat and watched from the rear of the peloton as attack after attack went, and must have been constantly telling himself that waiting for the final push was the right thing to do. But, where the superstar sprinter had been waiting just a little longer than Sagan, he caught everyone by surprise and took a huge and well-deserved win, honouring, as he went, the masterful design of the road race course as he went.
And it was the course design that made it such a fine race to watch. On paper, the circuits looked repetitive and the climbs unchallenging. But in reality, the climbs were enough to gradually sap even the strongest legs, and it seems you can’t go wrong with a few cobbled sections in modern one-day cycling events. The 16 laps of a 16km course actually added to the excitement of the day, as it offered a way to measure gaps, energy levels, strength of attacks — with every passing lap the pack was whittled down a little more, and fewer and fewer riders were able to make it into the leading bunch after the cobbled climbs. Excellent course design, the likes of which we can’t envisage being repeated in Qatar, sadly. It truly was the best one-day race of the season.
Our choice of best one-day race might ruffle a few purist feathers — after all, we’ve opted for a world championship event above all the classic monuments of the season. Paris-Roubaix was a thrilling race, but the outcome (Degenkolb’s dominant sprint in the Roubaix stadium) was wholly predictable. But there is one classic (though not a ‘monument’) we want to mention as runner-up in this category, and that is the race of the white road: Strade Bianche.
Weather and wind were once more a decisive feature in the Strade Bianche, an early-season classic whose wide open roads expose riders to a beating from the elements, despite the bright and cheery Tuscan sunlight through which they raced. It was set to be a gruelling 200km grind along shifting and unsteady surfaces, with the white dust of the roads billowing in the breeze throughout the day. A break went away early and, thanks in part to the severity of cross- and head-winds, lasted until around 52km to go. After this, a much-depleted peloton was the focus of the race.
That peloton was split up in the dust clouds of the dry roads, with riders losing touch along an 11km, harshly undulating section of gravel and dirt. This resulted in a strong lead group, which featured heavyweight riders like Valverde, Greg Van Avermaet, Peter Sagan, Zdeněk Štybar, Sep Vanmarcke, Daniel Oss, and Fabian Cancellara. Of these, Sagan, Valverde and Štybar managed to fight their way to front, and led the race until the 39km to go mark. Oss led the chase on behalf of his BMC teammate Van Avermaet. Meanwhile, a disorganised peloton were losing ground on the select lead groups.
At 22km to go, Oss put down more power and went off the front, only taking Vanmarcke with him. This set off a sequence of panicky movements which forced a stronger pace behind, a surge which dropped Peter Sagan and ended his hopes for a Strade Bianche win. Meanwhile, Oss slipped right through the chase, and was spat out the back with Sagan; Cancellara soon joined, along with Diego Rosa from behind, making up a four-man chase behind the four leaders: Valverde, GVA, Vanmarcke, Štybar. There were fewer than fifteen kilometres to go.
It was just at this moment that Van Avermaet launched an attack, with Štybar quick to respond and Valverde and Vanmarke the only others able to keep pace. Štybar brought back Van Avermaet, and actually managed to drop Vanmarcke — three men now led, with Vanmarcke fighting hard to regain contact. The 1km to go banner loomed large, and all that was left was the sharp and twisting road up through Siena to the finish. Valverde had been riding on the front, but was clearly reluctant to lead into the finish; he slowed the pace, almost allowing Vanmarcke to regain contact between the narrow walls of Siena.
But it was not to be Vanmarcke’s race, as Van Avermaet put in an explosive dig during the steepest section of the final climb, pursued by Valverde with Štybar in third. Štybar was playing an excellent tactical game, and saved his own attack to the final moments of the race: he quickly went past the fading Spaniard, and clawed back Van Avermaet on the final bend. He found enough daylight between himself and Van Avermaet to permit a celebratory raising of the arms as he crossed the line, winning in style his first Strade Bianche. Vanmarcke was unlucky as ever, missing out on podium in yet another classic. It was, all in all, a superb race and a nail-biter right down to that last bend. Our favourite classic of the year.