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What a week in professional cycling.
The UCI’s Road World Championships is an annual end-of-season gathering of national federations, sponsors, rider agents, and stakeholders that often delivers not only new world champions but also a flurry of announcements and controversies.
The Yorkshire world championships was no exception.
The eight-day event began with a new discipline, and ended with a cold and wet elite men’s road race that delivered a surprise winner and saw only a quarter of the starters finish. In between two Sundays, the clouds over Yorkshire rarely relented, producing a wet and wild world championships that delivered drama and debate, surprises and accusations.
The U23 men’s time trial saw riders navigate what appeared to be a standing lake on course. For the first time ever, a pair of American juniors took rainbow jerseys. The U23 men’s road race had one winner, and then another. In elite women’s racing, Chloé Dygert-Owen and Annemiek van Vleuten each took demonstrative victories with out-of-this-world performances that require a bit of context to be fully understood. And the elite men’s race… well that was just bonkers; Peter Sagan made a critical mistake, Mathieu van der Poel showed that he’s human after all, and Mads Pedersen proved strongest on a day that broke many of the biggest names in the sport.
Oh, and it sounds like Geraint Thomas will race the Giro d’Italia, while Rohan Dennis and Mark Cavendish might be swapping teams.
If you were only able to follow the 2019 Road World Championships in drips and drabs, I’ve attempted to distill the most significant stories of the week here, with a bit of commentary.
Time trial drama
In a bid towards gender equality, a new mixed gender time-trial relay event replaced the team time trial, which had been contested by trade teams rather than national teams. The event marked the first time in the history of the UCI Road World Championships that male and female riders participated in the same event, as they do each year in the UCI’s Mountain Bike World Championship team relay.
The format was simple enough; a team of three men went first, followed by a team of three women. The women were allowed to go once the second man crossed the finish line; a nation’s final time was based on the time of the second woman across the line. It was a bit confusing, in that the women did not start from the same spot where the men finished.
A few nations, notably Australia and the United States, chose to sit this one out, a somewhat curious decision as results contribute to a nation’s UCI World Ranking and will count towards qualification for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
Ultimately three men and three women from the Netherlands were awarded rainbow jerseys — jerseys they will not wear again until the next European Championships, in September 2020. But don’t expect that to impact the UCI’s backing of the event; it’s possible the mixed gender time-trial relay event could see inclusion in the 2024 Olympics in Paris as the UCI seeks compliance with the IOC’s Gender Equality Review Project.
In the junior time trials, the winners of both the women’s and men’s races overcame on-course adversity. Russian Aigul Gareeva had to make an emergency U-turn after missing a tight righthand-bend onto the finishing straight, winning by only 3.6 seconds, while Italian Antonio Tiberi took an early bike change after snapping his chain as he rolled down the start ramp, winning by just 7.79 seconds.
And with that, the drama of the 2019 road worlds had begun.
(Gareeva also had perhaps the best post-race quote of the entire world championships, saying, “To be honest, to be world champion is not that important, but to make people believe that you can live better lives and make mistakes but then achieve better results and achieve something in this life, that matters.”)
The following day, the men’s U23 race was held under a deluge that saw several riders. While 20-year-old Dane Mikkel Bjerg was a worthy champion, winning his third straight title, the event had the feeling of survival, with compatriot and European champion Johan Price-Pejtersen crashing heavily in what resembled a lake on course. Americans Ian Garrison and Brandon McNulty finished second and third.
In the gap between the men’s and women’s races, the organization tried to remove as much water from the course as possible, delaying the women’s race by 40 minutes, which in turned saw riders setting off at 60-second intervals instead of originally planned 90-second intervals.
— Cycling_360 (@cycling_360) September 24, 2019
Heads exploded as American Chloé Dygert-Owen blazed the 30.3km route from Ripon to Harrogate in a time of 42:11, more than 90 seconds faster than silver medalist Anna van der Breggen — she’d ridden over three seconds per kilometer faster than the next-best woman in the world. She’d caught and passed the seven riders who started ahead of her, and posted a time that would have placed her 11th in the U23 men’s race out of 59 finishers. At age 22, she became the youngest rider, male or female, to win an elite time trial title at the UCI world championship. Hers was also the largest winning margin for any man or woman since the time trial was added to the world championships in 1994.
It was a monstrous ride.
Immediately following her win, a rogue’s gallery lit up on Twitter with accusations of impropriety. She had come from nowhere! She must be doped! She must be using a motor! She must be doped and using a motor!
And while this is pro cycling, a sport where most any and all scrutiny is warranted, these accusations lacked context.
Dygert-Owen, 22, may not yet have had a proven track record against the strongest women in the pro peloton, but she most definitely did not come from nowhere. She famously won both the junior time trial and road race at the 2015 world championships in Richmond. She holds a pair of world titles in the individual pursuit, as well as a silver medal from the the team pursuit at the 2016 Olympics. She was fourth in the world at the elite women’s time trial in Bergen in 2017, just 38 seconds off the winning pace, after being sidelined for most of that season with a labrum tear in her hip. She missed much of 2018 due to concussion and a knee injury. Finally healthy, she helped the US team win gold in the team pursuit at the Pan American Games in August; days later she won the time trial on the road. Two weeks after that, she won all four stages and the overall at the Colorado Classic.
Yes, Dygert-Owen’s time would have beaten 48 of the finishers in the U23 men’s race, but course conditions were definitively worse earlier in the day, marked by pools of standing water that had largely drained when the elite women competed. Van der Breggen’s silver-medal time would also have beaten nearly half the U23 men’s field as well.
Yes, Dygert-Owen caught and passed seven riders. But it’s important to remember that riders were sent off in 60-second intervals, rather than the 90-second intervals we saw in the elite men’s race, or the two- or three-minute intervals we’re accustomed to seeing at stage races. Of those seven riders, only one, Lucinda Brand, finished in the top 15. Brand started one minute ahead of Dygert-Owen, and finished 2:15 after her, for a 3:15 delta.
All that said, as the women’s TT was finishing, I wished that UCI officials would disassemble Dygert-Owen’s TT bike, bolt by bolt, on camera — not because I doubted the performance, but because I knew that there would be those who would. This wasn’t a stage race, that bike wasn’t to be used again any time soon, and a gesture such as that might gone a long way toward both vindicating Dygert-Owen’s performance and demonstrating that the UCI is serious about combating technical fraud.
As for Dygert-Owen, who took the eighth rainbow jersey of her career, she made sure to acknowledge those who had stood by her side. “It’s always very special to wear the stripes,” she said. “I’m really happy with the result and super thankful to everyone who believed in me on my very bad days, to get me to this spot.”
Redemption for Rohan
The following day brought the elite men’s time trial, and the redemption of Rohan Dennis.
The Australian had not competed since Stage 12 of the Tour de France, where he mysteriously climbed off his bike in the feed zone and quit the race without a word, just one day before he would have had the opportunity of competing on the sport’s biggest stage in the rainbow stripes. The unexpected departure left his Bahrain-Merida team in the awkward position of trying to put a positive spin on an almost unprecedented situation.
Dennis hadn’t said much about it since, as speculation about his mental health — he’s known to be a hothead — mixed with rumors that he had been unhappy about the team’s time trial equipment, namely Merida’s Time Warp TT bike, Rudy Project’s Wing TT helmet, and a custom Sportful skinsuit that he apparently found unacceptable.
In an interview with Corriere della Sera, Vincenzo Nibali said that Dennis had “gone crazy,” at the Tour de France, adding, “He may have been right on a lot of technical issues, but he brooded over it too much. In cycling, you shouldn’t think too much, otherwise the stress kills you.”
Rumors that the issue was based on team equipment appeared to be justified Wednesday when Dennis showed at the start line in Northallerton on a BMC Time Machine — a model he rode with BMC Racing for five years — while wearing a Kask Mistral TT helmet and a Santini national-team skinsuit.
In the end, Dennis maintained an average speed of just under 50km/h (31mph) over the 54km course, winning with a 1:08 advantage over 19-year-old Belgian sensation Remco Evenepoel. As he celebrated across the finish line, he pointed to his head several times, indicating that he’d overcome his mental hurdles.
“There’s been a lot of work done off the bike, mentally, to get me prepared to just line up here, let alone win,” Dennis said. “The celebration was a reminder that it wasn’t just my body. My body was always good. It was a bit of a thank you as well for what [sports psychologist] David Spindler has done for me. It’s too hard to explain, to be honest but, in very basic terms, it’s been a lot of support, getting me to believe in myself, be more confident, and not be so negative in my head, and to be more positive about the good things that are going on in my life.”
On Sunday, Dennis rode a BMC GF01 road bike wearing a Giro helmet in the road race. Later that day, Bahrain-Merida announced that its contract with Dennis had been terminated on September 13; the team had waited to make the news public to allow Dennis “an undisturbed preparation” for the world championships.
According to the team, Dennis has referred the termination to the UCI Arbitral Board, though some rumors have placed him with Dimension Data for 2020 — a team that rides BMC bikes.
American juniors in rainbow jerseys
Road racing began on Thursday with a second American gold medal after impressively bearded 18-year-old Quinn Simmons jumped clear of the peloton on the first of three very wet laps of the Harrogate circuit. Simmons, who won the junior edition of Gent-Wevelgem in March, rode away with 33km remaining to finish 56 seconds ahead of Italy’s Alessio Martinelli.
The rider from Durango, Colorado, who signed with Trek-Segafredo the following day, had enough time to grab a US flag from his family before celebrating the victory across the finish line. Simmons is only the third American to ever win the junior race, joining Greg LeMond, who won in 1979, and Jeff Evanshire, who won in 1991 — 10 years before Simmons was born.
The U.S. National Team takes three golds, one silver and two bronze medals to place second behind Netherlands in total medal count.
— USA Cycling (@usacycling) September 29, 2019
And while Simmons’ ride in Harrogate was impressive, so was his ride at the Leadville 100 in August, when he chased back from multiple punctures to erase a 10-minute gap, catching WorldTour pros Lachlan Morton and Peter Stetina late in the grueling race and then beating them in a sprint. It was a monstrous effort for over six hours, at over 10,000 feet elevation, finishing second behind repeat Leadville champion Howard Grotts.
Next year, wearing the Trek-Segafredo jersey, Simmons told the Durango Herald he hopes to race Paris-Roubaix, the Amgen Tour of California, and the Dirty Kanza gravel race.
A third American rider was awarded a rainbow jersey 24 hours later. Near the end of the junior women’s 86km race, Megan Jastrab, a 17-year-old from Apple Valley, California, marked an attack by Gareeva, the recently crowned time-trial world champion, and then forced the Russian to lead out the sprint as the peloton came barreling toward the finish line.
Confident in her finishing kick, Jastrab left the sprint so late, jumping at around 100 meters to go, that two riders from the chasing peloton, Julie de Wilde and Lieke Nooijen, passed Gareeva to take silver and bronze.
— UCI (@UCI_cycling) September 27, 2019
And just like that, the United States had earned three rainbow jerseys in four days, putting them atop the gold medal table for the week.
Following her world title, Jastrab was headed back to Milligan College, a private Christian liberal arts college in Tennessee. “I wish I could take two more weeks to enjoy these roads even more,” she said, “but on Sunday I have to go back to reality — and back to college.”
And then there was the U23 men’s road race, which had two winners in 20 minutes after Dutch ride Nils Eekhoff, who was initially declared the winner, was disqualified when a UCI race jury’s review decided he had “sheltered behind or taken advantage of the slipstream of a vehicle (for some time)” earlier in the race. The rainbow jersey was awarded to Italian Samuele Battistella, leaving Eekhoff in tears and his Sunweb trade team threatening legal action.
Much has been written or said on this topic already, particularly by my colleague Caley Fretz, who accurately called the UCI rulebook “a collection of suggestions so vague that they’re often simply ignored. Until, unpredictably, they’re not.”
And that’s just it. A rulebook is designed to keep competition as fair as possible. If those rules are not enforced consistently, enforcement of those rules becomes inherently unfair, working against their original intent.
There’s no debating whether or not Eekhoff drafted behind his team car for several minutes; his team director admitted to it even before video evidence surfaced. But Eekhoff had done the same, and seen others do the same, throughout his young career without penalty. Regardless of what the rulebook states, drafting back from crashes and punctures is standard practice; it happens all the time, at races big and small. If the enforcement of rules is not applied consistently, then, by definition, irregular enforcement is unjust.
Organized sport doesn’t work without rules, but it also doesn’t work when rules are enforced subjectively by varying officials at different races. And the UCI’s marquee event was not the time to choose to enforce a vague rule on a young winner of a world championship — the most significant moment of his life — for a violation that took place 125km from the finish line.
As one CyclingTips commenter put aptly, “Disqualification should have been instantaneous, on the spot. Declaring winners after the finish is not what cycling should be about… Given the culture around this phenomenon, it’s the wrong time and place to start applying a zero-tolerance policy.”
Or take it from The Secret Pro, who wrote, “Two minutes is not a long time. I’ve drafted behind cars for way longer with no penalty. So has pretty much everyone… It’s not that the UCI jury was wrong, according to the rules. They just ignored how bike races actually work.”
Annemiek’s big day out
I woke up at 6:30am on Saturday morning in Colorado to watch the final 100km of the women’s road race, assuming that would leave me plenty of time to see the race develop. As it turned out, the winning move had already been made.
Dutch rider Annemiek van Vleuten, third in the time trial a few days earlier, launched her attack with 104km to go on the Lofthouse climb, and held off a chase group for three hours, winning by over two minutes ahead of teammate and defending champion Anna van der Breggen. Chloé Dygert Owen no longer had the most unprecedented ride of the world championships.
It was yet another monumental performance from the 36-year-old Dutch rider, whose palmares includes two world TT titles and a pair of overall wins at the Giro Rosa, among others. Those results are even more impressive given her disastrous crash at the 2016 Olympic road race, where she looked to be descending her way to a gold medal, and her crash at the 2018 road world championship, still finishing in the top 10 with what would be revealed as a broken knee.
This time around, there was no stopping van Vleuten, who admitted she hadn’t planned on holding off the entire peloton for over 60 miles.
“It was a 100km time trial,” van Vleuten said. “It was crazy plan — it actually was not planned. I wanted to go hard on the climb. Then I had a gap, and my coach said just continue now, so it was a crazy plan. This was really crazy, and I’m a little bit crazy.”
Among the keys to van Vleuten’s victory was the composition of the chase group, which had strong riders from several key nations — Dygert-Owen (USA), Lizzie Deignan (Great Britain), Elisa Longo Borghini and Soraya Paladin (Italy), Amanda Spratt (Australia), Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (Denmark) and Clara Kloppenburg (Germany) — as well as van der Breggen sitting on and marking attacks. The net result was that nations represented in the chase group did not contribute in the peloton, while there was not full commitment in the chase group due to van der Breggen’s presence.
With 32km to go, Dygert-Owen jumped clear in pursuit of van Vleuten, launching an attack so powerful van der Breggen could not match it. In Tuesday’s 30.3km time trial, Dygert-Owen had beaten van Vleuten by 1:52; in the final 32km of the road race, she needed to close a 2:03 gap. And while she brought the gap down by about 20 seconds, the American, in the longest road race of her young career, ran out of steam; she was finally caught by van der Breggen and Spratt with 12km to go and finished fourth, out of the medals.
“When I took off for that last time, I knew I wanted to get out front and give myself a shot at the gold,” Dygert-Owen said. “My mentality was go for gold or bust. I missed the podium today, but I’m happy to have left it all out on the course.”
MEN’S ROAD RACE
One year after Alejandro Valverde, a 38-year-old with a checkered past, took the win in Innsbruck, elite men’s road cycling has a fresh new face wearing the rainbow jersey in Mads Pedersen. The 23-year-old Dane went to the line with Italian Mateo Trentin and Swiss rider Stefan Küng, and bossed them both to take the world title, the strongest rider out of just 46 finishers in the elite men’s road race.
“It was just survive, survive, survive, then hope for the best in the sprint,” Pedersen said. “When I saw the finish line, I thought, ‘Anything can happen.’”
The route of the men’s race would ultimately cover 260km from Leeds to Harrogate after several northern sections were removed due to heavy rain; the number of laps of the Harrogate circuit was increased, from seven to nine. Cold temperatures and relentless rain turned what was already expected to be a race of attrition into a race of survival. As if trying to keep track of national-team jerseys isn’t difficult enough, it was a day when riders reached for whatever they could find — mixing in trade team clothing and Castelli Gabbas and rendering the pro peloton into a collection of black rain jackets.
Valverde, fresh off finishing second overall at the Vuelta a España, abandoned with about 80km remaining, saying he was “frozen” and felt “already beaten.” Another pre-race favorite, 2012 world champion Philippe Gilbert, inexplicably crashed at the end of the first circuit in Harrogate with 120km, and quit the race in tears after an unsuccessful chase.
TV pictures went out for a while, and when they were back, American Lawson Craddock had attacked, joined by Küng. Pedersen and Dutch rider Mike Teunissen bridged up to Küng at around 50km to go while Craddock lost the wheel; a few kilometers later Italy’s Gianni Moscon jumped away as well. Belgium didn’t follow either move, and instead massed the front to chase, along with the French. Teunissen lost contact, opening the door for pre-race favorite Mathieu van der Poel (Netherlands) to attack with 33km to go, bringing Trentin with him; the pair bridged up to the lead group of Küng, Moscon, and Pedersen. The five riders opened up a signifiant gap, and it was clear this would be the winning move.
Given van der Poel’s performances earlier this season, particularly at the Amstel Gold Race, it seemed the 24-year-old star of cyclocross and mountain-bike racing was about to take his first elite road title. And then, with 13km to go, the lights suddenly went out. Van der Poel lost contact with the leaders, and was quickly caught and passed by the chasing peloton; he finished 43rd, 10:52 down.
“I don’t know what happened,” Van der Poel said outside the Dutch team bus. “All of sudden I had no strength anymore in my legs. I don’t think that I made any mistakes today. I was in the right group, but all of a sudden the tank was empty. That’s never happened before, but this is also the first time that I’ve raced this distance in the rain. It was raining all day, it was very cold, and it was a very hard race.”
Also falling apart late in the race was the Belgian team, which had lost Gilbert and Evenepoel earlier, and saw Tim Wellens and Dylan Teuns fail to make a dent in the gap to the leaders. Ultimately Greg van Avermaet was the top Belgian finisher in eighth, 1:10 down.
Those conditions favored Pedersen, who finished second to van der Poel in the junior road world championship in Florence in 2013. The young Dane, who soloed to victory at the GP d’Isbergues one week earlier, was one of three riders still in contention on the last drag up Parliament Street, where he led into the final turn and easily out-sprinted Trentin and Küng.
Trentin, who opened the sprint first, may never have a better chance at rainbow jersey than he had in Harrogate, but it was probably easier for him to accept losing by five bike lengths than by five centimeters. After 260km in wind and rain, riders don’t really know what’s left in the legs until they wind it up. Trentin played his cards perfectly, he just didn’t have it when it mattered most. He was beaten by a stronger rider.
Of all the missed opportunities, however, Peter Sagan’s was the one that stood out most. The three-time world champion chose not to follow when van der Poel and Trentin attacked with 33km to go; instead, he jumped away from the chasing group in the final 5km, when the gap to the leaders was an insurmountable 1:20. Sagan finished fifth, 43 seconds behind the winners and 27 seconds ahead of the chase group, showing that he may have what it took to mount a successful bid for the jersey if he had only gone sooner. He’d gambled and lost on Belgium and France bringing the leaders back.
“I felt very good, I think, but I just missed the opportunity to be in the front [group],” Sagan told Cyclingnews in Harrogate. “I could’ve been in the front but I thought the race was going to come back for a sprint. I just chose my opportunity and in the end it turned out differently.”
In the end, it was the type of day where perhaps only one rider would be truly content with the outcome. And without casting aspersions, there a few striking similarities to the 1993 worlds in Oslo, when another 23-year-old surprised the favorites with a demonstrative victory in cold, wet conditions. That rider would go on to win seven Tours de France.
As for Pedersen, his second-place finish at the 2018 Ronde van Vlaanderen, behind Niki Terpstra and ahead of Gilbert, is a better indication of where we should expect to see the rainbow jersey in a team leadership role next year.
“It was a brutal day, but that’s the type of weather I like to race in,” Pedersen said. “When I found myself in that three-man group at the end I would have been happy with any of the medals. Because of that I felt I had nothing to lose, and luckily my sprint was enough to get the rainbow jersey. My focus all year had been on this race and this victory is going to change a lot for me; I’m no longer going to be regarded as the underdog.”
Almost lost in all the racing were several large news stories that emerged during the world championships.
Geraint Thomas, the 2018 Tour de France champion who now finds himself on an Ineos roster boasting four Grand Tour champions, told journalists at a British team press conference that there was a decent chance he might race the Giro d’Italia next year, perhaps answering one of the key questions of the 2020 season.
“I’m going to wait at least until I see the courses, the routes for the Giro and the Tour, and then go from there,” Thomas said. “You’d think Egan would want to ride [the Tour] again, obviously, being the defending champion. Froomey, it’s his big goal, he wants to win five. I’m definitely not going to make a call until at least our December training camp. Even if I did the Giro, it would still certainly excite me and get me out of bed in the morning.”
Also, the UCI announced an e-sports world championship for 2020, in partnership with Zwift. The event will occur sometime near the 2020 Road World Championships, which begin in Aigle, Switzerland, on September 20. Riders will gain entry through regional and national qualifiers, which will be scheduled in gaps between WorldTour races, allowing road racing’s top riders to enter. So yeah, in 2019 the UCI awarded a rainbow jersey for e-bike racing; in 2020 they will award rainbow jersey for online racing.
— Zwift (@GoZwift) September 30, 2019
The Boels-Dolmans team announced that after 10 years in the sport, the 2020 season will be the last for its title sponsors, Boels Rental and Dolmans Landscaping. The Dutch team has been the number-one squad in the UCI team rankings for the past four years, and won every major one-day event and stage race in that time. “Through the sponsorship of the women’s team, both Limburg-based family businesses have more than achieved their goals in terms of brand awareness and visibility,” the team stated, adding that it had begun a search for new title sponsors.
Perhaps related, perhaps not — on The Cycling Podcast, Richard Moore proclaimed that both Ineos and EF Education First will be launching women’s teams, though details were scarce. I reached out to team manager Jonathan Vaughters, who said that rumor wasn’t quite accurate. “We may sponsor something in women’s cycling,” he said, “but that hasn’t been decided yet.”
In further discussion with Vaughters, it sounded as though EF Education First may instead sponsor a women’s event, or perhaps an individual female rider or riders, next year. “I think we’ll do something small in 2020,” he added, “and see how it goes.”
And on Monday, Cycling Weekly reported that Mark Cavendish will leave Dimension Data for Bahrain-Merida in 2020, reuniting with former British Cycling Academy director Rod Ellingworth, who will manage the team. Apparently there’s been a recent opening on the team’s roster; maybe it will be an even swap.
Whew. What a week. Worlds — it rarely disappoints.