Wout van Aert after a disappointing day at Flanders Worlds.

Where did it all go wrong for the home team in the Flanders Worlds finale?

As the Belgians proved on Sunday, asking your stars to bury themselves with huge pulls for their teammates won't always win you a bike race.

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In a world championship road race where he was at least an outside contender for the win, Remco Evenepoel put his own ambitions aside on Sunday in Flanders. The Belgian star was already at the front with more than 180 km still to go in the 268.3 km race, and he was a constant presence chasing down moves or pushing the pace at the head of the race for the next several hours, taking pressure off of teammates like pre-race favorite Wout van Aert and Jasper Stuyven.

With around 40 km to go, and having already put in a huge day’s work, Evenepoel hit the front one last time to set tempo as a strong lead group made its way over one climb after another. He spent about 20 minutes in the driver’s seat, until, with 26 km left to race, it was finally job done for the impressive youngster. He was cooked.

Ten minutes later, Julian Alaphilippe shot off the front and stayed clear to secure his second consecutive world title. It was a masterstroke from Alaphilippe and France, an attack that everyone knew might come and that delivered a victory anyway. It was also a colossal disappointment for the home team.

With so much excitement around the Belgian squad on Belgian roads, it’s fair to wonder wonder where it all went wrong.

All told, Belgium’s failure to deliver on home turf seemed like a confluence of less-than-ideal form from Van Aert, questionable tactics, and possibly a lack of communication at a crucial moment.

The plan for the Belgians ahead of the race was clear: It was all-in for Van Aert, who was the bookies’ top favorite on the lumpy Belgian terrain. Afterwards, however, Van Aert said that he didn’t have quite the legs he had been hoping for, noting that he was not able to immediately follow when Alaphilippe made of his many attacks before the finale.

“I already felt on the Smeysberg climb that I didn’t have the legs I had hoped for,” he said. “After that the course was a bit easier, so I hoped I could get back on track. We were also in a good situation then, but on the course in Leuven my legs were totally empty.”

When the defending world champ exploded away with what would prove to be the race-winning move with around 20 km to go, Van Aert was not on his wheel as you might have expected the pre-race favorite to be. Van Aert said after the race that he had told Stuyven to ride for himself, but the 29-year-old was either unable to follow, or hesitated too long, when Alaphilippe launched. Stuyven then jumped into a chasing group that never managed to close down the gap, and that was that. Alaphilippe was gone.

“I feel sick. This is so disappointing,” Stuyven said. “We all ride a great race. Wout told me when Alaphilippe attacked that he was not having the best of days. We raced for him and maybe that’s what I missed in the end but the three of us all crawled to the finish line.”

In the end, Belgium would not even come away with a podium.

“Of course the disappointment is great, especially with Van Aert and Stuyven,” said Belgian national coach Sven Vanthourenhout. “The first because he didn’t have the super legs, the second because he just missed the medal here in Leuven. We had come to win and at some point we were in control and everything was going pretty much the way we wanted. But the conclusion of the day is that our leader was just not good enough.”

If Van Aert wasn’t at his best, it was always going to be a challenge for Belgium to live up to lofty expectations. That said, it’s fair to wonder whether things might have been different, even if Van Aert wasn’t at his best, had the tactics and the communication been better.

Evenepoel’s efforts to catch moves and then even drive the pace in the middle of the race made plenty of sense as they gave Belgium a card to play should any of those moves work out and, more importantly, took the onus off of the rest of the squad to chase. His hard work all afternoon was a sign that he was content to stick to the plan and lay it all on the line for a rider who, for the vast majority of the season, rides for a different team. It was a commendable effort from a youngster with huge talent.

Inside the last hour of the race, the lead group had been thoroughly thinned out, and Belgium still had three riders in the mix in Evenepoel, Van Aert, and Stuyven.

It was there, however, where the tactics of the Belgian squad turned questionable. Evenepoel was tasked with burying himself at the front of the pack in an effort that earned him deserved praise for both his power and his selflessness, but that effort earned Belgium… well… it’s not quite clear what it earned Belgium.

Ostensibly, Evenepoel’s 20 minutes of hard work was a way to extend the gap to a large second group on the road, while also discouraging the Belgians’ rivals from putting in attacks on the up-and-down Flandrien circuit. And who’s to say that a solo move wouldn’t have gotten clear without Evenepoel doing that work? Just the same, there were multiple teams with multiple riders in that lead group as the kilometers ticked down, and by setting tempo, Evenepoel wasn’t just taking the pressure off of his teammates – he was taking the pressure off of everyone. Could he have taken his foot off the throttle and focused more on chasing moves if they did actually come?

When Evenepoel pulled off for good, the rest of the field almost immediately started attacking. At one point, Van Aert himself chased down a move by Alaphilippe, which was not a good sign. Then, with around 20 km to go, Alaphilippe put in a big dig with Stuyven only a little ways behind. Seemingly in a good position to close down the move or join it, Stuyven did not. Perhaps he didn’t have the legs, but only a few moments later, he jumped into a group that attempted to bridge, and there were several points at which the riders in that group looked at each other and allowed the Frenchman to extend his gap.

In other words, it’s at least fair to wonder whether Stuyven could have gone with Alaphilippe if he had reacted more quickly. Perhaps he wasn’t entirely clear on the plan, which may have been changing in the moment with Van Art not feeling at his best.

Either way, what if Evenepoel hadn’t just buried himself for 20 minutes shortly before Alaphilippe made his move? Would other teams have picked up the slack in the run-up to Alaphilippe’s attack, leaving Evenepoel with enough left in the tank to chase the move down? And if some combination of Stuyven and Evenepoel had kept things under control, would Van Aert or the also-speedy Stuyven have at least had enough in the tank to win a reduced sprint? After all, Van Aert was visibly on the front at one point trying to chase as the attacks flew, so he seemed to at least have something still to give.

And perhaps most importantly, there’s the question that Evenepoel may be pondering for a while even if he is savvy enough not to ponder it out loud: What if the Belgians had just gone into the race with Evenepoel as an alternative option for the win instead of having him on domestique duty all day?

We’ll never know how things could have gone had Belgium taken a different approach, or had Van Aert communicated his situation earlier. What we do know is that the home team, headlined by the pre-race favorite and with three riders in a select lead group with 30 km to go, failed to put a rider on the podium – and that a rising young star put in a huge effort on the day that did not translate into a Belgian victory.

“I completely emptied myself up to Leuven and then I pulled away, I couldn’t push any more,” Evenepoel said after the race. “It was up to me to do it. Wout and Jasper were there as leaders. I was there and I did as I was asked. I couldn’t do anything more.”

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