With the big favorites holding back even as the pack crested the penultimate climb, it looked like it might be a less-than-thrilling finale at this year’s World Championships, but everything changed when Michal Kwiatkowski divebombed the circuit’s second to last descent, caught up with a fading break up the road, sailed past them, and stayed clear over the final kilometers. At the end of the day, a familiar trio, the exact same three that had stood on the podium in April’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege, received the medals at Worlds, but with a crucial difference: Michal Kwiatkowski came away with the win, having made a gutsy escape from his rivals and held on for victory.
Takeaways from the Elite Men’s Road Race
Michal Kwiatkowski took plenty of victories this season, in Strade Bianchi and in the prologue of the Tour de Romandie, for instance, but the big one-day race wins eluded him, just barely. He was quite impressive in the Ardennes in particular, but despite being inside the Top 5 in all three races, he was unable to grab the top spot on the podium in any of them. Now, he’s got his marquee one-day victory. He did it with the help of a dedicated Polish team that spent a lot of time setting the pace early, doing more than a little damage to wear down the peloton. In the preview, I mentioned Kwiatkowski’s support squad as something not to be underestimated. Thanks mostly to Kwiatkowski himself and countryman Rafal Majka and the bevy of WorldTour points they racked up in their stellar seasons, the team was well-staffed in this Worlds, and it showed. They made the race hard, and they kept their man at the front and out of trouble during a hectic day. Even with that strong support, however, it still took a massive effort to win the race. The performance highlighted the amazing completeness of Kwiatkowski’s skillset: his descending skills, which allowed him to open up the initial gap to the peloton, his explosiveness, which allowed him to break free from would-be hangers-on in the group up the road, and his climbing and soloing abilities, which allowed him to maintain his gap over the final climb and all the way to the line. A true all-rounder, Kwiatkowski will have plenty of opportunities to take more wins over the next 364 days while holding the title of World Champion.
With a kilometer to go in the race, Alejandro Valverde and Simon Gerrans were both well-positioned to fight for the victory, but in the end they were left battling for the lower steps of the podium. Given the small gap between Kwiatkowski and his chasers, it’s hard not to criticize the poor cooperation in the group behind: Philippe Gilbert was really the only rider putting in any work in the final few minutes, and had he received any help from the rest of the group, it’s quite possible that we would have a different rainbow jersey wearer in 2015. Given the stellar form of Simon Gerrans, he may have even been able to put in a few pulls and still won the sprint. Podium places are nice, but this was a serious dropping of the ball.
Another World Championship without a win for Fabian Cancellara, for whom this is always such an important race. He missed the move in the final lap and never had a chance after that, landing a disappointing 11th (though, outsprinting Ben Swift, Sonny Colbrelli, Michael Matthews, and Ramunas Navardauskas is actually rather impressive, another sign of a vastly improved finishing kick late in Cancellara’s career, even if it wasn’t worth much at all). Meanwhile, Classics rival Peter Sagan didn’t feature; the form was a question mark coming in, and it turned out that he just couldn’t make a difference in the end.
One rider who did manage to just eke out a Top 10 performance was Nacer Bouhanni: it may be a minor footnote in the history of this race, which will be remembered for Kwiatkowski’s brilliant escape, but the fact that Bouhanni managed to stick with the pack over 254.8 hilly kilometers is a big deal. His ride in Ponferrada, coupled with several nice showings on some of the Vuelta’s hillier stages, will help his confidence on the more difficult days moving forward.
For the second year running, and the third time and four years, the winner of the World Championship Road Race did not ride in the Vuelta. Neither did the runner-up, for that matter. Nor the rider who won the bunch sprint behind the escapees. The Vuelta has long been considered the optimal preparation for Worlds, but clearly, times are changing.
The Italian team didn’t have anyone inside the Top 10. I didn’t find that particularly surprising given their team selection, which I questioned from the start. They just didn’t seem to really understand the parcours, leaving riders like Pippo Pozzato and Giacomo Nizzolo at home and focusing their team around Vincenzo Nibali, for whom this was not a particularly well-tailored profile.
Lastly, a word on the Danes. Matti Breschel put in his fourth Top 7 performance in a Worlds Road Race. Big results in other races on the pro calendar are pretty rare for the 30-year-old, but he always seems to be in the mix in the biggest one-day race of the year. Meanwhile, teammate Michael Valgren spent a lot of time out front in Ponferrada, doing much of the work driving the pace in a group of escapees. He still managed to land 20th overall. The 22-year-old, closing out his first season with Tinkoff-Saxo, has a bright future ahead of him.
Check back soon for the preview of Il Lombardia, the season’s final Monument Classic!
Photos by Sean Rowe.