It perhaps wasn’t too much of a surprise that the winner of today’s epic, dramatic world road race championships, held on a tight, technical, and slightly rainy city centre course in Glasgow, turned out to be Mathieu van der Poel, a rider who made his name on twisty, constantly turning circuits in all sorts of weather conditions.
At the end of an exhilarating, unforgettable race, packed with attacks, splits, and incident (and even an hour-long disruption due to a climate protest), Van der Poel claimed his long-awaited first rainbow jersey on the road, and his second world title of 2023, following his ‘cross exploits earlier in the year.
With 22 kilometres remaining, the 28-year-old attacked an elite group containing Wout van Aert, Tadej Pogačar, and Mads Pedersen, overcoming a dramatic late crash to convincingly win by over a minute and a half, as his old rival Van Aert forged clear for second and Pogačar won the sprint for bronze.
But that fact that the rainbow jersey was handed out today to the flying Dutchman for the road race, rather than cyclocross, or indeed a criterium, was the subject of much consternation within the men’s peloton this week in the build-up to the worlds, after French rider Florian Sénéchal described the 14.3km city circuit, and its roughly 50 corners, as a “death race”, while last year’s winner Remco Evenepoel claimed its designer must “have been hanging out in the pub too much”.
“It’s dangerous for a Worlds,” Sénéchal said before today’s race. “I would have thought they would be more serious about safety. I like a race when it’s technical but in terms of respect for the riders, it's not great.
“It’s s***. You need a minimum of respect for the riders who came to put on a show and not break their collarbones... if it rains, it will be a death race.”
Meanwhile, 2022 world champion Evenepoel – who, after a subpar performance, failed to make the decisive split as Belgian teammate Wout van Aert sprinted to take second – said after Friday’s recce: “For a Formula 1 Grand Prix it is fantastic. But for a cycle race, it’s not what I prefer. The guy who drew it up may have been hanging out in the pub too much” – an allegation of drunken design that was echoed by Sénéchal’s French teammate Benoît Cosnefroy.
One corner down, 50 to go (Thomas Maheux/SWpix.com)
However, speaking after he finished 25th following the ten laps in Glasgow today, a reflective Evenepoel was much more balanced in his assessment of the circuit.
“It was long, wet and cold out there in the end,” Evenepoel told reporters, including road.cc, at the finish.
“It was a very hard course. Personally, for me it was a bit too technical, a bit too explosive. So not really a course that was in my favour, but if you see the podium I think it has been an amazing race.”
Evenepoel’s Belgian teammate Jasper Stuyven, however, was rather blunter in his appraisal of the course design.
“I don’t think it’s the best course for a world championships,” he said. “Maybe a few corners too many, but it is what is, and I think everyone will be tired because of this course.”
Van der Poel hits the deck on one of those slippery bends (Pauline Ballet/SWpix.com)
Meanwhile, American Neilson Powless, who finished 11th after a strong ride, described his relationship with the Glasgow circuit as “love/hate”.
“It was good, because I knew what you had to do, you had to use energy really early on, and I think a lot of guys don’t like that. But it was the same for everybody,” the EF Education-EasyPost rider told road.cc.
“In the end, the technical part of the course and the crash is what decided my race, so I was disappointed with that. But I still had fun racing, along with all the suffering.”
While Glasgow’s technical circuit has provoked a mixed response from the bunch, second place Wout van Aert admitted he could see both sides of the debate.
“I understand the critics, but I also think that the world championships has a different course every year, so a lot of riders have an opportunity during their careers,” the Belgian said in his post-race press conference. “And a city circuit like this is definitely something that deserves to be in. And in the end we saw a lot of strong riders, a lot of the best riders in the world at the front, so it was definitely selective.
“For me the only problem with the course was that if you crashed or had bad luck, there wasn’t really a chance to come back. So with a few corners less and a few more straights, or parts where you could get help, you could still have a great, technical course. A little change could have done a lot.”
In any case, and regardless of the outcome of the peloton’s own internal debate, Glasgow’s city centre circuit certainly provided one of the all-time great world road race championships for the 190,000 fans who flocked to its streets.
Ryan joined road.cc in December 2021 and since then has kept the site’s readers and listeners informed and enthralled (well at least occasionally) on news, the live blog, and the road.cc Podcast. After boarding a wrong bus at the world championships and ruining a good pair of jeans at the cyclocross, he now serves as road.cc’s senior news writer. Before his foray into cycling journalism, he wallowed in the equally pitiless world of academia, where he wrote a book about Victorian politics and droned on about cycling and bikes to classes of bored students (while taking every chance he could get to talk about cycling in print or on the radio). He can be found riding his bike very slowly around the narrow, scenic country lanes of Co. Down.