Flashback – RIDE #50
With 10 issues of RIDE Cycling Review now available digitally on Zinio we are going to publish a feature from each issue online. On 3 October 2010, Geelong hosted the final race of the UCI road cycling world championships – the elite men’s road race. It was a triumph for Thor Hushovd but, as the cliche goes, cycling was the winner. The cool, wet conditions experienced early in the week cleared and large crowds basked in bright sunshine to witness a wonderful contest. Here’s our review of the final race from issue #50 of RIDE…
A review of the 2010 road cycling world championships. Geelong, Victoria. Six races. ±293,000 spectators. A success!
The host city was Geelong even if the Victorian capital also gained billing. That’s because Victorian capital was invested to ensure the event’s success. There were moments when it seemed jinxed but despite all that conspired against it, Australians witnessed what the UCI calls “the best race in years”.
We watch the peloton, race over Challambra, laugh and think, ‘This is Australia!’
Sunday 3 October is a day to remember. It was when cycling came of age in Australia. The finale of a week of racing was perfect: a field of champions, intrigue from an escape from Melbourne to Geelong, battles on the climbs, nation against nation, no radio communication. Strength and honour. Sacrifice and loss. And suspense to the very end. A winner with class in a race for the ages.
Do you remember the day? A replay emerges quickly when names appear or references given. There were so many places to watch it unfold and although I’d giggled at pre-race promotions and references to the “battle on Moorabool”, it became a reality. What would this street in Geelong be to cycling in the long term? Can it gain higher status for six races in October 2010? Yes. “This was the perfect finishing straight,” Pat McQuaid told me on the evening of 3 October. Others had echoed the sentiment of the UCI president, but his comment to me came after praise of numerous other elements. Still, it’s different now. Even with an Irish twang, “Moorabool” evokes images of conquests.
It’s where Taylor Phinney, Emma Pooley, Fabian Cancellara, Michael Matthews, Giorgia Bronzini and Thor Hushovd won gold medals and received rainbow jerseys.
Other places rate significant mentions. Melbourne featured, for it was a host to the start of one of six races, but Geelong was the centrepiece of this spectacular. It was in AFL heartland that cycling was given the opportunity to take centre stage. But the timing could not have been worse. You could fairly say the 2010 UCI road world championships were jinxed.
First of all there were the road closures for local residents, then came the floods which nearly put The Bridge under water. Then Floyd decided to turn up and hijack some attention from the event. The conference that created all the drama succeeded in spreading its message: not many turned up to listen to the likes of Aldo Sassi – who later became a darling of the media, for both his story and his strong opinions on cheats and doping – and the 2006 Tour de France loser. Deakin University hosted the function, broadcast the content in myriad forms, and some of the important questions were considered.
The influence of the Grand Final replay was immense. And just as cycling was working up to a good story, news from Europe broke: Contador Positive! The worlds were under way by then but talk was, once again, about doping.
Eventually, the focus returned to racing. In the meantime, there had been announcements from the UCI relating to its new take on how the international road cycling calendar would have the World Tour as the top tier, rather than ProTour. We discussed this with McQuaid in the lobby of the Four Points Hotel. But what we wanted to talk about was racing.
He needed no more prompting and hummed along at a rapid pace, talking until he was red in the face. After listing a few highlights he paused, took a breath, leaned in and whispered, “Lads, what about that moment?” Nodding, he continued: “There we are, following the chase of Gilbert and wondering if he’s going to get caught…” his eyes were wide at the thought. “The camera pans back and ‘Boom!’ the crowd erupts because we see the bunch right there with them.”
What looked like the winning move was caught. And from that moment on it was a drag race to the final straight. Onward to Moorabool they went. The original attacker Philippe Gilbert – the man who would have won the race had the wind been as it was the day before – made his move on Challambra Crescent. He had 20 seconds at the top. Then the wind blocked him.
“That moment” which McQuaid talked about happened with 3.5km to go. In the Flemish commentary, it was declared to be “de belangrijkste kilometres van zijn leven” – the most important kilometres of their life. Just as that phrase is uttered, the chance ends. Down the right side of Pakington Street the group of 18 riders catch six who are chasing one (see 2:10 of this link). Cadel Evans, Fränk Schleck, Aleksandr Kolobnev, Koos Moerenhout, Paul Martin and Björn Leukemans were the riders who seemed likely to lead the expected small bunch of six or seven.
When predictions were made about how this race was likely to end, many said the course would whittle down the peloton until only a handful of riders remained. With the wind blowing off the bay instead of from the west – as it had done all week, for every other race of the championships – it’s likely that Gilbert would have been able to hold his advantage. Perhaps the elite chase would have bridged, but what we got was a surprise.
Had it been expected, why would McQuaid be so excited by what happened? The television coverage completed the moment. The producers seemed so sure the winner would be the leader or one of the six chasers that they became the only focus. We could tell that ‘Phil Gil’ was getting tired. It was obvious that there was strength in numbers and the elite combination was closing in on a medal chance. And we forgot about the peloton.
But there it was, storming down the right-hand side of the road when Evans’ group was strung out on the left of Pakington. Sensational! All over Geelong the effect was audible. The crowd reacted in unison: more than 150,000 people all screamed.
Instead of it being a chance for the favourite from Belgium or the local star and defending champion to steal a second title, it became a group of 25 rushing for the finish line. The battle of attrition was over, the selection was larger than expected and McQuaid’s commentary continued with gusto. Nothing harsh was said but his sentiment was laced with references to what was good about the UCI’s introduction of a number of elements. Foremost in the discussion was the relevance of the Radio Free concept. “This made the race,” he did say.
The riders did not have radio contact with their team cars. Many of the well-resourced squads littered the course and staff showed displays of the time. But this provided benefits for every rider. If an Aussie could read a sign, surely so could the others. A system had been configured to relay as much information as possible but the race was done by the riders, and their instincts lead more than in championships of the recent past.
With no contact with the team car – unless they retreated to the rear of the bunch – riders had to use their own sense more than has become the norm. Even though it made for compelling viewing in Geelong, McQuaid has been chastised about this issue by riders and the media. But, he adamantly suggested, it enhanced the suspense of the race of this festival of cycling.
According to the winner, however, the ban on radios barely influenced the contest. “I think it didn’t change too much because we know what to do,” insisted Hushovd. “The problem is that it’s hard to know what the time gap is all the time.”
The roles of the Australians…
The Australian selectors picked nine riders but four were named as possible leaders: Allan Davis and Matt Goss for sprints, and Cadel Evans and Simon Gerrans if it was a race of attrition. In the days before, another possibility was being considered. “We had a ride on Wednesday to really test each other out and see who was really good,” Evans explained after the race. “Stuart O’Grady was flying! He had a long season but his enthusiasm is contagious. He was in good form. He’s an incredible character.”
Goss admitted that he had a “shocker”, he just couldn’t get on top of his gear, so his original position was altered and he became a domestique for the day.
O’Grady appeared at the front more than once. Before he turned up, however, Gerrans had spent the early laps chasing down any move that included any rider from Italy, Spain or Belgium. Another of the original “leaders” had turned into a super-domestique.
In the meantime, it was the job of Michael Rogers to never let his mate ‘Alby’ out of sight. After his fifth in the time trial, ‘Dodger’ was clearly in form and the pair stood out in the bunch because they seemed to be stuck together.
As is typically the case, Evans found himself in one of the final selections. He ignited cheers from the crowd by chasing every attack from midway up Challambra on the last lap, until “the moment” on Pakington Street. Ultimately, the wind also cost him a chance of another world championship medal. “What could have been a bit of a recovery period was taken away with the direction of the wind. It changed everything.”
We had seen all sorts of antics unfold during the course of the journey down from Melbourne in the morning and during the 11 laps of the circuit in Geelong. An escape group of four broke free early in the race and gained an advantage of over 23 minutes. By the end, in a race when the pace got faster virtually all the way to the end, each lap was taking around 22 minutes. There was a risk that all but four would be lapped. That caused some confusion but Belgium’s Mario Aerts decided he wasn’t prepared to see what the commissaire would do if the peloton was lapped. He teamed up with Dave Zabriskie of the US team and limited the gains of the quartet.
“I was scared though,” said Hushovd. “I didn’t know what the rule is if the break gains a lap on the field.”
He didn’t have to consider it. All he needed to do was make the right choices about which move to mark, and which to ignore. “When the first big attack went with five laps to go, I was surprised,” Hushovd said. “I was hesitating: should I go or not? But I saw a few guys like [Oscar] Freire sitting up so I didn’t go. I had Edvald Boasson Hagen in front, so for Norway it was good enough. And then Spain and Russia controlled.”
If there was any team that missed the radios, it was Spain. At least that’s what Allan Davis thought. “If you asked the Spanish what they thought about the ruling, they would give a different answer about radios because they were swapping off with only two riders for a long time. It was only when three guys dropped back from the main split. I’m sure if there were radios they would have dropped back a lot earlier.”
Of the squads with nine men, the nation with the best result was Australia even if the Italians, Spanish and Belgians were at least as attentive throughout the race – if not a little more than the locals. The squadra azzurri netted fourth place with a rapid finish by designated leader Filippo Pozzato, while the Spaniards got fifth with Freire after effectively closing down the escape.
When it did all come back together, Janez Brajkovic was the man at the front of the surprise peloton. “I had a fever in the morning and my plan was to do the first 100km. I was suffering but then I said to myself, ‘I’ve got to do my job for Grega Bole’.” Thing is, the Slovenian sprinter was not in the main group at the finish and instead his team-mate and Vladimir Gusev were the last of the opportunists to linger in front of the bunch. “I gave it gas and we worked together quite well but it would have been really hard to get all the way to the finish with a gap.”
It’s almost unfair that the result of a 262.7km race that’s as tough as the one in 2010 is decided in a sprint. But that’s how it was in Geelong. But before Thor roared over the line, we saw a bit of everything: escapes, attacks, riders chasing opportunity, and teams adhering to a pre-race plan. We saw favourites excel, and an elite group come close to fighting each other for victory. We saw the best cyclists in the world wind up for the line and, as some suffered cramps or simply failed to find the power, one of the most respected men of his generation succeed.
Thor is the champion. He beat a rider who had been third in the worlds before and an Australian who was committed to this race all year long. We saw a spectacular event that appeared to be jinxed but will be remembered as a success.
Comments from the medallists.
Thor Hushovd (1st): “I didn’t panic and I got paid for this in the end. The final lap was really hard. Belgium attacked with Philippe Gilbert. But I think the wind was too strong out there so it was hard to stay in front alone.
“In the sprint, I just focused on myself and I didn’t do any mistakes. ‘Just don’t mess it up,’ I said to myself 100 times in the last kilometre. And I think in the end it was the perfect race.”
Matti Breschel (2nd): “I went with everything. And Thor passed me with 50 metres to go. Of course I’m disappointed, I went for the victory, but second place is a big result.
“In the sprint… ah, I don’t know. I had the wheel of Greg van Avermaet who opened with 200m to go. It was a pretty long sprint considering we’d done 260km and it was uphill, but I tried to go with everything. Unfortunately Thor was too strong.”
Allan Davis (3rd): “To finish on the podium is something special. To do it here is one thing I’ll never forget. I’d like to thank all my team-mates as well as staff. It’s been a huge success for us as a team and for cycling in Australia.
“We race the majority of our year overseas and most of the fans are cheering for someone else but to be here in Australia and to have the majority of the crowd yelling out all of our names was something special.”
By Rob Arnold ([email protected])
(For more coverage of the 2010 world championships, and a comprehensive summary of that year’s Tour de France – including a wonderful essay on the trials of Alberto Contador written only weeks after his positive doping test was confirmed – get RIDE #50.)