Four years ago, at the 2018 Road World Championships in Innsbruck, a young Belgian cyclist named Remco Evenepoel announced himself to the cycling world with a remarkable solo victory in the junior road race. Having already won the junior time trial earlier that week, the 18-year-old attacked with 20km of tough Austrian terrain remaining. Evenepoel put his head down, went into time trial mode and comfortably paced himself to the rainbow jersey. The plaudits came quickly: had Belgium found the next Eddy Merckx?
On Sunday, Evenepoel repeated himself on an even grander stage. With barely 30km to go in the elite men’s road race at the 2022 world championships, at the tail-end of a gruelling 266.9km course, Evenepoel and Kazakhstan’s Alexey Lutsenko went off the front of a strong lead group. A few kilometres later, on the penultimate ascent of the short but steep Mount Pleasant climb, Evenepoel attacked solo once more.
Having won the bronze medal in the time trial last Sunday, the Deceuninck–Quick-Step rider, now 22, put his head down and time trialled towards the beachside finish. There would be no catching Evenepoel. A new world champion was crowned in glorious sunshine, cheered on by a boisterous local crowd.
Evenepoel’s first rainbow jersey at senior level caps a remarkable season; he has already won the Vuelta a España red jersey and Liège–Bastogne–Liège. It was vindication, too, after Belgian tactics cost Evenepoel a chance of rainbows at last year’s world titles. And it will add more fuel to the comparisons with the legendary Merckx, perhaps the greatest cyclist of all time.
“It’s incredible, the things I achieved this year,” Evenepoel said. “A season cannot be better – to win a monument, a rainbow jersey and a grand tour. I think you cannot do better than the year I’m having right now.”
As he came into the finishing straight, Evenepoel shook his head, brought a finger to his lips and then raised his hands to the sky. He wore a look of disbelief. “It’s an unbelievable feeling,” he said. But this was a victory that had been foretold ever since that remarkable win four years ago in Innsbruck. A first elite world title etched into Evenepoel’s palmarès. The question now is, how many more will be added in the years to come?
Two minutes behind the Belgian, the peloton engulfed the indecisive remnants of an earlier breakaway in the final stretch to set up a bunch sprint for the remaining podium places.
Frenchman Christophe Laporte was the fastest to the line, winning the silver medal, while Australia’s Michael Matthews secured bronze. It was Matthews’ fourth podium at the world championships, having won the Under-23 title in 2010, silver in 2015 and the bronze medal in 2017. “It feels like a win here, on home soil,” he said.
It was a thrilling end to a dramatic last day at the world championships. As the peloton rolled out from Helensburgh and towards the picturesque coastline, news broke that pre-race favourite Mathieu van der Poel had been arrested and charged for assault after an altercation at the Dutch team hotel overnight. Van der Poel is alleged to have confronted two teenage girls who had woken him late on Saturday night by repeatedly knocking on his hotel door.
After a verbal altercation, an unidentified 27-year-old man, believed to be Van der Poel, “then pushed both teenagers, with one falling to the ground and the other being pushed into a wall, causing a minor graze to her elbow,” according to a statement from New South Wales police. The four-time cyclo-cross world champion was subsequently arrested and charged with two counts of common assault.
Van der Poel started the race, despite only returning to his hotel at 4am on Sunday morning. “That’s certainly not ideal,” he said pre-race to the Belgian public broadcaster, Sporza, which first reported the incident. “It’s a disaster but I can’t change anything anymore.”
But the Dutchman withdrew within an hour and quickly departed Wollongong in a team car. Van der Poel has reportedly had his passport seized by police and so will be unable to depart Australia with the rest of the Dutch team. He is due to appear before Sutherland local court on Tuesday.
On the road, the French lit up the major climb of the course, Mount Keira, causing a split in the peloton. Although the two groups soon came back together, it set the tone for the energetic racing to come, with barely a relaxed moment in almost seven hours of racing.
A decisive breakaway eventually established a gap of almost eight minutes, and for a time it seemed a victory could come from the attacking group. But with about 60km to go, after the gap had substantially narrowed, a group including Evenepoel rode away from the peloton and bridged to the breakaway. The Belgian then sped off alongside Lutsenko, only to quickly discard his partner and power away to a stunning solo success.
Great Britain ends the week atop the medal table, with three golds, one silver and one bronze medal – all in junior categories. The 2023 world championships will be held in Scotland; for the first time, the road, track, mountain bike, BMX and para-cycling championships will be part of one event.