So the opening weekend is declared open. And good grief it did us a service. Just to be reminded of what one day racing is like, along those narrow concrete farm roads, snaking through desolate Flandrian hamlets, criss-crossing itself into delirium; races that make no sense but are beguiling in their mission nonetheless. They aim to sap and test, sap and test, provoke, unseat and madden. And that is exactly what they do. Every single year. Brilliant.
It was the biggest group to contest the finale of Het Volk (I’m still in the retro vibe that overwhelmed me as I watched Haut Var) since…I don’t know when. And I’m certainly not in the mood to find out, as I am not being paid to write this. But in the end, it was Davide Ballerini from the Belgian kitchen makers (is that what Deceuninck do? I forget) who emerged victorious in the men’s race.
Now, I’m not normally one to point to past successes. This is mostly because I don’t normally have much to brag about, as anyone who followed my errant 2020 Predictions will know. But, if you flick back to my Red Line report from the Tour de la Provence on these very pages, you will see that I wrote this of Davide Ballerini after he’d taken a stage at that race:
“Ballerini is a rider who at the age of 26, has now finally figured out who he is and what he does best: Turns out he’s a phenomenally talented and versatile sprinter, the kind of rider who can win bunch kicks and one day classics equally – in the mould of Alexander Kristoff or John Degenkolb perhaps.”
May I humbly suggest that you print that quote out and frame it with the caption “The Time Ned Boulting Was Right About Anything”.
Thinking back to the men’s race this afternoon, I can’t really understand how it ended in such a big group sprint. But there are moments where bike racing simply takes a shape and dynamic which is intangible, spontaneous and hard to identify until it’s happened, by which time it’s too late.
Like the moment that Alaphilippe was being chased down by the Pidcock/GVA/Trentin group for the first time. They did all the hard work, spurred on by Štybar’s crash which felt at the time like a body blow to DQS, to reel the World Champion in. They closed from 30” to within 12”. And then it stalled. Almost invisibly each rider invested 10% less in each turn, banking on others in the group to close the gap for good. The trouble is, they all played the same tactic and the gap ballooned again.
Actually, soon after that Begbie was caught. Then the lunatic worked tirelessly on the front after the Bosberg, only sitting up within the final 5 kilometres. And even then, with 3k to go, at the back of the group he was still pulling out his tripes to hang on. Why? Because he’s Julian Alaphilippe, and he’s the most exciting, most deserving world champion I have seen. And since that list includes Peter Sagan, three times, that’s a high standard.
Hat tip to Jake Stewart! His Dad Paul messaged me just now. ‘We have a little mantra…Dare to dream, dream big, live the dream. He certainly is.’ We already knew from last year’s results about his sprint. But second place in that company on his Het Volk debut at his age (21) is a truly remarkable result. Besides, he already won 2021 for his tweet after his top ten in the Bessèges time trial: “F***! Maybe I can time trial after all.” The whole of the cycling world knows about him now. No hiding place any more, in the best possible way.
Then I flicked over to the women’s race. At first the coverage from the moto cameras was pixelated and stuttering, which led me (correctly, I suspect) to think that they were relying on 4G/5G signal for their coverage, and not the higher quality RF uplinks which had been used for the men’s race. My heart sank as I anticipated the justifiable howls of complaint about unequal treatment.
I am guessing, but I think it took a while for the bikes from the men’s race and the aircraft that bounces the signal, as well as the helicopter, to get to where the women’s race was. Happily, the data uplink had only been a stopgap, and normal coverage was resumed, with time-gaps and decent pictures. Phew.
Often, the women’s racing over recent years has been a more compelling spectacle than the men’s. That’s not an empty opinion. It’s a thought I’ve expressed over and over on different forums. In race after race the women’s peloton had more ebb and flow, more nuance. But, in all honesty, this Het Volk was OK, but not as thrilling as the men’s race today. From the moment the cameras picked out Annemiek van Vleuten and Lizzie Deignan mysteriously detached, I fear the die was cast. The outcome almost inevitable.
There were notable rides, from Marta Bastianelli, Elisa Longo-Borghini and particularly from Demi Vollering, who “did and Alaphilippe” off the front. But they were cameos. From the moment van der Breggen went clear on the Bosberg, it was effectively a done deal, and minds were turning in the chase group to the sprint for second place.
Still, it was a wonderful victory from an increasingly impressive champion. Her shape on the bike seems to get better and better the closer she gets to that delayed retirement she announced. It’s actually something you can sit back and positively admire; a different kind of pleasure following a race win like that. It’s more a feeling of respectful appreciation of greatness than anything else. The thrill is quieter.
Don’t go writing 2021 off just yet though as a competitive spectacle. Just remember how van Vleuten dominated the early races, only to fade (relatively) as van der Breggen got up to speed. Plenty more to come. It’s only the opening weekend.
Kuurne Brussels Kuurne tomorrow. Anyone interested?