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The Road Book's 2023 Road Racing Highlights

The Road Book's 2023 Road Racing Highlights

We’ve taken you through our highlights this year, from seeing all your wonderful faces at events and visiting the Tour de France in force, to releasing two books in one year for the first time; now it’s time to outline our top 5 road racing highlights of this season.

A year of unexpected heroes and villains, where the tiniest of margins made the largest of differences, ‘all three men’s Grand Tours served up twists and turns that would have been impossible to predict’ writes Ned Boulting in The Road Book 2023’s introduction, and that was true across the board. The ‘super teams‘ of the sport really lived up to their name last season, with Jumbo-Visma strangling the life out of their opposition, and SD Worx’s deadly duo of Lotte Kopecky and Demi Vollering ripping their way through the Women’s World Tour taking home 7 stage races (including the Tour de France Femmes) and 7 of the most important 1-day races.

It certainly felt like a changing of the guard, especially in the Women’s peloton, as Annemiek van Vleuten raced her final professional season, and despite winning two grand tours, it was the year her heir in waiting Demi Vollering stepped out of the wings and claimed her rightful title as the Queen of Cycling.

Have a brief read through our analysis of all these moments and more below:

 

Jumbo-Visma: The Unstoppable Force

Perhaps the most astounding theme of the men’s 2023 World Tour, was the sheer drive of Team Jumbo-Visma, especially in the Grand Tours, of which they won all three, with three different riders. Entirely unpredictable, unprecedented and we hope for variety’s sake, unrepeatable.

It began on the final GC day at the Giro, as ‘Primož Roglič’s well-founded gamble paid off, seconds cascading his way like a one-armed bandit’s jackpot pay-out’ as Ned so eloquently put it. During stage 20’s individual time trial, Roglič overcame a slipped chain and a 14 second deficit on the hellish 7.8km final climb of Monte Lussari’s slopes, to lead Geraint Thomas by 14 seconds. He was rewarded for his inhuman effort by the sight of the sea of his compatriot’s red, white and blue flags lifting him through the last few metres to the maglia rosa.

For the last couple of seasons, the Tour has asked the question ‘What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?’, as Pogačar and Vingegaard have gone toe to toe for the Yellow Jersey. This year, we got a definitive answer: Jonas Vingegaard rides like an impossible machine, devised by the gods to make even Pogačar look mortal. Despite the Slovenian’s early surge, the Dane kept his own pace, and as the stages started to pile up, the cracks in Pog’s armour started to show. On stage 16’s time trial, Vingegaard put well over a minute and a half into Pogačar, creating an insurmountable gap which left the endearing Slovenian all but broken on Stage 17, but more about that later.

The final jewel in Jumbo-Visma’s crown arrived with the Vuelta a España’s late summer flourish, in what became quite possibly the year’s most talked about race. Mired in controversy from the off, with the opening Team Time Trial turned from a golden hour stunner to a nerve-wracking white-knuckle ride on slippery roads with rapidly fading light. Poor weather continued to blight the early stages, as a succession of chancers took the Red Jersey whilst the real GC contenders kept their powder as dry as they could manage. Kuss, who had worked so diligently throughout the season for his team, started to show his GC credentials with a victory on Stage 6 before ‘breaking the rules and conventions of Grand Tour racing’ (Kit Nicholson) on stage 10’s Time Trial to finish only 1 minute 29 seconds down on Filippo Ganna’s winning time, opening up a 69 second buffer between himself and Remco Evenepoel.

Stage 13, on The Col du Tourmalet (the most climbed mountain in GT history – 60 times since 1947) ended in a podium sweep for Jumbo-Visma after Vingegaard attacked, whilst Kuss defended against the other contenders until the final kilometres whereupon he and Roglič attacked, resulting in a 1 minute and 37 second lead for Kuss. The climax of Jumbo-Visma’s cycling soap opera came with Stage 17 and the Altu de L’Angrilu. On a tough mountain stage which demanded teamwork, and on leader Kuss’s birthday no less, it seemed as though a cold-blooded betrayal of the highest order had occurred. Roglič and Vingegaard rode away from their eternally loyal domestique who fought desperately to defend his lead from the two Grand Tour winners. After this painful battle and a public outcry of support for Kuss, it seemed he had finally won Jumbo-Visma’s civil war with Vingegaard sitting out of Stage 18’s finish allowing Kuss to extend and cement his lead and finish off the team’s perfect season as only the second ever American man to win the Vuelta.

 

 Pogačar's Classics Kingdom

 In April, Pogačar was up to his usual tricks, dominating the classics season, defying the limits of human endurance by being one of the world’s foremost one day racers, alongside a leading contender for GC honours at the Grand Tours. In the space of just 17 days the Slovenian won Amstel Gold, Flèche Wallonne and the Tour of Flanders in an irrefutable display of his brilliance. The pick of the bunch, however, was Flanders in what Peredur ap Gwynead called ‘one of the most phenomenal races I’ve ever seen’, as Pogačar overcame a field containing Mathieu van de Poel, Tom Pidcock, Wout van Aert, Christophe Laporte and Matts Pedersen on the Oude Kwaremont to achieve a surprisingly inevitable victory. The stunning performance which made him only the second man in history, after a certain Eddy Merckx, to win both Paris-Nice and the Tour of Flanders in the same season.

 

Pogačar Cracks

 From the highs of Pogačar’s dominance of The Classics, to perhaps the lowest moment of his career so far. Those few seconds of team radio audio from Stage 17 as the normally irrepressible young superstar admitted defeat to the world on the Col de la Loze, were heart breaking and astounding.

‘I’m dead, I’m gone’

The Slovenian declared, his normally skin-tight jersey flapping open, tuft of hair bowed in submission to the impossible strength of Jumbo-Visma. After attacking with such flair, and such fun throughout the race, ‘a tour which had been held together by nothing more than nervous tension flapped suddenly open, wounded beyond saving’ (Ned Boulting), and those of us watching on from home couldn’t help but pity him. Many, us included, were shocked into silence, feeling not a little bit guilty that the machinations of television’s faceless content masters had allowed us a glimpse into such a painful, personal and pivotal point for Pogačar. This was accentuated by his mourning period, as over the next couple of days we watched him go through the stages of grief, disappearing into the peloton to race anonymously before exploding into life on Stage 20 to snatch a stage victory. Suddenly, all was right with the world again, as that cheeky smile appeared once more and the eminently likeable Pogačar returned to his role as the romantic’s favourite robo-cyclist.

 

SD-Worx: Immovable Object

 

 Not to be outdone by Jumbo-Visma, the Women’s World Tour had their own Super Team to contend with as SD-Worx quite literally rode the rest of the peloton into oblivion with their roster of Marlen Reusser, Lotte Kopecky and Demi Vollering proving unstoppable. Vollering in particular had a season to remember as she emerged ‘as the rightful inheritor of the departing Annemiek van Vleuten’s unbeatable aura’, an experience she wrote about in The Road Book 2023 in highly emotive style.

 For the first time in the history of women’s cycling, all three national (read: Grand) tours would be competed, a truly monumental occasion. Despite van Vleuten taking victory in Italy and Spain, it was Vollering’s destruction of the Tour de France Femmes that took centre stage. Despite a 20 second penalty picked up on Stage 5 for drafting, Vollering’s 10 days of training in Andorra focused on sustained efforts at altitude, which allowed her to emerge through the mist on the Tourmalet to rip past Niewiadoma and a floundering van Vleuten. She took a lead of almost 2 minutes in the GC and consequently broke Annemiek van Vleuten’s streak of six consecutive Grand Tour victories since La Vuelta in 2021. Yet even with this astonishing performance, and with all the leaps forward made by women’s cycling, Vollering only received one tenth of her fellow Yellow Jersey wearer’s prize money.

 

 “He’s [Thomas] a Fucking Legend!” (Mark Cavendish, The Road Book, 2023)

 

We’ve saved perhaps the best moment of the season for last. Few will ever forget the sight of Mark Cavendish furiously sprinting for the finish line in Rome to secure a stage win on his final visit after a brutal edition of the Giro d’Italia with Geraint Thomas as an ad hoc lead-out in a real fairy-tale moment.

‘Rome was built for moments like this’ (Ned Boulting)

It was a script you really would struggle to write, one which meant the world to a man who’s cycling history has been tied intimately to Italy. He even passed an old apartment of his as he shot to victory. To have a friend of 25 years lead him out despite having lost out to Roglič the day previously was special for the Manx Missile, and he has penned a goosebump raising piece about it exclusively for The Road Book 2023. We cannot express it better than the man himself, so pick up your copy and have a read over it, one last time.

 

Honourable mentions

There are a number of honourable mentions for our list: Gaia Realini had a breakthrough season, and at only 21 looks to be a challenger to Demi Vollering for many years to come; whilst Marlen Reusser had an outstanding season winning 6 individual races and two GC victories, one which Marijn de Vries analysed excellently for us this year. Whilst Jumbo-Visma battled amongst themselves for top spot at the Vuelta, Demi Vollering and Lotte Kopecky quite literally duked it out both in a photo-finish sprint at Strade Bianche and in our pages. Lotte Kopecky in particular deserves a special mention for her iron resilience, winning Nokere Koerse just days after the death of her older brother Seppe in a highly emotional and determined performance.

Whilst cycling saw many famous faces retire last season, there were few farewells as emotional as Thibaut Pinot’s final goodbye to the Tour de France on his home roads. Hairs rose on the back of your neck to hear his name lifted in song, the romantic figure who stood out as someone identifiable in an increasingly alien and scientific sport will be missed. Iain Treloar has eloquently dissected quite what made him such a loveable figure in one of the standout pieces of The Road Book 2023 and it definitely deserves a special mention on this list.

 

There you have it, our favourite memories of last season, and there are few better ways to commemorate it than picking up a copy of The Road Book 2023. Sadly, we’ve sold out, but our friends at Rouleur have a few copies left so head over there to grab one using the link below:

https://www.rouleur.cc/collections/books/products/the-road-book-2023-signed-edition-ned-boulting

If you enjoyed this article, let us know over on social media, do you agree with our choices, or were there other moments that gave you goosebumps?

We can’t wait to see what 2024 will bring, with the Olympics and another full season just around the corner, (not to mention a Road Book or two) we’re more excited than ever.

 

Written by Henrik Bassett, with reference to The Road Book 2023. Photography courtesy of Russ Ellis 

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