A last-ditch attempt by Tom Pidcock would seal sixth for Great Britain in the elite men’s road race at the 2021 UCI Road World Championships in Flanders, Belgium.
The 20-year-old had made a select group of 17 riders who entered the finishing circuit in Leuven with 30 kilometres left to race.
As the group were approaching one lap (15 kilometres) to go, reigning champion Julian Alaphillippe (France), having been on the attack all day would finally get away and ride to a solo victory.
Pidcock would miss the vital move by four other riders, who in trying and failing to bring back the Frenchman would contest the remaining podium positions. An accepting Pidcock putting it simply after the race that he had just “missed the train”.
With five kilometres to go, the Yorkshireman still hungry for more would attack out the third group on the final ascent of the Wijnpers climb, crowds of Belgian fans cheering him on as he gapped the group under the Flandrien flags.
Riding his second ever elite road world championships, Pidcock would have to roll across the line all on his own, 17 seconds after the group of four ahead of him and take sixth overall.
The British rider complementing the fans and admitting to soaking up the atmosphere at opportune moments said, “we weren’t riding on roads today, we were riding in a stadium.”
Elite Men’s Road Race
Antwerp, Belgium was the host city for the elite men’s road race on Sunday, having hosted the elite women’s race the day prior.
The peloton would travel directly to Leuven before taking on various circuits in the following order: one and half laps around the local circuit in Leuven, once around the Flandrien circuit, a further four times around Leuven, back to the Flandrien circuit for another lap and then a final two and a half laps of the local circuit in Leuven. Not complicated at all.
Contesting the race’s 42 climbs for Great Britain was a stellar line-up of WorldTour talent: Mark Cavendish, Ethan Hayter, Tom Pidcock, Luke Rowe, Jake Stewart, Connor Swift, Ben Swift and Fred Wright. 2,562 metres of climbing and 268.3 kilometres in distance awaited them.
An early break would go with a few notable names, including Remco Evenepoel (Belgium), however they’d be swiftly reeled back in by the peloton.
Not long after, a second break of 11 riders, all from different countries, managed to get away in a small break, one of the countries represented however was not Great Britain.
A small scare for the team meant it was down to Jake Stewart and Ben Swift to do the chasing, limiting the time being gained and not allowing it to grow to more than a minute.
Things got going however with 66 kilometres to go. The second time over the Moskesstraat climb and on the Flandrien circuit once again, the group ahead upped their pace in an effort to defend their lead which had been cut to 23 seconds.
Of the 11, only five riders would remain in the front group as they rode toward the Bekestraat, Valentin Madouas (France), Remco Evenepoel (Belgium), Andrea Bagioli (Italy), Dylan Van Baarle (Netherlands), Neilson Powless (USA).
When the riders reached the Bekestraat climb, there was only one thing that could happen next, cue attack from reigning champion, Julian Alaphilippe (France).
The Frenchman managed to get a gap of around 19 seconds, however Wout Van Aert (Belgium) chased him down along with Tom Pidcock (Great Britain) and 10 other riders. They would join up with the five riders ahead on the road to make it a 17 strong lead group.
The remaining riders would go on to extend their lead to over two minutes over the chasing peloton by the time they got to Leuven for the final two laps, mainly thanks to a determined Evenepoel dragging the group along.
Eventually Evenepoel would crack, leaving the Belgian team open to attacks having held a high pace for the 20 kilometres prior.
Frenchman Alaphilippe decided he would attack again, this time on the Wijnpers climb at 20 kilometres to go, swiftly being brought back by Jasper Stuyven (Belgium) competing on his home roads, Pidcock on his wheel.
And then, it happened, AGAIN, this time on the St. Antoniusberg climb, Alaphilippe finally getting away from everyone else. Four riders just behind him in hot pursuit.
Crossing the finish line with one lap to go, Alaphilippe would be all alone, his lead, 12 seconds over the chasing group of Jasper Stuyven (Belgium), Dylan Van Baarle (Netherlands), Michael Valgren Hundahl (Denmark) and Nielson Powless (USA).
The remaining group of 11 riders, including Pidcock were a minute back when the Frenchman hit the penultimate climb of Wijnpers. That would only spur on Pidcock however, who left the group behind with five kilometres to go, a last-ditch attempt at a top-ten.
No one would see Alaphilippe again as he pressed on up the road, crossing the line to secure the gold medal and back-to-back world championships.
As television cameras picked up the group of four behind him sprinting it out for the line, out of focus behind them at the 250m marker was Tom Pidcock, just unable to catch them.
A superb ride by the 22-year-old in his second elite road world championships, showing grit and determination having ridden for close to six hours, helped along by a superb team behind him, he had enough time to sit up, soak in the atmosphere, and roll across the line.
After the race the Yorkshireman said, “I knew it was going to be tactical, it was man on man – I was waiting a bit too long to be honest.
“I should have been away with two laps to go really; well, I should have gone with Alaphilippe for a start. I had good legs, so it was a tactical mistake, but I’ve got a few years to get it right.
“Speaking about the Frenchman’s antics, Pidcock added, “I thought he was attacking too much, I was thinking that he was getting too excited – but he was just playing with us.”
Julian Alaphilippe (France) 5:56:34
Dylan Van Baarle (Netherlands) +32
Michael Valgren Hundahl (Denmark) +32
6. Tom Pidcock (Great Britain) +49
35. Ethan Hayter (Great Britain) +6:27