The following essay is taken from The Road Book 2019, available to buy now from the Rouleur Emporium
There are few races more dripping with Flandrian meaning than Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. Former world champion Chantal Blaak won a women’s race that will forever be remembered for the neutralisation forced on the peloton after Nicole Hanselmann attacked and caught the men’s race that had gone off slowly and only ten minutes before the women’s. The disparity between the treatment and coverage of men’s and women’s racing would continue to rage throughout the year, with few clear solutions emerging. Only the continuing problems seem to remain, as the Women’s WorldTour gears up for further reform in 2020.
The men’s race was taken by Zdenek Štybar, adding to his decent collection of prestigious one-day races that began with Strade Bianche in 2015.
Belgium then pressed pause on its programme, as the men’s peloton split in two: half to Tuscany for a sequence of northern Italian racing ending with Milan–Sanremo, the other half to Paris–Nice for an edition of the race that battled extraordinarily damaging cross-winds for the first couple of days, forcing several almost instant abandons – including Mark Cavendish, for whom 2019 would prove to be another year of very public ordeal.
Another significant portent of things to come was Egan Bernal picking up the overall victory in Nice, thereby claiming the first big French stage race of the calendar. That fact that he did so without winning a stage almost made it more impressive; consistency and a wide spread of ability (he was sixth in the individual time trial) are always the key to winning stage races.
Bernal would go on to pick up third overall in Catalunya before winning the Tour de Suisse just as Geraint Thomas and Chris Froome were both crashing with varying degrees of ramification. Bernal’s 2019 approach to the Tour de France – in stark contrast to his senior teammates’ – was untroubled. A case for some sort of leadership was becoming compelling.
Back in Italy, Tuscany hosted both WorldTour pelotons. The women’s edition of Strade Bianche was the first WorldTour race on the calendar and was duly – and impressively – won by Annemiek van Vleuten. This victory was all the more remarkable given the severity of her injury sustained during the 2018 World Championship Road Race. But it was the rider who finished in second place who really caught the eye.
Veteran Dane Annika Langvad, a very recent convert from cross- country mountain biking, surprised herself by an astonishingly self-possessed and powerful ride. A third at Flèche Wallonne was followed by a fourth place in the Amstel Gold Race – confirmation of her obvious talent. A win would surely follow.
Behind the scenes, a couple of the biggest names in the peloton, having retired in 2018, were quietly going about the next phase of their careers, smashing a few glass ceilings in the process. German sprinter Ina Teutenberg and former world champion Giorgia Bronzini had teamed up to form the sports direction of Trek-Segafredo.
In the meantime Julian Alaphilippe was starting to look irrepressible. The Frenchman toyed with Jakob Fuglsang as the pair (who would continue their duelling for weeks to come) entered the old city of Siena with only one outcome likely: Alaphilippe skipped away from the Dane to claim his first Strade Bianche. He then continued his form at Tirreno–Adriatico, picking up a couple of stages, including a pretty complete full-on bunch sprint. It came as no surprise to anyone, then, that a few days later he won his first Monument, Milan–Sanremo.
On form like this, Alaphilippe was unanswerable. No one, as yet, had any inkling of how this would convert, in such remarkable fashion, onto the roads of France in July. But there was a growing sense that the world’s top-ranked rider would continue to leave his stamp all over 2019. With that in mind, acclaimed sports writer and polymath Philippe Auclair has written about the origins and characteristics of this one-man phenomenon for The Road Book 2019, offering a definitive insight into one of the most exciting riders of the modern era.
Back in Belgium, where the biggest names normally racked up the biggest wins, 2019 continued to buck the trend and point the way to an alternative future. Alberto Bettiol was the surprise winner of the Tour of Flanders, and wasted no time in telling his doubters in the Italian press where to stick their scepticism.
Fabio Jakobsen, at just 22, won the sprinters’ cobbled Classic for the second time, and Mathieu van der Poel hinted at greatness to come by riding to victory in Dwars door Vlaanderen en route to turning accepted cycling certainties on their head a few weeks later at the men’s Amstel Gold Race. On the other hand, Philippe Gilbert (whose compelling first-hand account of the win features in these pages) took Paris–Roubaix at only his second attempt. He will switch to Lotto Soudal and head into 2020 just one Monument short of a truly astonishing clean sweep.
Simultaneous with this sequence of results, former Road Book contributor Marianne Vos picked up in 2019 where she left off in 2018: by winning. She took the prestigious Trofeo Binda, a Dutch rider winning in Italy shortly after an Italian (Marta Bastianelli) won in the Netherlands by getting the better of Dutch riders Chantal Blaak and Ellen van Dijk in the Ronde van Drenthe.
Then it was over to evergreen sprinter Kirsten Wild to remind the cycling world of her occasional unstoppable form by winning the Three Days of De Panne and Gent–Wevelgem (while Alexander Kristoff won the men’s edition).
The big hitters continued to share around the victories in the Women’s WorldTour one-day programme. Bastianelli made it an Italian double at the Tour of Flanders, before 2018’s defining rivals Anna van der Breggen and Annemiek van Vleuten shared the spoils in the Ardennes with victories at both Flèche Wallonne and Liège–Bastogne–Liège respectively. But those wins came after a truly amazing Sunday: Amstel Gold.
It was Katarzyna Niewiadoma who started the ball rolling by winning the biggest one-day race on Dutch soil in brilliant fashion, beating Annemiek van Vleuten to the line, and fending off a further group being driven on by a tireless Marianne Vos who had seemingly closed gaps on her own all day. That race had great drama and dynamism, but was itself eclipsed a few hours later when Mathieu van der Poel snatched an impossible-looking victory with what has widely been considered as one of the greatest races ever seen.
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