Alejandro Valverde’s long love story with the World Cycling Championship has finally come to an end, at the last chance, in one of the hardest World Championships ever run.
The Innsbruck track appeared immediately to all the cyclists as a branch of “hell”, the nickname of the terrible uphill through which the last lap passed. In truth, it was the Purgatory mountain that leads to paradise after all the sins have been expiated.
And these cyclists must be full of sins, if they had to climb an almost vertical route after 250 kilometres of an already hard competition. A 28% uphill, that you can faster walk than pedal, with the bicycle lifting the anterior wheel while you try to go up.
The race began as usual: a group of cyclists from marginal countries and without the favoured for the competition, escaped. A group of 20 that the “peloton” let go, while the most important countries looked at one another, each expecting someone else to move.
This group reached 20 minutes of advantage. Long behind them, Italians, French, Spanish, Dutch, Belgians, British, Germans, just toured slowly, in professional cycling terms, eating and preparing for the last laps. From the outside, a professional cyclists’ group is just an enormous group of people who ride the bike and throw away cans, bags, water bottles, paper that contained snacks.
Cyclists have to eat, constantly. In such a day, the calculations said they would consume about 6000 calories, therefore at each lap they had to grab bags of food and drinks, to be able to continue. If you miss even one of these refuelling, you’re done, at one point your legs will simply refuse to go on and you’ll have to give up.
The first laps nothing important happened. After a hundred km, the first escapers started to give up. The enthusiasm for the enterprise, soon makes room for the tiredness. The novices suffer more, they’re not yet used to this, they lack experience and hardness, the one you get by running everywhere in the world and challenging yourself to overcome your weaknesses.
The track soon made justice of Peter Sagan, the three times world champion. Peter knew this was not his race, too hard, made for climbers, people of the great tours, nevertheless he decided to be present here, but gave up without complaining and smiling, as usual.
The others remained in the group, with the favoured expecting the last lap and just trying to remain in the first positions, while the assistants hammered the circuit to make it the hardest possible race.
Only the ones in the best condition remained. Simon Yeats and Piatkowski gave up, with a bunch of others. The Italian team worked tirelessly to put Gianni Moscon in the best possible position. The three French, Pinot, Bardet and Alaphilippe, seemed to bury the war’s hatchet to work together. The Spanish all lined behind Valverde and Doumoulin, the duke of Maastricht, ran as he usually does, seeming defeated but then coming from nothing to compete for the victory.
The British, who dominated the season winning all the three great tours, got to this race evidently tired, which is odd, given that a Chris Froome in good conditions would have found in the Iglis uphill an ally as he’ll never find again in a World championship.
In the 5th lap, the Italians, the Dutch and the Belgians started up several times. Their tactic succeeded in that they put their most important men in the front just before the Iglis. Valgren took a small advantage in the downhill before the Iglis, but non really cared, because everybody knew the best was to come.
There are not many uphils like this. 2,8 kilometers of pure suffering. Unlike the uphills of the great tours, the Angliaru in the Vuelta, the Zoncolan in Giro, it is so short that it does not give you time to come back. You stand one chance, and that’s it.
Alejandro Valverde knew this. His senses made subtler by an 18-year run-up, in which he gained 6 medals, while victory always eluded him. But victory itself probably grew tired, and felt it while she saw this 38 year old man, so elegant on the bicycle, hold on to the Canadian Woods, who did the race of his life, and Romain Bardet, the last French remained, after Pinot sacrificed himself to let him and Alaphilippe go, and poor Julian, the favoured at the beginning, exploded like a balloon in the first meters of the Iglis.
There remained Woods, Moscon, Valverde and Bardet. The slope was so vertical that the cyclists struggled to stay up. None could escape, you could just try to resist gravity, be patient, not weigh your strength trying to do more than you could. You can only defend yourself on the Iglis, not try to dominate it.
Moscon instead tried to go, but he remained blocked, while the others took two or three meters of advantage, that in such a situation value a kilometre, and he could just see them go. Dumoulin, just behind him, zigzagged and finished the uphill with an energetic leap, that made him certain to get the three ahead.
Meanwhile, Alejandro must have seen all his defeats, and seeing two, with him, that he could beat in a sprint even with closed eyes, managed to restart the action every time they seemed to rest. Tom came down like a devil, leaving poor Moscon behind, showing what is an athlete with a fighting spirit. Woods, looked around, unused to such position and Bardet felt all the honour of France upon himself.
In the last kilometre, Dumoulin reached the three ahead. He knew he stood no chance against Valverde. Therefore, he tried to stay behind and start from far, but he realized Alejandro had spotted him and gave up.
Bardet, Woods and Dumoulin made Valverde stay ahead, the worst position. Alejandro, on his own, did everything wrong: he stayed ahead, took wind, left the others with the possibility to attack him the blind side.
But this time, Alejandro grabbed the goddess of victory by the neck and stared at her in the eyes, and she knew she couldn’t escape. He led the sprint and won by more than a bicycle of distance.
After the finish line, Alejandro burst in tears. It is hard to understand why such an unjust race owns so much importance for a great like him. You don’t decide the “World” in one day. It does, though, and you can’t help it.
The camera followed Alejandro along the way to the awarding ceremony. He sat down, and when he took off the helmet and the glasses, you could see only a 38-year-old man, thin, his face dirty with mud and dust, crying like a child who finally gets his award, long awaited.
And you could see what real greatness, what heroes are, in their simplicity: men who don’t give up, who are thrown here and there by destiny in their tiny frame, but become always stronger, every time they are struck.