Cycling-France's Alaphilippe retains men's world title in explosive fashion


Cycling - UCI Road World Championships - Leuven, Belguim - September 26, 2021 General view of the pack in action during the race REUTERS/Yves Herman

LEUVEN, Belgium (Reuters) - France's Julian Alaphilippe retained his men's road race title at the cycling world championships in style after attacking relentlessly in the finale, capping a remarkable team performance on Sunday.

Alaphilippe made the decisive move on the short climb up to the Sint Antoniusberg 17km from the line and never looked back, becoming only the seventh rider to win consecutive titles.

Alaphilippe reaped the rewards of the team's tactics after the French shook up the race throughout to wear down their opponents, notably the Belgians, whose odds-on favourite Wout van Aert ended up finishing empty-handed.

It was also Alaphilippe's instinct that made the difference as he beat Dutchman Dylan van and Denmark's Michael Valgren, who came home second and third, respectively.

"In the finale the fans were asking me to slow down and they didn't have nice words... I want to thank them because it really motivated me," said the 29-year-old, who also won solo in Imola, Italy last year.

"I just wanted to shake it up, I did not think it would eventually stick."

While early attacks by the French were part of the plan, Alaphilippe's late moves were not.

DISAPPOINTING VAN AERT

"I told Julian to follow the attacks and then counter. He did the opposite, he attacked several times on his own. So it was his instinct that spoke. He scared me anyway, the idiot," said team manager Thomas Voeckler.

Benoit Cosnefroy was the first notable rider to attack with 180km left, aiming to wear his rivals down and avoid a sprint finish that would have favoured Dutch Mathieu van der Poel, Van Aert or Italy's Sonny Colbrelli.

It was then Valentin Madouas who upped the pace and he formed a group of a dozen breakaway riders including the prodigiously talented 21-year-old Remco Evenepoel.

But the young Belgian sacrificed his own chances for Van Aert, who simply did not have the legs to follow Alaphilippe when it mattered and finished a disappointing 11th.

Alaphilippe, who had already attacked earlier, tried to go solo on the Wijnpress hill but the move was foiled and when he went again on the Sint Antoniusberg, the group of favourites was blown to pieces.

Four men - Van Baarle, Valgren, Belgium's Jasper Stuyven and American Neilson Powless - lagged 10 seconds behind and it appeared Alaphilippe would be caught. But the Frenchman found his second wind in the closing stages, riding away to become the first man to retain his title since Slovakian Peter Sagan won his third consecutive rainbow jersey in 2017.

"I came here relaxed, knowing I had good legs. But I was not even dreaming of winning a rainbow jersey again," said Alaphilippe after the 268.3km ride between Antwerp and Leuven.

Only 68 of the 180 starters completed the course, which was marred by early crashes that also ended the chances of 2019 champion Mads Pedersen.

(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

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