The Italian Filippo Ganna broke Flemish hearts on the opening day of the world road race championships in the Belgian cycling heartland by taking a narrow victory in the elite men’s time trial. Ganna pushed the home favourite Wout van Aert into second by only five seconds – “A silver too many,” the Belgian said – with the youthful Flemish hope Remco Evenepoel taking the bronze medal.
The specialists in the field were favoured by a pan-flat course that began with a start ramp on the beach at Knokke-Heist on the North Sea coast, closing among the canals and ornate townhouses of Bruges. The defending champion, Ganna paced his effort to perfection over the 43.3km, setting a record speed of over 54km/h for the event, and punching the air as he crossed the finish line just over five seconds faster than Van Aert.
Both Van Aert and Ganna had already enjoyed seasons to remember. The 25-year-old from Verbania in northern Italy had played a central role in his Ineos teammate Egan Bernal’s Giro d’Italia win in May, ripping the field to bits on a key stage through the dirt roads of Tuscany. He also dragged the Italian quartet to a last-ditch gold medal and a world record in the team pursuit at the Tokyo Olympics, but at the European championship 10 days ago he was by no means certain of his form.
“In the last week my condition has improved a lot,” he said. “Today, when I woke up I had a good feeling in my legs and in my head I dreamed I would win today.”
His Belgian rival landed a hat-trick of stage wins at the Tour de France – including the penultimate day’s time trial and the final sprint on the Champs-Élysées – in addition to a pair of one-day Classic victories and most recently a dominant ride in the Tour of Britain. He started fastest, riding seven seconds faster than Ganna at the first checkpoint, 13.3km in, where the early pace-setter, Evenepoel, was 28 seconds slower, seemingly out of the fight for gold and silver.
Van Aert is a magnificently talented all-rounder, a rider who can win in the high mountains – as he did at the Tour de France – or in a bunch sprint, as he did three times at the Tour of Britain, and who can produce a stellar time trial on his day. But he is not an out-and-out specialist compared with the Italian, who has won 10 time trials in the past 14 months, including all five time trial stages in the past two Tours of Italy.
With the race decided by such a fine margin, this showed in the way Ganna gauged his ride, drawing within a second of Van Aert at the second checkpoint, with 10km left to ride. And in this middle section Evenepoel showed his skill too, moving ahead of the double European champion Stefan Küng of Switzerland and the Dane Kasper Asgreen, although the 2019 silver medallist was still more than 30 seconds slower than Van Aert and Ganna.
The defeat left Van Aert on a run of five silver medals in major championships, after silver in the time trial and road race last year, silver at the world cyclo-cross championship just down the coast in Ostend in January and silver in the road race at the Tokyo Olympics. It is a sequence all Belgium will be looking to him to end with a gold in next Sunday’s road race, while on Monday, the time trials continue with the women’s race, where the defending champion, Anna van der Breggen, is absent, but her Dutch teammate Annemiek van Vleuten is expected to deliver.
Van Aert’s Tour of Britain rival Ethan Hayter rode strongly in his first world time trial championship to take eighth, a result he felt he can build on, while the race was an emotional farewell for one of the pillars of the discipline, the German Tony Martin, four times a world champion, and a medallist for the first time in Mendrisio in 2009, who managed sixth in his penultimate race.
The opening day was given a more painful twist with the tragic death of the former professional Chris Anker Sørensen, who had been due to work at the championship for Danish television, but died on Saturday from injuries sustained when he was struck by a vehicle while riding his bike to reconnoitre the time-trial course.