This is the second article we have done covering a team’s tactical masterclass. For the first edition, an insight into the Australian team’s win at the U23 Tour of Flanders win earlier this spring, click here.
There was much excitement heading into the 2018 Worlds U23 Road Race, with many fans keen to see not only the stars of tomorrow, but keen to see how the race would play out with one eye on the Elite Men’s event on Sunday.
On the startline, there were a few really strong teams, especially the Danes, Swiss, Norwegians and Italians, while Belgium and Colombia had three big name riders between them in Lambrecht, Cras (Belgium) and Sosa (Colombia).
Indeed, the race would become a tactical affair, and everyone would fall into the trap set by the Swiss. Pre-race, they had two massive favourites in Gino Mader and Marc Hirschi, although the latter, after a bad ITT a few days previously, slipped down a few pegs, and didn’t even make our pre-race favourites list. Oops, sorry Marc. Finishing the team was Vital Concept pro Patrick Muller, Joab Schneiter, Dimitir Bussard and U23 Swiss RR champ Lukas Ruegg.
Early on, the Swiss jersey was visible near the front, but, crucially, not on it. On the opening climb of the day to Gnadenwald, still over 100km from home, Schneiter did appear at the front briefly, but the team mainly lurked in the shadows. Instead, it was the Irish, Belgians and Colombians who remained on the front.
Onto the circuit and it was the Danes who lit up the first climb up to Igls, with Mikkel Honore and Mikkel Bjerg constantly attacking but getting nowhere. Swiss jerseys were in close attendance at the front though, with Bussard and Schneiter.
The second time up, the Russians arrived at the front and set a fierce tempo all the way to the top, discouraging all but the bravest from attacking. Easing up over the descent, and the Swiss played their card. Ruegg, Muller, Hirschi and Mader all came to the front and accelerated and immediately got a gap. By the time the dust had settled at the end of the downhill, there were 7 riders clear: the four Swiss and then Mark Padun (Ukraine), Honore and Neilson Powless (USA). The Swiss drove hard over the finish line, and there were just two laps (roughly 48km remaining).
While the gap hovered around a minute, the group did work well despite the overwhelming numerical advantage employed by the Swiss. the penultimate ascent of Igls saw Ruegg fall off the pace, but not before handing a bottle on to Hirschi. A prime example of how strong the teamwork between the sextet really was. Minutes later, Muller rolled off the front, and was swiftly countered by Padun.
Lambrecht appeared at the front of the bunch and began to probe with attacks, and by the top of the climb, the three Swiss and the two other riders were back in the fold. This was where the Swiss almost lost the race. Muller is brutally strong and can climb, but Padun is more of a climber and was coming off a strong Vuelta. There was a good chance he would have been able to shed his heavier counterpart on the last climb of Igls.
But on the descent, as a frustrated Lambrecht failed to get a chase going, they were saved by the luck of the Irish. Ireland’s isolated leader Eddie Dunbar made his move, attacking on the downhill, and Mader immediately followed. The two got within ten seconds of the lead duo at the line, but Mader had begun to sit on. The next time check revealed they were almost 25 seconds down as they began the trek up to Igls for the last time. Had Mader begun saving energy too late in the day?
The duo ahead, while both looking tired, worked very well together, but Cras came to the front for Lambrecht and the lead was destroyed. Dunbar, a few Italians and a couple of other big names from the group of 23 in the decimated peloton began falling off the back. When the camera arrived at the front, Mader was shown to have been on a blinder of a day, sitting comfortably in the top half of the group after being caught. As Cras swung off, there was a sense of looking around.
And then about a minute or so later, the Lambrecht heat-seeking missile was launched as the camera switched to the helicopter. Only Hirschi and hitherto unknown Finn Jaakko Hanninen could stay with the Belgian WorldTour pro as they caught Muller and Padun.
Muller held on only for a few minutes before tailing off, while Padun almost made it to the summit, but was tailed off. A strong chase had formed, and from that Mader launched just a few hundred metres from the summit. He would catch Padun and the two worked well together, but they would not see the front of the race again.
On the descent, despite the leading trio sharing turns well, halfway down the descent Hirschi moved to the back, dropped off the wheel a few metres, and then accelerated up behind and then over Lambrecht into a tricky section of corners. He hesitated for a moment and that was all Hirschi needed. The gap was immediate, and Lambrecht looked uneasy and his Finnish counterpart had to come round to try and shut the gap. Spoiler alert: he failed.
Despite working well together, Lambrecht and Hanninen wouldn’t catch Hirschi, who opened up his gap all the way to the line, arriving home 15 seconds ahead of what was a very entertaining sprint for silver. A beautiful solo win.
35 seconds down, Mader did what he has proven all season he can do, and smoked another climber in the sprint, putting two seconds into Padun to take 4th. 12 seconds later, Muller arrived at that line, taking ninth. Ruegg arrived almost ten minutes down, with Bussard almost a full minute (but only two places) behind.
Hirschi’s post-race presser revealed he believed Lambrecht to be the strongest. But as this race today once again proved, a strong team can beat the strongest rider. The Swiss played a blinder today, and were not only rewarded with their first medal since taking Bronze away back in Zolder 2002, but the full shilling. Congrats to Marc Hirschi, but will we actually see him wear the jersey at all in 2019? That’s a story for another day.