Fabulous, formidable, first class.
With Germany’s men and women practically flying through Flanders to their first World Championship mixed relay team time trial title, there is no end of adjectives available to describe what they did. The only one that really means anything is the one none can dispute – fastest.
Before the event Germany were not thought to be among the favourites.
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That label was reserved for the Netherlands, who had Annemiek van Vleuten and Ellen van Dijk in their ranks, and Italy, with Filippo Ganna, in theirs. Most even had Switzerland ahead of Germany in their list of likely winners.
Odds are meant to be defied, however, and who doesn’t like it when the bookies get beat? Who, also, really knows anything about the mixed relay, which took place in Flanders for only the second time at a World Championships?
The format is simple enough: each squad of three men ride half a 44km course, before handing over to their female compatriots. The women are allowed to begin their ride only when the second man has crossed the line, meaning no more than one rider is allowed to drop from their ranks. The final time is set similarly: two athletes to finish from each nation before the clock is stopped.
And, as we have come to expect, the running order was rigged so that the more likely winners set out last. The 13 teams were also split into three waves, with each heading out from the start in Knokke-Heist at three-minute intervals.
That’s as simple as it gets. Like any race, particularly any time trial, the complexity would lay beyond the readable regulations.
What’s a good time on a flat course such as this? How hard is it best to ride at the different points of the course? How long a turn should each rider take on the front for maximum efficiency?
The early teams, starting with the one from the UCI centre in Aigle, found out the hard way, while the rest looked on and learned. Theirs was not a fast run, but it was respectable. Slowest by a minute at the first time check, by only twice that at the finish, the riders from Lithuania, Rwanda, Syria, Slovakia, Burkina Faso and Belarus can hold their heads high. The Spanish and Austrian federations might wonder why they bothered showing up at all.
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The second wave brought the first of the teams who might consider themselves in the running for the medals: France brought a weak team, while the USA and Great Britain had strong riders on both men’s and women’s sides, though it was Switzerland who were expected to set the first objectively fast time. And so it proved. Stefan Kung, Florian Bissinger and Torsten Schmidt were only outgunned by GB at the first split; Elise Chabbey, Nicole Koller and Marlen Reusser kept, and then built on the lead they began their run with.
Still, their final time of 51:26 only looked really good when, from the second wave, neither Belgium, nor Denmark, could match it. Both countries suffered for a relatively weaker women’s squad with the hosts falling from 4th to 6th, while the Danes slipped to seventh from third.
In contrast, the Netherlands were always going to lean on their formidable women’s line-up. Jos Van Emden is a specialist, but somewhat past his best. Bauke Mollema prefers mountains, like the one he gave his female team-mates to climb, when he delivered them a deficit of 42 seconds at the handover.
Ultimately the race would be decided between the two nations who brought the most evenly matched squads to the race.
The lion’s share of the attention will – with some justification – be on Tony Martin, who ends his career where he’s spent more time than most – on the top step of a World Championship podium.
He closes the door on professional cycling in some of the best shape he’s had in half a decade. Sunday’s sixth place was his best result in an individual World time trial since his victory in Doha in 2016.
His final performance as a professional was also a champion’s one. Martin rode hard, never putting a pedal wrong, pulling as long, and as aerodynamically immaculately, as he has throughout his illustrious 15 years as a pro. Nikias Arnt and Max Walscheid gave everything for their leader, and it is only a shame we will never see these three ride together again.
If the ride by Germany’s men was great, their women’s was even better.
The women’s side included Lisas Brennauer and Klein, both of whom finished in the top 10 in the women’s individual time trial on Monday. Making up the trio was Mieke Kröger, not a known name to most road cycling fans but, notably, along with her two team-mates in Flanders, a gold medalist in the team pursuit at the Tokyo Olympics. Three riders more familiar with each other you would struggle to find. Not the strongest, perhaps, but the most in tune, and in a TTT that’s arguably as important.
They beat the Italians first, to a pulp, displacing them from the top of the leaderboard by their first intermediate split. Then the only thing they had to do was hang on against the Dutch. The Olympic and World champions, Van Vleuten and Van Dijk, rode well to make up all but 15 seconds of the disadvantage. It looked like they would do it, with 8.4km left, but by the finish could only take two more. Italy managed to hold on for the bronze medal, with Switzerland and Stefan Kung pushed off the podium again.
A rainbow ride to end a golden career for an athlete who has given greatness to the sport and to every team he’s ridden for.
“It’s a dream for me,” said Tony Martin afterwards. “It’s the best situation I can imagine… We were hoping for the gold and the dream came true. Now it’s time to celebrate.”
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