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Sept 24, 2015 – By simply reading the result of Wednesday’s 2015 world elite men’s time trial championship you might think that the cycling gods were playing a trick on you. Surely, the names of the top seven finishers should be reversed, right? Wouldn’t that make more sense? Then, the result would read: 1. Martin, 2, Dennis; 3. Dumoulin; 4, Castroviejo; 5. Coppel; 6. Malori; 7. Kiryienka…. If that had been the case, all the journalists here in Richmond would be writing the stories they expected to be writing: Tony Martin winning his fourth rainbow jersey, a few seconds ahead of the other co-favorites Rohan Dennis and Tom Dumoulin.
John Wilcockson/Yuzuru Sunada
But the gods didn’t trick you. The three guys at the end of that seven-man list were the three medalists: first, Vasil Kiryienka of Belarus and Team Sky, who completed the rolling 53.5-kilometer course in 1:02:29; second, Adriano Malori of Italy and Team Movistar, beaten by nine seconds; and third, Jérôme Coppel of France and IAM Cycling, twenty-six seconds back. All three are riders that have flown beneath the radar for most of their pro careers, but they are all true champions…and the Richmond worlds time trial course and conditions played to their strengths.
In their press conference an hour after the finish, and after spending every last gram of energy on the climb up Governor Street in the final kilometer, Kiryienka, Malori and Coppel all told the same basic story: “I felt great today from the start and the course suited me perfectly.” The course—which connected the swirling curves of the 90-miles-per-hour Intimidator 305 roller-coaster ride at Kings Dominion and the stately Ionic columns of the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond—used mostly straight, often concrete-surfaced roads that undulated through a wooded countryside that will forever be defined by the American Civil War.
The rolling course perfectly suited the qualities of Kiryienka, 34, the four-time national TT champion of Belarus. It was not unlike the even hillier 59.5-kilometer time trial stage at this year’s Giro d’Italia, where the Sky support rider’s victory came the same day that his injured team leader Richie Porte fell out of contention. Kiryienka won two previous Giro stages, both at the end of long breakaways in the mountains, in 2010 and 2011. But his world title on Wednesday carries a different degree of prestige—even though it has come in his mid-30s.
At the medalists’ press conference, he said he was inspired by the former Russian pro Viatcheslav Ekimov, who was 34 when he won the 2000 Olympic TT in Sydney and was 38 when he again took Olympic gold in Athens (after the doping disqualification of Tyler Hamilton). It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Kiryienka battling for gold at the Rio Olympic Games next year, especially as the 59.6-kilometer TT does two laps of a circuit that includes two climbs with some double-digit gradients.
The runner-up this week in Richmond, Malori, 27, is a three-time Italian national TT champion who’s considered a short-course specialist after winning eight such TT stages in the past two seasons at races as diverse as the 2014 Vuelta and last month’s Tour du Poitou-Charentes. On Wednesday, Malori said the northerly wind was not a problem for him in the world championship TT, saying, “it was very fast because of the wind,” which was generally favorable. And that wind enabled the tall Italian to make the most of his inherent speed.
As for third-placed Coppel, 29, his bronze medal was the biggest surprise of the day. And, like Kiryienka, the Frenchman said he was favored by the way his team helped him at the recent Vuelta. Kiryienka said Team Sky allowed him to ride less as a domestique in Spain, especially after team leader Chris Froome dropped out with a broken foot, while Coppel said, “I’ve worked hard on time trial training this year with IAM Cycling and they let me leave the Vuelta early so I could be ready for today.”
The three medalists were all respectful of the course and each other. Coppel said, “In the last 5 or 6 kilometers, we had a headwind at times, which was very, very hard. This podium is a big surprise for me, but I knew Malori and Kiryienka were among the favorites.” Malori added, “I gave it all on the last climb because I knew it was close—but Vasil was the strongest.”
The split times reflected their words. On the opening 16 kilometers, half of which were subject to gusting crosswinds, Kiryienka averaged 51.167 kilometers per hour and was 20 seconds faster than Coppel, 22 seconds up on Dennis and 27 better than Coppel (who said he deliberately started slowly). Over the next 10.5 kilometers to the halfway point, with a favorable wind but on slower roads, Malori was best at 50.414 kph, four seconds faster than Kiryienka, nine seconds up on Dennis and Coppel.
Then, on the 16.1-kilometer stretch into the suburbs with a tailwind, Malori sped up to 53.703 kph, four seconds faster than Coppel and 12 seconds better than Kiryienka.
Dennis, who’d been riding the best of the top favorites, lost 41 seconds on this section because of a puncture forcing him to change bikes. Without that the BMC Racing specialist may well have medaled. As for the other two favorites, Dumoulin never got into his stride, blaming muscle pain in his backside, while Martin, despite starting second fastest, faded badly; the disappointed German said he was unable to explain why he couldn’t go at maximum cadence on the tailwind sections or find his best rhythm on the climbs.
Everyone knows that time trials are considered the race of truth—and what this upside-down TT revealed was how much a fast time depends on morale, along with the right strengths and skills. All those factors came together for Kiryienka in his nine-second victory over Malori. The smiling, blond rider from Belarus concluded: “Adriano was very close, but this was my day!”
And, for sure, on this day, the cycling gods were with an underdog named Kiryienka.
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You can follow John on Twitter @johnwilcockson