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Innsbruck 2018: Was this the toughest Worlds course ever?

In-depth
11 Dec 2018
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This article was originally published in issue 79 of Cyclist magazine

Words Richard Moore Illustration Steve Millington

The toughest ever Road Race World Championships was won by one of the sport’s toughest ever competitors. Bernard Hinault wasn’t the best climber in the field, nor was he the best one-day rider, but the then two-time Tour de France winner was fired up and angry when he arrived in Sallanches, in the French Alps, in August 1980.

The World Championships returned to the Alps in 2018, to the Austrian city of Innsbruck – unofficially known as the capital of the Alps – and to a course that drew comparisons with the infamous Sallanches race.

The question was, would it produce as dramatic a race, or crown as worthy a champion as the rider nicknamed The Badger?

Thirty-eight years ago, Hinault was out for revenge, mainly against the press, who had turned against him over his withdrawal from the Tour de France earlier in the summer.

He had been leading the race when he was forced to pull out between stages with a knee injury, but instead of announcing his capitulation to the press, Hinault had sneaked away in the dead of night without telling reporters.

With their newspapers already rolling off the presses when they found out, the journalists were furious and sought to get their own back in print, some alleging that Hinault’s knee problems were a result of cortisone abuse. 

In Sallanches ‘I would wipe away all the mud that had been slung at me’, Hinault wrote later in his autobiography. The race was over 20 laps of a 13.4km circuit that included the Côte de Domancy, a 2.5km, 8.6% climb with a maximum gradient of 16%.

In total there was said to be 6,000m of vertical ascent.

The Badger told his French team to ride on the front for the first 10 laps, then he would take over. He was as good as his word.

One by one, he rode all his rivals off his wheel, finishing on his own over a minute ahead of Gianbattista Baronchelli of Italy and four minutes ahead of the bronze medallist, Juan Fernández Martín. Of the 107 riders who had started, just 15 finished.

Another who excelled on this toughest of World Championships courses was young British rider Mandy Jones.

Jones was just 18 and it was only her second race abroad, so it’s no wonder that now, when asked to recall the day, she describes it as ‘scary’.

The women tackled the same circuit as the men, though only four laps of it, making for a short and intense race.

‘It started on a wide, open main road but you turned onto a really narrow, steep climb and at the bottom it was chaos,’ says Jones.

‘Thankfully I was near the front but it was a real slog up the climb. My gears weren’t low enough, but I was a good climber – I knew I could climb.

‘It was a grit-your-teeth-and-keep-going job. It was very, very gruelling.’

Jones didn’t just survive, however – she thrived on the tough course and ended up third, taking home a bronze medal from her first World Championships.

‘There were only four of us at the finish and I was very chuffed that I got third. It was definitely the toughest one-day race I ever did,’ she says.

Two years later, when the Worlds came to Goodwood in Britain in 1982, Jones was the winner.

Colombia’s day of pain

There is perhaps only one other World Championships Road Race that might rank alongside Sallanches in 1980 and Innsbruck in 2018 for pure difficulty, and that’s Duitama, Colombia, in 1995.

The men’s professional race was run in pouring rain, making a circuit that was already brutally hilly highly dangerous too.

Spaniard Abraham Olano was the winner ahead of countryman Miguel Indurain, with the first pure climber, Marco Pantani, in third.

Only 20 riders finished and the last, Andy Hampsten, was 37 minutes down. Three years earlier, Hampsten had won the Alpe d’Huez stage of the Tour.

In those days there was an amateur race and a professional race (now there’s under-23 and elite) and British rider Matt Stephens finished a highly respectable seventh in the amateur race.

Stephens actually started the race-winning move on a circuit he now remembers as ‘horrendously difficult’.

‘We did 10 laps of 16km with 3,300m of climbing in total. It was brutal,’ he says. ‘As well as the climbing there was the altitude [Duitama is 2,590m above sea-level] and I sensed a lot of fear.

‘I remember the bunch going steady – there was a lot of respect for the course and how tough it was. But that was the catalyst for me to go on the attack.

‘A couple went with me and that was the break. We never got caught. That’s the thing about a course like that – chasing is very difficult, so sometimes it’s best to seize the initiative. It’s why I think we might see early attacks succeed in Innsbruck.’

Stephens has ridden the Innsbruck course, virtually at least, on Zwift: ‘The climb is a 20-minute effort,’ he says. ‘It’s really hard.’

In the months leading up to Innsbruck, everyone seemed agreed on this. Cyrille Guimard, who was Hinault’s boss back in 1980 and made an unexpected return as coach of the French national team two years ago, was unequivocal.

‘I have not seen anything so hard since Sallanches,’ he told French newspaper L’Equipe after inspecting the Innsbruck course. ‘We will need eight guys at 100%, otherwise it’s not worth coming.

‘Now that I have seen the course, I already have an idea of the riders who I will put in,’ he added. ‘It will be a natural selection. It’s a simple mountain race, one for the pure climbers.’

Crunching the numbers

Continuing the recent vogue for a long prelude to the circuit itself, in Austria the men started in Kufstein and rode 80km before covering six laps of a circuit that includes the climb Stephens mentions, Igls, which is 7.9km long and averages 5.7%.

But if that doesn’t sound too severe, there was of course a lethal sting in the tail. The final lap saw the men do an extra climb, Gramartboden, known as the ‘Höll’ – a 2.8km long brute with an average gradient of 11.5%, but steepening to 28%.

After test-riding the course Vincenzo Nibali, who went into the Worlds as one of the favourites, said it would be more like a mountain bike race.

The statistics on elevation suggested that Innsbruck was closer to Colombia in 1995 than Sallanches in 1980, with the men climbing 4,670m over 258.5km and the women 2,413m over 156.2km.

Nibali was far from the only riders to look at the Innsbruck course ahead of the time. Amanda Spratt, a strong climber who led the Australian team and ultimately finished second behind Anna van der Breggen, travelled there at the end of last season.

‘I was quite excited when I saw it was in Innsbruck so I took a trip there in October,’ she says. ‘I caught the train and did a little bikepacking trip by myself at the weekend to go and ride around the course.

'I was carrying a bit of off-season weight plus my bikepacking stuff. But I rode it and it’s really hard. It’s definitely a climbers’ course.’

This was the received wisdom, and it was therefore no surprise that strong climbers dominated both the men’s and women’s races.

But looking at Sallanches and Colombia as templates for this type of mountainous Worlds course, it was equally little surprise that all-rounders (Alejandro Valverde and Van der Breggen) ultimately took the honours.

After all, Hinault and Olano were strong all-rounders – if they were known as specialists in any one discipline it was time-trialling, not climbing.

Steep learning curve

George Bennett, the New Zealander, was another who was fancied to ride well in Innsbruck (in the end he finished 18th, 1:21 behind Valverde).

A climber with a collection of strong results this year – sixth at the Tour of Catalonia, fifth at the Tour of the Alps, eighth at the Giro d’Italia – Bennett rode well to place second, ahead of all the other overall contenders, when the final stage of the Tour of the Alps used the World Championships circuit in late April.

On that occasion, they tackled the climb on the main circuit, but not the Höll. When Bennett returned to Austria for a training camp in nearby Kühtai after the Giro, he took the opportunity to look at the whole course, riding to Innsbruck and going off in search of the Höll.

‘I raced the Tour of the Alps there and had a good day,’ Bennett says. ‘Then when we were back there for the camp, I went and saw the final climb.

‘I had [gearing of] 36x30. It was raining. And to ride up there in a straight line? I couldn’t do it. If I stood up I slipped. If I sat down I couldn’t go forward.

‘It’s an absolute mongrel of a climb. Not all 2.8km of it, but there’s about a kilometre that’s just brutal. I don’t think the rest of the Worlds course is as hard as everybody says, just because there’s a bit of respite between the climbs each lap,’ he adds.

‘But after 250km you’re going to hit that last climb. It’s short but so steep that guys are just going to be stopping.’ 

Bennett already had the Vuelta a España in his legs by the time he headed to the World Championships, but he wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of inspecting the course in Innsbruck if he didn’t think he had a chance of achieving a good result.

‘I’m thinking that it’s a rare opportunity for a rider like me to do something,’ he said ahead of the Spanish Grand Tour. ‘A lot of guys are talking about the Vuelta as a stepping stone to the Worlds and I’m not thinking about it like that.

‘I’m all in for the Vuelta and then I’ll see what’s left for the Worlds.’

Anyone’s game

The beauty of a World Championships is that the course is new and unknown, and speculation about who might do well can amount to pure – and frequently wrong – guesswork.

Everyone knows that Milan-San Remo is decided on the Poggio, and what kind of rider can win the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix.

There’s no such blueprint for a World Championships, which makes it gloriously unpredictable.

The course designer is former professional and Tyrol resident Thomas Rohregger, who said that – contrary to the examples of Sallanches and Colombia – he reckoned a pure climber would win.

Despite designing the course, his tips of Chris Froome (didn't ride) and Nairo Quintana (15th) as favourites for the men’s race proved wide of the mark.

While Bennett himself was also among the pretenders rather than contenders, his own tips for who to watch proved more accurate: ‘I think it will suit guys like [Julian] Alaphilippe, the Yateses, either of them [Simon or Adam], Nibali or [Alejandro] Valverde,’ he suggested.

‘Guys who can climb but who are also super-powerful. I don’t imagine [defending champion Peter] Sagan or [Olympic champion Greg] Van Avermaet getting round there.

‘But I think maybe guys like Froome, Quintana, or guys like me, to be really up there, I don’t know if we’ve got that extreme explosivity needed.

‘But 250km and 5,000m of climbing does funny things to people. It’s often just who’s good at riding for that long. A lot of your natural abilities go out the window when you’ve got no glycogen left in your legs.

‘I’ll be curious to see who still has something left to give. I think it will be 30 guys heading into that last climb and it’s that steep and that narrow that you will have to be in a good position,' he added.

However, Bennett's final prediction proved the most accurate of all: ‘I think it will be a great race to watch but I’m not sure how much fun it will be to ride.’