Matej Mohorič (Slovenia) survived a late crash and soloed to glory at the 2023 UCI Gravel World Championships, claiming the rainbow jersey after distancing Florian Vermeersch (Belgium) on the climb to Le Serre, 18.6km from the finish in Pieve de Soligo.
Vermeersch kept the gap tight after being distanced but dropped his chain 14.5km from the finish, forcing him to stop and restring it, losing him a crucial 10 seconds in the process on the Slovenian who was on his way to another World title, adding to his junior and U23 rainbow jerseys from the road.
Mohorič wasn’t certain as he hit the final, brutal climb of the day up the Collagu (1.7km at 11.8%), nervously looking over his shoulder, unbeknownst to the mechanical Vermeersch had suffered and to his now 38-second lead over the fighting Belgian.
The 28-year-old Slovenian would only extend the lead as the finish line and World title awaited him, grinding over the final narrow path past the fans, wrestling his bike for all it’s worth until he crested the top with only a technical descent between him and the finish.
Ever the daredevil, Mohorič crashed in the final 3.5 kilometres as he threw caution to the wind and flew down the descent despite his lead approaching the minute mark, clearly worried about Vermeersch chasing him down, but he would quickly remount and survive to the line.
Mohorič originally got up the road in a trio alongside the Belgian and Connor Swift (Great Britain), and they were clearly the strongest on the day, distancing the rest of the 224-rider field prior to the second time check of the day.
The Slovenian looked the strongest as the trio built an advantage of over four minutes on the chasing pack behind, utilising his expert descending skills to force Vermeersch into wasting energy after Swift had dropped on the San Vigilio climb.
Big favourite Wout van Aert (Belgium) had a disastrous day, suffering untimely mechanicals and a crash in the opening 60 kilometres, which saw him at times over 10 minutes off the pace of Mohorič and Co up front and out of contention for the victory. He fought valiantly in the final phase of racing and finished eighth.
Defending champion Gianni Vermeersch (Belgium) struggled on the hillier parcours that completely contrasted the first edition of the Gravel World Championships in 2022, eventually finishing 10:50 down on Mohorič in 11th.
“The feeling is great, the parcours today was beautiful. I had one of the best days on the bike and enjoyed it so much,” Mohorič said. “As I kid I always wanted to start mountain biking and then I started to practice road cycling because my friends did and today I really enjoyed it. It hurt my legs but my mind was super happy."
“Congrats also to Florian [Vermeersch] and Connor [Swift] because they were also super strong but I used the weight advantage in my favour on the climbs and I’m super proud of this achievement.”
Mohorič was confident in his race plan and having made it through the early phases unscathed, knew he was on a good day.
“I always believed from the very start. The more I was making it through selections, the more I felt I had good legs and I knew the final as I reckoned the last 40km,” Mohorič said. “If I tried to design it myself, I couldn’t do a better parcours: it was super technical, super sharp and steep climbs and that suits me perfectly.
“I knew I had to hurt myself and the others would also suffer and in the end, I managed to hold on all the way to the end.”
He also candidly explained his late crash, highlighting that he had simply pushed it one step too far even for how good a bike handler he is, but that he was never worried.
“In the recon, I went around [the corner] on the path and then in the race I saw you could cut so I figured why not cut, but it was not a great idea and I slipped out, but I stayed calm and knew I had a small gap so I didn’t panic,” explained Mohorič.
Mohorič spoke highly of the event’s long future going forward and that he would definitely come back and race at the Gravel World Championships again if he was able to.
How it unfolded
After the riders set off from a wonderful morning by the Le Bandie lake, the first hour of racing saw the cream rise to the top with road specialists Van Aert and Mohorič making it into an early split alongside defending champion Vermeersch in a group of 20 or so riders.
Back together after 46km with a large group of 60 passing through the first intermediate time check at the finish location in Pieve di Soligo, led by Germany’s Lukas Baum with Van Aert staying towards the pointy end of racing in third position.
Through the second time check at Revine Lago, Van Aert had reportedly been down, albeit not badly, but his presence in the leading group was no longer felt as Mohorič had moved into the race lead in a small group with Florian Vermeersch (Belgium), Connor Swift (UK), Paul Voss (Germany), Alejandro Valverde (Spain) and Cameron Mason (UK) just ahead of the Nogarolo climb 74km into the day’s action.
The De Marchi cousins led the chase behind with both Alessandro and Mattia sitting 16 seconds back on Mohorič and co alongside Matevž Govekar and Markus Pajur.
Swift, Vermeersch and Mohorič split the front group after the time check, gaining an advantage on Valverde and Voss before a descent section with Mason further off the back and the rest of the race an even greater distance away from the lead.
With 96km to go, the leading trio’s advantage over the first chase group was over the minute mark, passing the second passage of the finish through Pieve di Soligo with a 1:27 advantage on the chasing quartet of Valverde, Voss, Alessandro de Marchi and Keegan Swenson (USA).
The clock would continue to go in the wrong direction for the chasers throughout the next 70 kilometres, with the leaders’ gap only blowing out to 4:00, ensuring that the three riders in front would fight for the win and occupy the whole of the podium.
Swift was the first to drop, folding under Mohorič’s pressure on the San Vigilio climb and almost grinding to a halt as the other two pushed on with a much better cadence, ready to fight out the victory in the final 18.6km.
Mohorič, notorious for being one of the finest road descenders in the world, started to apply pressure each time the road went downhill, forcing the Belgian to expend extra energy with each small gap he made.
Vermeersch was able to respond to all of Mohorič’s tactics until they hit the climb up to La Serre, where the Slovenian finally began to crack the Belgian, but it certainly wasn’t over as Vermeersch kept his opponent in sight over the top.
The former Paris-Roubaix runner-up’s day would perhaps end, however, when he suffered a late mechanical in the final 15km as he dropped his chain and was forced to dismount momentarily, allowing Mohorič to gain an extra 10 seconds of advantage.
Mohorič looked nervous throughout the final phase, looking over his shoulder and checking to see if Vermeersch was chasing him down, but once he hit the final climb up to Collagu his advantage ballooned out another 30 seconds.
The last challenger to the Slovenian would only be himself, as he dangerously descended into the final 5 kilometres, sending it through the corners and braking late eventually slipping out as he turned onto a small footbridge.
It wouldn’t go any further than just a scare for Mohorič, however, as his advantage was simply too big and he was able to roll comfortably into the finish and lift his new, unreleased Merida bike above his head with a rainbow jersey awaiting him.
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