When the World Championships came home

Michael Valgren and Neilson Powless reflect on a magical race

The lion of Flanders roared as the riders made their way through cycling’s heartland. For a country that was deprived of their national pastime for over a year, the 2021 World Championships felt like a homecoming for an entire nation. This week, the riders weren’t racing on roads, they were racing in a stadium, a stadium built from the noise of millions of fans lining the streets, cobbles, and bergs.

 

The World Championship always brings with it a certain je ne sais quoi to bike racing. The racing hits another level of intensity and every rider knows that one second, one meter of inattention over the 280-kilometer course can and will cost them the race. Michael Valgren and Neilson Powless both rode near perfect races on their way to their third and fifth respectively. For both of them, having the crowd there made the day that much more special and gave them the energy they needed to keep pushing.

 

“The crowd was unbelievable,” says bronze medalist Michael Valgren. “When you’re riding up the climbs it feels like riding into a wall of noise with all the screaming and yelling. It just feels so unreal. It was so nice to have the people around again and to be able to feel that atmosphere after some hard years with the pandemic.”

“Yesterday was a pretty epic day on the bike,” reflects Neilson Powless who finished fifth on the day – the best result by an American in over two decades. “The fans were unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. I’ve experienced similar moments on hilltops of Grand Tours or at the Tour de France or even at the Basque Country. But to have crowds like that for the entire circuit was unreal. It was just hours of deafening cheers from every side. It was amazing and it was giving me chills going up those climbs.”

 

While Valgren and Powless had two very different race strategies, they both ended up in the front group in the closing stages of the race, something they weren’t unfamiliar with having just come back from racing back-to-back races in Italy together – two races Valgren won. This time however, they were racing each other.

 

“I thought it was also pretty special to be fighting for the win and for the podium with Michael,” says Powless. “We just came off of some pretty fun races together and I knew coming in how strong he was. It felt really cool to be racing with him at the front of the World Championships. We’re on the same team but this is kind of one of those strange moments where we’re racing against each other, but I still felt something special about it because we’re competitors but also teammates. We both respected each other and it made for a really special race.”

For Valgren, these World Championships will be one for the ages. He has had to wait two years for a win to come his way, a wait that can feel like an eternity for any pro athlete. Then, he got two wins in a row in Italy and while he didn’t bring home the gold medal yesterday, to him, the significance of bringing home a medal from Flanders was not lost on him.

“Being third at the World Championships was just incredible,” says Valgren. “Of course, my dream is to become world champion one day. Yesterday, I came pretty close but it still feels like a win to me. I can only imagine how it must feel to be the winner, but I’m super happy and I’m super proud of the way I raced. I’m thankful for the confidence that the national team put in me but also the confidence EF gave me all year. They helped me get to where I am now and they just kept believing in me. I’m just so happy that it’s all finally clicking.” 

 

For both of these riders the road to these World Championships has been met with deviations and delays along the way, but both showed yesterday that this was just the beginning.