The Final round began in front of a sellout crowd at the Lee Valley velodrome with everything to play for in three out of the four Championships.
In all honestly, the Women’s Sprint was all but done and dusted. It would have taken a massive shock in both races for Mathilde Gros of France to be in any danger of losing her title.
One came in the first round of the Keirin – Olympic Champion Shanne Braspennincx of the Netherlands and former series leader Martha Bayona of Colombia qualified from the first heat; so far, so expected. Heat 2 contained Gros’ closest rival for the title – Canada’s Kelsey Mitchell who, unexpectedly, came home third behind Keirin World Championship Bronze medalist Steffie Van Der Peet of the Netherlands and rising French star Taky-Marie Divine Kouame. Gros won the third heat from Hetty Van De Wouw of the Netherlands, but Mitchell’s early departure had taken most of the pressure off.
That was evident in the final, which, in the end, was contested by Braspennincx and Bayona, with the Colombian taking the win. Gros crossed the line sixth, but that still moved her another point clear of her Canadian rival. Going into the Sprint, Mitchell’s highest possible points total was 130 – Gros was already on 120, so another 6th would tie them on points, but she’d need 5th to be sure. In practical terms, that meant she had to qualify for the Semi Final – then, as long as she was in the faster of the two heats, even third place would be enough.
Olena Starikova of Ukraine won the first heat, with Bayona taking the second. Pauline Grabosch of Germany and Braspennincx took Heats 3 and 4 and Mitchell recovered enough after her Keirin disappointment to take the penultimate place. If Gros failed to qualify for the Semis, Mitchell still had a solid shot at the title; if not, her hopes would be hanging by a thread. It was close – Laurine van Riessen was just under four hundredths behind – but Gros moved through to the Semis.
There she made it look easy. Mitchell made it through to face her in the Final but, mathematically, it was already over. The Championship standings made it look like a comfortable win, but the Canadian had pace and would have been a contender with a bit more consistency. Gros celebrated the title with a win – albeit by just two-hundredths of a second.
Even though there was only one point difference between the gap at the top of the Women’s Sprint and the Women’s Endurance, the eight-point gap between Jennifer Valente of the USA and Great Britain’s Katy Archibald seemed much more fragile. Archibald, after all, had won four races to Valente’s one and was in front of an enthusiastic home crowd.
The Scratch race once again saw a breakaway – something that’s not supposed to happen in these ‘sprindurance’ six-minute races. Happen it did, though, with Chloe Moran of Australia hanging on for the win ahead of Sarah van Dam of Canada, Archibald and Valente. It closed the gap a little, but not much. Archibald would have to finish six places ahead of Valente (to finish equal on points and win on countback) – or more.
Rider after rider was eliminated and when Silvia Zanardi of Italy went with seven to go, the title race was over. Archibald and Valente were both still in the race and the American could not be beaten. As we’d seen in the Women’s Sprint Final, the last lap was a showdown between the two Championship leaders but this time – although the Scot gave the home crowd a welcome win, it was just a consolation.
There’s a case for reviewing a points system that can see a rider that wins five of ten races lose the Championship to someone who won only one – but you certainly can’t question Valente’s consistency across the season.
Matthew Richardson of Australia had only moved into the leader’s jersey the previous evening after the Netherlands’ Harrie Lavreysen had led from Round 1. He’d attended one pre-race press conference after another, patiently answering questions about his battle with Richardson and stubbornly retaining his lead. Tonight, though – when it mattered – he started two points behind.
The Sprint was up first and the first four heats saw Lavreysen’s compatriot Jeffrey Hoogland, Kevin Santiago Quintero and Santiago Ramirez of Colombia, and Stefan Bötticher of Germany book the first four Semi-Final spots. Neither of the two Championship contenders was troubled by their heats – Lavreysen holding off Rayan Helal of France and Richardson beating Thailand’s Jai Angsuthasawit.
Hoogland and Bötticher put up the biggest challenge of the Semi-Finals – but, with all due respect to them and the two Colombians – the crowd was rewarded with the Final they wanted to see. And what a Final it was – a cagey start exploding into a frantic last lap with Lavreysen taking the win by 16 thousandths of a second – and the Championship lead by a point.
So it would all come down to the Keirin. If Lavreysen finished ahead of Richardson, he’d take the title – but Richardson only needed a one-point swing to tie on points and win on countback, so he, too, simply needed to finish ahead of his rivals.
Both comfortably progressed to the Final – Tom Derache of France making it through behind Lavreysen and Hoogland behind Richardson. The two remaining finalists were Bötticher – who went through as heat winner – and Mohd Azizulhasni Bin Awang of Malaysia.
The final was almost as close as the Sprint had been earlier, with Lavreysen leading out at the bell. Richardson was flying, though, and came round the Dutch rider through turns three and four and eased past him to win the Keirin by 12 thousandths of a second – and the title by two points.
The remaining title also went down to the wire – and was the only one of the four not won by the leader leading going into the final round – although, to be fair, the two mean at the head of the field were tied on points, so it was by fair the closest contest. The Men’s Scratch – the five minute long Men’s Scratch – saw another break – with Moritz Malcharek of Germany, who successfully took a lap the night before, working with Filip Prokopyszyn of Poland to eek out around half a lap. It wasn’t enough to keep the charging pack – led by overnight leader Sebastian Mora of Spain and his nearest rival and leader after Round 3 in Paris, Claudio Imhof of Switzerland.
The break was swallowed up and Mora was on the head of the race with Matthijs Büchli of the Netherlands and Oliver Wood of Great Britain. The three of them were looking at each other to see who would take the win when Great Britain’s Mark Stewart flew through the middle of them – arm in the air – to snatch one of the most audacious track bunch race wins I’ve ever seen.
From Mora’s perspective – although he’d finished three places ahead of Imhof – Stewart and Büchli had taken the big points at the top of the Classification that might have helped clinch the title. He would go into the Elimination four points clear; he just make sure he wasn’t eliminated too far ahead of Imhof.
Mora didn’t have a bad race – he finished fourth – and Imhof lost out to Oliver Wood as the home crowd got to see a fourth British win of the evening. But the difference between second and fourth is four points. The two riders were tied again – and this time it was Imhof who had finished ahead in the final race and who took the Champions League trophy.
The second season of the UCI Champions League is over. The riders have adjusted to the race formats – and Covid hasn’t had the impact that it did last year. There remain some question marks over both the quality of the field from the midfield down and about some of the race structures – we’ll never grow to like three-up sprints – but most of the organizational glitches have been ironed out and the riders and the crowds certainly enjoyed some good racing. Every series saw at least some competition for top spot – although a couple could have been closer – and, while none of the Champions is a shock, they aren’t necessarily the four we would have predicted at the start of the season. Let’s see what next year brings.