France's Julian Alaphilippe savoured his first world title on Sunday, finally pulling on the coveted rainbow jersey as newly-crowned men's road race champion in the Italian city of Imola.

Alaphilippe launched his attack on the final climb less than 12km from the finish line, holding on to finish 24 seconds ahead of Belgian Wout van Aert and Swiss Marc Hirschi.

"It was the dream of my career," said the emotional 28-year-old, the first French winner since Laurent Brochard in 1997.

"I've been so close so many times, but I had never even been on the podium.

"It's the summit of my career."

Alaphilippe added: "Every time it's different emotions, winning big races, monuments, stages on the Tour, wearing the yellow jersey.

"But the rainbow jersey, it's the summit, the race that I dreamed of the most.

"There is no feeling of revenge. It's just an emotion that feels very good in a year where there have been lots of ups and downs."

France's Julian Alaphilippe celebrates his first world title. / © AFP

For Alaphilippe this season had so far brought modest success compared to 2019 when he won the Strade Bianche, Milan-San Remo and the Fleche Wallonne, before wearing the Tour de France yellow jersey for 14 days.

He won the second stage of the 2020 Tour in Nice on August 30 and wore the yellow jersey for three days, but in Imola he captured the rainbow jersey for a year.

"It's a new chance," Alaphilippe had warned as national coach Thomas Voeckler built the French team around the rider from the Loire valley, who had missed out in three previous editions.

This time, the Frenchman who rides for the Deceuninck Quick-Step team, was not picked off by his rivals despite Van Aert's imposing presence in the chasing pack.

"It's hard to accept second," said Van Aert of another silver medal this week after Friday's time-trial.

"I came to worlds with high hopes," he continued of "an exceptional season" in which he won the Strade Bianche, Milan-San Remo and two stages on the Tour de France.

- Pogacar muzzled -

The 258km race got under way under overcast skies in Emilia-Romagna and only took shape 70km from the finish with the French trio of Quentin Pacher, Nans Peters and Kenny Elissonde putting pressure on their rivals.

Tour de France champion Tadej Pogacar vainly launched an attack on the penultimate climb at Cima Gallisterna, 42km from the finish line.

The 22-year-old was reeled in by Van Aert's teammates, Tiesj Benoot and Tim Wellens, with the Slovenian finishing down the field in 33rd position.

"After the Pogacar attack, the work of the Belgians and the Swiss, it was the right scenario for us," said Alaphilippe.

"I knew I had to give the maximum in the final climb."

Tour de France champion Tadej Pogacar crossed the line in 33rd position. / © POOL/AFP

Alaphilippe patiently waited for his moment.

That came on the approach of the top of the final ascent of Gallisterna, over 2.7km and with a 6.4 percent gradient.

The French rider then put his foot to the pedal, charging down the narrow road towards the Enzo and Dino Ferrari Racetrack in Imola.

At the entrance to the racing circuit, 3.4km from the finish, the job was done with 14 seconds on his rivals and the rainbow jersey waiting after more than six and a half hours in the saddle.

"It was a perfect race from start to finish, we respected exactly what we said at the team briefing," said Alaphilippe's teammate Guillaume Martin.

"We had planned to toughen up two or three laps from the finish and then to follow through, to take the blows.

"I was vigilant with Rudy Molard so that Julian (Alaphilippe) was in the best shape for the final climb.

"We knew that on top of his form on a steep and punchy climb like this, he's the best in the world and he showed it once again today.

"We saw a tight-knit team all day.

"I have heard in recent weeks following the Tour de France that the French are lagging behind other nations, today we responded."