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VALKENBURG, Netherlands (VN) – With Philippe Gilbert riding away with the rainbow jersey, Alejandro Valverde kept looking back. He was looking for Oscar Freire, the designated captain for the Spanish armada at the end of an intense, chaotic final charge up the Cauberg.
Valverde was in a quandary. Alexander Kolobnev (Russia) and Edvald Boasson Hagen (Norway) were riding clear. Freire was behind. Gilbert was gone.
Making a split-second decision that later infuriated Freire, Valverde followed the action, leaving Freire isolated. Valverde ended up saving Spanish pride with bronze, but soured Freire’s final ride.
A frustrated Freire crossed the line 10th, seventh in the field sprint behind the three medalists, but he wasn’t happy with how things played out on the Cauberg.
“There were none of my teammates with me on the Cauberg,” Freire fumed at the line to Spanish radio. “We didn’t follow the plan. We didn’t race very well. They said they were riding for me, but we didn’t have things worked out. When you’re alone, it’s hard to neutralize an attack and finish it off. Valverde should have waited and not followed the attacks. I was good, but isolated.”
Spain kept its tactical plan under wraps headed into the finale, but it was soon apparent that the men in red and black were riding for Freire.
Neither Valverde nor Joaquim Rodríguez budged during the final laps on the Cauberg. Alberto Contador and Juan Antonio Flecha rode into early moves, but the team was backing Freire for what would have been a record fourth title — and one that would have extended his career another season.
Gilbert’s explosive attack on the Cauberg threw the Spanish plans out the window. No one immediately reacted, giving Gilbert just enough rope to hang on by four seconds to win his first world title two kilometers up the road.
Valverde found himself between a rock and a hard place as the Belgian powered clear for the victory.
Valverde’s hesitation – torn between riding for himself or sticking to the team play, despite having it unravel before his eyes – cost him a chance to try and challenge Gilbert for the world crown.
“It’s a medal for Spain, so I am content, but maybe it could have turned out differently,” Valverde said. “Gilbert got a big jump on everyone. It was a complicated situation. Boasson Hagen and Kolobnev were ahead. Freire was behind. Maybe I could have won if I had gone after Gilbert earlier.”
Valverde said after he waited too long to go after Gilbert, he didn’t want to leave Spain empty-handed by missing out on the counter-attacks in the Belgian’s wake.
“When Gilbert got to the top of the Cauberg, the only thing left to play for was silver,” Valverde said. “We wanted to work for Oscar, but Gilbert got a big gap. I was covering our bases. I decided to chase a medal. There was no collaboration between Boasson Hagen and Kolobnev. Nothing was organized.”
It’s not the first time in the squad’s recent history that indecision and personal ambitions have sunk the Spanish armada at the worlds.
Freire has won three world titles and Valverde now boasts four worlds medals, with two bronze and two silver, but the Spanish just as often botch the tactics. One of the worst instances came in Salzburg in 2006, when Valverde was assigned to follow eventual winner Paolo Bettini, but was caught sleeping at the back of the bunch late in the race and missed the move.
Freire couldn’t hide his frustration on Sunday, because a sprint finale could have been in the cards if Spain had had more riders up the Cauberg to help him.
But Contador and Samuel Sánchez were both dropped early. So was Rodríguez, who didn’t have the spark in his legs as expected in the finale. Valverde was the only rider with a familiar jersey riding close to Freire up the Cauberg.
“We had a plan, but we didn’t execute,” Freire said. “It’s a frustrating end because I felt really good today. I think there was time to bring the group to the line for the sprint, but it wasn’t so.”
Valverde, too, was frustrated, because he perhaps had the legs to challenge Gilbert.
“If I had stayed with Freire, we wouldn’t have won a medal,” Valverde said. “We were waiting to see if (Freire) could get up the Cauberg, but I saw that he was back and I reacted (to Gilbert), but it was too late. Who knows what would have happened if I had gone with Gilbert? Maybe this bronze could have been gold.”
Spain, the top favorite before Sunday’s race, leaves the Netherlands with a medal, but it’s one fraught with controversy. Freire ends his career without a fourth win at the worlds and Valverde falls just short of winning the world title for a fourth time.