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FLORENCE, Italy (VN) — No mystery. That’s how Alejandro Valverde summed up the scintillating final kilometers of Sunday’s thrilling battle that ground everyone to the core.
To Valverde, and just about everyone else among the 208 starters, perhaps with the gut-wrenching exception of Joaquim Rodríguez, there was no secret why Rui Costa won the rainbow jersey.
Costa, who turns 27 next week, shattered the dream of Rodríguez, and roared into the world title at the end of a crushing, 272km test of survival, skill, strength, luck, and brute force.
“Things were pretty obvious,” Valverde said after settling for bronze in his fifth career world’s podium without ever winning. “When Costa attacked, I couldn’t follow him. There’s no mystery.”
Costa blew everyone out of the water.
Rain and treacherous roads took a toll on the peloton. Crashes took out scores of favorites, including Rigoberto Urán (Colombia), Samuel Sánchez (Spain), Daniel Martin (Ireland), and Cadel Evans (Australia). The entire UK team did not finish. Chris Horner, Tejay van Garderen, Andrew Talansky, and Taylor Phinney all either crashed or pulled out, leaving only Peter Stetina and Alex Howes to represent the Stars and Stripes in the front group.
“It was a race of attrition today,” Stetina told VeloNews. “All those guys got wiped out, so I figured it’s the worlds, I am going to go as far as I can. When those moves went on the final lap, I was done.”
Things came to a head in the final lap. Pre-race favorite Vincenzo Nibali (Italy) crashed on a slick corner on the penultimate lap, just as the skies were clearing after rain all day. The Shark of Messina was able to remount and quickly regain contact, but he had to go deep as the peloton was charging toward the decisive final circuit.
“I didn’t lack courage today, but rather a bit of luck,” said a bitter Nibali, who missed out on the medals with fourth. “The crash changed everything, because I had to dig deep to get back on. It’s too bad, because the condition was there and I could have had full strength on the final climb.”
Fabian Cancellara (Switzerland), defending world champion Philippe Gilbert (Belgium), and Peter Sagan (Slovakia) were among the five-star favorites who were out-gunned in the thrilling, final-lap duel that saw a showdown between Nibali and Costa on one side, and Valverde and Rodríguez on the other.
Rodríguez proved the game-changer, surging free and forcing the race-winning selection. Nibali followed, but surprisingly lost the Spaniard’s wheel, leaving Purito dangerously alone up the road. Nibali soon had company with Costa and Valverde. The selection was made, and the dynamics were titled heavily in favor of the Spanish.
With Rodríguez churning away, Valverde could wait to play the final hand. Or so went the logic. Nibali was forced to chase, and looked back in exasperation as Rodríguez was gaining ground, and neither Costa nor Valverde seemed too interested in chasing.
Nibali’s efforts brought Rodríguez back, but the Spaniard attacked again, got caught, and then disappeared over the final “hump” at 3km to go. It was crunch time.
“Purito” was powering ever closer to the major victory that’s so far eluded him throughout his career. A win in the Giro di Lombardia last year in similarly miserable conditions gave him his first monument. After reaching the Tour de France podium this July to give him top-three finishes in all three grand tours, Rodríguez seemed to be on the cusp of greatness.
Then Costa sprang to life. After riding discreetly in the main pack throughout the race, he patiently waited before counter-attacking out of a corner with less than 2km to go. With Costa closing down on Rodríguez like a MiG fighter, Valverde should have followed. Nibali’s legs were clay, but so, too, were Valverde’s.
“I should have been there, but I couldn’t do it,” Valverde said. “The corner was complicated when Costa attacked. I was behind Nibali, and Nibali slowed, and when we left the corner, Costa had a gap, and after 270km, I simply couldn’t close it down. The truth is I just couldn’t follow.”
Rodríguez hit the final finishing straight dangling ahead of Costa. A far superior time trialist, Costa powered ever closer to the ever-desperate Rodríguez. Rodríguez sat up briefly as Costa caught him at 350m to the line. The pair exchanged words. Was Purito offering his price? Both said no.
“I was trying to make him nervous,” Rodríguez recounted, “but it was impossible. We all know he’s a ‘matador,’ that he rarely messes up, and he was sure of himself. When you’re going up against a rider so fast as Costa, there’s nothing you can do. I was dead.”
It was a crushing blow for Rodríguez, who realizes, at 34, that it could well have been his final shot at the stripes. He broke down in tears as he watched Costa slip on the world champion’s jersey that was so close to being his.
“I don’t know if I will have another chance like this,” Rodríguez said.” We had the numbers in the group, with Alejandro and me. He told me to attack. But when Rui Costa caught me, I was empty; I was so close to the finish line. It’s a shame to lose like this.”
Recriminations began immediately. How could Spain have blown it? With Nibali hobbled from his crash, and Costa out-numbered by Rodríguez and Valverde, it should have been Spain coming up the winner.
“With me stuck between Purito and Valverde, and Costa won?” Nibali asked. “The Spanish screwed it up.”
Spanish national coach Javier Minguez didn’t hold back, and put the blame on Valverde.
“When Costa went, Valverde should have followed. He made an error,” Minguez told Spanish journalists. “It’s a shame that Purito didn’t win. The team was great, but we made a mistake in the end. We have two medals, but not the gold, and had Valverde gone with Costa, the rainbow jersey would have been ours.”
A disappointed Rodríguez suggested that Spain seems cursed of late in the worlds. Despite lining up with several cards to play, with consistently one of the deepest squads, they always seem to come close, but cannot quite pull it off. Their last world title was Óscar Freire’s third in 2004. Since then, they’ve been on five of the following nine podiums, but never on the top spot.
“Two medals don’t mean anything. We want to win, and to be so close, and not win, well, it’s not something to celebrate,” Rodríguez said.
“I don’t take consolation in silver and bronze, because we want to win. Both Alejandro and I both have won a lot of races, but neither have of us have won a worlds title. We’ve been close, but we want the rainbow jersey. We are missing something, maybe luck, but it’s been impossible to win.”
All eyes turned back to Valverde, but again he simply admitted that Costa was strongest in the decisive moment of the race. When his soon-to-be-former Movistar teammate pounced, Valverde didn’t have the gas to counter.
“When Purito was up ahead, I never took a pull, I never did anything,” Valverde said. “We knew that Costa was dangerous. When Purito went, I thought that he had won. I couldn’t attack with Purito up the road. When Costa countered, I was behind Nibali, and we couldn’t follow him.”
For Costa, it was a crowning moment for what’s been a steady, ever-improving progression in the peloton. A pro since 2007, he joined the Movistar franchise in 2009. He’s set to lead Lampre-Merida next year, and following back-to-back victories at the Tour de Suisse, and two stage wins in this year’s Tour, it shouldn’t come as a complete surprise that Costa had worlds-winning potential in his legs.
“It was a brutal race, and there were a few moments when I did not feel good at all,” Costa said. “It was complicated in the finale, with the two Spanish and Nibali. I wanted to wait and make one move at full gas to try to win. I honestly didn’t think I would catch Rodríguez. It’s a lifelong dream to win the rainbow jersey, and I still cannot believe it.”
Sunday’s worlds was indeed a race of attrition. Only 61 of the 208 starters finished. Between the frowns, the tears, and the disappointment, only one of those 61 survivors was smiling.
And as Valverde pointed out, there was no mystery to Costa’s win: he was the strongest, the smartest, and the luckiest. Sometimes you need all three to win the rainbow jersey.