Paolo Bettini shot back at critics and rivals alike in an electrifying five-up sprint victory on Sunday, defending his world championship.
The 33-year-old Tuscan gestured as if he were firing a machine gun as he crossed the line in Stuttgart after rocketing past the brawny shoulders of Alexandr Kolobnev, relegating the Russian to second and local rider Stefan Schumacher (Germany) to third.
“Everyone’s been shooting at me all week, so I decided to try myself,” said Bettini, who became only the fifth rider in world’s history to successfully defend the rainbow jersey. “It wasn’t directed at anyone in cycling. Problems come from people who know nothing about cycling and whose only interests are economic.”
Bettini’s finish-line salvo came at the end of an exciting, attack-riddled 267.4km elite men’s road race that helped everyone forget the controversial, scandal-plagued run-up to the 2007 world’s.
Efforts by local politicians to keep Bettini out of the race failed almost as spectacularly as the final desperate gasps for victory by his four fellow escapees.
It was Bettini’s race to lose as Kolobnev led out the sprint through a sweeping right turn with 200 meters to go. Fränk Schleck (Luxembourg) finished fourth and Cadel Evans (Australia) took fifth as the quintet held off an eight-man chase group by six seconds.
Pre-race favorite Oscar Freire (Spain) missed the attacks on the turbo-charged final lap and was left wondering what might have been after leading the main peloton across the line at 49 seconds back.
“Today I gave 100 percent but it was impossible to beat Paolo. I felt it on the last climb that he was stronger than me,” said Schumacher. “I felt good in the last kilometer but when I started to sprint, my legs were empty and I couldn’t sprint. Then I only tried to be third and medal. For me, in my hometown it’s a great success.”
Bettini made a searing acceleration on the Birkenkopf climb midway through the 19.1km circuit to forge the decisive split in a front group that still included about a dozen riders.
A lead group of about 50 was whittled down to a winning dozen after soon-to-be retired Dutch veteran Michael Boogerd set a brutal pace up the short but steep Herdweg climb early in the final lap.
Americans George Hincapie and Christian Vande Velde didn’t quite have the legs to follow the decisive late moves and finished in the Freire group at 23rd and 36th, respectively.
“My legs were not good. I could tell halfway that I was not on a super day, so I told the guys if they were good they could go and I would just follow the wheels,” Hincapie told VeloNews. “Once we hit 200km I just didn’t have the legs.”
Indeed, when Bettini uncorked his move, only a select few had the legs to follow. Schumacher and Schleck followed the wheel, while Kolobnev and Evans bridged out with 6km to go, to open up a winning gap to an eight-man chase group.
Spain’s Samuel Sánchez, seventh at eight seconds back, was fuming at the finish line after considering a lost opportunity. Renowned as one of the peloton’s best descenders, Sánchez complained that Boogerd cost him the chance to bridge out to the Bettini group after coming off the Birkenkopf.
“Joder! I lost the wheel up the climb but I was confident I could catch them on the descent when I got stuck behind Boogerd on the descent. He braked too hard on a corner and then I lost all of my momentum. It was impossible to try to chase back,” Sánchez told VeloNews. “There was no one willing to work in the chase group. It was so frustrating because I had great legs today.”
Kolobnev and Schumacher were happy with medals after a hard and brutal day at the office, but Schleck and Evans walked away with nothing.
“Of course I am disappointed. I knew beating Bettini was impossible, but the legs were good and I was hoping to at least medal,” Schleck said. “It’s awful to finish fourth after working so hard and end up with nothing.”
Evans was equally disappointed, but the Tour de France runner-up has become philosophical about close calls in a season that’s been full of them. Evans tried in vain to drop his fellow escapees with a surge in the final kilometers.
“I’m there for the jersey and I think I have to be satisfied,” Evans told VeloNews. “The Vuelta cooked me. I’ve had a big season. Fifth for me, or second, third or fourth, it’s not a difference, I want the jersey or it doesn’t matter.”
Like so many world championships, the action was all tightly wound in the final few laps.
With three laps to go, the Italians put the finishing touches on a potentially dangerous 40-man breakaway that took control of the race in lap 5. Riders such as Hincapie, Jens Voigt (Germany) and Alessandro Ballan (Italy) were among some of the bigger names away in the early moves.
“I saw it go and I had to go bridge up to it. I did 5km by myself, and that might have taken a little steam out of me. But you know it was 40 guys, and I figured having two up there was better than one,” said Hincapie.
But the effort cost him in the final lap. “I couldn’t react. I was empty. I was seeing stars. Some days you just don’t have it. It was a lot of climbing today. It was a super hard day. I wasn’t at my best, and if you’re not at your best on a course like this there’s not much you can do.”
Evans and Denis Menchov (Russia) attacked up the penultimate passage over the Herdweg without much success of pulling clear, but Robert Gesink (Holland) opened it up on the transition to the Birkenkopf.
Davide Rebellin (Italy) and Kolobnev shot away on the Birkenkopf to carve a small, 18-second gap, but there wasn’t an organized chase straight away. The gap grew to 35 seconds before the Spanish put four riders on the front.
“Alexandr was our captain today but I told him it was better to try something than to wait for a big group, that he should try some action to at least trim the group,” Viatcheslav Ekimov, Russia’s national coach, told VeloNews. “He’s fast in a small bunch sprint and everyone knows he’s strong. Sometimes he has a lot of problems, but when he’s on, he can beat anyone. Today we saw him at his best.”
With one lap to go, Spain put four men on the front to tamp down the Kolobnev-Rebellin move at the base of the final climb up the Herdweg climb, the steepest climb on the 19.1km circuit.
The favorites were looking at each as Boogerd and Fabian Wegmann (Germany) led a group up the climb. That hard effort fractured the peloton, still about 50 riders strong.
About a baker’s dozen pulled clear. In the select group were: Wegmann, Schumacher, Thomas Dekker and Karsten Kroon (Holland), Bettini, Evans, Philippe Gilbert and Bjorn Leukemans (Belgium), Martin Elmiger (Switzerland), and Sánchez, with Rebellin and Kolobnev carrying their momentum up the climb. Filippo Pozzato was also in the move but eventually sat up after Bettini jettisoned the pack.
Sánchez, one of the best descenders in the game, led the way down the snaking climb to the base of the Birkenkopf climb with less than 10km to go.
But Bettini wasn’t going to wait for anyone. He saw fate deliver him the chance to take control of the race.
He smashed his pedals and no one was going to stop him in the breakaway, no more than could the Stuttgart politicians who wanted to keep him out of the world’s because he didn’t sign the UCI’s anti-doping pledge.
There was a tense, yet subdued atmosphere at the start as big yet polite crowds showed up on a bright, sunny Sunday morning. The elite men enjoyed the best weather of the week, with sunny skies, temperatures in the upper 60s and almost no wind.
After a tumultuous lead-up to the world’s, filled with rancor and division, everyone seemed happy just to get down to the business of racing the bike. The top three from last year’s world’s podium became persona non grata in the weeks and months ahead of Stuttgart, yet Bettini, Zabel and Valverde all lined up as pre-race favorites.
“I feel good and I’m ready to race today,” Valverde said before the start. “The world’s are always hard. We can hope to be protagonists.”
There was also a sense of chaos as many of the 198 riders from 43 nations didn’t know how to arrive to the start. Three-time champ Freire was scrambling just moments before the gun to find out where he had to go.
It didn’t take long for the attacks to begin. Two early moves failed, including one driven by American Tyler Farrar, until Stephen Augé (France) and Marlon Pérez (Colombia) peeled away early on lap 2 to hold a gap of 2:09. Bettini was fiddling with his course radio at the back of the bunch – such was the drama in the slow opening salvos.
Sergey Kolesnikov (Russia) bridged out in lap three and the trio collaborated to build a gap of five minutes as the Italians continued to be vigilant at the front in the opening quiet five laps.
Hincapie, Voigt, Cunego bust a move … and a few more
Toward the end of the fifth lap, the peloton suddenly came to life. The main pack split coming down the long descent off the Birkenkopf climb on the run back into the start-finish area.
Several big names slipped into the 39-man group, including Hincapie and Julich, Voigt, Thor Hushovd (Norway), four Italians with Cunego, Marzio Bruseghin, Alessandro Bertolini and Matteo Tossatto, three French with Stephane Goubert, Sylvain Chavanel and Ludovic Turpin, two Dutch with Robert Gesink and Bram Tamkink, four Spanish with Carlos Sastre, Carlos Barredo, Joaquin Rodriguez and Juan Antonio Flecha, three Germans with Voigt, Ronny Scholz and Christian Knees, and three Belgians with Mario Aerts, Greg Van Avermaet and Stijn Devolder.
Joining them were a host of Latin American and East European nations, including Kristjan Fajt and Gorazd Stangelj (both Slovenia), Martin Mares (Czech Republic), Radoslav Rogina (Croatia), Vladislav Borisov (Russia), Unai Etxebarria (Venezuela), Laszlo Bodrogi (Hungary), Mauricio Ardila and Leonardo Duque (both Colombia), Andriy Grivko (Ukraine), Rene Mandri (Estonia), Hugo Sabio (Portugal), Kanstantsin Siutsou and Aleksandr Kuschynski (both Belarus), Marilio Fischer (Brazil), Ruslan Podgornyy (Ukraine).
The huge group quickly swallowed up the three-man move when Podgornyy went on a solo flier to go about one minute off the front.
The presence of such a massive crowd off the front sent a shock through the peloton, especially after the gap grew to nearly three minutes after lap 6.
It was the Dutch team, with Boogerd riding his last world’s, that put its men on the front of the main pack despite the presence of Tamkink and the young climbing protégé Gesink.
The gap fell to under 30 seconds at the end of seven laps and the two groups nearly came together through the start-finish area when scores of riders fell back and others bridged across.
Yet more fireworks
Just when it looked like the Cunego group was about neutralized, it sprang back to life with the arrival of fresh legs. Kurt-Asle Arvesen (Norway), Kim Kirchen (Luxembourg), Alessandro Ballan (Italy), Karsten Kroon (Holland), Vladimir Efimkin (Russia), Marcus Burghardt (Germany), Simon Gerrans (Australia) and Philippe Gilbert (Belgium) were the newcomers.
Others, among them Hincapie and most of the smaller nations, fell back to create a group of 25 pulling clear at the end of eight laps.
The group included: Ballan, Cunego, Bertolini, Efimkin, Gerrens, Casar, Grivko, Julich, Arvesen, Kirchen, Voigt, Barredo, Rodriguez, Flecha, Mandri, Van Summeren, Gilbert, Devolder, Stare, Pfannberger, Gesink, Kroon, Podgornny, Burghardt and Laverde.
The Australians put three riders on the front to keep the gap under one minute with four laps to go.
Julich and Gesink put in digs out of the lead group on the Herdeweg group as things were about to explode.
But the riders were cooked after a hard five hours of racing. The pace was much harder than other recent editions of the world’s, and it started to take its toll both in the front attackers as well as in the main pack.
Kroon attacked coming off the Birkenkopf with Bertolini and Rodriguez following the wheel. The French helped finish off the move and it was all back together with three laps to go.
And then, on the final trip up the Birkenkopf, Bettini came out with his guns blazing.
UCI world road championships
1. Paolo Bettini (I), 267.4km in 6:44:43 (39.642 km/h)
2. Alexandre Kolobnev (Rus), same time
3. Stefan Schumacher (G), s.t.
4. Frank Schleck (Lux), s.t.
5. Cadel Evans (Aus), s.t.
6. Davide Rebellin (I), at 0:06
7. Samuel Sanchez (Sp), at 0:08
8. Philippe Gilbert (B), s.t.
9. Fabian Wegmann (G), s.t.
10. Martin Elmiger (Swi), s.t.
11. Thomas Dekker (Ned), s.t.
12. Michael Boogerd (Ned), at 0:14
13. Björn Leukemans (B), at 0:15
14. Oscar Freire (Sp), at 0:49
15. Aleksandr Kuschynski (Blr), s.t.
16. Alexandre Usov (Blr), s.t.
17. Beat Zberg (Swi), s.t.
18. Erik Zabel (G), s.t.
19. Thor Hushovd (Nor), s.t.
20. Radoslav Rogina (Cro), s.t.
21. Murilo Fischer (Bra), s.t.
22. Matej Mugerli (Slo), s.t.
23. George Hincapie (USA), s.t.
24. Marcus Ljungqvist (Swe), s.t.
25. Chris Sörensen (Den), s.t.
Results – World Championship Road Race
September 30, 2007
1. Paolo Bettini – Italy 267km in 6:44:43 ( 39.65kph)
2. Alexandr Kolobnev – Russia
3. Stefan Schumacher – Germany
4. Frank Schleck – Luxembourg
5. Cadel Evans – Australia, all same time
6. Davide Rebellin – Italy, at 0:06
7. Samuel Sanchez Gonzalez – Spain, at 0:08
8. Philippe Gilbert – Belgium
9. Fabian Wegmann – Germany
10. Martin Elmiger – Switzerland
11. Thomas Dekker – Netherlands, all s.t.
12. Michael Boogerd – Netherlands, at 0:14
13. Björn Leukemans – Belgium, at 0:15
14. Oscar Freire Gomez – Spain, at 0:49
15. Aleksandr Kuschynski – Belarus
16. Alexandre Usov – Belarus
17. Beat Zberg – Switzerland
18. Erik Zabel – Germany
19. Thor Hushovd – Norway
20. Radoslav Rogina – Croatia
21. Murilo Antonio Fischer – Brazil
22. Matej Mugerli – Slovenia
23. George Hincapie – USA
24. Marcus Ljungqvist – Sweden
25. Chris Sörensen – Denmark
26. Jurgen Van Goolen – Belgium
27. Leonardo Duque – Colombia
28. Rene Mandri – Estonia
29. Gustav Larsson – Sweden
30. Pierrick Fedrigo – France
31. Thomas Lövkvist – Sweden
32. Alexander Efimkin – Russia
33. Tomasz Marczynski – Poland
34. Jan Valach – Slovakia
35. Sebastian Langeveld – Netherlands
36. Christian Vande Velde – USA
37. Nuno Ribeiro – Portugal
38. Christian Pfannberger – Austria
39. Unai Etxebarria Arana – Venezuela
40. David George – South Africa
41. Ludovic Turpin – France
42. Kurt-Asle Arvesen – Norway
43. Vladimir Efimkin – Russia
44. Sergey Lagutin – Uzbekistan
45. Mario Aerts – Belgium
46. Vladimir Karpets – Russia
47. Denis Menchov – Russia
48. Przemyslaw Niemiec – Poland
49. Manuel Beltran Martinez – Spain, all s.t.
50. Damiano Cunego – Italy, at 0:57
51. Filippo Pozzato – Italy
52. Alessandro Ballan – Italy, all s.t.
53. Allan Davis – Australia, at 1:05
54. David Millar – Great Britain, s.t.
55. Matthew Lloyd – Australia, at 1:10
56. Karsten Kroon – Netherlands, at 1:24
57. Alejandro Valverde Belmonte – Spain, at 2:47
58. Matija Kvasina – Croatia, at 3:10
59. Kristjan Fajt – Slovenia, at 3:38
60. Gorazd Stangelj – Slovenia, at 3:41
61. Kanstantsin Siutsou – Belarus, at 5:17
62. Alessandro Bertolini – Italy, at 6:01
63. Greg Van Avermaet – Belgium, at 6:34
64. Maxime Monfort – Belgium, at 6:52
65. Joaquin Rodriguez Oliver – Spain, at 7:52
66. Simon Gerrans – Australia, at 8:09
67. Sylvain Chavanel – France
68. Thomas Voeckler – France, at 15:51
69. Erki Pütsep – Estonia, s.t.
70. Laszlo Bodrogi – Hungary, at 17:10
71. Vladimir Tuychiev – Uzbekistan, at 21:57
72. Hossein Askari – Islamic Republic Of Iran, s.t.
Did Not Finish