FLORENCE, Italy (VN) — Portugal’s Rui Costa swam to victory on Sunday in a rain-lashed world-championship road race.
Costa had been off the front in the final lap of the 272.2km race with Joaquim Rodriguez and Alejandro Valverde (Spain) and a resurgent Vincenzo Nibali (Italy), who fought back from a crash to be in contention for the rainbow jersey.
Rodriguez opened a gap over the others, and with neither Valverde nor Costa willing to chase, a tiring Nibali found himself with a burden too heavy to bear as the kilometers ticked away. As the Italian faded, Costa sprang to life, chasing down Rodriguez inside the red kite.
The two shared a quick conversation, gauged the pursuit, and then fought a two-up duel for the gold that Costa won. The Spaniards had to settle for second and third, while Nibali finished out of the medals.
Addressing their chat, Costa said: “When I got to him he told me to pass him. I didn’t want to, thinking about the sprint. I looked back, saw we had a good gap, and was just hoping my legs wouldn’t fail me. And they didn’t. I was able to realize a dream.”
Rodriguez said his words were intended “to get him nervous, but it was impossible, he is very secure in himself.”
“He was in front of me, he was in a good position, and I was trying to pass him,” Rodriguez added. “But he knows himself very well, and he knows me.”
Early break, early departures
Jan Barta (Czech Republic) and Bartosz Huzarski (Poland) were up the road with a few minutes’ advantage as the atrocious conditions whittled down the peloton through crashes and abandonments between Lucca and Florence.
Those calling it a day included Cadel Evans, Chris Horner, Chris Froome, Bradley Wiggins, and the entire British team — Welshman Geraint Thomas had been the last man standing, but called it quits with some 90km remaining.
A few familiar faces remained in the race, among them defending champion Philippe Gilbert (Belgium), Fabian Cancellara and Gregory Rast (Switzerland), Peter Sagan (Slovakia), Alberto Contador, Valverde and Rodriguez (Spain), Costa (Portugal), Edvald Boasson Hagen (Norway), Thomas Voeckler (France), Vincenzo Nibali, Luca Paolini, Michele Scarponi and Filippo Pozzato (Italy), Rigoberto Uran (Colombia), John Degenkolb and Marcus Burghardt (Germany), Maxim Iglinskiy (Kazakhstan) and Alex Howes and Peter Stetina (USA).
The chase fell to first Italy and then Belgium as the peloton tackled 10 laps of the technical 16.6km finishing circuit, with the Fiesole and Via Salviati ascents and a wicked descent in between.
With 56km to go the rain was still bucketing down and the two leaders held less than a minute over a two-man chase group, Georg Preidler (Austria) and Wilco Kelderman (Netherlands). Giovanni Visconti (Italy) and Cyril Gautier (France) were chasing behind that pair. The peloton containing the hopefuls for the victory was playing it cagey, with no one team eager to do the lion’s share of the chasing.
End of the break
Huzarski eventually found himself alone out front, having shed Barta, while behind Visconti escaped the chasers and zipped past Barta toward the lone leader with 45km remaining.
The Pole had slightly more than a minute over Visconti going over the Fiesole with the peloton led by Belgian Johan Vansummeren some 90 seconds down.
With 40km remaining the rain abated somewhat and as Huzarski approached the Via Salviati Visconti was closing in, just a dozen seconds behind. The two men struggled up the steep pitch at 9 km/h; they’d see it twice more before the finish.
Visconti finally caught Huzarski on the descent off the Via Salviati and the two soldiered on with slightly more than a minute’s advantage. Behind, yet another crash took down Nibali and Paolini. Nibali remounted and continued, his shorts shredded, and the Giro d’Italia champion set grimly about driving through the caravan to rejoin the peloton.
With two laps remaining the two leaders clung to a minute’s edge with the Belgian team massed on the front of the chase. Vansummeren finally pulled off, his day’s labors done.
Darwin Atapuma (Colombia) joined the Belgians on the front with 30km remaining, and the pursuit slashed the gap to single digits on the penultimate ascent of the Fiesole.
The bunch swept up the two escapees and with a lap and a half remaining it was anybody’s race, to be settled on the final two ascents of the Fiesole and Via Salviati.
Going into the bell lap, Spain’s Jonathan Castroviejo was on the front, laying down a stinging pace en route to the Fiesole. Gilbert was marking Cancellara.
Denmark’s Chris Anker Sorensen took over next, drilling it for Fuglsang. But Sagan and Costa were lurking nearby, too, with Bauke Mollema (Netherlands) moving up on the outside.
Scarponi was first to have a go. Rodriguez followed, as did Nibali, Costa and Valverde.
Nibali jumped next, and Rodriguez marked him. Valverde remained in contact, but all the other contenders were unable to follow.
Then Rodriguez and Nibali got some daylight and the two went over the Fiesole together. Uran followed some five seconds with Costa and Valverde.
With 9km to race the two had only a handful of seconds over the chasers. Behind, Uran overcooked a high-speed corner on the descent, rocketing straight into a dirt embankment, going head over heels and out of contention.
Rodriguez grabs some daylight
Rodriguez took a lead over Nibali, who found himself with Valverde and Costa for company, neither of whom were interested in helping the Italian chase.
Rodriguez rode alone onto the Via Salviati, the pursuit 11 seconds down. Nibali led the chase up the climb, with Costa bringing up the rear.
The Italian cut the Spaniard’s lead to single digits on the climb, then closed the gap on the descent. With 4km to go it was a four-man group battling for the gold.
Rodriguez attacked again, to no particular effect, as Costa stayed at the back of the group. The Spaniard jumped yet again on a final short bump, taking a slight lead over the others, forcing Nibali to chase once more.
This time the Italian was unable to reconnect, with Valverde and Costa glued to his wheel. And Rodriguez steadily pulled away.
Costa finally showed himself, racing away from the others and into the final kilometer, just a few bike lengths behind Rodriguez. And he caught him.
“With 2km to go, he had an advantage — I had to pick the right moment to make my jump, keeping in mind I had to catch him at the right time so we would not play too much cat and mouse,” said Costa. “When I caught him I saw we had an advantage, I had to take time to recuperate, do the best sprint I could, and when I did, I knew I had the best legs I could have, and I could win it.”
Valverde said Costa’s move was too much for him to follow.
“I should have been there, but I couldn’t do it,” said Valverde. “The corner was complicated when Costa attacked. Nibali slowed, and when we left the corner, Costa had a gap, and after 270km, I simply couldn’t follow. Honestly, I just couldn’t follow.”
Rodriguez was on the front going into the sprint — Costa came around him, but the Spaniard fought gamely back. He couldn’t quite muster the speed, though, and it was the Portuguese taking the rainbow jersey. Rodriguez hung on for silver while Valverde took the bronze.
It wasn’t enough for Rodriguez.
“Two medals don’t mean anything,” he said. “We want to win, and to be so close, and not win, well, it’s not something to celebrate. I don’t know if I will have another chance like this. 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.”
For his part, Valverde was sanguine about the way things turned out.
“Of course, I’d like to get the gold, but if I didn’t win, it’s because I couldn’t,” he said. “When Costa attacked, I couldn’t follow. I would have like to have won, but we have to be content to win silver and bronze. I know Rui well, he’s my teammate [on Movistar], but when he attacked, I couldn’t follow him. There’s no mystery.”
And the new champion, of course, was delighted.
“This was always a big dream of mine, to wear this jersey,” Costa said.”Today I realized a dream and also won a lottery. This means a big deal. I wanted it the most in my career. I still can’t believe it, but I will do everything I can to honor this jersey.”
• Defending champion Philippe Gilbert (Belgium) finished ninth, 34 seconds down, one place ahead of Fabian Cancellara (Switzerland).
• Alex Howes was the top U.S. finisher, crossing 31st at 2:01. Peter Stetina finished 37th in the same time.
• Of the 208 starters, only 61 finished the men’s road race.
Editor’s note: Stay tuned for more from Florence.