Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) shouldn’t have been the only top rider crying Sunday after letting the rainbow jersey slip away in Florence.
At 34, Rodríguez admitted that his bitter, narrow loss to Rui Costa (Movistar) was probably his best and last shot at winning the world title.
“Another chance like this might not come along,” Rodríguez lamented after breaking down in tears on Sunday’s podium. “I was so close to the finish line. It’s a shame to lose like this.”
Yet stacked up right behind Rodríguez are plenty of other veteran riders who have never won the elusive rainbow jersey and perhaps never will.
While riders like Cannondale’s Peter Sagan (sixth) and the Sky duo of Edvald Boasson Hagen (20th) and Rigoberto Urán (41st) all have time on their side, there are many big names on the wrong side of 30 who might not have another realistic chance to win the coveted rainbow jersey.
Top among them could be Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard), the powerful, ambitious Swiss rider who bet everything on riding for stripes Sunday. Cancellara, however, discovered his gunpowder was wet, and couldn’t follow the moves to finish 10th in the lead chase group at 34 seconds back.
“My goal was to win, and I came away with nothing,” Cancellara said. “When the climbers started to go, I didn’t have the energy to go with them.”
Cancellara, who will be 33 at next year’s worlds, could well end his prolific and legendary career without winning the world title.
The same goes for Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), 34 next year; 2008 Olympic champion Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), 36 next year and who still does not have a contract for 2014; and Chris Horner (RadioShack), 42 next season.
History is full of world-class riders who never managed to win the worlds. Miguel Indurain, Michele Bartoli, and Peter Van Petegem are just a few who finished on the worlds podium during their respective careers, yet always on the wrong step.
Winning the rainbow jersey is prestigious not only because it’s cycling’s most prized one-day race, but also because it’s so elusive and difficult to win.
The stars must line up in unison and everything must go right on the day to have a chance to win. Add luck, weather, crashes, and pressure, and the worlds is the calendar’s most difficult race to win.
There are so many disparate factors that go into claiming the rainbow jersey. Riders are on national teams as opposed to trade teams, a dynamic that greatly influences the final outcome as intersquad jealousies and cross-national cooperation can all shape the outcome.
Big nations, such as Italy, Spain, and Belgium, which start with nine riders, have a huge advantage over smaller teams, which can bring as few as one or two riders to the start line.
Winning stage races does not guarantee success in the worlds, where the race dynamic forces of a one-day race are so much harder to control than over a drawn-out and calibrated three-week war of attrition. Chris Froome (Sky) and Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) are the top GC riders of their respective generation, but neither will likely ever win a worlds crown.
Doubling a world title is even harder. Only seven have won two titles during their career, and only four have won three.
With Costa’s win Sunday, that means there are seven active riders in today’s peloton who have been world champions.
Costa is set to debut his rainbow jersey in Sunday’s Giro di Lombardia, and he seems to have the punch, age, ambition, and qualities to have potential to win another world title. But nothing is guaranteed, and the weight of the rainbow stripes can wear down even the most prolific of winners, as Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing) discovered this year.
Omega Pharma-Quick Step’s Tom Boonen (2005) and BMC’s Alessandro Ballan (2008), Cadel Evans (2009), and Thor Hushovd (2010) are all into their mid-30s, and will be struggling to be competitive again in the world championships. Injuries and age are catching up with all of them. Boonen and Ballan didn’t even start in Florence, while Evans crashed out and Hushovd abandoned.
Gilbert (2012) struggled with form all season long, yet managed to save face by winning a stage at the Vuelta a España, and then finished in the same front chase group as Cancellara to place ninth. Yet he remains a shadow of the rider who dominated the season in 2011.
Omega Pharma’s Mark Cavendish (2011) could be best positioned to win another world title, but that all depends if there is another sprint-friendly course coming down the pipe within the next half-decade.
That’s another key factor that might keep Cancellara out of the stripes: course profile.
Next year’s world championship course in Spain looks like a pure climber’s route. Details of the final route have yet to be revealed due to financial troubles with the local organizing committee, but early route profiles suggest it will feature even more climbing than the Florence course, in large part to favor the Spanish climbers.
Richmond, Virginia, will host the 2015 worlds over a hilly course similar to what the peloton saw in Valkenburg and Florence. Such a route could favor power riders like Cancellara, but other young guns, such as Sagan and the ever-growing horde of Colombians, is sure to complicate things.
Though it remains undecided, Qatar is expected to host the 2016 worlds. The Middle East nation is flat as a pancake and would favor strong sprinter nations such as Great Britain, Germany, and Australia. Heavy crosswinds, however, make the Tour of Qatar each February a favorite for classics-bound riders such as Boonen and Cancellara to hone their form. If Qatar does indeed land the 2016 worlds, there’s no guarantee it would end in a mass gallop.
The world championship is unique in that it is truly a one-day race. In grand tours, there’s always tomorrow’s stage if things go sideways. And even in the one-day classics, riders can make up for disappointment in Tour of Flanders with Paris-Roubaix the next weekend. The spring classics season runs from late February through late April, and success on any single day can make a season.
The worlds is once a year. The pressure is unlike any race of the calendar. It’s all or nothing. Botch it, and a rider has to wait a year or more for another shot to grab cycling’s most elusive jersey.
As Costa admitted Sunday, the world title is a lottery. And just like a lottery, it’s a lot more likely you will come up nothing than come up a winner.