Great Britain won the world road race championship for the first time in 46 years when Mark Cavendish finished off an incredible demonstration of team work and pace-making by his seven teammates with a perfectly judged sprint on the drag up to the finish to beat Australia's Matt Goss by a wheel. Germany's André Greipel took the bronze medal, just edging out Fabian Cancellara (Switzerland) by a tyre's width.
Sweeping into the final straight, Cavendish was a long way back in the line, behind a clutch of Australians, Germans and Norwegians, and had a huge amount of work to do. But, showing outstanding coolness considering the situation, the Manxman picked his way towards the front, before finally nipping though the narrowest of gaps along the right-hand barrier to launch his sprint with 150m to the line.
In typical fashion, his initial jump carried him clear of his rivals. Goss, who had hesitated very briefly as Cavendish flashed by on his outside, came hard at the Briton as the line neared, but the Australian's effort came too late as Cavendish held on to become the first British winner of the men's world road title since Tom Simpson in 1965.
Cav the champ
Cavendish's victory crowned a hugely impressive performance from the British team. Right from the early stages of the 266km race, the British septet riding in support of Cavendish set the pace on the front of the bunch, looking very much in control until the mayhem of the final kilometre.
Cavendish was quick to pay tribute to them. "We had eight of the best guys in the world, and this is the first time we've come together. They were incredible. They took the race on from start to finish and we won. I can't believe it," said Britain's new world champion.
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Video: Cavendish on Great Britain team work
"We knew three years ago when this course was announced, that it could be good for us. We put a plan together to come with the best group of guys to this race and to come away from it with the rainbow jersey. It's been three years in the making. The guys have worked so hard throughout the season to get points so that we could have eight riders here and, as you just saw, they rode incredibly. I feel so, so proud."
High speed from the start
In the days building up to the race, many of those taking part had said that they expected the pace to be hot right from the off, and that was exactly how the race shaped up. The huge field started very quickly on the 14km circuit that had an altitude gain of just 40 metres per lap. The average speed was close to 50km/h for the first 30 minutes as breaks went and were brought back. Even at this early point, though, the Great Britain team was prominent on the front of the bunch.
Eventually seven riders did get clear, with only two of the strongest nations represented. Pablo Lastras was up there for Spain, with Anthony Roux representing France. Also in the group were Christian Poos (Luxembourg), Maxim Iglinskiy (Kazakhstan), Oleg Chuzhda (Ukraine), Robert Kiserlovski (Croatia) and Tanel Kangert (Estonia). As these seven riders went to work, the bunch eased off a tad behind, allowing their lead to stretch to more than eight minutes before Great Britain's Steve Cummings and David Millar began to push the pace a little more quickly on the front of the peloton.
With the gap down to a little over four minutes with 148km covered, the first attack from the main group finally came. Heading up through the finish to complete the 11th of 19 laps, Belgium's Johan Van Summeren accelerated on the right-hand side of the road. France's Yoann Offredo got on his wheel and Italy's Luca Paolini sprinted across to make three. Belgium's Oliver Kaisen and Australia's Simon Clarke also made it across to the move. These five riders quickly began to eat into the lead break's advantage, with Offredo staying mostly at the back of the line with his teammate Roux up ahead.
Hushovd's defence stymied by crash
A big crash took out defending champion Thor Hushovd
Back in the bunch, the British riders continued to set the pace with occasional help from the US and German teams. Coming through to complete the 13th lap and with six still to go, a crash toward the back of the field left a number of riders on the deck and halted many others. Among those affected were defending champion Thor Hushovd (Norway) and new world time trial champion Tony Martin (Germany), who had been expected to play an important lead-out role for Greipel at the finish.
The incident split the peloton. Although Hushovd and New Zealand's Jack Bauer did attempt to close the gap, this second group steadily fell further behind and completely out of contention.
Approaching the 200km mark, the two groups ahead of the main field joined forces, giving France and Belgium two riders each up front. The 11-strong group - Poos having fallen back to the main pack - led by just two minutes now, with Great Britain happy to lead a steady pursuit and chase down any other sallies off the front of the peloton.
The tension increases with three to go
Team GB drive the pace
With four laps to go, it briefly seemed that the British team's relentless pace-making was taking a heavy toll. An attack by Denmark's Anders Lund didn't ultimately come to anything, but several nations took the opportunity to send riders across to the Dane in an attempt to weaken Cavendish's teammates. However, the British riders quickly regained their positions on the front of the bunch and the Lund-inspired attack was nullified. But the question was: would Team GB be able to remain in charge when the race reached its most crucial moments?
By now the gap to the 11 leaders was hovering around the one-minute mark. More attacks went and were countered, notably one instigated by Switzerland's Michael Albasini and containing two Belgian riders, Sweden's Thomas Lövkvist and Australia's Michael Rogers. As this group was chased down, Denmark's Lars Bak jumped away, no doubt hoping that others riders would join him, but pressing on nevertheless when no one did.
Going into the penultimate lap, with the break now within sight of the peloton on the long straights and Bak in between, the powerful Frenchman Roux attacked from the front group. It was a well-timed move as the peloton were quickly on the riders Roux had spent a lot of the race cooperating with. But with just 20 seconds in hand and more than 20km to the finish, the French rider was never likely to stay out front for long.
Voeckler goes on the attack
In the end, Roux's long day was brought to a close by a familiar face. As the bunch closed, Thomas Voeckler (France) accelerated off the front, paused briefly with Roux to acknowledge his huge effort with a pat on the back, then pushed on again with Denmark's Nikki Sorensen and Belgium's Klaas Lodewijk for company.
This trio led by 18 seconds going into the last lap. A handful of kilometres into it, they were joined by Holland's Johnny Hoogerland, whose arrival saw Voeckler drop to the back of the line and significantly reduce his work rate.
Behind these four, time trial world silver medallist Bradley Wiggins was steaming along on the front of the bunch, cutting lumps off the small advantage the break had. Hoogerland gave all he had to drive the break along, but Wiggins had simply too much horsepower for the Dutchman and his three companions. Voeckler made one final effort with 7km remaining, but quickly eased off as Wiggins motored by.
Stunning Stannard paves way for Cav
By now the British team had plenty of company toward the front of the bunch. Australian, Italian and German jerseys were also massing, and it was the Australians who eventually took over from Wiggins with 3.5km to go. They had four riders working for Goss, and the Germans too emerged strongly, leaving the British team swamped and, for the first time all day, slipping back down the field.
Inside the final 2km, Britain's Ian Stannard, having done a stack of work already, manoeuvred his way up through the fast-moving pack with Cavendish on his wheel. Joined by Geraint Thomas, Stannard's effort took him to the very front of the line as the bunch swept around the final corner with 500 metres left up to the line.
Before Stannard pulled aside, Thomas looked back to see where Cavendish was. Realising that his sprinter was some way back in the pack, Thomas followed Stannard's example in swinging out of the way rather than upping the pace. For a moment it looked like the Brits had lost out in the very final kilometre, but the slight drop in pace at the front meant Cavendish was able to gain some vital ground as the Australians started to set up Goss for the finish.
As Goss prepared to move, Cavendish saw daylight to his right against the barriers, squeezed through the tightest of gaps and was gone. Team Great Britain's incredible day was about to reach the perfect conclusion.
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Video: Cavendish describes the sprint final
This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com.