Ex-Tour of Flanders champion Alessandro Ballan heralded a new era for the Italians at the world championships by upstaging Paolo Bettini to win the coveted rainbow jersey.
In a race tipped to see a duel between two-time defending champion Bettini and three-time winner Oscar Freire of Spain, 28-year-old Ballan stole the show by finishing ahead of fellow Italian Damiano Cunego. Matti Breschel completed the podium to claim the first world's medal for Denmark since Bo Hamburger's silver in 1997.
Ballan and fellow Italians Davide Rebellin and Cunego had the luxury of finding themselves in a 12-man leading group late on the final of 15 laps of the 17.335km circuit around the classy north Italian city.
But it was Ballan, following a series of searing earlier accelerations by Cunego, but principally Rebellin, who proved the wiliest. He hit full gas with a little under 3km to go in the 260.2km epic, and - with Joaquin Rodriguez, Spain's only remaining rider at the front, spent - he held on to come over the finish line in triumph.
Bettini announced his retirement on Saturday, but hopes of a fairytale ending for the 34-year-old were scuppered by the rivals, notably Freire, who were in no mood to see him become just the fifth rider in history to win the crown three times.
Ballan said he had been surprised to find himself in contention.
"I knew I was feeling strong but I didn't think for one minute I would be the man to win this race," said Ballan, who dedicated the victory to his deceased father and new-born daughter. "Our plan was to work for Bettini but he was being marked all day. Every time he moved, there was a Spaniard on his wheel.
"Eventually Paolo told me, Damiano and Davide to go for it."
On the last lap Bettini had already resigned himself to not giving chase. As a 12-strong leading group battled at the front, the defending two-time champion was seen shaking hands with some of his rivals and co-racers. And by the time Ballan had secured victory, Bettini was already celebrating, saluting the fans as he finished his race alongside rivals such as 2005 champion Tom Boonen and Freire, the 2004 victor.
Ballan paid tribute to Bettini for giving them the nod, and both he and Cunego admitted their retiring teammate would be missed.
"When I heard last night he was retiring, I was in shock. I wanted to cry," said the lanky Ballan. "I've raced the last four championships for Italy with him and I've been friends and rivals with him throughout that time."
Cunego, who was delighted with his silver medal but hinted he would be aiming for gold in future, added: "Bettini's been one of our biggest athletes, and is someone who I've learned a lot from and have a lot of respect for. For me this second place carries a lot of prestige. And I'm very happy for Alessandro. Like me, he's an all-rounder who competes from February to October.
"There were three Italians in the finale and it would have been a disaster not to win it, but we raced perfectly. It was a phenomenal day for us. I now believe in my chances for the future (world championships)."
Breschel, Denmark's biggest hope in the race, paid tribute to the support provided by teammate Chris-Anker Sorensen. And he admitted there was little else he could do.
"In the finale it was just too hard to do any better, with Ballan, Cunego and Rebellin all there attacking," said the 24-year-old Dane, who claimed his first Grand Tour success on the Tour of Spain's final stage last week.
"They were the three strongest guys in our group, so there wasn't much I could do. I came here hoping for a place in the top 15, so this is a huge result for me."
For full results, report and photos, visit Cyclingnews.com.