This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com.
Rui Costa won the game of bluff and counter-bluff to become Portugal’s first elite men’s world champion when he edged out Joaquim Rodriguez (Spain) in a tense two-up sprint at the end of a gripping final lap of racing in Florence.
Rodriguez established a small gap when he attacked on a short rise with two kilometres to go, but with his teammate Alejandro Valverde ostensibly policing Rui Costa and Vincenzo Nibali (Italy) behind, it looked as though the Catalan had made the decisive move.
Valverde’s sole focus was on Nibali, however, and he did not react when his Movistar teammate Rui Costa set off in pursuit of Rodriguez within sight of the red kite. The home favourite Nibali, who had already done all the work to peg back Rodriguez’s earlier move on the final lap, had little interest in towing the passive Valverde back up to the leaders, and in one fell swoop, Spain’s numerical advantage had been struck off.
From there on in, there was a distinct inevitability about the outcome. Rui Costa had quietly maintained a watching brief after following Rodriguez and Nibali’s forcing on the penultimate climb to Fiesole, and he had both the strength to catch Rodriguez with 600 metres to go, and the sense not to come through and take a turn on the front.
In his desperation, Rodriguez slowed theatrically and even turned to look at Rui Costa, hoping to incite a response, but the Portuguese rider held his nerve and didn’t open his sprint until inside the final 200 metres. Even at that, Rodriguez put up fierce resistance, but he ultimately fell short of fending off Rui Costa, while 17 seconds later Valverde out-sprinted Nibali for a rather hollow bronze medal, considering Spain’s apparent tactical advantage in the finale.
Rodriguez wept openly on the podium, alongside an incredulous Rui Costa and an impassive Valverde, and in the mixed zone afterwards, he couldn’t hide his disappointment at his teammate’s failure to mark Rui Costa.
“The situation was perfect for Spain, because I told Alejandro to go on the wheel of whoever chased after me,” Rodriguez said, his voice still raw. “When I saw Rui Costa come across alone, I didn’t understand what had happened, but I knew I was riding for second.”
Rui Costa explained that he knew that he had to hang on for dear life on the climbs and then seize the one opportunity that fell his way. “When there were only five of us in the last lap I started to believe I could win. Luckily I was feeling good,” he said. “I knew I’d suffer on Via Salviati, but I knew when to attack and play it out with ‘Purito’ in the sprint too.”
Nibali had appeared out of the running when he crashed with just over two laps to go, but somehow he closed a 40-second gap to the bunch, before launching the winning move on the climb of Fiesole. He was forced to summon up still more strength when Rodriguez slipped away alone on the descent, but he opted to call Valverde’s bluff when they were alone together in the final two kilometres.
“It’s a pity that I had to chase so hard after my crash, because my condition was excellent today,” said Nibali, who was irritated by the Spanish tactics in the finale. “I think the Spanish rode badly because it was Rui Costa who won in the end, no?”
The podium: Joaquim Rodriguez (2nd), Rui Costa (1st) and Alejandro Valverde (3rd)
Andriy Grivko (Ukraine) clipped away to take 5th place, while Peter Sagan (Slovakia) beat Simon Clarke in the sprint for 6th place, 34 seconds down, in a group that included fellow pre-race favourites Fabian Cancellera (Switzerland) and Philippe Gilbert (Belgium).
The day belonged to Rui Costa, however, who has enjoyed considerable success since returning from a shortened suspension for a positive test for the stimulant Methylhexanamine in 2010, which he blamed on a contaminated supplement.
After three Tour de France stage wins and back-to-back Tour de Suisse triumphs in recent years, the 26-year-old was a quietly-fancied dark horse for the world title in the city where his namesake and fellow countryman starred for the Fiorentina football team in the 1990s. “It’s a great joy for me and my country to win this world title,” Rui Costa said. “The time had come to put my country’s name up there. I’m very proud.”
A wet start
The overnight forecast had been grim, and when the peloton lined up at the start in Lucca on Sunday morning, rain was indeed general all over Tuscany, although temperatures were at least touching 18 degrees. The opening, point-to-point section was animated by an early attack featuring Yonder Godoy (Venezuela), Matthias Brandle (Austria), Jan Barta (Czech Republic), Rafaa Chtioui (Tunisia) and Bartosz Huzarski (Poland), while Mark Cavendish and Great Britain controlled affairs on the front of the peloton for the first 100 kilometres.
The break’s lead was a healthy eight minutes by the time they reached Florence, whose famous skyline spent much of the day hidden behind leaden clouds and sheets of rain, but the first great tactical manoeuvre of the race was about to take shape in the main peloton on the very first of the ten laps of the 16.5km finishing circuit.
On the first descent from Fiesole, the Italian team hit the front of the bunch en masse, stringing out the field and ratcheting the tension up a number of notches. By this point, there had already been a number of crashes in the nervous peloton – Dan Martin (Ireland), Cadel Evans (Australia) and Chris Horner (USA) were all forced to abandon, while Peter Sagan (Slovakia) required a bike change – and the tone was set for the next 80 kilometres of racing.
Interestingly, the azzurri were largely content to maintain a steady pace on the climbs of Fiesole and Via Salviati, but every time the road lurched downhill, they posed a few more questions of their principal rivals. By the midway point of the race, Fabian Cancellara (Switzerland) had shed a couple of teammates, Chris Froome had been distanced – for all their work in the opening 100 kilometres, not a single British rider would finish the race – while Alberto Contador (Spain) was repeatedly caught behind whenever the peloton split.
With five laps and 82 kilometres still to race, however, the 60-strong bunch still included Sagan, Cancellara, Rodriguez, Valverde, Contador and the entirety of Philippe Gilbert’s Belgian team, and there was a brief lull as the Italians considered their next move.
It was to come two laps later, when Giovanni Visconti joined and then dropped a counter-attack, setting off in lone pursuit of the sole survivor of the morning break, Bartosz Huzarski. When Visconti caught the Pole with a shade over two laps to go, they still had a minute in hand on the Belgian-led peloton, but shortly afterwards, Italian plans were thrown into disarray when Nibali came a cropper on a greasy descent.
Nibali was fortunate that there was not a flurry of attacks in front, as Belgium and Germany simply looked to keep the field intact for Gilbert and John Degenkolb, respectively, while the Spaniards and Cancellara were keeping their powder dry for the final lap. Once Nibali latched back onto the race convoy, he knew that he would make it back up to the leaders, albeit after a frantic lone chase.
The final lap
Visconti and Huzarski had long been reeled in by the time the peloton took the bell for the final lap, and it was clear that the rate of attrition had slowed considerably after the sodden battle of the earlier laps, as no fewer than 42 riders were still in the front group with 16 kilometres to race.
By now, the rain had stopped and the sun had belatedly poked its way through the clouds, and as if on cue, the race sparkled back into life on the final haul up Fiesole, as first Chris Anker Sorsensen (Denmark) and then Michele Scarponi (Italy) strung out the field.
That moved laid the groundwork for Joaquim Rodriguez, who punched his way clear on the steepest section a kilometre from the summit, finding an ally of circumstance in Nibali. Their accelerations shattered the field, with the likes of Gilbert and Cancellara nowhere to be seen, while the best of the climbers scrambled to make it up to the two leaders.
After leading over the summit, Nibali and Rodriguez were joined by Valverde, Rui Costa and Rigoberto Uran on the descent, although the Colombian’s hopes were dashed when his wheels slipped from under him shortly after making the junction. It left just four men in the front of the race, and when Rodriguez slipped away from a Nibali reluctant to take further risks on slippery roads, it looked as if Spain would make their numerical superiority count.
Even when Nibali clawed his way back into contention on the climb of Via Salviati, dragging Rui Costa and Valverde across, it seemed as though a Spanish victory was inevitable, but fate conspired otherwise in an intriguing finale. Valverde had eyes only for Nibali, while his Movistar teammate Rui Costa was able to pick off Rodriguez and claim the rainbow jersey.
“For sure I would prefer that this medal was gold, but if I didn't win it's only because I couldn't,” Valverde insisted afterwards. “When Rui Costa attacked he was very strong. I simply could do no more.”
A forlorn Rodriguez had little enthusiasm for dissecting the finale on the spot. The only sad conclusion he had reached for now was that he was once again the nearly man. “Clearly this is Purito’s destiny,” he said, brushing aside a tear, “To lose the Giro by a whisker, then the Vuelta and now the Worlds.”