What a week that was! Events in Tuscany had us on the edge of our seats as the momentum ebbed and flowed between the contenders before a thrilling conclusion which left us with an elated winner and a sorrowful runner-up. And that was just the UCI Congress.
The Road World Championships threw up a variety of tactical talking points. Let’s review some of the more intriguing ones here.
Breaking the Vuelta stronghold
You may remember a few weeks ago I wrote about the role that the Vuelta plays in preparing riders for the Worlds road race. Up until last weekend, the previous nine road race world champions had all started that year’s Vuelta, with seven either finishing on the podium or winning at least one stage.
Rui Costa became the first rider since Igor Astarloa in 2003 to buck the trend. Indeed, the Portuguese has never raced in Spain’s grand tour, preferring the two Canadian WorldTour races: he won the GP Montreal in 2011 and finished both this year’s events in the top six.
One could argue that the Canadian races are better preparation for the Worlds than the Vuelta. Like most Worlds road race courses, they are also circuit races containing punchy classics-style climbs. The field is of comparable strength to the Vuelta, resulting in high-intensity racing. And with the Vuelta becoming increasingly gruelling in recent years, the Quebec and Montreal races help build form without potentially taking the edge off a rider’s legs.
It will be interesting to see whether Costa’s Canadian-fuelled success is a one-off or the beginning of a new trend.
The Vuelta/Worlds sequence may have been broken, but this Championships saw a number of doubles and other notable streaks.
Tony Martin took gold in both the team and individual time trials. It was the second straight win for Omega Pharma-Quick Step in the team event and Martin’s third consecutive victory in the individual race.
Ellen van Dijk also completed the same team/individual time trial double as Specialized-lululemon also defended their TTT title. New Zealand’s Linda Villlumsen took silver behind van Dijk in the ITT – the fifth successive year she has finished on the podium without winning.
What Villumsen is to the women’s time trial, Alejandro Valverde is to the men’s road race. Third on Sunday, he took to the podium for the fifth time in his career, but has yet to win.
Valverde is entering the twilight of his career, but Matej Mohoric‘s is just beginning. The 18-year-old won the under-23 road race to complete a unique double, having triumphed in the junior road race in Valkenburg last year. (He also took silver in the junior time trial for good measure). The young Slovenian will ride for Cannondale in 2014. Remember the name.
Vos the Boss guarantees exciting racing
I’m not going to detail the case for Marianne Vos being the finest cyclist, male or female, of this or indeed any generation. What is unarguable is that she is a serial champion of the highest order.
Vos has won Olympic golds on both road and track, is a multiple world champion in road (three wins), track (two) and cyclo-cross (six), and has won practically every race there is to win.
Oh, and she took up mountain biking this year. Of course, she won her first race.
Like no other, her presence on the start-line dictates the tactics of a race, and nowhere was this more true than in Saturday’s women’s road race. Again and again her opponents tried to break Vos on the closing circuits. The US’s Evelyn Stevens tried on the climbs, Australia’s Tiffany Cromwell tried on the descents, three of the Italian team tried a non-stop series of attacks on the final lap. Vos, aided by teammate Anna van der Breggen, calmly covered every move with a degree of ease bordering on insouciance, before accelerating away on the Via Salviati and time-trialling her way to her third rainbow jersey.
Vos’ dominant presence serves only to make women’s races more interesting. Her rivals know they cannot allow her to dictate and therefore attack early and in numbers. The men’s race didn’t really ignite until the last 10km – the women’s race was explosive throughout the final 35km, and it was all down to the need to throw high-risk tactics at the defending champion. The fact they ultimately failed made the race no less exciting.
We use the word too easily in sport, but Marianne Vos is a phenomenon. Almost single-handedly, she ups the excitement level in women’s racing. It’s a crying shame we don’t see more of it on our TV screens.
The best of frenemies?
You have to feel sorry for Joaquim Rodriguez. If you add the Worlds to the three grand tours, he now has six podium finishes but no victories. It was he who animated Sunday’s men’s road race, but again he came up short, and by only a few agonising inches as Rui Costa just held him off in the sprint to the line.
But what of the efforts of Alejandro Valverde? Rodriguez had been given the nod to attack, but when Costa set off in pursuit inside the final 2km Valverde did not follow his wheel. He claimed he was too exhausted to put in one final effort. That is certainly plausible – after all, at over 7:25, this was the longest Worlds road race in terms of duration since 1980 – but I also wonder if it was a choice (whether conscious or subconscious) on his part.
There were murmurs of discontent from Samuel Sanchez at last year’s Worlds that Valverde had elected to ride for himself. Was Valverde genuinely tired, or was he happy to not put in that little extra effort to support a countryman who has been more enemy than friend over the past decade?
It probably also didn’t hurt that Valverde and Costa have been Movistar teammates since the former’s return from suspension at the beginning of 2012, although Costa’s departure to Lampre next season makes it unlikely Valverde would have actively helped him.
I’m not suggesting Valverde acted out of malice or as part of some grand conspiracy, but I do question whether he perhaps lacked the motivation to do everything possible to help Rodriguez’s cause.
The waiting game
Although the closing kilometres made for exciting viewing as Rodriguez attacked and Rigoberto Uran spectacularly fell victim to what I shall politely refer to as an ‘instantaneous posterior-sternum inversion’ (you work it out!), the first 260km was an exercise in tactical watchfulness punctuated only by the occasional crash.
Why? Was this course too long, too hard, too wet on the day? A little bit of all three. We didn’t see Fabian Cancellara launch his traditional long-range attack. Philippe Gilbert and Peter Sagan went backwards on the final climbs rather than flying off the front. They weren’t caught out – all three occupied prime positions near the front of the reduced peloton before falling back – more that they simply didn’t have the legs, as Kitty suggested on this week’s podcast.
This kind of waiting game is something we have seen arise in several races this season, as the desire to create more punishing finishes has led to more conservative rather than more aggressive racing – the recent change to the Tour of Flanders parcours is a prime example of this – leaving us with 200km-plus of chess building up to a frantic flurry of action at the end.
Is it necessary for the Worlds course to be so long? It’s a matter of personal opinion. A shorter parcours would encourage (but not guarantee) more aggressive racing. And yet we would also lose some of the physical challenge that a longer race provides. Milan-San Remo is so difficult not just because of the Poggio and the Cipressa but because it is nearly 300km long.
The length of the race makes a difference. Would we have seen more of a spark from Cancellara, Gilbert and Sagan if the parcours had been 222km rather than 272km? Almost certainly.
Personally, I wouldn’t have it any other way. The Worlds shouldn’t be just any old road race. It should present the ultimate challenge to the riders, and at a duration of seven hours that’s exactly what it does.