With 5 hours and 20 minutes gone of this behemoth of a World Championships there were still 73 riders sitting ensconced in an Italian-led peloton, and what a peloton it was, jam-packed with just about every rider that was in with a shout.
Who did you have your money on? Gilbert? Sagan? Cancellara? One rider that all but the entire population of Portugal wouldnâ€™t have been thinking of was Rui Costa, the eventual winner. Despite a couple of Tour de Suisse titles and Tour de France stages to his credit, heâ€™s not a massive name, not one of those riders who lights up races with audacious attacks, and yet the manner in which he won yesterday had â€˜World Championâ€™ written all over it.
After a few editions that have not exactly been what youâ€™d call classics over the past few seasons, this one was a doozy, and won by a display that not only demonstrated that Costa has ice cold blood running through his veins but also displayed that to win you have to be prepared to lose.
A little more on that later, first Iâ€™m still trying to work out which of these was more painful: watching the British team put in one of the lamest performances en masse Iâ€™ve seen in years, witnessing Uran Uran smacking hard into that grass verge when he was so close to the finale, Nibali losing out even on the podium or seeing Valverde screw his teammate.
The Brits had the race well under control for the first 100kms . . .
Letâ€™s look at the last one first. Joaquim Rodriguez is not a happy camper right now. “Losing like this is stupid,” he said after the race, which is as close as youâ€™re gonna get to blaming Valverde for the loss. “We had the numbers, we were the strongest, we should not have lost.”
National coach Javier Minguez was also nonplussed. “You can’t let Rui Costa go. Rodriguez had the title in his hands and Nibali was dead,” he lamented. But were they the strongest? Not really. Nibali was flying but not when he needed it, on that descent. It was really a â€˜WTF?â€™ moment, seeing him lose 5 meters on a corner. OK, heâ€™d crashed previously but this is a few short kilometers from the line at the Worlds. If you go down, itâ€™s a bit of road rash and race over, but you knew you at least went for it – or this? Feeling the fear and seriously hampering your chances anyway.
In any case had he won thereâ€™d have been protests from all and sundry, thanks to the lift he got from the Italian team car as he was chasing back on post-crash. That would have been very messy.
Nibali gets helped back onto his bike by Italian coach Paolo Bettini before receiving some more help a minute later – in the motorised form.
And then thereâ€™s Costa. Not as strong as Nibali I felt but stronger than Valverde â€“ if Valverde really was riding at his limit. And if he wasnâ€™t, well only he will know that. What was quite obvious was that Rodriguez was not pleased with Valverde even as the last kilometers unfolded, wagging his finger as though he couldnâ€™t understand Valverdeâ€™s riding.
Costa though was just there doing his thing, the coolest cat in the yard. Nibali, desperate to bring home the Rainbow in front of the impressive, rain-soaked crowd, was going glory or death after the descent, pegging back Rodriguez incrementally. He looked back to Costa, imploring him forward but the Portuguese was having nada of that.
I thought maybe there was a Movistar pact going on but the end of the race out paid to that suspicion. In any case, Costa is off to pastures new next year, though he was still wearing his Movistar gloves I noted!
The manner in which he won truly was brilliant, as he not only factored into the difficult equation his own condition, but also the condition of the others, their style of riding and, critically, the desperation to win of both Nibali and Rodriguez. He mentally outclassed them and went faster than the rest for one single, all-important moment, having hunted down the Spaniard like a true killer in the last 600 meters.
Ultimately it was tears for Rodriguez, exhaustion for Nibali and sideways glances for Valverde, but nothing other than the purest, most unadultered joy for Rui Costa. I admit I shed a tear with him. It was, after a day of calamity and chaos, a finish of sheer perfection.
There were a few tears on the podium on Sunday but they weren’t all tears of joy.
Lee Rodgers leads a double life as a pro racer on the UCI race circuit with the Lapierre Asia Cycling Team, competing in the UCI Asia Tour as well as some European events and the likes of the Tour of Qatar and Oman, rubbing shoulders with the best the WorldTour has to offer, whilst keeping up a day job as a cycling journalist. The highlight of his cycling career so far was winning the Singapore National Champs – road race and ITT – as well as claiming the Green Jersey at the 2.1 Tour de Taiwan in 2012, and naturally, writing for PEZ. His writing appears in several magazines and websites and you can catch up with him regularly on his blog, http://crankpunk.com/