Alejandro Valverde ended years of frustration to fulfil his “dream” of winning the World Championships road race crown on Sunday after outpacing France’s Romain Bardet and Canada’s Michael Woods in a thrilling sprint for the finish line.
The trio had boosted their victory chances after crossing the summit of the notoriously difficult Hottinger hill ‘Hell’ climb, featuring one steep section at a whopping 29 percent gradient, to leave key rivals in their wake as raucous fans rang bells and screamed encouragement.
And despite being joined with a little over one kilometre to go by Tom Dumoulin, Valverde held his nerve inside the final metres to race unchallenged to the finish line, where he beat Bardet by a bike length.
A breathless Valverde broke down with the emotion of finally securing the rainbow jersey — arguably the most prestigious prize in the sport.
“This is my most emotional victory ever,” said Valverde. “I had two dreams, one was to win the Tour de France but it was not to be, the second dream however is now mine, I have the gold medal and the (rainbow) jersey.
“It’s incredible, after all these years, struggling for the world title and to finally get it. Words can’t describe how grateful I am for the effort of the whole Spain team,” said the champion.
“There was a great vibe in the team and we kept track of each other and always knew where the guys were.”
“Racing is far better without the radios, but I was quite lost there for a while as there were no bikes or cars and I only really knew for sure we were the lead group when Tom (Dumoulin) joined us,” Bardet said.
As soon as the quartet came into the final kilometre the Spaniard had looked the most likely to win. Both Bardet and Woods are stronger climbers while all-rounder Dumoulin also lacks Valverde’s top-end finishing speed.
“I should have attacked on the hill. It’s easy to say what you should have done afterwards, but what’s done is done,” Bardet said.
“When you are on the flat with a guy like Valverde you have to expect him to win.”
Pre-race favourite, Julian Alaphilippe, Simon Yates and Vincenzo Nibali and the last of the Colombians were dropped on the steep gradients of the final climb.
“I have no excuses,” said Alaphilippe. “My legs just couldn’t take it. I’m bitterly disappointed, but very happy for Romain.”
Woods, a former ice hockey player and middle distance athlete, only began cycling professionally at 25 and this season won a stage on the Vuelta.
“I was hoping for a podium finish at the Vuelta, but I fell. It tuned out to be a blessing in disguise because I got the stage and now this world championships bronze medal,” he said.
“The fans on the hill were insanely loud, with the bells and all the cheering, my ears are still ringing now.”
Three-time and defending champion Peter Sagan had few hopes of winning a fourth title on the hilly circuit and after the fourth of seven ascensions of the climb the Slovakian called it a day.
Road World Championships Innsbruck 2018 – Men’s Road Race results:
|1||Alejandro Valverde (Spain)|
|2||Romain Bardet (France)|
|3||Michael Woods (Canada)|
|4||Tom Dumoulin (Netherlands)|
|5||Gianni Moscon (Italy)|
|6||Roman Kreuziger (Czech Republic)|
|7||Michael Valgren (Denmark)|
|8||Julian Alaphilippe (France)|
|9||Thibaut Pinot (France)|
|10||Rui Costa (Portugal)|
|11||Ion Izagirre (Spain)|
|12||Bauke Mollema (Netherlands)|
|13||Mikel Nieve (Spain)|
|14||Sam Oomen (Netherlands)|
|15||Nairo Quintana (Colombia)|
|16||Peter Kennaugh (Great Britain)|
|17||Jan Hirt (Czech Republic)|
|18||George Bennett (New Zealand)|
|19||Jack Haig (Australia)|
|20||Jakob Fuglsang (Denmark)|