Timing is everything for Valverde
Alejandro Valverde must have enjoyed the view from the top of Innsbruck’s infamous ‘Höll’ climb. With just under 10 kilometres to go in the world championships men’s road race, he was in the company of two others: noted non-sprinter Romain Bardet and noted non-sprinter Michael Woods. Behind the leading trio were Gianni Moscon and Tom Dumoulin, who had been on different trajectories on the 28 per cent slopes of the climb – Moscon’s timing had been good and he’d initially matched his three rivals before tailing off in the final third. Dumoulin had been the opposite – he’d missed the French surge that put Bardet at the front, but was matching their speed, only 15 seconds behind. Ahead: a descent and a sprint that was a formality for the Spaniard. Dumoulin caught Valverde, Bardet and Woods in Innsbruck, but the effort that the Dutchman should have put towards winning the race had already been spent putting himself in a position to do so. (Also ahead of the Spaniard: a reheating of the 12-year-old controversy that has followed him with the same doggedness with which he followed Bardet and Woods up Höll. The issue of Valverde’s previous doping was with him going into the Worlds, stayed with him as he crossed the line and will continue through his reign in the rainbow jersey and beyond his retirement.)
Valverde’s triumph in the World Championships road race was built on a clever team performance on one of the hardest routes for many years. It had been a worry that the peloton would simply leave things to the Höll climb, but a phase of attacking racing on the main circuit made for a
dynamic race. Spain had a strong climbing team, but also used their resources far more cleverly than some of their rival teams.
That a break of 11 riders gained nearly 20 minutes was almost irrelevant to the action. The important phase of the race came between 65 kilometres to go and Höll. What was noticeable was that while the break was being controlled, Spain contributed a few riders to the effort at the front of the bunch, but never in huge numbers. However, when attacks started going at the 65-kilometre mark, both they and the Italians always had at least one man in the break. The other visible team was Great Britain, who did a lot of chasing, but didn’t have the strength in numbers to commit anybody to these mid-race breaks and therefore spent a lot of energy chasing Spain and Italy. Dario Cataldo was the first to go, taking Jesús Herrada with him – Italy and Spain were both using their depth to save energy.
The attack didn’t last, and the next big move to go was by Greg Van Avermaet, 10 kilometres later. The Belgian took Italy’s Damiano Caruso and Spain’s Omar Fraile with him. It wasn’t a race-winning move, though they did manage to stretch their advantage to 30 seconds. However, once again Italy and Spain had excused themselves from the effort of chasing.
On the penultimate lap, Brambilla for Italy and De La Cruz for Spain attacked, along with a handful of riders. However, after this move was shut down going into the final lap, Italy made a mistake which Spain took full advantage of. Into the final lap, the peloton comprised 64 riders, and only three teams had seven riders left: Spain, Italy and the Netherlands. (France and Belgium had five apiece, while nobody else had more than three). Italy lined up their riders at the front of the peloton and imposed a fast pace, into and up the main circuit’s climb. This shed another 20 riders, but it saved the other strong teams a lot of work, and with Italy’s best hope being Moscon, a good rider but not an established favourite, it was a questionable tactic.
Denmark’s Michael Valgren gained 30 seconds over the top of the climb, but a six-rider counterattack containing Moscon was shut down, meaning that the race would, after all, come down to who could get over Höll fastest. With Italy spent, it was France whose efforts decided the ultimate outcome. Thibaut Pinot, pulled Bardet, Julian Alaphilippe, Moscon, Woods and Valverde clear. Pinot and Alaphilippe wilted, leaving just four at the front.
In the end, Spain had done a little work at the right times, while teams like Italy and Great Britain did a lot of work at the wrong times. On the Hôll climb, they were damned to their fate, while Valverde ascended to heaven.
The issue of Valverde’s previous doping was with him going into the Worlds, stayed with him as he crossed the line and will continue through his reign in the rainbow jersey
Valverde enjoys the irst couple of seconds of being the world champion
Tom Dumoulin missed the move but rode courageously to join the winning break