After two silvers and four bronze medals in the UCI Road World Championships, at 38 Spanish veteran Alejandro Valverde has finally netted gold in the Elite Men’s Road Race, ahead of France’s Romain Bardet and Canada’s Michael Woods.
Valverde proved to be the fastest of a drawn-out four rider sprint that decided the final race of the 2018 UCI Road World Championships, clinching Spain’s first gold medal in the Elite Men’s Road Race since Oscar Freire triumphed for a third time back in 2004.
For Valverde, finally donning the rainbow jersey of World Champion ends a hunt for victory in the Elite Men’s Road Race that began back in 2003, when the rider from Murcia in SE Spain claimed silver in the Championships in Hamilton, Canada.
Since then Valverde has taken silver in the same event on home soil in Madrid in 2005 behind Tom Boonen of Belgium, and bronze in 2006, 2012, 2013 and 2014. But never gold - until Sunday.
“It’s incredible, I’ve been fighting and fighting for so long for this and I have to thank the team for their hard work for me, they get a ten out of ten,” a visibly emotional Valverde said afterwards. “It was a very long sprint and not easy because the other guys in the breakaway had made sure I was doing a lot of the work in the final part.”
“But I opened up the sprint with 300 metres to go, which is the distance I’m best at for sprints, and I got it. Words fail me, to be honest, it’s a dream come true that I’ve finally got the gold.”
“What was I thinking about in the last kilometre? That in a situation like this, I just couldn’t fail, with all the support I’ve had from people over all these years to try and do this.”
On one of the hilliest courses in modern World Championships history, culminating with an ascent of the dauntingly steep Höttinger Höll climb and a fast drop back to Innsbruck, Valverde and the other favourites’ teams mostly preferred to play a waiting game. Soon after the race’s 188 strong pack eased out of the small start town of Kufstein on Sunday in warm, dry weather, therefore, an early break of 11 was allowed to gain up a surprisingly high maximum lead of 19 minutes before some of the stronger squads began to reel them back in.
As the French, Austrians, British and Spanish moved to the front, steadily cutting into the break’s lead, and as the repeated assaults of the seven kilometre Mount Igls - seven in total on the 23 kilometre Olympic circuit - began to tell, defending World Champion Peter Sagan (Slovakia) dropped quickly out of contention.
Great Britain’s Peter Kennaugh, Belgium’s Greg Van Avermaet and Italy’s Gianpaolo Caruso were amongst those who tested the water on the second last lap. But as the 60-strong peloton roared through Innsbruck’s finish line for a penultimate time, there were still only two riders ahead from the early break - Vegard Stake Laengen (Norway) and Kasper Asgreen (Denmark) - and not a single counter-attack had managed to stick.
The stalemate finally broke apart, though, as Italy sucked back in the two Scandinavian riders on the Igls climb and a third, Denmark’s Michael Valgren, then shot away over the top. The 2018 Amstel Gold Race winner had an advantage of 30 seconds on a chase group of some 40 riders as the race swept back down to Innsbruck, although favourites like Vincenzo Nibali (Italy), 2014 Road World Champion Michal Kwiatkowski and Vuelta a España winner Simon Yates (Great Britain) were already out of the running.
Valgren still had a gap at the foot of the crunch climb of Höttinger Höll, but the combined effects of slopes reaching up to 28 percent in places and a French team in hot pursuit saw him fall back. Instead, as the punishingly steep climb grew ever tougher, Bardet, Woods and Valverde managed to strike clear of a fast-shortening single line of riders, with Italy’s Gianni Moscon and Netherlands rider Tom Dumoulin amongst the last to be dropped by the trio.
Holding an advantage of around 15 seconds on Dumoulin at the summit, the leading trio picked their way carefully down the technical descent, with Valverde doing much of the work. Dumoulin, though, was determined not to be left out of the fight and the Netherlands rider had the three leaders in his sights as the road finally levelled out once again.
Dumoulin finally closed the gap on Valverde, Bardet and Woods in the last two kilometres, and even tried to ambush them almost within sight of the finish. Instead, Valverde quickly closed down the gap, and then, having kept his rivals firmly under control, opened up the sprint with 300 metres to go.
At that point, given the Spaniard’s tried and tested turn of speed in small group sprints, victory for Valverde, at long last, was a near formality, and his 15-year quest for gold in the UCI Road World Championships finally ended in success.
All the results.