A year ago when Lizzie Armitstead crossed the line at the World Championships in Spain the disappointment and gloom surrounding her was palpable. She had been beaten a worthy competitor in Pauline Ferrand Prevot but the prevailing feeling through the disconsolate sense of loss was of what might have been.
Twelve months on and the situation in Richmond could not have been more different. Just like last year Armitstead lined up as a pre-race favourite but there was a steel to her that perhaps was missing at times in the past, a sense that no matter what hurdles she faced in the road race they would be overcome.
In the end though she made it look easy – a sign of a true champion if ever there was one – with race victory brimming with style, finesse and a tactical astuteness that outclassed her rivals.
"It's the first time I've been a favourite going into the world championships, so it was hard," she at least admitted in her post-race press conference.
"It was very nerve wracking and I just had to play poker all the way to the line. I attacked at the last climb because I needed to put some distance between me and the real sprinters."
Armitstead's game plan for the race was effective as much as it was simple. Sit in the wings during the early exchanges and wait for the final laps. Her team were small in numbers but carried her through the opening laps and when the race appeared to be slipping out of her reach she attacked on the penultimate set of climbs.
"It was a lap-and-a-half to go and I put in a little dig over one of the cobble climbs because I thought this could be over if we don't bring it back. I was hoping that someone would come across with me to the breakaway but I sort of put myself away on my own and I wasn't prepared to chase on my own so it was a case of being willing to lose the race in order to win it. I had to be patient and I had to gamble."
It helped remind the rest of her rivals in the main field that despite the fact that the break up the road still had a minute on them the rainbow jersey was still winnable. The Germans and Dutch - despite having riders up the road – sparked into life and on the final ascent up Libby Hill as Armitstead latched onto a move from rival Katarzyna Niewiadoma (Poland).
It was a telling moment as it gave snapshot into how her rivals were feeling. Ferrand Prevot, Anna Van Der Breggen (Netherlands) and Megan Guarnier (United States of America) were there but not quite on her wheel and when the group of favourites reformed after the summit a number of pure sprinters had been dropped.
A handful regained contact before the final climb of Governor Street. Armitstead looked backed, moved to the right of the leading group and surged once more.
"My plan was always to attack on Governor Street. Probably people thought I should wait for the sprint, but I knew I needed to get rid of Bronzini and Shelley, and that's what I did. I stuck to my plan."
The move caused panic behind and left only nine riders in the front group.
By now Armitstead's form and dominance were clear but the sprint was still to come and being positioned on the front with 600 meters to go was far from ideal but you can't take the track rider out of a roadster no matter how much you try.
"I knew that the sprint was going to be difficult. I knew I had to lead it out in that situation, so I took it to one side of the road and dictated the sprint. I knew that if I was on one side of the road, they would have to attack me from the other," she said.
Van Der Breggen was the first to flinch, coming over the right of Armitstead. That was arguably when she lost the race and Armitstead won, with the British rider easing into the Dutch woman's slipstream before coming through on the opposite side.
"To be honest, I was waiting for the rush of the sprint to come and then it kind of never came, Anna [Van der Breggen] came but that was it and then the finish line came a lot quicker than I expected. It was all about getting to the line first."
"It's all you dream about as a cyclist, and it's so strange that it's mine. I won't realise it until tomorrow morning for sure."
An emotion Team GB on the podium after Armitstead's victory (TDW Sport)
Her greatest win
This season Armitstead has been in the form of her life and has been wining ever since her season started in the dust of Qatar. From the bergs of the Classics to the Worlds she has been immense at trade team level. Still, this without doubt eclipses everything else in her growing palmares. In her press conference she agreed that this was her finest win, but added that her national teammates would share in her moment of glory.
"Probably, yeah, it's difficult to come from Boels-Dolmans the whole season where we were so dominant and we relied on the teammates so much. We race so professionally and to come into a different set up over the last couple of days has been so hard, quite challenging, and I'm very proud of the way the girls and GB bonded over such a short space of time."
With the rainbow jersey on her shoulders Armitstead will return home to the United Kingdom with her season complete and her achievements met. The World Cup and now the rainbow jerseys will both be tucked away in a draw before all attention turn to Rio in 2016. For now though, Armitstead can afford to be lost in the moment of her success.
"It's surreal. Every cyclist dreams of the rainbow jersey and this morning I have never been so nervous in my life. That's why I'm still in shock because it just went perfectly. I tried the best I could to get to the World Championships in the best way possible and then you have to have lady luck on your side and she was with me today. Everything just went to plan."
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