While the elite women's road race at the UCI Road World Championships ultimately came down to a sprint royale, champion Giorgia Bronzini (Italy) revealed that the tense afternoon of racing was something of a psychological battle between the main contenders.
Bronzini entered as the defending champion, but Marianne Vos (Netherlands) was the pre-race favourite following her phenomenal string of victories this season, while the experienced Ina Teutenberg had the support of a strong German team. All three would finish on the podium, but Canada's Clara Hughes threatened to spring an upset when she entered the final lap with 34 seconds in hand over the peloton, after attacking with three laps to go.
"I never thought that she would get to the finish alone, because Marianne [Vos] would never, never, never have allowed it," Bronzini stressed in the post-race press conference. "Besides Germany would probably have helped her too."
In a race that was locked in stalemate almost from the outset, Bronzini refused to blink even as Hughes' lead stretched out. "I told the girls absolutely not to move a muscle on the front to chase her," Bronzini said. "I said if the others think we're going to chase her down, they're very much mistaken. I told them not do anything, just stay near the front but no more."
At one point, Bronzini even played the bluff of sending her teammate Elisa Longo Borghini off the front to plant seeds of doubt in Vos and Teutenberg's minds. "I made her do it because the pace was dropping a little bit and so that the others wouldn't know what we were doing, maybe make them think that I wasn't going well and to stress them out a little bit more," she said, smiling. "I think I even stressed Marian and Ina out on a psychological level because theoretically I thought I would have to mark them, but I today I saw them marking me, or at least the Italian team."
In the finale, the Italians also sent Noemi Cantele on the offensive, but the purpose of her acceleration was to thin out the peloton rather than specifically shut down Hughes. "We adopted the tactic in the finale to send Noemi off the front to thin things out, because otherwise there would have been too much confusion in the finale."
The finishing sprint
As expected, the peloton came back together in the closing kilometres, and as the road kicked up towards the line, Bronzini was able to rely on double Italian champion Monia Baccaille to lead her out.
"If Monia hadn't been there, I would have had to fight for Vos' wheel," she said. "But seeing as I had Monia there, I didn't see the need to take that risk as the finish was quite wide. I was still hoping Monia would sense I was there and understand that there was an Italian behind her.
"I shouted at her to go and I think she went with about 200 metres to go. She must have made a lead-out of 100 metres and when she started to fade, I went."
In spite of Vos' best efforts to get on terms, the Dutch woman was soundly beaten and after the race Bronzini was able to joke that the rainbow jersey was something of a revenge for her losing to Vos in her home town of Piacenza at the Giro Donne earlier in the season.
World champion for the second consecutive year, Bronzini noted that her status in the Italian team was very different this time around.
"Last year was a surprise for me," she said. "In the first part of the race in Geelong, I worked for Guderzo and Cantele, but then I was there in the finale, and I was the sprinter so they pulled the sprint for me. That was a surprise, but I started with no pressure last year.
"This year the team was for me. If we arrived together, the last sprint was for me. So I started with more pressure this time."