As has been so often the case, it looked as though everything was falling into place for Simon Gerrans. The Australian arrived at the Ponferrada World Championships as the man of the moment after his brace of victories in Canada earlier in the month, and in the finale he seemed once again to be in the right place at the right time.
As is his wont, Gerrans had barely been seen all day, but when Alejandro Valverde and Philippe Gilbert punched clear near the summit of the final ascent of the Mirador, the Australian ghosted across to them with disarming ease.
Their party swelled to six as they crested the summit, and on the plunge down the other side, the group was powered solely by Gilbert, who put himself at the complete disposal of his Belgian teammate Greg Van Avermaet. With Michael Matthews lurking in the peloton behind, Gerrans could afford to sit in the wheels all the way to the line. The perfect scenario.
It seemed almost too good to be true, and it was. All the way down into Ponferrada, Gerrans and company could see Michal Kwiatkowski (Poland) flitting in and out of view, always just around the next corner. He had slipped away on the previous descent of Confederacion, and clutched a nine-second lead tightly to his chest with four kilometres remaining.
Kwiatkowski surrendered precious little of it on the final drop the finish, and by the time the chasers straightened up within sight of the line, he was all but home and hosed. Still hoping against hope, Gilbert opened the sprint from a distance. Inevitably, Gerrans was the winner. Cruelly, he hit the line a second down on the freewheeling Kwiatkowski.
“To be honest with you, I felt like I wanted to cry when I crossed the finish line,” Gerrans admitted in the press room afterwards, a silver medal around his neck. “To be so close to the world title and to see it slip away in the final few kilometers ... I knew I had good legs. If things had unfolded a little bit differently in the final I could have been racing for the victory.”
Kwiatkowski catches the favourites napping
Gerrans has developed a reputation as one of the canniest riders in the peloton, repeatedly clambering out of Trojan horses at the business end of the biggest races and carrying off the spoils. On Sunday, for once, he came across a rider of equal cunning.
Kwiatkowski caught the rest of the favourites napping by attacking forcefully on the descent of Confederacion, and by the time Gerrans reached the citadel, it had already been sacked. Afterwards, he could only pay tribute to Kwiatkowski’s sleight of hand and the strength of his legs.
“To be totally honest with you I didn’t see where Kwiatkowski slipped off the front, I could just see that there was still a break of a couple of guys coming into the last climb,” Gerrans said. “Obviously Michal slipped off the front on the descent beforehand and then he had the legs to hold off the chasing bunch.
“He did a really strong ride. I could see he was still off the front at the top of the final climb and I could see from there that it was going to be very difficult to catch him.”
On that final climb, Kwiatkowski had been able to take advantage of something of an impasse behind. As Joaquim Rodriguez, Gilbert et al manoeuvred themselves into position to land their blows near the summit, the pace dropped slightly – fatally, to Gerrans’ mind – in the main peloton.
“No one wanted to start their effort on the final climb too early so we actually did the first part of the climb not full pace and that was enough to give Kwiatkowski the advantage he needed to stay away,” Gerrans said. “Tactically he rode a fantastic race and he was strong enough to back that up and stay away, so he was a worthy winner.”
In the finale of a World Championships road race, every action seems to be magnified, their consequences amplified. There was a whole world of difference in the second that separated Gerrans from Kwiatkowski. When Gilbert flicked his elbow in search of help as the road flattened out, Tony Gallopin (France) shook his head. Nobody else – neither Gerrans, nor Valverde, nor Matti Breschel (Denmark) – volunteered a significant turn either.
“I think I haven’t got too many regrets with the way I raced today. As I said earlier I was beaten by a strong rider with better tactics,” Gerrans said. “All in all, I’m happy with the way I raced. But to come second in a big race like this, especially a Worlds, is disappointing in a way too.”