As Tony Martin passed under the red kite, he had to cover the final kilometre in less than 1:20 if he was to retain his title as world time trial champion. Whether the German was aware of the specifics of the task at hand is moot - after a nip and tuck battle with Taylor Phinney (United States) over the rolling Limburg course, he understood instinctively what was required after cresting the final climb of the Cauberg.
"Just at the top of the Cauberg, I was full, full sprinting. It was the longest 1,000 metres of my career," Martin said afterwards. "My legs were full of lactic acid, but I had to continue and when I saw the time at the finish, I saw that I was just in front."
Twelve months ago in Copenhagen, Martin could afford to cruise across the line, as if it were simply the coronation at the end of a procession. In Valkenburg, by contrast, the monarch was desperately trying to quash the youthful insurgency of Phinney, even if he looked to maintain a stately air at all times.
"At the beginning I was a little bit behind and then I was in front at the next check, but the gap was always in between 10 seconds," Martin said. "But I didn't panic, I just tried to follow my rhythm and stay with my plan."
At the first time check after 14km, Martin was four seconds down on the upstart. By kilometre 29, the tide had turned and he led by seven seconds, but Phinney refused to yield, and the gap remained unchanged at the foot of the Cauberg.
"I think Taylor did a perfect ride today and it was really hard," Martin said. "For sure, I didn't expect it would be so hard, but I did everything 110% and I was totally dead at the end. The final, especially, was one of the hardest ever in my career."
Martin's late effort not only ensured that he saved his rainbow jersey; by his own admission, it also meant that he salvaged his season. After transferring to Omega Pharma-QuickStep ahead of the 2012 campaign, Martin was beset by a nagging early-season injury, struck by a car in training in April and then suffered a broken hand in a crash on the opening road stage of the Tour de France.
"After a year with so may ups and downs and bad luck, there was just one way to make the season good and that was by taking the title today," Martin said. "After breaking my hand on the first stage in the Tour de France it was pretty hard to get ready for the Olympics, but I handled that situation well, and I got the silver medal in London. That gave me a lot of morale."
Just as the season was drawing to a close, Martin sensed an opening as the Worlds approached. "I had the perfect preparation at the Vuelta and so this was the first race of the season where I could really go with 100% condition," he said. "I had no bad luck, no puncture, no crashes."
While news of Phinney's storming ride served as something of a stick for Martin, he had an unexpected carrot to chase around the course in the form of Alberto Contador (Spain). Widely tipped to be one of the medal contenders on the undulating course, the Vuelta a España winner - who returned from doping suspension in August - endured a wretched afternoon and finished in ninth place, 2:30 down on Martin.
Martin rolled down the start ramp two minutes after Contador, and the Spaniard's particularly sluggish opening meant that Martin had him lined up in his crosshairs even before the halfway point. He carefully stalked his prey for a couple of technical kilometres, before swooping past with 13km still to race.
"I was really surprised to see him early in the race in front of me, but it's always nice to see a rider in front of you in a time trial," Martin said. It doesn't matter if it's Alberto Contador or anybody else, because it means that you are going well.
"But especially when you pass Alberto Contador you know you are in a good way and going at a good speed because he was one of the favourites of the day. When you pass him for two minutes in front of you, it shows you are in a good way."
His time trial crown safely retained, not to mention his silver medal from the London Olympics, Martin has reaffirmed his place in the time trialling hierarchy. But now aged 27, the German must surely be considering how he can extend his repertoire and make a serious impact in a three-week stage race.
"Maybe the Tour de France is good for the future, but it depends on the parcours. Sometimes it's realistic to go for a good placing, and sometimes it's not," he said, although he had earlier noted, "I love time trialling - it's my discipline and I hope I don't ever get tired of it."
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