Italian national coach Davide Cassani helped to design the road race course for the World Championships in Imola, Italy, but he could hardly have been accused of favouritism. The steep final climb of the Cima Gallisterna was never likely to favour the chances of his leader, Vincenzo Nibali, and so it proved.
On the final lap, Nibali instead attempted to carve out space for himself by accelerating over the summit of the penultimate ascent of the Mazzolano with 20km to go, drawing pre-race favourite Wout van Aert (Belgium) with him in a four-man group that also included Mikel Landa (Spain) and Rigoberto Urán (Colombia).
The attack briefly sharpened into focus the hazy prospect of Nibali emulating Vittorio Adorni's home victory at the last Imola Worlds in 1968, but Van Aert had no inclination to commit to the offensive so early, and the move was pegged back shortly afterwards. As anticipated, the world title would be decided on the stiff slopes of the Gallisterna, where Julian Alaphilippe (France) soloed clear towards the rainbow jersey.
Van Aert won the five-man sprint for second place behind the Frenchman, while Nibali came home at the rear of the third group, in 15th place, 57 seconds down on Alaphilippe. His fellow Sicilian, Damiano Caruso, fresh from a fine showing at the Tour de France, was Italy's highest finisher in 10th.
"After six hours or more of racing, I felt good, but a climb as harsh as that is always a bit of an unknown for me, so I moved earlier," Nibali said in the mixed zone afterwards. "Van Aert came with me, but he didn't collaborate.
"On the final climb, I knew it was going to be a bit more difficult for me. I spoke with the lads during the week, and we said that, as a rule, we were going to have to anticipate the final climb. But the speed was very high, so there wasn't a lot of space."
Nibali arrived at the Worlds downplaying his prospects and unsure of his pre-Giro d'Italia form after subdued displays at Tirreno-Adriatico and the Giro dell'Apennino in recent weeks. Afterwards, he expressed satisfaction with his display, just five days ahead of the Giro's Grande Partenza in Palermo.
"Today was a day when I felt better compared to previous races. In Tirreno, I never felt like that. It gives me a bit more confidence for the Giro. I feel better," Nibali said. "That was a real race today, over 260km and with 5,000m of climbing. And, well, it was the World Championships."
The rainbow jersey, however, was contested almost exclusively by men who completed the Tour de France last weekend, with Denmark's Jakob Fuglsang (fifth) and Australia's Michael Matthews (seventh) the only exceptions in the top 10.
"The riders who did the Tour were used to producing lactic acid for much longer, which is normal when you've done 20 days of long climbs, short climbs and all kinds of different efforts," Nibali said. "Jakob was already good at Tirreno. He was ahead of me in condition there, so he was the one today who maybe could have fought for the win.
"For me, it was a good test in view of the Giro, but I knew before the start that a climb like that would be hard for me to digest."
With Nibali admitting he was not at his best and doubting his form, Diego Ulissi was expected to be Italy's alternative leader and protected rider for the final lap and the final climb of the Cima Gallisterna. He was apparently suffering with stomach problems, however, and was unable to play a role.
"We did what we could and raced well together until the last lap," Ulissi said post-race. "We knew that a rider like Alaphilippe could do well here. He came out of the Tour in great shape and so had something extra."
All those in the Italian team tried to put a positive spin on their performances, knowing that while they rode well as a team, they risk significant criticism after failing to play a part in the final attacks. Filippo Ganna won the elite men's time trial world title and Elisa Longo Borghini won a bronze medal in the women's road race, but expectations are always high when Italy hosts the World Championships. That was especially the case for Cassani, given that the race took place on his home roads in Emilia Romagna.
"You've got to give your all and we gave our all," Cassani said, quick to highlight the statistic about the strength of the riders who had ridden the Tour de France.
"Only Fuglsang managed to get in the select group of riders; everyone else who had ridden the Tour had an edge. The only chance we had was to try something on the Mazzolano climb rather than wait for the final climb," he said.
"Nibali gave it a go, but couldn't get away because the speed was so high, and even Spain suffered because of that. The final Gallisterna climb was better suited to explosive riders like Julian Alaphilippe, who dropped everyone. We couldn't have done any better."
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