Vincenzo Nibali (Italy) was the only man to land some kind of a dig on the climb of the Cauberg before Philippe Gilbert (Belgium) delivered the knock-out blow to win the world championships road race on Sunday. The Sicilian’s forcing on the steepest section strung out the leading group, but when Gilbert roared past him 400 metres from the top, the destination of the rainbow jersey was already decided.
On the 1.7km plateau to the finish, Nibali surrendered his personal ambitions and rode to peg back Gilbert so that his teammate Oscar Gatto could sprint for the medals. In spite of Nibali’s generous efforts, Gilbert was on a different plane. Nothing to be done.
“He only made one attack and he made no mistake,” Nibali told reporters after wheeling to a halt at the finish. “In the finale we wanted to try with me and Gatto, but when Gilbert went, nobody had the strength to go with him.
“After his attack, the group broke up a bit on the climb, then regrouped over the summit. I pulled hard because I wanted to try and lead out Gatto for a medal, but he had crashed early an opened a wound on his knee.”
Rubbing grime from his face with a gloved hand, Nibali admitted that the explosive climb of the Cauberg was not best suited to his slower-burning talents. To that end, he had attempted to forge clear near the end of the penultimate lap in a bid to pre-empt Gilbert’s inevitable final reckoning.
“The lap before, I tried to go clear on the Cauberg and bring a small group with me,” he said. “But with a tailwind over the top of the climb, and with the long descent at the start of the circuit, it was really hard to stay away.
“In the end we decided to play our hand the last time up the Cauberg, but Gilbert did something that only he can do,” Nibali added, blowing out his cheeks at the memory.
With riders under investigation for doping barred from selection, Nibali was leader of a youthful Italian team. While the bald statistics of Gatto’s 13th place and Nibali’s own 29th point to a second successive Worlds disappointment, Nibali was pleased with how the azzurri impacted on the racing, particularly when they put four men into the Alberto Contador-led group of 29 that spent four laps off the front.
“We showed that we were very united,” Nibali said. “Maybe we didn’t get a reward at the end of it, but we were still up there. For a lot of the boys, it was their first Worlds – even for me, it was only my second Worlds road race and my first as a leader.”
By contrast, Nibali was puzzled by the tactics of the Spanish team, Italy’s stablemates in their Maastricht hotel during the tense build-up the big day.
Italian manger Paolo Bettini was one of a number of national coaches in need of a good result on Sunday afternoon, and while 13th place was no better than his heavily-criticised charges managed last year, he was keen to accentuate the positives of a day that saw Moreno Moser and Diego Ulissi debut in the Worlds.
“Let’s leave the result aside,” Bettini said. “Let’s think ahead, and not just about today’s result, even if that was important. We had six debutants, and I could see how keen they were pin their dossards on before the start, they felt the emotion of the occasion.
“But they weren’t caught out by the course or other teams. The selections that happened were simply made in places where you needed to have the legs.”
The final selection would come on the final climb of the Cauberg, and Bettini echoed Nibali’s feeling that there was simply nothing to be done against Gilbert. “He told me he didn’t have the legs to do it and I really don’t think many could have had the legs to go with Gilbert,” Bettini said.
Asked if he wished to continue as Italian manager, Bettini said that the immediate aftermath of the Worlds was no time for a sweeping declaration on his future plans.
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Barry Ryan is Head of Features at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation, published by Gill Books.