Mathieu van der Poel (Netherlands) saw his dreams of winning the rainbow evaporate dramatically on Sunday in the elite men's road race, with the Dutchman cracking on the last lap of the Yorkshire circuit at the UCI Road World Championships.
Van der Poel was in the key move of the race, having brought Matteo Trentin with him when he attacked with 33km to go. The pair linked up with the lead group of the time that contained Stefan Küng, Gianni Moscon and eventual winner Mads Pedersen, and for the next lap and a half Van der Poel looked like the overwhelming favourite for the title.
However, headlines across the world were hastily re-written when Van der Poel was surprisingly dropped with 13km to go on the final lap of the race.
The 24-year-old was quickly caught by the chasing field and finished 43rd in what was arguably the most grueling day of racing seen at a World Championships since Olso in 1993, Duitama in 1995 or Valkenburg in 1998.
"I don't know what happened," Van der Poel said post-race outside the Dutch team bus.
"All of sudden I had no strength anymore in my legs. I don't think that I made any mistakes today. I was in the right group but all of a sudden the tank was empty. That's not happened before but this is also the first time that I've raced this distance in the rain. It was raining all day, it was very cold and it was a very hard race."
Van der Poel came into the Worlds as a hot favourite having won the Tour of Britain earlier this month in commanding fashion.
The Amstel Gold winner has shone throughout the season and was named as the leader of a Dutch team in the weeks leading up the World Championships. The men in orange rode a tactically astute race, covering several key moves before Van der Poel instinctively attacked with just over 30km to go.
"It's a world championship that I'll remember for a long time. Every rider who rode it will remember it for a long time. I was in a good group and I did everything right but all of a sudden I had nothing more," he said of the conditions and his waning strength.
"I wanted more today. It's not that I was close to the title. It's a missed opportunity but it's like I was close to the title.
"My attack was instinct and it was the perfect moment with the group out in front. At that moment a lot of favourites were already suffering. It was the right moment and the right move but I didn't have the legs."
Van der Poel schooled Trentin at the recent Tour of Britain and got the better of Pedersen at the junior Worlds in 2013. He did not underestimate the opposition but simply couldn't maintain the pace once the race moved into the final phase of action.
He admitted that he did start to think about winning the rainbow jersey once he made contact with the winning breakaway but that any hopes of victory were quickly dispelled once his legs gave way.
"I knew that Trentin was strong, and Mads Pedersen. I knew him from juniors and in these conditions, he's really strong. Of course, I thought about it but all of sudden the tank was empty and I know it was going to be my day. I felt good, it was really good and then all of a sudden it was all gone. When I let the group go I was really dizzy and empty but in the last few kilometres, I felt good again. It was really strange."
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Daniel Benson is the Editor in Chief at both Cyclingnews.com and BikePerfect.com. Based in the UK, he has worked within cycling for almost 15 years, and he joined the Cyclingnews team in 2008 as the site's first UK-based Managing Editor. In that time, he has reported on over a dozen editions of the Tour de France, several World Championships, the Tour Down Under, Spring Classics, and the London 2012 Olympic Games. With the help of the excellent editorial team, he runs the coverage on Cyclingnews and has interviewed leading figures in the sport including UCI Presidents and Tour de France winners.
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