Worlds: Italy draw hope from Nizzolo's fifth place

The consensus beforehand was that Italy had one of the strongest teams at this World Championships but lacked a leader capable of finishing off their efforts, and so it proved. Four of the azzurri duly made it into the decisive split in the elite men's road race, but amid such exalted company in the finishing sprint, fifth place was surely about as much as Giacomo Nizzolo could have expected.

The podium, after all, was the reserve of previous world champions, with Peter Sagan (Slovakia) retaining his title ahead of Mark Cavendish (Great Britain) and Tom Boonen (Belgium), while Michael Matthews (Australia) claimed fourth.

"My only regret is that I was in too big a gear, but I have to say that we still did the maximum we could," Nizzolo said afterwards. "I had it in 54x11, maybe I should have gone with the 12 but I don't think I would have done much better. Maybe I would have passed Matthews, but I don't think I lost a podium place because of it. There were big names in front of me and I finished ahead of people like Boasson Hagen and Kristoff, so there's reason to be hopeful for the future."

Nizzolo had Daniele Bennati, Elia Viviani and Jacopo Guarnieri for company in the 26-man leading group, which formed on the race's 150-kilometre loop into the desert ahead of its seven, more low-key final laps over the finishing circuit in Doha. From the outset, it was clear that Boonen and Belgium would look to break up the race on those exposed roads early on, and the key moment came when the bunch turned into a crosswind with 180 kilometres still to race.

"We knew that kilometre 75 was going to decide the race, and so it proved. We lost Fabio Sabatini from the group because of a mechanical but Bennati was superlative in getting up there, as were the others," Cassani said of his team, which was outnumbered only by Belgium's six riders in the front echelon.

While Belgium was most prominent in ensuring the move – which contained no German rider – stayed clear of the shell-shocked peloton, Bennati, too, was generous in his efforts at the head of the race once it reached the finishing circuit.

"I struggled a bit with the first acceleration because I'm a bit of a diesel at this age, but I managed to get in there and stay up there with a bit of experience," Bennati said of making the front group.

"I saved as much energy as I could until we got to the circuit, but then we needed to keep Guarnieri as the last man, so I told Davide that I would pull for as long as I could, which was only right."

Olympic omnium champion Viviani had been named in the squad as a possible co-leader or alternative to Nizzolo, but once the tenor of the race had been established, he, too, rode in the service of the Italian national champion. "The team was there for Giacomo, and I was there as a wildcard, to follow Greg Van Avermaet if he attacked," Viviani said.

For the second year running, Nizzolo was Italy's best finisher at the Worlds, but fifth place in such circumstances was a marked improvement on his anonymous 18th of a year ago. For Cassani, who took over the reins from Paolo Bettini in 2014, it was the first time his Italian team had made any real impression on the Worlds.

"This is something to build on, we've got a good group. They were up to the level of the best riders and this can be a point of departure for Elia and Giacomo. They have four or five years to grow ahead of them, and fifth places can become something more, I'm convinced of it," Cassani said. "We had five riders out of 20 at first in that group, and the right men, too."

The day, however, belonged to one man alone, and Cassani was succinct when asked to assess the performance of Sagan, who became the first rider to retain the world title since Paolo Bettini in Stuttgart in 2007. "He's a phenomenon, full stop. What can you say?"

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