The inherent paradox – and beauty – of the World Championships road race is that the prize only occasionally falls to the best rider on the planet, and every now and then, it even manages to escape the reach of the peloton's marquee names altogether.
Men such as Rudy Dhaenens, Romains Vainsteins and Laurent Brochard have upset the preordained script over the years, and for two breathless minutes in Doha on Sunday afternoon, Tom Leezer (Netherlands) looked set to join their number.
A professional since 2008, the 30-year-old has just one professional win to his name, a stage of the Tour de Langkawi in 2013. His career has spent entirely on one team – the Rabobank set-up now known as LottoNL-Jumbo – and predominantly in the service of others.
Leezer attacked more in hope than expectation from the reduced front group, 2.7 kilometres from the finish of the UCI Road World Championships in Doha, but when he glanced under his arm a short time later, he saw only an empty stretch of tarmac. An earlier attack from teammate Niki Terpstra had been snuffed out instantly, but now there was an impasse behind, and Leezer stretched out his advantage.
Come the flamme rouge, a cohesive response had still not materialised, and all of a sudden, Leezer's looked like a winning gap. Cruelly, it was only when he began to believe in the improbable heist that the dream was snatched away from him. Jürgen Roelandts took up the chase for Belgium, and Leezer was overtaken within sight of the finish line.
"It's a little bit of a blur but I have a few memories," Leezer told Cyclingnews in the mixed zone afterwards. "First, I can't believe the gap was that big. I went all out because I didn't want to do a show attack or anything. It was all or nothing.
"Before the right-hand corner it was still really big and you think 'This can't be true, eh.' And then in the end, it wasn't true, they got me. Those things I can remember. In the last part you're just in a lot of pain and you try to give everything you have. But I wasn't counting on taking the jersey."
Leezer and Tersptra were the only two Dutchmen to make the decisive split of the race, which came with some 180 kilometres remaining, thanks largely to the forcing of Tom Boonen's Belgium team in the crosswinds, long before the race reached the finishing circuit. A brutal hour of racing ensued until the 26-man leading echelon established itself.
"I was trying to get drinks, so I was always just outside of the echelon and in the wind. I was really, really suffering for 30 or 40 minutes, from the lack of drinks and being in the wind, so it was really close just to stay in," Leezer said.
Faced with fast men of the quality of Boonen, Peter Sagan and Mark Cavendish, the Dutch pair had no option but to go on the offensive in the finale, though Leezer's would prove the only telling attack on the seven laps of the Doha finishing circuit. After coming so close to taking the biggest prize of all, he didn't even have the consolation of a place in the top ten, however, instead rolling across the line in 17th place as Sagan won a second successive world title.
"Niki and I agreed that we didn't want to race to come tenth or eighth. We said we'd go all or nothing. So we had to attack, there to be some sort of chaos," Leezer said. "Niki is known for his attacks, so a lot of people were looking at him. So that was the perfect moment for me to make my own attack."
There were mild shades of Oscar Freire's canny, career-altering attack at the 1999 Worlds in Verona about Leezer's move, even if he laughed off the comparison with his illustrious former teammate. "Oh, I don't have the feeling it's exactly similar," he said modestly. "Maybe just a bit."
Leezer's late attack afforded him a fleeting celebrity. The Dutch media contingent was one of the largest in Qatar, and with darkness already falling over Doha, he was still talking in the mixed zone, recounting with no rancour the moment he almost became world champion.
Perhaps the most notable act of his career to that point had been one of sportsmanship. When the commissaires mistakenly awarded Leezer fifth place in the final time trial at this year's Tirreno-Adriatico, he and his team came forward to point out that he had actually covered the course some 20 seconds slower than the timekeepers had initially thought. He showed similar grace in discussing his near miss here.
"For sure, I would have been a special champion," Leezer said with a smile: "Only in a different way to Sagan."
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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 (opens in new tab), published by Gill Books.