Alberto Rui Costa stunned Spanish rival Joaquin Rodriguez at the finish line of the world championships' road race to become the first Portuguese winner of the coveted rainbow jersey on Sunday. Rodriguez finished second to take the silver with compatriot Alejandro Valverde taking bronze at the end of rain-hit 272.2 km epic that claimed several pre-race favorites as well as the entire British team. Italy's Vincenzo Nibali had to settle for fourth after being left with no teammates for the thrilling finale in the final stages of the 10th and last lap of a hilly 16.9 km circuit around Florence.
Rui Costa, who won two stages at July's Tour de France as well as the Tour of Switzerland, succeeds Philippe Gilbert of Belgium as world champion. Gilbert's Belgian team looked among the strongest amid a reduced, 42-man field on the final lap, by which times the heavy rain which plagued the course throughout had abated. However the defending champion, as well as pre-race favourite Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland, were among those unable to respond when Rodriguez countered an attack by Nibali late on the second of the circuit's three climbs. Nibali looked set for a duel with Rodriguez when the Spaniard countered his attack on the 600-meter Via Salviati climb, where the maximum pitches were a whopping 16 percent. But despite opening up a five-second gap on Colombian Rigoberto Uran, Costa and Valverde at the summit, the pair's advantage was never going to be enough.
The three chasers soon had Rodriguez and Nibali in their sights on the 5.5 km descent towards the finish line. However disaster struck for Uran, who won Olympic road race silver in London last year, when he misjudged a gradual left hand bend, braked hard and went over the handlebars to land hard against an embankment. Rodriguez dug deep, opened up a small gap on Nibali and the Italian was left with the unwelcome Valverde and Rui Costa on his wheel with a little under 5 km remaining.
Rodriguez, one of the peloton's best on short, punchy climbs, started the final challenge, a steep rise whose summit was 2.8 km from the finish, with an 11 seconds lead on his chasers. Despite being caught near the top, the Spaniard attacked again to open up a slight gap which he maintained for most of the descent. With Nibali being marked by Valverde, the Italian could do little when Rui Costa went off in chase of Rodriguez. The 26-year-old Portuguese caught Rodriguez with less than 200 meters to go, at which point the Spanish climbing specialist employed the only remaining means, conversation, to overcome the Portuguese's faster finish on the flat.
"This has been a big dream of mine for a long time. I still can't believe I'm the world champion," said Rui Costa, who broke down in tears on the podium. "Two kilometers from the finish Rodriguez held a certain advantage but I still had to choose the right moment to make the jump and catch him, and then to try and out sprint him."
"When I spoke to him, I was simply trying to make him move in front of me so that I could get in behind him," said Rodriguez. "But we know each other well, and I knew it wasn't going to happen."
A protagonist late in the final lap when he crucially countered an attack by Italian Vincenzo Nibali on the second of the circuit's three climbs, Rodriguez was understandably distraught at the end.
"Winning is all that matters so this medal doesn't mean anything to me right now," he added. "Alejandro and I have a lot of career wins but we've both missed out on winning the worlds."
Spain's failure to capitalize on their favorable scenario will cause reverberations, especially in light of a maiden triumph in one of cycling's biggest races of the year by neighbors Portugal. Valverde and Rui Costa also race for the same professional team, Movistar, and the Spaniard is often a rival of Rodriguez's on the hilly one-day classics during the normal racing season. Valverde, however, claimed he simply didn't have the legs when Rui Costa made a crucial move to close down Rodriguez on a "difficult" bend.
"I should have stayed on his wheel but he attacked on a difficult bend and I simply couldn't follow him. It's not easy after 270 km of racing," said Valverde.
It was Valverde's third road race bronze, having also missed out on victory in 2003 and 2005 when he took silver behind Igor Astarloa and Tom Boonen respectively.
"Obviously I would have preferred the gold medal but Rui Costa was too strong. I know him, he's a formidable rider," he added.
Nibali had to settle for fourth after valiantly fighting back from a crash after the descent of the first climb on the 10th and last lap of the race's hilly 16.9 km circuit around Florence. Team manager Paolo Bettini, a former two-time world champion, heaped praise on the Giro d'Italia champion for fighting his way back – and said defeat was preferable to Spain's sucker-punch defeat.
"Without the fall it could have made the difference," said Bettini. "But Vincenzo really deserves credit for making it back to the main bunch. I really didn't expect it. In the end, we prefer to have the wooden spoon than to have suffered the kind of defeat Spain did."
Rui Costa, who won two stages at July's Tour de France as well as the Tour of Switzerland, succeeds Philippe Gilbert of Belgium as world champion. Gilbert finished ninth, at 34 seconds adrift, and just ahead of pre-race favorite Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland.
Men's Road Race
1. Rui Costa (POR) 7:25;44
2. Joaquin Rodriguez (ESP) @ s.t.
3. Alejandro Valverde (ESP) @ :16
4. Vincenzo Nibali (ITA) @ s.t.
5. Andriy Grivko (UKR) @ :31
6. Peter Sagan (SVK) @ :34
7. Simon Clarke (AUS) @ s.t.
8. Maxim Iglinskiy (KAZ)
9. Philippe Gilbert (BEL)
10. Fabian Cancellara (SUI)