this article originally appeared on The Roar
There was a moment in Sunday’s World Championships with only about a quarter of the mammoth race left to go when I caught a glimpse of Simon Clarke sitting at the back of a whittled lead pack, all alone and doing his own thing.
Whereas Clarke had nothing other to do than take care of himself, by contrast there were still some 5 Italians grouped like hungry barracuda at the front, looking twitchy and slightly nervous.
Sure, there can be advantages to being with teammates. You know the wheel in front and behind well, and that brings comfort as you hurtle through corners and downhill.
There’s always a guy there to hand over a wheel on case of an untimely flat, or to cadge some food off if you run out. And, crucially, there’s someone to take you to the line and to chase breaks down.
But then there are disadvantages also, evidence of which littered the men’s road race in Florence, leaving the best laid plans of three major teams in particular strewn across the road like so many of the riders who failed to keep the rubber side down in the wet conditions.
First there’s the pre-race pressure of having a team chock full of heavy hitters. The Italians were in that situation and also had the added stress of being in front of a home crowd. Sure, that will gee you on but the scrutiny also increases with it.
The British team were in a similar situation as were the Spanish and the largely unheralded Colombians, one of whom, Uran Uran, almost made it to the final kilometer with a chance, only to take a heavy and painful fall on a grass verge.
Then there’s the need to be able to constantly re-think tactics in-race. We saw that when Filippo Pozzato went awol inexplicably with still a long way to go, needing to be ferried back to the front by teammates, forcing all the team’s focus onto Vincenzo Nibali.
Similar with the Brits, who for some unknown reason spent all their powder in the early stages sitting at the front with Cavendish doing a massive turn, only for one rider after another to fall away into obscurity.
For them though it wasn’t so much a re-thinking as a battle of survival, and they looked very poor across the board on Sunday, prompting their coach Rod Ellingworth to question their commitment.
“Having a British jersey on their backs, they should be very disappointed,” he said later of Froome and Wiggins.
“I think it’s just not his type of weather,” said Geraint Thomas of Wiggins, a very curious thing to say of an Englishman.
Finally there is the sense of expectation that builds as the race goes on and your team is looking strong. The Italians looked for all the world like they would have the firepower to smash the race open, as they almost did a couple of times, but that can lead to over-work, over-thinking and over-confidence, as at times there are just too many possible options.
But there throughout it all was Simon Clarke, pedaling along, having to do nothing other than stay out of trouble. Another rider in the same position was Rui Costa, of whom no one spoke about until the last few kilometers.
If ever a budding racer wants to watch a display of steely composure and cycling intelligence, they need only sit down and watch a replay of the finale of this race.
A smart rider knows that to win a race you have to be prepared to lose it, and Costa demonstrated that brilliantly on Sunday. With Nibali desperately trying to chase down Joaquim Rodriguez of Spain with Alejandro Valverde on his wheel and imploring Costa to work too, the Portuguese rider simply shook his head and stayed at the back.
Rodriguez and Valverde had the numerical superiority but not the legs, and there seemed some discontent from Rodriguez at his teammate’s display, as though he expected more counter-attacks from the Movistar leader.
Nibali was the strongest rider there by a notch or two, though his chase from a fall earlier had him slightly depleted, and his nerves frayed on the final descent.
Not Costa’s though. He kept calm and pounced at the last possible moment, having sat in for so long of the race. To win, of course, you only have to go faster than everyone else for one single moment – but that moment has to be the right one.
And there it was. The first ever Portuguese winner of the World road race. A year in Rainbow for a few kilometers of tactical brilliance and a whole truck load of cool.
No teammates around, no support, nothing to do but let the others do the work.
A worthy champion of an epic race.
You’re right that Costa was a worthy competitor, but we disagree on a few points…IMHO Rodriguez was the strongest, and Valverde was intimidated by/watching Nibali – he just flat missed the move. He had no excuse for not making the junction and outsprinting Costa.