Portugal’s Rui Costa kept his composure in a tense finale to upset the favorites and win the men’s elite road race at the world championships following a series of crashes and persistent rain on Sunday.
After sitting behind and refusing to take a turn at the front, Costa made his move about 1.5km from the finish to bridge the gap to Joaquim Rodriguez and beat the Spaniard in a sprint finish to become the first Portuguese to win the event.
Another Spaniard, Alejandro Valverde, took third place for his fifth podium at the event, although he has never won the coveted rainbow jersey, after a poor tactical choice possibly cost Rodriguez the victory.
“My first concern was to stay safe because there was a lot of rain and make it to the finish in one piece, but in the end, when we were only a small group left in front, I thought I had a chance,” Costa told a press conference. “I stayed behind Rodriguez [ahead of the final sprint], played a tactical game and I was hoping that my legs would not fail me.”
Home favorite Vincenzo Nibali, who launched the decisive attack on the Fiesole climb, despite being one of several riders to crash during the 272.3km race, had to settle for fourth.
The move left one-day race specialists Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland, Peter Sagan of Slovakia and defending champion Philippe Gilbert of Belgium stuck on the tarmac on the final of 10 laps of a 16.6km circuit.
About half of the peloton had already abandoned midway through the race and the whole Britain team had dropped out with five laps to go on a woeful day for Tour de France champion Chris Froome and his teammates.
Only 61 riders of the 208 on the start list finished.
“It was carnage out there. When you got into that second half of the peloton there were crashes everywhere,” Britain’s Geraint Thomas said. “I saw at least five or six big crashes. As soon as that happens people lose the wheel on the climb and then you’re destined to get dropped.”
Multiple crashes and the Italy team’s pace at the front split the peloton, but Sagan, Cancellara and Gilbert held on until Nibali attacked. He was followed by Rodriguez, Valverde, Costa and Colombia’s Rigoberto Uran, who was ruled out of contention when he crashed on a descent.
Rodriguez was the most active rider, attacking relentlessly, but his moves were covered by Nibali, but he could not follow the Spaniard’s acceleration about 3km from the line on drying roads.
Costa, who served a five-month doping suspension in 2010 after taking a contaminated food supplement, stayed on the wheels of Valverde and Nibali, declining to take turns in the chase when prompted by the Giro d’Italia champion.
Costa, who this year won a Tour de France stage at Le Grand Bornand in grueling weather conditions, left no chance for Rodriguez.
“I tried to play with his nerves, but once he had caught me I knew it was over because I was so tired,” said Rodriguez, who could not understand why Valverde failed to cover Costa’s attack.
Former world champion Cadel Evans of Australia, as well as Ireland’s Dan Martin and Vuelta a Espana winner Chris Horner of the US, pulled out after being involved in crashes.