Tuesday, October 1, 2013

2013 World Championship Men's Road Race

The finish of the 2013 World Road championships was remarkable. There's something special about Road World Championships, with riders representing nations rather than trade teams, in a winner-takes-all scenario in which the winner always worthy, but where circumstances and luck play a substantial role.

In this case, after the crashes had filtered down the field, it came down to four riders: Nibali from host Italy, Costa from Portugal, and Rodriguez and Valverde from Spain. Obviously Spain had a big advantage with two riders who could win.

Rodriguez and Valverde have been like twin brothers the past few years. Despite riding for separate trade teams it seems like they're always together. But the past few years Rodriguez has been the stronger. And world championships was no different.

With two riders in the final four, Rodriguez launched. This put the team in an excellent position, as Valverde could just follow the wheels of the other two. If Rodriguez were to stay away and win, great -- Valverde would be fresh to sprint for second place. But if Rodriguez were caught, Valverde could immediately counter. Nibali and Costa, tired from chasing Rodriguez, would have been unable to stay with Valverde. But even if they were, even if they managed to pull out the effort it took to catch him, then Rodriguez would have had time to recover and been in prime position to take the win.

But when Rodriguez was caught by Nibali alone, without help from Costa, the inevitable counter from Valverde didn't happen. It was clear, Valverde, like the vast majority of riders in the brutally long and difficult race, was tired. So it was four again.

Because Costa was clearly tired, barely hanging on to the chase set by Nibali, this move, despite the fact Rodriguez was surely fatigued by this point, had a chance. Valverde would again sit on wheels, while Nibali was spent from having chased down Rodriguez's previous move.

But then it turned out Costa wasn't as tired as he'd appeared. He launched from the group, caught Rodriguez, and after a few seconds of tactical plplay, Rodriguez led out the sprint only to have Costa come around to take the championship.

Valverde was criticized by his coach for having not followed Costa. But it was clear: Valverde was cooked. There's simply nothing you can do if someone accelerates and you're not fast enough to follow.

Then Costa was criticized for not having contributed to Nibali's first chase of Rodriguez. This is a trickier issue, but Costa played the hand he had, and was able to just barely win as a result. It would have been no victory for Costa to have chased with Nibali only to have Nibali win the race. Nibali had to be frustrated, though. Had he not chased, Rodriguez would have won. Better to chase and then take chances with Valverde and Costa than to not chase and have no chance at all (barring Rodriguez crashing, suffering a mechanical problem, or physically self-destructing). But Costa took advantage of Nibali's willingness to take responsibility for the win.

But from Costa's perspective, he rode for Portugal, a minor team in the race, while Nibali represented Italy, the host team and a cycling power. Had Italy wanted to win the race, they should have had more than just Nibali in that front group. Costa had no responsibility to aid Italy. Italy wasn't some underdog with which Portugal was going to ally itself.

So Costa played a game and won. I'm not going to criticize anyone for how they acted in that race. That said, while the race was epic, I don't think anyone is saying the "strongest rider won". But Costa is only 26, still improving as a rider, so perhaps he will do the champion's rainbow jersey honor in the next year.

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