Thor Hushovd claimed Norway’s first-ever men’s elite title at the world road championships in Australia on Sunday.
Hushovd, the reigning Norwegian champion, dominated a bunch sprint at the end of a thrilling 267.2 km race, beating Denmark’s Matti Breschel and Australia’s Allan Davis.
Breschel went one better than his bronze in 2008 to pick up the silver medal while Davis gave the hosts a consolation bronze, their second consecutive medal after Cadel Evans’ triumph last year.
Hushovd, a one-day classics specialist who is known for his ability to climb and finish well on uphill sprints, waited until the final 150 meters of the 750-meter home straight before unleashing a powerful sprint.
Afterward he could not quite believe his achievement.
“It’s hard to understand I’ve won the worlds. It’s a dream, it’s unreal,” said Hushovd, who becomes the first rider from the Scandinavian country to win the coveted rainbow jersey. “This has to be the best moment of my career.”
An unusual route
The elite men’s event broke with tradition by starting and finishing in two different locations, and shortly after the start in Melbourne a five-man attack formed.
The group contained no contenders but the peloton had to up the pace to bring down a lead of more than 20 minutes. If the peloton had been lapped by the leaders on the 15.9km circuit in Geelong, the bulk of the field would have been disqualified.
Thankfully for race organizers the potential disaster was avoided and the star-studded chasing peloton continued to increase the pace and eventually pull in the tiring leaders.
With five laps to go Italian Matteo Tosatto’s acceleration on the main climb split the group of favorites, leaving Hushovd, Swiss contender Fabian Cancellara and several other contenders behind.
For the next four laps attacks came and went and when pre-race favorite Philippe Gilbert appeared to have the big prize sewn up when he attacked on the second last climb of the 11th and final lap of the hilly 15.9 km circuit in Geelong to open up a gap on his rivals.
However the Belgian, battling alone into a headwind, was caught less than 3km from home as a small group of chasers, including Evans, was itself then reeled in by a group in which Hushovd was helping drive the pace.
Gilbert had to regroup, and hope to sprint well, but he said: “I just had nothing left in the end when it came to the sprint, I’d given everything I had.”
Australia tried a savvy approach by sending the versatile Evans up front and leaving Davis behind in the event of a bunch kick, but once a group sprint looked on the cards the Aussie dynamo simply could not better Hushovd.
With several pre-race favorites already out of the race or left trailing, a number of lesser-known riders sniffed their chance of glory.
Russian Vladimir Gusev attacked in the final two kilometers with Slovenia’s Janez Brajkovic on his wheel, and after they had rounded the final bend leading to the home straight Dutchman Niki Terpstra tried his luck.
Terpstra burst for the finish line with a little over 500 meters to go, but he was soon swallowed up as the uphill sprint specialists moved to the front.
Once inside the final 150 meters Hushovd blasted his way up the inside of the barriers and with no-one on his wheel the big Norwegian moved past Breschel with ease to win by a bike length.
A disappointed Breschel lamented the fact he had uncorked his power a shade too soon.
“I was on (Greg) Van Avermaet’s wheel and when I came off it I went with everything I had,” Breschel said. “Then I saw Thor come past me with 50 meters to go,” said the Dane, who has promised to make amends when Copenhagen hosts the event next year. It was a pretty long sprint, uphill and after 260 kilometers, it’s hard.”
How others fared
● Britain’s Mark Cavendish was one of several pre-race contenders who couldn’t hold the pace as the Isle of Man rider pulled out late in the race.
● Italian contender Filippo Pozzato finished fourth, meaning Italy, three-time winners in 2006-2008, missed the podium for the second consecutive year.
● Former three-time world champion Oscar Freire was Spain’s best finisher in sixth, just ahead of Russia’s former two-time runner-up Alexandr Kolobnev.
● Ted King was the top American finisher in 73rd place. The Garmin contingent, Christian Vande Velde, Danny Pate and Tyler Farrar all finished as a part of the second main group with Dave Zabriskie pulling out during the race. The Garmins, however, might have taken solace from the fact that the day’s winner will be their trade teammate next season.
“It was a bit of a strange race,” said U.S. team director Mike Sayers. “I think the course dictated how the race went many, many minutes out. I thought our guys rode well as a group. Thought we had some standout performances; Tejay for sure. I think moving forward over the next couple of years those are performances we can build off of.”
Twenty-two-year-old Tejay Van Garderen had a notable performance for the U.S. team, making the final selection with approximately 30-kilometers remaining. The youngster was however forced to abandon before the finish.
“The plan was to help Tyler out, so we were drifting the climbs a little bit,” said Van Garderen. “I was getting a little nervous though because every time we’d do that a group would go off the front. I was thinking this could be a little dangerous so one of the moves I just jumped with and that ended up being the move.”