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By Andrew Hood
German workhorse Bert Grabsch won Germany’s first world time-trial title since 2001 on Thursday as Canadian Svein Tuft delivered the surprise ride of the day to claim the silver medal.
American David Zabriskie powered to bronze in Varese, Italy, claiming his second world championship time trial medal in three years, while Levi Leipheimer didn’t quite have the day he expected and finished just off the podium in fourth.
Some 57 starters enjoyed impeccable racing conditions to tackle a mostly flat, 43.7km power course made slightly easier by the absence of two-time world champion Fabian Cancellara, the Olympic gold medalist in the discipline.
With Spartacus citing fatigue, it was Grabsch who boldly stepped into the void to take a solid victory in 52 minutes, 1.6 seconds with an average speed of 50.397kph. His winning ride gave Germany its first world time-trial medal since Jan Ullrich’s second victory in 2001.
“Cancellara wasn’t here, so it was open for all riders, maybe there were 10 riders who could win,” said Grabsch, who turned 33 on Sept. 19. “The last few years when Cancellara starts, only he can win. Today it was for anyone.”
Tuft almost played the David vs. Goliath role, posting the fastest time at the first split at 8.18km and overcoming a flat tire with about 6km to go to hang on for silver, a huge result following his impressive seventh in Beijing and Canada’s first medal at worlds since Steve Bauer won bronze in 1984.
Tuft stopped the clock in 52:44.39 at 42.79 seconds off Grabsch’s time. The North America-based racer — known for his extreme training methods and moonlighting with “Ultimate Boxing” — didn’t want to speculate if changing his bike cost him the gold medal.
“It went really well. I knew this morning I was on a good day. I gave it everything I had, but with about 6km out I flatted a front wheel. I switched out a bike and came in with enough of a scare to finish the last 5km,” said Tuft, whose Symmetrics squad is disbanding and is poised to announce a new team for 2009.
“I was a little surprised at the time, but very happy, happy with the ride. To be up here with these guys is a big thing for me.”
Zabriskie expressed satisfaction with making the podium, stopping the clock in 52:53.87 at 52.27 seconds slower, to add a bronze to the silver medal he won in 2006.
“I’m satisfied. It’s always nice to do better, but for the season I’ve had, it’s good for me to have something,” he said. “It’s been a difficult year for me, so I’m happy.”
Zabriskie overcame back problems suffered from a nasty crash in the first stage at the 2008 Giro d’Italia, when he cracked a vertebra, and barely made it back in time to start the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games.
The compression fracture actually makes him 1cm shorter and still causes him problems.
“It’s been extremely difficult coming back from my crash at the Giro. It still gives me problems. I was having some spasms the last few days of Missouri,” said Zabriskie, who added he will start the men’s road race on Sunday.
“I talked to Michael Barry, who had a similar accident, and he said his back hurt a few years. I’m not really looking forward to experiencing lower back pain for a few more years. I’m sure hoping it doesn’t last a few more years.”
Zabriskie said the loop course around Lago di Varese was better for him than the climbing course in Beijing, where he finished 12th.
“Today the course suited me better than China, not only because it didn’t have a big climb, but it was not as humid. I’ve also had a few more races in my legs, which helps with my fitness,” he said. “I was hoping to do well, third is pretty good, I will be satisfied with that.”
Leipheimer entered as the top favorite and earned the No. 1 bib, but couldn’t quite generate the speed he needed to land on the podium.
Fresh off finishing second overall and winning both time-trial stages at the Vuelta a España, he followed his tried-and-true tactic of starting a little slower and saving his legs for a strong final push.
He was 16th at the first split and improved over the final two-thirds to stop the clock in 53:07.02 at 1:05.42 slower to slot into fourth, matching his worlds career-best of fourth from the 2001 worlds.
“I’m disappointed. I felt strong. I felt like I was going fast, just not fast enough,” Leipheimer told VeloNews. “I wasn’t in my 11 that much. Maybe (the course was better for him than Beijing), maybe not, it was flat, fast, maybe it was a little bit better for the bigger guys. I felt fine after the Vuelta, I just wasn’t as fast I wanted to be.”
Both Leipheimer and Zabriskie will line up for the men’s elite road race on Sunday but Tuft will sit out to let some of his other compatriots take aim for the podium.
U-23 road race
The 2008 UCI Road World Championships continue Friday with the 173km under-23 road race. The pack will race 10 laps on the 17.3km circuit around Varese.
The U.S. team brings a strong squad anchored by Tejay Van Garderen and Peter Stetina, both fresh off strong performances at the Tour de l’Avenir. Also lining up for the Americans are Chris Barton, Chad Beyer and Kirk Carlsen.
U-23 time trial gold medalist Adriano Malori lines up with a strong team from host Italy with Portugal, France, Belgium and Germany all sporting strong squads. Dan Martin (Ireland) and John-Lee Augustyn (South Africa) are other names to watch.
World road championships
Men’s individual time trial
1. Bert Grabsch (GER), 43.7km in 52:01
2. Svein Tuft (CAN), at 0:42
3. David Zabriskie (USA), at 0:52
4. Levi Leipheimer (USA), at 1:05
5. Gustav Larsson (SWE), at 1:05
6. Stijn Devolder (BEL), at 1:15
7. Tony Martin (GER), at 1:16
8. Janez Brajkovic (SLO), at 1:25
9. David Millar (GBR), at 1:25
10. Sylvain Chavanel (FRA), at 1:25
11. Vladimir Gusev (RUS), at 1:27
12. Michael Rogers (AUS), at 1:33
13. Marco Pinotti (ITA), at 1:34
14. Manuel Quinziato (ITA), at 1:36
15. Serhiy Honchar (UKR), at 1:38
16. Ivan Gutierrez (ESP), at 1:54
17. Matej Jurco (SVK), at 1:58
18. Vasili Kyrienka (BLR), at 2:11
19. Lars Bak (DEN), at 2:23
20. Fredrik Ericsson (SWE), at 2:27