By Justin Davis, AFP
Spain and Italy have forged a healthy rivalry in the men’s world championship road race, with four wins apiece this past decade. But both were left behind to watch on Sunday as Cadel Evans soloed away to claim the latest rainbow jersey on offer.
Thanks to Paolo Bettini in 2006 and 2007, and Alessandro Ballan in 2008, Italy has been the team to beat of late. Damiano Cunego, second to Ballan last year, was hoping to make it four straight wins (Mario Cipollini also won for Italy in 2002).
But in the end, Cunego was left isolated on the last of 19 laps and finished in eighth, 51 seconds behind Evans and just ahead of Spain’s Alejandro Valverde.
Cunego said the course gave him few chances to put his talents on display.
“My form is good, but this race was not the Vuelta a España or the Liège-Bastogne-Liège,” said the Italian.
As for Valverde, arguably his country’s biggest chance of a first gold since Oscar Freire’s third victory in 2004 (Igor Astarloa also won for Spain in 2003), he said afterward that he decided it was better to have any medal than none at all and told Joaquin Rodriguez to mark Evans after he attacked late on the final lap.
“Once he was up the front, I knew it was practically a guarantee of a medal,” he said.
Rodriguez and Russian Alexander Kolobnev raced after Evans after he burst away inside the final 10km, leaving Cunego with Valverde and Swiss Fabian Cancellara ready to mark any move either made.
Neither caught the Aussie, and Kolobnev eventually took the silver, leaving the bronze for Rodriguez.
Italian coach Franco Ballerini said that tight marking, and a reluctance by other teams to help the Italian gain an advantage on their rivals, had given them an extra challenge.
But he also pointed the finger of blame at Cancellara.
“We put four men into that break to try to force some other teams into action. Unfortunately everyone just watched us. What can you do when the others don’t want to ride?” he lamented. “Valverde wasn’t going too well and I think Cancellara really hurt Damiano as well.”
Yet as the Italians and Spanish look toward renewing their duel on next year’s course, in Geelong south of Melbourne, both Ballerini and Cunego saluted the day’s biggest winner.
“You have to applaud Evans,” said Ballerini. “Not only did he resist, he went away on his own and won. “Cancellara was maybe the strongest rider in the race but Evans was definitely a deserved winner.”
Cunego added: “I think he answered all those people who say he can’t win. I am happy for him. But if Italy would have won, it would have been better.”