By Andrew Hood
Italy will be the toast of Europe tomorrow, but back in Spain, the national team is going to get roasted.
Spain was favored to win gold Sunday and complete the season sweep that’s included victories in all three grand tours and the Olympic Games, but anger and frustration poured out of Spanish riders at the end of Sunday’s race that will forever be remembered as a lost opportunity.
“We really blew it today,” said Spanish national coach Paco Antequera. “We should have had one of our big riders in that group. We let the world title slip away.”
Joaquin Rodriguez was the only member of the heavily favored nine-man Spanish team to slip into the winning, 13-man move that included three Italians, two Belgians and two Danes.
Rodriguez did what he could to finish sixth, but he was out-gunned by the Italians. He was Spain’s official point man, on the prowl in the decisive moments to mark the late moves but he wasn’t to carry the weight of the team.
That responsibility fell to three-time world champion Oscar Freire, three-time worlds medalist Alejandro Valverde and Beijing gold medalist Samuel Sanchez.
All three were MIA as confusion reigned in the final lap.
Sanchez made a late bid to bridge to finish 22nd at 1:22 back while Valverde and Freire were stewing in the second group at 4:53 off the pace.
Freire, making a bid to become the first rider to win four world titles, was absolutely livid at the line.
“I had the world title in my legs today,” Freire said. “It was a blown opportunity. We rode awfully today.”
The team angrily pointed fingers toward Valverde, who was told to mark Alessandro Ballan, Damiano Cunego and Davide Rebellin, the three riders who rode into the breakaway.
Valverde muttered that he was marking Paolo Bettini and that his ear-piece wasn’t working, so he had no idea what the team orders were in the final laps.
“I couldn’t hear anything. I didn’t know what the team was doing tactically,” Valverde said. “Oscar and I were with Bettini and Samuel and (Rodriguez) were up ahead. The truth is we didn’t know which decision to take.”
Freire said it was much more than a broken pair of earpieces that cost him a shot at worlds history.
“We couldn’t have let those three Italians get away without Alejandro being there. We spoke before the race and as well as during that he should go with them. One has to pay more attention,” Freire said. “I don’t think it was like that because Bettini wasn’t strong, because he was. It was us who have failed. If Valverde had been with that lead group, the race would have been very different.”
Spain did a good job controlling the race early on, with Rodriguez and Juanma Garate marking all the moves.
Spain lost the services of Vuelta champion Alberto Contador with a lap to go, but still had all its top riders in position until things fell apart with two laps to go.
Sánchez said miscommunication torpedoed the team’s chances.
“I was between the group ahead and the group with Valverde and Freire. I decided to stop and wait for them to try to help them come back to the front, but they never arrived because they were so far back,” the Olympic champion said. “It’s too bad because I don’t think the Italians were stronger than us, because if Oscar had gotten on with that group, he would have won for sure. He looked very strong today.”
Spain’s golden year ends with a dud.