Breaking clear on the back-end of the descent before the Mirador, the
Pole closed the gap to the remaining escapees, then pressed on alone for
the win. This was where the race was won, but its foundations were
built far earlier.
The course, 14 laps of an 18.2km loop around Ponferrada, was an enigmatic one. In the weeks leading into the world championships, in the recon done by the teams in the days leading to roll-out, opinions differed in the scenarios likely to unfold, and the riders who would be vying for the win.
With more than 4000 metres of climbing, something akin to the GP Plouay, a hard race would dislodge the fast-men and see the puncheurs out to play, but equally, a conservative approach as often happens in World Championships, would yield a bunch finish.
But the raw elevation veiled the nature of a course which discouraged creative, attacking racing. The distance of the descent off the second climb, was ample for a concerted chase to bring any escapees back into the fold. And the climbs themselves lacked any real punch. All that in mind, two names stuck out from the pack, Alejandro Valverde and Simon Gerrans.
El Bala had a solid Vuelta, and is a proven performer on the typical all-rounders course. Gerrans meanwhile was fresh off a brace of victories in Canada, the second by a country mile, and has honed his sprint to a point he can feature in bunch dashes even when the big men are present. Both could win in a hard, or easy race, and both had the form to do so. Ironically that versatility, played against them. Both riders were such overwhelming favourites that it would be foolish to arrive with them at the line together. Every rider vying for the win knew that, including Kwiatkowski.
Unlike Gerrans and Valverde, Kwiatkowski had only one route to victory. Solo. A clever escape, banking on the rivalry of Gerrans and Valverde to neutralise a chase could deliver, but getting the gap would be difficult.
When Kwiatkowski went, seven kilometres out, Gerrans, and Valverde, surprisingly, were not. It wasn't an obvious point to go, but that disguised its ingenuity. Slipping off the front on the twist of the descent, rather than the climb itself, the Mirador waiting ahead.
Perhaps the timing caught Valverde and Gerrans off guard because they baulked, and the peloton baulked too. The move didn't look all that dangerous, Kwiatkowski still within sight at little more than five seconds, and neither wanted to be the first to chase, and hand the other the victory. But the momentary paralysis lingered enough for Kwiatkowski to steal a march. It would be a winning advantage.
Valverde was the first to realise his mistake, surging to close the gap to within nine seconds on the crest of the Mirador, Gerrans was quick to follow. They were joined by Philippe Gilbert, Greg van Avermaet, Matti Breschel, and Tony Gallopin.
Their combined firepower may have been enough to bring the race back together, even with Kwiatkowski, riding like a man possessed, but the cohesion needed wasn't there. Gilbert did the lion's share of the chasing as the perennially uncooperative Valverde took sparing turns. Gerrans, the fastest of the six, was also quick to maneuver himself from the front.
Kwiatkowski just ploughed on. With 2.5km to go, Valverde tried to go it alone, and failed. Resigned to the podium neither the Spaniard (oddly content in a podium for someone who has done it five times previous), nor the Australian (in the form of his life) tried to take up the chase in the final 1.5km as Gilbert, once more left on the front in the finale, began to falter. By now though the race was firmly the Pole's to lose.
And so, as happened in the Under-23 road race, the guy that gambled got the win. The favourites undone as much by themselves, as in the cunning from a classy bike rider.