After two silver medals and four bronze medals, 38-year-old Valverde belatedly secured a year in the famous rainbow bands after triumphing in a slow-building 258.5km race in Austria.
In a four-way sprint for gold, Valverde kicked clear to win by a bike length ahead of Bardet and Woods, with Dutchman Tom Dumoulin – who caught the leading trio with just two kilometres remaining – cruelly missing out on the medals.
Video – Watch Valverde outsprint Dumoulin, Bardet and Woods to become World Champion
Italy’s Gianni Moscon completed the top five at 13 seconds while pre-race favourite Julian Alaphilippe of France had to settle for eighth place after being dropped on the steep 28-percent maximum ramp of the decisive Gramartboden climb inside a compelling final 10km.
Defending champion Peter Sagan of Slovakia – who was gunning for a record-extending fourth consecutive world title – was dropped by the main pack with more than 90km remaining before calling it a day.
It was left to Sagan, the outgoing champion, to present the gold medal to an emotional Valverde on the podium as the new rainbow jersey celebrated in front of a crowd that included Spain’s last World Champion, Oscar Freire, whose third and final title came in 2004.
At 38 years, five months and five days, Valverde is the second oldest World Champion after the Dutchman Joop Zoetemelk, who won in 1985 aged 39.
Valverde’s victory came 15 years after the Spaniard took the silver medal in the 2003 world championships in Hamilton behind compatriot Igor Astarloa.
He then won silver in 2005 at Madrid and his first of three bronze medals at Salzburg (2006). Following a two-year doping suspension for his involvement in the Operacion Puerto scandal, Valverde added bronze medals at Valkenburg (2012), Florence (2013) and Ponderrada (2014) to become the most feted rider in World Championships history – before finally adding an elusive gold medal to his palmares.
Video – ‘It’s a dream … finally, finally I have managed this,’ says emotional Valverde
With 4,670 vertical metres featuring in just under 260km, the most challenging World Championships road race in recent history was always going to suit a rider of Valverde’s experience and calibre.
But with Valverde dropping off the podium over the final weekend of the Vuelta two weeks previously, there were question marks over the Spaniard’s ability to complete his medal collection – especially given the form of Frenchman Alaphilippe, the bookmakers’ favourite heading into Sunday’s race.
A large break of 11 riders formed ahead of the seven laps on the Innsbruck circuit. Robert Britton (Canada), Tobias Ludvigsson (Sweden), Kasper Asgreen (Denmark), Ryan Mullen (Ireland), Daniil Fominykh (Kazakhstan), Vegard Stake Laengen (Norway), Conor Dunne (Ireland), Karel Hnik (Czech Republic), Jacques Janse Van Rensburg (South Africa), Ilia Koshevoy (Belarus) and Laurent Didier (Luxembourg) built up a maximum lead of over 17 minutes as the sun shined in a flawless blue sky above the Austrian Alps.
Didier was first to crack, followed by the Irish duo of Mullen and Dunne. And as the race entered the business end, only Laengen and Asgreen held on as the riders started the final longer lap.
Before that point, with the pace and tension gradually growing, Frenchman Warren Barguil crashed out on a tight bend before Sagan was the first of the big-name riders to throw in the towel after being distanced with 90-odd kilometres remaining.
Video – Warren Barguil crashes after over-cooking a bend
The Italian team of Vincenzo Nibali and the British team of Adam and Simon Yates looked particularly strong as they combined to reduce the gap of the break and whittle down the peloton over the repeated ascents of the climb to Igls.
Nibali and the 2014 champion Michal Kwiatkowski of Poland were both active after the first moves came with 66km remaining – the Sicilian responding to a dig from his Italian team-mate Dario Cataldo, who had ridden clear with Spain’s Jesus Herrada.
A crash on the same corner that ended Barguil’s race dented the chances of Slovenia’s Primoz Roglic, who fought back on but would fade in the final lap.
Mindful of the extra climb on the final lap, Belgium’s Greg Van Avermaet, the Olympic champion from Rio, attacked with 55km remaining but found his move countered by Damiano Caruso of Italy and Omar Fraile of Spain – both alert to put out any fires threatening their leaders.
Video – Sagan dropped as former champ falls short
Soon a whole cluster of hotly tipped riders fell to the wayside with Simon Yates unable to repeat his Vuelta-winning performances, joined off the back by the likes of Nibali, Kwiatkowski and Wout Poels of the Netherlands.
The Italians, Spanish and Dutch were particularly prominent through Gianluca Brambilla, David de la Cruz and Antwan Tolhoek, before a big attack from another man in orange, Steven Kruijswijk, finally reeled in the remaining escapees inside the final lap.
Scandinavian duo Laengen and Asgreen shook hands as they were passed on the Igls climb with 23km remaining before Denmark’s Michael Valgren led a group including Thibaut Pinot of France over the summit with a small gap on the big favourites.
Valgren rode clear on the descent to open up a 30 seconds gap going onto the decisive Gramartboden – or Höll – climb. A group of six chasers emerged including French trio Alaphilippe, Bardet and Pinot, wily Spaniard Valverde, the Italian Moscon and the in-form Woods of Canada, buoyed by his recent stage win in the Vuelta.
Valgren was caught with 9.5km remaining ahead of the maximum 28% ramp on the 2.8km climb. When Pinot and Alaphilippe popped, Bardet hesitated before deciding to take French hopes into his own hands – riding clear with Valverde, Moscon and Woods.
The controversial Moscon was tailed off on the steepest section of the climb while, behind, Dumoulin snaked his way past Alaphilippe and led the chase.
After a fast descent, Dumoulin managed to join the leading trio just as the riders crossed the River Inn with two kilometres remaining. After finishing runner-up in Wednesday’s time trial behind Rohan Dennis, Dumoulin looked to end the World Championships on a high. And when he launched an attack going under the flamme rouge, it seemed like the Dutchman could have pulled off a coup.
But Dumoulin suddenly had second thoughts and took his foot off the gas – a decision that was to prove costly. Valverde may have been forced to lead out the sprint from the front, but the experienced Spaniard had enough in the tank to outwit and outkick his opponents, zipping clear at a canter to take the gold medal and leaving Dumoulin to rue his earlier hesitation.
Valverde was clearly the strongest and took a deserved, not to mention highly emotional, gold medal. But to put some context on the win and his extraordinary longevity, the rider he beat into second place, Bardet, was just 12 years old when the Spaniard took that first silver medal back in Hamilton in 2003.
The result may have been different had Alaphilippe – the only rider in possession of a similar closing kick to Valverde – had remained in contact going over that final climb. But instead the Frenchman came home 43 seconds down, by which point a tearful Valverde was already celebrating with his Spanish soigneurs.
A year ahead in the rainbow jersey beckons for evergreen Valverde, who could don the fabled rainbow jersey in less than a fortnight at the fifth and final Monument of the season, Il Lombardia, a race he has twice finished runner-up but never won. Who’d bet against him in this form?
Video – Key moments that defined the men’s World Championship road race
Alejandro Valverde has been crowned world champion after triumphing in a thrilling final to the elite men’s road race in Innsbruck. The 38-year-old Spaniard conquered the dreaded 28% gradients of Höttinger Höll and bested his strongest rivals in a four-up sprint at the line. Valverde’s win came after a brutal battle on the final climb,...
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