Road Worlds 2013: Portugal's Rui Costa beats Joaquin Rodriguez of Spain to rainbow jersey
Portuguese rider prevails after rain-soaked race in Tuscany, Alejandro Valverde third
Rui Costa of Portugal will sport the rainbow jersey of world road champion for the next 12 months after winning a rain-soaked and crash-strewn race in Tuscany today, crossing the line first in a two-man sprint finish against Spain's Joaquin Rodriguez. Another Spanish rider, Alejandro Valverde, finished third, with the only other man in contention in the finale, Italy/s Vincenzo Nibali, out of the medals in fourth.
Just 42 of the 208 men who had begun the 272.6km race in Lucca this morning were still in contention as they entered the tenth and final 16.6km lap of the 16.6km circuit in Florence almost exactly seven hours later.
They represented an intriguing mix of riders, including puncheurs such as Rodriguez and defending champion Philippe Gilbert of Belgium, who could look at the short but tough climb of Via Salviati that followed the longer drag up to Fiesole to try and get away.
Also there were sprinters including Italy's Pippo Pozzato, Edvald Boasson Hagen of Norway and Germany's John Degenkolb, looking to make sure they were the right side of any selection.
Other men in the mix included Switzerland's Fabian Cancellara, four times a world time trial champion and looking to win the world championship road race for the first time, as well as Slovakia's Peter Sagan.
On the final climb to Fiesole, Italy's Michele Scarponi attacked, only a handful of riders able to keep with him including Vincenzo Nibali, who had appeared to be out of contention after having to battle back on to the front group following a crash with three laps remaining.
With him were Rodriguez and team mate Valverde, Colombia's Olympic silver medallist, Rigoberto Uran, and Portugal's Costa.
Ahead of the summit, only Rodriguez was able to follow an attack from Nibali, but their lead was a slender one as they crested the summit, only five seconds over their three pursuers.
On the descent, just four men were left in contention as Uran slid off the road still wet from the downpour that had prevailed for much of the day, although thunder and lightning had given way to bright sunshine as the race headed towards its conclusion.
Nibali may have the reputation of the peloton's best descender, and moreover a rider who is expert at coping with wet conditions, but it was Rodriguez who got away on the way down from Fiesole and hit that 600m climb of Via Salviati with an advantage of 10 seconds on his three pursuers.
Just 5km remained, with Nibali, getting no help from Valverde or Costa - representing different countries, but team mates at Movistar - having to work on his own to bring back Rodriguez, catching him ahead of a final ramp up with a little under 3km left.
With Valverde the strongest sprinter of the quartet, the advantage clearly lay with Spain, Rodriguez continuing to launch a series of attacks to try and break the other pair.
As he rode under the flamme rouge and into the final kilometre, only Costa could prevent Rodriguez from winning the rainbow jersey, battling desperately to close down the 3 second advantage the Spaniard held at that point.
There was a brief exchange of words between the pair as Costa drew level with a few hundred metres remaining, Costa launching his sprint first and just holding off Rodriguez to cross the line first and become Portugal's first road world champion.
Earlier, Great Britain's Chris Froome had abandoned with a little under 100km still to go, admitting afterwards that today's downpour meant his dream of adding the rainbow jersey to the yellow one he won in July's Tour de France wasn't to be.
In the early part of the race, Great Britain had set the pace at the front of the main group with 2011 world champion Mark Cavendish, followed by Luke Rowe, each putting in big turns.
But once the race reached those ten laps of the final circuit in Florence, however, Froome was becoming increasingly isolated, team mate Geraint Thomas explaining that with Sir Bradley Wiggins and Steve Cummings dropped, “the rest of us didn’t really have the legs to go for it.”
Instead it was Italy who took up the pace-setting duties at the front of the main group, and they seemed to be in control as the race headed towards the final two laps until a crash with around 35km left saw Nibali having to fight to get back onto the main group.
Team mate Luca Paolini also came down at the same time, on a corner that had earlier put paid to the chances of 2009 world champion Cadel Evans of Australia.
The crash involving Nibali happened shortly after the home team had played one of its tactical cards, sending Giovanni Visconti up the road, the three time national champin bridging across to Poland’s Bartosz Huzarski, the last survivor of a five-man break that had formed early on.
Also in that earlier break had been Huzarski’s NetApp-Endura team mate Jan Barta, today representing the Czech Republic, plus Tunisia's Rafaa Chtioui, Matthias Brandle of Austria and Yonder Godoy of Venezuela.
Entering the penultimate lap of the closing circuit Visconti and Husarzki had around a minute’s advantage over the chasing group.
Defending champion Gilbert’s Belgian team mates were pushing hard at the front of an ever-diminishing main group to try and reel in the pair in front, Johan Vansummeren putting in a big turn before dropping off with 30km still remaining.
It was perhaps a larger group than had been anticipated, but expectations were that the selection that would produce the men who would battle for the right to wear the rainbow jersey would be made on the final climb of the Via Salviati.
Instead, it happened on the climb to Fiesole after Nibali made his move, but the Italian may have paid for that earlier chase back on.
With Uran out of the picture following his crash, it was Costa who profited from the tactical battle being played out by the Italian hope for victory and the two Spaniards to clinch the world title.