While waiting for the perfect moment to open her sprint against Germany’s Judith Arndt, the gold medal and rainbow jersey she had one hand on slipped away from Nicole Cooke.
With 200 metres to go, Cooke was perfectly poised to win the World Championship road race in Geelong, near Melbourne. Arndt had blown her flame out trying to go for a long sprint. Tucked on the wheel, Cooke looked to have judged the two-up finish precisely. But she had not reckoned on being caught from behind.
The Dutch rider Marianne Vos towed a small group up to Cooke’s back wheel, which did for her own chances but played into the hands of Giorgia Bronzini, who took the sprint and kept the rainbow jersey in Italy. Vos had to settle for silver with Sweden’s Emma Johansson third, although she looked to have stalled her sprint when she was nudged close to the barriers.
A glance over her shoulder would have warned Cooke of the danger and might have made all the difference to her finish but the fact she was there in the first place was a testimony to her fighting spirit and the team-work of the British squad. The British team entered the final lap with five riders still in contention. Cooke has endured a difficult season, with only one win to her name. A medal may have slipped from her grasp – she was fourth - but she is in a great position to win the Commonwealth Games road race later this month and build a strong base for next season.
It was a sensational finish to a fine race that really ignited with two laps to go when Britain’s Emma Pooley, the most eagerly-marked rider in the race, attacked on the climb.
The British team rode superbly. They had five riders in contention on the last lap and tried to play their cards as best they could. Cooke was fourth and Lizzie Armitstead ninth but Sharon Laws (16th) and Emma Pooley (20th) were also in the main leading group.
The American Katheryn Curi Mattis attacked on the big climb on the third lap but was brought back. She tried again in the finishing straight at the end of that lap and they let her go. She probably hoped for some company to help share the work, particularly as the gap rose to a minute, then two, then almost three.
Curi Mattis had won a World Cup race in Geelong in the past so knew part of the circuit but as the laps went on, that was little consolation.
With two laps to go, it was all over. The peloton, which had thinned down to around 40 riders, were upon her, thanks largely to a great job of chasing down by Chantal Blaak of the Netherlands..
Britain’s Emma Pooley - winner of the time trial title earlier this week - attacked on the climb and opened a gap. She was joined by defending champion Tatiana Guderzo and a handful of other riders but the move was short-lived and they were caught on the long descent.
Tatiana Antoshina of Russia went clear and she stayed away until the start of the final lap.
Everyone was expecting Pooley to hit them hard the final time up the big climb but she could barely move without someone being on her wheel. The British team massed at the front and helped shut down a move from the USA’s Evelyn Stevens. It then became clear that she had decided Britain’s best hope of winning a second gold medal lay with her team-mate Cooke.
Cooke was all over her bike on the climb, in contrast to Pooley, who was on the pedals with the lightness of a ballet dancer en pointe. Pooley looked over her shoulder, dropped back a little and made sure Cooke was well positioned in the group as they went over the summit.
Before you knew it, Cooke was away. Instead of seeking a moment’s respite over the top, she attacked and pulled clear on the descent.
With eight kilometres to go, this was a bold move. At her 2008 peak, when she won the Olympic and world titles, Cooke could have pulled it off but she was asking a lot of herself.
Sure enough, Ardnt drove the break across. This was the moment for a British counter-attack but Pooley, perhaps still feeling that Cooke or Armitstead had a better chance in the sprint, sat tight.
Then Arndt went and Cooke reacted and the two got clear with 4.5 kilometres to go.
Their lead was just 13 seconds as they went into the final three kilometres, working well together. Ardnt was strong and Cooke had to get out of the saddle to stay in the wheel.
With Cooke firmly lodged on her wheel, the German had no choice but to go for a long one and she opened her sprint with 500 metres to go. Cooke was cool - too cool - and waited too long.
Vos did an incredible turn to catch them but must have known she wouldn’t be able to hold on to win. Bronzini pulled off a move the Artful Dodger would have been proud of, coming through the middle and putting daylight between her and Vos. The Dutch rider had to settle for a silver medal for the fourth year in a row.
Afterwards Bronzini dedicated her win to Franco Ballerini, the Italian team coach who died in a rallying accident at the start of the year.
1. Giorgia Bronzini (Italy) in 3-32-01
2. Marianne Vos (Netherlands)
3. Emma Johansson (Sweden)
4. Nicole Cooke (Great Britain)
5. Judith Arndt (Germany) all same time
6. Grace Verbeke (Belgium) at 3sec
7. Trixi Worrack (Germany)
8. Rasa Leleivyte (Lithuania)
9. Lizzie Armitstead (Great Britain)
10. Carla Swart (South Africa)
16. Sharon Laws (Great Britain)
20. Emma Pooley (Great Britain) all same time
29. Cath Williamson (Great Britain) at 1-42
Emma Pooley lead Marianne Vos
Emma Pooley attacks
Giorgia Bronzini defends the title for Italy
Cancellara makes history with fourth world time trial title
Millar’s Worlds TT ride was flawless, says Brailsford
Pooley wins Worlds time trial
Phinney lives up to expectation, Dowsett suffers setback
World Championships 2010: Cycling Weekly’s coverage index