INNSBRUCK, AUSTRIA (AFP) - Veteran Spaniard Alejandro Valverde ended years of frustration to fulfil his "dream" of winning the world championships road race crown on Sunday (Sept 30) after outpacing France's Romain Bardet and Canada's Michael Woods in a thrilling sprint for the finish line.
The trio had boosted their victory chances after crossing the summit of the notoriously difficult Hottinger hill 'Hell' climb, featuring one steep section at a whopping 29 per cent gradient, to leave key rivals in their wake as raucous fans rang bells and screamed encouragement.
And despite being joined with a little over one kilometre to go by Dutchman Tom Dumoulin, the 38-year-old Valverde held his nerve inside the final metres to race unchallenged to the finish line, where he beat Bardet by a bike length.
A breathless Valverde, who finished runner-up in 2003, broke down with the emotion of finally securing the rainbow jersey - arguably the most prestigious prize in the sport.
"This is my most emotional victory ever," said Valverde.
"I had two dreams, one was to win the Tour de France but it was not to be, the second dream however is now mine, I have the gold medal and the (rainbow) jersey.
"It's incredible, after all these years, struggling for the world title and to finally get it.
"Words can't describe how grateful I am for the effort of the whole Spain team," said the champion in reference to the fact that no race radios were allowed.
"There was a great vibe in the team and we kept track of each other and always knew where the guys were."
This was not the case with runner-up Bardet, who was gracious in defeat.
"Racing is far better without the radios, but I was quite lost there for a while as there were no bikes or cars and I only really knew for sure we were the lead group when Tom (Dumoulin) joined us," he said.
As soon as the quartet came into the final kilometre the Spaniard had looked the most likely to win. Both Bardet and Woods are stronger climbers while all-rounder Dumoulin also lacks Valverde's top-end finishing speed.
"I should have attacked on the hill. It's easy to say what you should have done afterwards, but what's done is done," Bardet said.
"When you are on the flat with a guy like Valverde you have to expect him to win."
Pre-race favourite, Julian Alaphilippe of France, Briton Adam Yates and Italy's Vincenzo Nibali and the last of the Colombians were dropped on the steep gradients of the final climb.
"I have no excuses," said Alaphilippe, who claimed the King of the Mountains' polka dot jersey at the Tour de France.
"My legs just couldn't take it. I'm bitterly disappointed, but very happy for Romain." Woods, a former ice hockey player and middle distance athlete, only began cycling professionally at 25 and this season won a stage on the Tour of Spain.
"I was hoping for a podium finish at the Vuelta (Tour of Spain), but I fell. It tuned out to be a blessing in disguise because I got the stage and now this world championships bronze medal," he said.
"The fans on the hill were insanely loud, with the bells and all the cheering, my ears are still ringing now." Three-time and defending champion Peter Sagan had few hopes of winning a fourth title on the hilly circuit and after the fourth of seven ascensions of the climb the Slovakian called it a day.
The race started in the pretty town of Kufstein, where the temperature sat just above zero as the riders set off through the lush Inn valley. Soon, an 11-man breakaway formed and opened a gap of almost 2O minutes.
The two final heroic survivors of the original eleven, Kasper Asgreen of Denmark and Vegard Stake Laengen of Norway were eventually overtaken 22km out.
The peloton had upped the pace to catch the escape and with around 20km to go some of the pre-race favourites started to flag. Irish hope Dan Martin, whose wife recently had twins, began to struggle ahead of the last lap, then Simon Yates and Michal Kwiatkoski quickly buckled too.