A dark day in Florence and an even darker one for British cycling. The morning’s thunderstorms accompanied confirmation that Jonathan Tiernan-Locke, winner of last year’s Tour of Britain, was facing a doping investigation and what followed was nothing short of a disaster for the team he was supposed to be part of.
Not one of the eight British riders crossed the finish line as Chris Froome’s quest to add a world title to his Tour de France victory became the dampest of damp squibs, and one summed up by Bradley Wiggins’s tame early exit as wet weather once again got the better of him.
Froome called it a day with 100km of the 270km road race to go. By then he was already on his own, trying to fight a lonely battle, Britain’s team having fallen away alarmingly quickly amid atrocious conditions on the hilly circuit around Florence. The only one of his team-mates still on the course was the redoubtable Geraint Thomas but the Welshman was adrift.
“It was carnage out there,” said Thomas. It was only going to end one way and Froome cut a pained and bedraggled figure as he pulled up to the team bus parked next door to Fiorentina’s football stadium. It was not long before Thomas joined him and the race progressed for its remaining 80km without British interest.
Wiggins lasted little more than one lap once the peloton reached Florence before he and Mark Cavendish, who had done his job in leading the team into the city, called it a day. Wiggins looked a pale shadow of the rider who had suggested a return to form four days earlier with a silver medal in the time trial.
“I think it’s just not his type of weather,” said Thomas of his team-mate. “Maybe the whole Giro [d’Italia] thing is still playing on his mind a bit. When it comes to fighting for position around corners and stuff, he just puts the brakes on too much and loses position. And once that’s happened, it’s hard to come back.”
It was the first time Wiggins and Froome had ridden together since February, since Froome installed himself as Sky’s unchallenged leader. This was the first time Wiggins had ridden for Froome. Froome was asked afterwards whether Wiggins had done time at the front of the peloton (the weather was so bad that TV pictures were lost for parts of the race) like Cavendish and Luke Rowe, the replacement for Tiernan-Locke, who withdrew from the team on Thursday.
“Not that I saw,” said Froome. “I didn’t see what happened to Brad today. I think the only two guys who actually did anything on the GB side were Cav and Luke Rowe. I’d say they were the only ones who pulled their weight today, myself included.”
With the British out of the way, a thrilling race was won by Rui Costa of Portugal, who beat his Iberian neighbour Joaquim Rodriguez in a sprint finish. Another Spaniard, Alejandro Valverde, took bronze ahead of the home favourite Vincenzo Nibali, who displayed enormous fortitude in getting back on his bike after a crash. Sixteen seconds covered the first four home after seven and a half hours of the toughest race conditions imaginable.
It was too much for Britain, who had been looking to use the race as the first part of a plan drawn up by Rod Ellingworth, the team’s coach, that would end with Froome winning road race gold at the Rio Olympics in 2016.
“Given that we’ve come up empty -handed we’re definitely going to have to go back to the drawing board as far as that’s concerned,” said Froome.
It had begun in familiar fashion with Britain sitting at the front of the peloton as it set out from Lucca, and Cavendish, in particular, and Rowe setting a brisk pace. Cavendish gritted his teeth and put his head down as the rain grew heavier and the thunder rumbled. He led the peloton into Florence as the race passed the 100km mark and began 10 laps of a 16km circuit that curved around the city and up the category three climb of Fiesole, and that is where Thomas’s “carnage” began.
Steve Cummings picked up a puncture, Josh Edmondson was part of a crash that put the Australian Cadel Evans in hospital. One by one the Britons went, until Froome could have been forgiven for thinking he was back racing in his junior days as a one-man Kenyan band again.
“There were crashes everywhere,” he said. “At some points in the road we were actually a foot deep in water and that was causing the crashes, people trying to move up on the side and getting stuck in the gutters and things.
“After three laps, the splits started happening. I looked around and saw I didn’t have any team-mates with me and thought, ‘this isn’t going to happen today’. The conditions are the same for everyone and we don’t have any excuses. It’s a disappointed bus.”