Sir Bradley Wiggins failed in his bid to clinch one of cycling's most prestigious titles on Wednesday, losing out in the elite men's time trial to the outstanding Tony Martin at the 2013 Road World Championships.
Wiggins, crowned Olympic time-trial champion in 2012, finished marginally ahead of Fabian Cancellara in second on the Tuscany course, but both men were overshadowed by Martin, who cemented a third consecutive world title in a time of 1 hour, 5 minutes and 36 seconds.
In truth, victory was never in doubt for the 28-year-old, who rides for Omega Pharma-Quick Step. He led from the second checkpoint onward and extended his lead throughout, finishing 46 seconds ahead of the field.
Martin reflected on a fine win in a TV interview with the BBC:
To win a world championship title is always special, to win it a third time in a row is even more special, and to win it with this advantage, it's the top. I can't imagine a better race.
I always feel I'm able to win, but to know it and do it is different. You need power, but on this course you need the best position, the best aerodynamics. You need good morale, and I really have to thank my team.
Wiggins' race became more about second place. Having trailed Cancellara by nearly half a minute at one stage, he ate into the Swiss rider's advantage and narrowly bettered him over the sprint finish.
The Brit went through the first of the three checkpoints 4.89 seconds down on early standard-bearer Sylvain Chavanel.
However, both men's times were soon made to look ordinary as it became evident Wiggins was under pressure, with Cancellara bettering the Brit by 15 seconds.
Standings at 24.1km: 1 Martin, 2 Cancellara +13, 3 Kiryienka +34, 4 Wiggins +37, 5 Phinney +55. Follow it live here http://t.co/5MiLGyPebL— Sky Sports Cycling (@SkyCycling) September 25, 2013
By the second split, at 24.1 kilometres, Cancellara's advantage over Wiggins had been extended to 24 seconds, yet the Swiss wasn't even the race leader. That tag belonged to Martin, who had established a 13-second gap over the rest of the field.
Wiggins briefly threatened a response, trimming his personal deficit to Martin by three seconds, while taking 15 off Cancellara.
Standings at 42km: 1 Martin, 2 Cancellara +28, 3 Wiggins +40, 4 Kiryienka +1:01, 5 Phinney +1:20. Follow it live here http://t.co/5MiLGyPebL— Sky Sports Cycling (@SkyCycling) September 25, 2013
However, German rider Martin appeared to be in a league of his own and had established a 28-second lead at the third split, 42.3 kilometres into the course. By now, Wiggins' focus had become second place, and he quickly cut Cancellera's advantage to seven seconds.
The final part of the race was Wiggins' best as he became the fastest man on the course, reining in Cancellara. The Swiss began to shift uncomfortably on his saddle, but he could not fight off the Brit, who judged his ride supremely to take second place by a margin of 2.25 seconds.
Wiggins told the BBC:
I executed as fast as possible from A to B and I wasn't really aware of the checks (checkpoint times), with the crowd and things. In the last 20 minutes I was pretty much oblivious to everything—just trying to get home.
I feel I was still strong and I knew it was close, but Tony was on a different level today. It's an honour to be on the podium with those two guys.
Elsewhere, Britain's Alex Dowsett—who had been considered an outsider for a medal—looked completely out of sorts as he finished way off the pace in 41st.
The longest course in the history of cycling's Road World Championships stretched almost 58 kilometres, from Montecatini Terme to Florence, and was the first to pass 50 kilometres since 2006 in Salzburg.
Will Wiggins ever win the world time trial?
However, to compensate for the gruelling additional distance, tournament organisers had plotted a relatively flat layout, void of hills and ideal for time-trial specialists.
The bigger, stronger riders, able to summon those extra reserves of power, were always more likely to prosper.
For Wiggins, there had been no effort to hide how much he craved success in the race, claiming a win would trump all of his previous Tour de France and Olympic glories, per Richard Moore of the Daily Mail:
If I could do it, this will probably mean more than any medals or races I’ve won. A lot of people wrote me off in May. There was a lot of, “Is his career over?” “Will we ever see him on a bike again?”’
Winner of the Tour de France, four Olympic gold medals and six world titles, Wiggins had been left angry after he was criticised for his withdrawal from the Giro d'Italia. Victory would have been an answer to those critics.
The recent Tour of Britain triumph had hinted at a return to form, but he was always up against it when faced with the near-invincible figure of Martin, who turned in a class display.