When Ramunas Navardauskas took bronze in Richmond he became the first rider from Lithuania to medal at the cycling World Championships. He wore a shocked smile on the podium, suppressed slightly by a curiosity for how he had achieved the result. It was, by all accounts, a medal to celebrate.
The same cannot be said of the medals on show by Joaquim Rodriguez and Alejandro Valverde – second and third in 2013 – in the photo above. The pair share a tale of frustration, heartbreak and a sprinkle of resentment.
Spain were favourites to upset the Italians and storm the 2013 World Championships. Valverde had been on the lower steps of the podium four times before and the Firenze course suited better than ever. Rodriguez had been unable to compete on flatter circuits and was rubbing his hands together at the thought of the final spike. Both were Monument winners and could collectively count fourteen Vuelta stages.
At the 2012 Vuelta, Rodriguez won three stages and Valverde came third on each occasion. Valverde had notched up two stage wins of his own, with Rodriguez twice second. They hadn’t been on the same team since Rodriguez left Cassie d’Epargne in 2009 and “El Purito” had become Valverde’s equal on rolling terrain. It was an entertaining war for anybody who wasn’t part of Spanish national management.
There was no friction between the pair outside of the normal hunger between two competitors. Nevertheless, it would be fair to say there was an absence of the warmth that you might expect from two compatriots and former teammates. A warmth that could have benefitted Spain in the 2009 road race. A warmth that could have extended across teams to prevent Dan Martin from claiming victory at the 2013 Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
There was a sneaking suspicion that given free choice both would prefer to lose to anybody but each other; a horrendous quality when tasked with delivering a world title to Spain.
Both were aware that “playing nice” was the order of the day. Valverde was transitioning into an elder statesman and burying the skeletons of Operacion Puerto. Rodriguez was a late bloomer who had seen his popularity snowball. Neither set off to Firenze with anything other than good intentions.
With less than 5km to go the sprinters had been put to bed. The front group contained Valverde, Rodriguez, Rui Costa and a heavily tried Vincenzo Nibali. Valverde was the strongest sprinter and Rodriguez the natural aggressor. They also had each other which should have provided an unmeasurable advantage.
On the final rise Rodriguez made his move. He accounts that Valverde had given him the thumbs-up to attack And – despite a storm of opinions – “El Bala” has never contested this point. If Rodriguez was chased down, Valverde was to mop up the sprint.
But that left Valverde in a strange position: Was he Plan A or Plan B? Regardless, he knew he had to stick to the gameplan. He was one of the best riders in the world and well-versed in race tactics. Rodriguez opened his gap.
Conspiracists argue that Valverde spotted a loophole. A glitch in Spain’s Matrix. He knew he was not free to chase Rodriguez, but his Movistar teammate Costa was likely to do so. When Costa made his move, Valverde failed to follow. If he had, Costa may have sat up, frustrated by the leech on his back wheel. Instead, the buoyant Portuguese climber hunted down a tiring Rodriguez who looked panicked by his arrival without Valverde.
Rodriguez can be seen attempting to start a conversation but his new companion was ice cold as he dominated the sprint. Purito was second, Valverde back in third.
Flames were fanned. Would Valverde really have sabotaged his own chances to allow Costa to attack Rodriguez? It wasn’t professional and it wasn’t very Valverde. Nevertheless, he had come close to returning the rainbow to Spain the previous year. Was he that desperate to be the man? Costa was a loyal Movistar teammate. Did this deem him more worthy of support than Rodriguez the deserter?
The joint interview after the race did little to shed light on the situation. Rodriguez protested how it was “stupid” that Spain had lost, indicating that he was happy for Valverde to win the sprint. Valverde denied any wrongdoing simply stating that he could not follow Costa.
Perhaps more can be gleaned from the photo. A teary-eyed Rodriguez looks overcome by the situation. He is holding his medal like a stale piece of food and staring at approximately nobody. He firmly believes Valverde is at fault. He can’t believe that anybody would do such a thing. Valverde looks far less bothered by the situation. He doesn’t look guilty. He genuinely believes he did nothing wrong. He wasn’t stupid and would never perform an act so childish.
We can only speculate.