Innsbruck (Austria) (AFP) - Veteran Spaniard Alejandro Valverde ended years of frustration to win the world championships road race on Sunday 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 percent gradient, to leave key rivals in their wake.
And despite being joined with a little over one kilometre to go by Dutchman Tom Dumoulin, 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.
"It's incredible, after all these years, struggling for the world title and to finally get it," he said.
"I knew I had no margin for error and that it was up to me to take my own destiny in hand," he said.
"Words can't describe how grateful I am for the effort of the whole Spain team and the work they did too."
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 knew I was possibly the strongest and was waiting for someone to make a move," he said.
"I have no excuses," said Alaphilippe, who claimed the King of the Mountains' polka dot jersey at the Tour de France.
"The last climb had me, my legs just couldn't take it. I'm bitterly disappointed, but very happy for Romain (Bardet)."
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.