Alessandro Ballan gave Italy its third straight world championship road race title, finishing off a dominating performance with a late breakaway victory.
|Alessandro Ballan salutes the crowd after his victory [GALLO/GETTY]
The Italian held off a chasing group, led by compatriot Damiano Cunego who came second.
Denmark's Matti Breschel surprised with a bronze medal by edging a third Italian, veteran Davide Rebellin.
Paolo Bettini was seeking his third straight world title before retiring, but the Italian was tightly controlled by the Spanish team and finished well back in the pack.
He was already celebrating another Italian victory when crossing the line well back.
"I still can't believe it. This is something special,'' said Ballan, whose only other major victory was at last year's Tour of Flanders classic.
The Italian team had controlled much of the race to set up Bettini for the win, but the captain ran out of steam and instead it was the 28-year-old Ballan who came through.
In frenetic racing over the last dozen kilometres, Ballan pulled away with over two kilometers to go and never weakened before the finishing line was in sight.
"It was Bettini's race today, but unfortunately the adversaries marked him too closely and didn't let him ride his race,'' Ballan said.
"He is a true gentleman and sent the three of us ahead to try to win.''
Only Breschel made sure it was not an Italian triple on the podium.
"We showed today on our home turf in front of our fans what team we have,'' said Bettini, who only announced his retirement late Saturday.
"The whole pack thought I was going to win and nobody gave me space,'' heavy favourite Bettini said.
"What is important is that an Italian won. Ballan doesn't win often, but when he does he makes it big. I'm proud to conclude my career with a national team like this.''
When Ballan saw his lead would hold, he sat up on his bike and punched the air, blew kisses to the huge crowd and soaked up the wild celebrations while those chasing finished 3 seconds back. Ballan ended in 6 hours, 37 minutes, 30 seconds.
"In the last couple of kilometers the people screaming pushed me on,'' Ballan said.
"The public was fantastic. I've never cycled in conditions like this. I was tired and didn't think I was going to make it because I had cramps'' over the last 30 minutes.
With Rebellin taking fourth place, the race was a huge success for the Italians, while the co-favorite Spanish team failed to threaten.
Ballan is especially popular with the blue-clad Azzurri fans since he called his daughter who was born this summer "Azzurra.''
It was the first triple in the road race since Belgium in the mid-1950s and the first one for Italy since the early 1930s.
The 260.2-kilometre ride through and around the northern Italian resort town of Varese was run in perfect sunny conditions with temperatures hovering around 20 C.
The Italian team had promised to make it a punishing race to tire the sprinters ahead of the finishing line, yet the 205 riders set out at a leisurely pace, allowing rank outsiders Christian Poos of Luxembourg, Oleg Chuzhda of Ukraine and Venezuela's Richard Ochoa to build a 15-minute lead.
But the Italians went to the head of the pack halfway into the race to start narrowing the gap, and Chuzhda was finally caught with 57 kilometres to go.
By the time the bell rang for the last lap, six riders, including Ballan and Spain's Joaquin Rodriguez, had built a 15-second lead. Four more riders soon joined the group as it extended the lead to 30 seconds.
In the pack behind, Bettini was talking to Germany's Erik Zabel, knowing their cause was lost, but the Italian still cheered wildly to celebrate his teammate's victory.
In the leadup of the championships, it was Bettini who had attracted all the attention in his chase for a record third title and by announcing his retirement at age 34.