By Martyn Herman
HARROGATE, England (Reuters) - Denmark's Mads Pedersen withstood everything a wild day in Yorkshire could throw at him to ride to a shock victory in a thrilling climax to the UCI Road World Championships on Sunday.
With incessant rain reducing the most of the world's elite road racers to bedraggled wrecks, 23-year-old Pedersen proved more durable as he sprinted through the gloom to the rainbow jersey after nearly six-and-a-half hours of toil.
In doing so the Trek-Segafredo rider became the first Dane to claim the world title in the men's road race.
With the hopes of pre-race favourites Dutchman Mathieu van der Poel and Belgian Philippe Gilbert down the drain and three-time champion Peter Sagan too far back, Pedersen found himself in a three-man fight for victory halfway round the last of nine 14km circuits of leafy Harrogate.
Keeping him company were experienced Swiss Stefan Kung, who he had joined at the front with 60km left, and Italian dangerman Matteo Trentin.
With thousands fans hammering the railings along Parliament Street, the lung-busting drag up to the finish, Trentin made his move first. But his tank was empty and Pedersen swarmed past him like a marauding Viking for victory.
Swiss Kung rolled home for the bronze.
"It's every rider's dream to wear the rainbow jersey. For me to do it now is unbelievable," Pedersen, runner-up in last year's Tour of Flanders, said.
"It was just survive and hope for the best. I hoped that when I saw the finish line all the pain would be gone and I could do a good sprint," added Pedersen, who could barely stand up after getting off his bike in the finish area.
Trentin, three-times a Tour de France stage winner and second in this month's Tour of Britain, looked crestfallen.
"It's never in the pocket. Today was incredibly hard," he said. "One guy has the jersey, two guys have a medal, everyone else has nothing."
The predicted flood arrived on cue at the start in Leeds. With so much rain falling on the course, it was re-routed to avoid the Buttertubs climb in the north Yorkshire Dales.
Just as well, considering the suffering in the peloton.
"It's a world championship for mad men," last year's winner Alejandro Valverde told a Spanish TV crew after quitting.
A high-quality breakaway group, including Giro d'Italia winner Richard Carapaz, Vuelta winner Primoz Roglic and Nairo Quintana got four minutes clear at one point as they ploughed on through puddles made for kayaks not bicycles.
By the time the race arrived in Harrogate for nine rollercoaster laps around the town's drenched streets, the leaders had been reeled and riders were abandoning in droves, including Roglic, Quintana and Carapaz.
Veteran Belgian Gilbert's hopes ended when he crashed on the first of nine Harrogate circuits and despite the valiant efforts of teenage team mate Remco Evenepoel to get him back into the race he quit in tears.
So appalling was the weather there was no live footage for an hour as the TV helicopters were grounded by low cloud and only 46 of the 197 starters finished.
But the elements did not deter the thousands of fans lining Harrogate's streets under a forest of umbrellas.
They were rewarded with a thrilling climax.
American Lawson Craddock and Kung made the first move and led a reduced peloton by 20 seconds with 52km left.
When Craddock cracked, Kung was joined by Pedersen, Dutch tyro Van der Poel, Italian Gianno Moscon and Trentin.
With Van der Poel looking string the stage was set for a Dutch party with one lap left but he cracked in spectacular fashion, grinding to a virtual standstill.
Moscon blew up 5km from the end leaving three survivors and on the grimmest of days, the unheralded Pedersen found his rainbow.
"It was brutal, a rough day, six and a half hours on the bike, 10, 12 degrees and a lot of water," Pedersen said. "It was a really tough day but that's the way I like to race.
"I'm finished with playing underdog, that's pretty impossible now."
Slovakian Sagan left it too late to snatch a record fourth world road title as he finished behind Moscon in fifth.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Christian Radnedge and Pritha Sarkar)