Alex Rasmussen could feel his legs burning as well as the hot breath of the thick pack of cyclists as he dashed down the final straightaway on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway at Sunday's 27th TD Bank Philadelphia Men's International Cycling Championship.
Neither could prevent the curly-haired Dane from winning the 156-mile race in a photo finish that had the top 11 riders finish one second apart.
Meanwhile, Giorgia Bronzini, the tiny Italian wearing the rainbow jersey as the reigning world road champion, tamed the Manayunk Wall with relative ease and had plenty of fuel remaining to pull away in a sprint and win the 57-mile Liberty Classic, the women's portion of the race.
With the victory, Rasmussen, who turns 27 Wednesday, became the third member of Team HTC-Highroad to win the race in three years. Early in the race, a pack of eight riders broke away and opened a break of more than nine minutes. Rasmussen was not in the lead group. Instead, he bided his time and positioned himself for what would become the largest sprint in the race's history.
Rasmussen said the weather, a cloud cover with low humidity, worked in his favor, especially while he was scaling the Manayunk Wall.
"The Wall is not that long. It's like 800 meters," he said. "Normally, I'm not too happy with the climbs, but I found this was good for me. I thought it was the perfect temperature - not too warm, not too humid. It was good for me."
Rasmussen had previous success in road racing, winning the Danish national championship in 2007. But his forte has been in track races. He's a four-time world track champion and an Olympic track silver medalist.
Rasmussen said he had to sit down during the sprint because his legs had just about reached their limit.
"At the end, there was like a big fight and I had so much acid in my legs I had to sit down a couple times during the sprint, and that was good," he said.
For the second straight year, Peter Sagan, a 21-year-old Slovakian riding for Liquigas-Cannondale, was runner-up. Last year, Sagan was boxed in, and by the time he made his move, it was too late. This time, he was beaten by a 10th of a second.
Bronzini led an impressive showing by Team Colavita Forno d'Asolo, which had three riders among the top 10 finishers. One of them was Philadelphia resident Theresa Cliff-Ryan, who finished ninth. Cliff-Ryan won the Tour of Somerville on Memorial Day and credited Bronzini for leading her to the victory. She played a supporting role for Bronzini on Sunday.
"The last 5K, I told Giorgia we'll both make the sprint and that we had chances because we're both great sprinters," Cliff-Ryan said. "I had some misfortune with 1K to go, and with 500 meters to go there was a lot of fighting in the sprint, but I'm really happy for the team."
Cliff-Ryan said her momentum was temporarily broken by another rider.
"Someone grabbed me by the shoulder with 1K to go and flung me backwards," she said. "It was uncalled for, but that's riding, I guess. We still came out on top."
This was Bronzini's first go in the Philly International. The women must climb the Manayunk Wall and its intimidating 17 percent grade four times. Bronzini said it wasn't until the fourth climb of the Wall when she expended significant energy.
"It's hard work but it was harder in the world championship," said the 28-year-old Bronzini. "Four times was not a problem for my legs. Only in the last lap did I spend much power for the climb and I tried to recover before the sprint."
Both world-class sprinters, Bronzini and Cliff-Ryan, who finished third last year, decided Bronzini was better equipped to finish first.
"She didn't feel good today," Bronzini said of Cliff-Ryan. "She told me she tried to sprint but that she wasn't sure she had the power to win. She said, 'You go and I'll follow you.' I said to my team I would like to win because this is one of the most important international races in the world."
Cliff-Ryan, 32, a former inline speedskating world champion, splits her residency between Philly and Canberra, Australia, where her husband, Gary Ryan, was also an inline speedskating champ.
Rasmussen received $13,500 for the win while Bronzini took home $4,500.