With a list of winners including Tom Boonen, Paolo Bettini, Cadel Evans, Mark Cavendish and Rui Costa, the World Championship Road Race is successful at sharing out the title of the ‘World’s Best’ across a number of different rider types. In very few other one day races could Vincenzo Nibali and Elia Viviani be considered co-captains; one a top climber, the other a sprinter.
Whilst a multifaceted squad such as that of the Italians is common in World Championship racing, the course will usually dictate the kind of race we end up seeing. Great Britain governed a sprint for Mark Cavendish in 2011 but more recent years have seen courses suited to the punchy Ardennes riders- Liege star Alejandro Valverde has finished third in the last three editions of the race. This year we may once again see a sprint but the fast men, such as Viviani, will be working on their ability to handle the Richmond bumps.
Bunch finishes usually require a lot of work by the sprint teams and this is an increasingly difficult ask in a race such as the World Championships. The race also churns up a new dynamic with country based squads causing a conflict between team/nation loyalties. Competing for your country should be, and still is, an honour but riders will spend the rest of the year travelling around with their teams and developing strong friendships. Consider too, a sponsors desire to have their team boast a World Champion for the next 12 months. Look out for tacit rider agreements which, though rightfully frowned upon, is a nice show of friendship with in the sport.
Form also comes into play with the race awkwardly placed at the end of the Cycling season. Some riders just won’t carry form through to an end of year peak and don’t feature in the Worlds. In Wednesday’s Time Trial Tom Dumoulin and Tony Martin were clearly sub-par, whilst Adriano Malori and Jerome Coppel brought their best legs. However, they were all beaten by a rampant Vasili Kiryienka who, to be fair, had ridden as many days as any of his rivals this year, if not more.
The course looks flat enough for a sprint- anything too hilly wouldn’t attract this many sprinters- and, whilst there will be plenty of attacks from the likes of defending champion Kwiatkowski, a solo winner is unlikely. Kwiatkowski’s chances of retention are boosted by the fact he will be the definitive leader of his Polish team. They are, however, not capable of giving him the support he would receive regularly at Etixx-Quick Step. The curse of the Rainbow Jersey- the inexplicable limp season some suffer following a Worlds win- hasn’t quite struck this year’s Amstel Gold winner but he certainly has struggled to impose himself on many of the big races. The Richmond circuit includes a cobbled climb and false flat finish which deters the likes of Marcel Kittel. In fact, the ramps occurring in the latter half of the circuit could be enough to see off all the sprinters though this remains a point of intrigue.
As expected, Spain and Italy bring star studded teams with many riders capable of victory. Spain can boast the greatest number of punchy riders but getting Valverde, Joaquim Rodriguez, Dani Moreno and Sami Sanchez on the same page is not a job I envy. Whilst there is probably no real animosity between the four, they will likely step on each others cleats and it is amazing that none of the quartet have been World Champion over the last decade. For a dark horse, sprinter Juan Jose Lobato comes to Richmond and will not be fussed by the hills. Italy’s squad looks closer to balanced with a number of big engines brought for the first two thirds of the race. Nibali will likely have a free role, whilst Elia Viviani, Giacomo Nizzolo and Fabio Felline could all win from bunches depending on the degree the pack is reduced in size.
France (Julian Alaphillipe, Nacer Bouhanni) and The Netherlands (Lars Boom, Dylan Van Baarle, Niki Terpstra) are other strong teams but massive dangers are the riders from Australia and Germany. Australia possesses two threats in Simon Gerrans and Michael Matthews. The latter has spoken of his good preparation and will be taking to a course that should suit well. The rest of the Australian team is strong and their leaders will not be without support. Germany will be holding out for a sprint and in Tony Martin, Marcel Sieberg, Andre Greipel and John Degenkolb they could dominate proceedings; Greipel is the faster of the two leaders, Degenkolb the more able on the cobbles and the climbs.
Norway could be out to spoil the party with a small but strong team featuring Lars Petter Nordhaug, Edvald Boasson Hagen and Alexander Kristoff for whom the course also suits. The USA will be well prepared on home soil and, as ever, the Belgian team have more than one hand to play (Philippe Gilbert, Sep Vanmarcke, and Greg Van Avermaet). Spare a thought for Peter Sagan, whose support is just two riders strong; his brother Juraj and the fledgling Michael Kolar.
If we get a bunch sprint it won’t be a full field but should involve John Degenkolb, Alexander Kristoff and Michael Matthews. I think the Australian has the right skill-set to ride out of the USA as World Champion this year. If things begin to splinter apart Nibali and compatriot Diego Ulissi are in good form and Michael Kwiatkowski has a reasonable shot at retention if he has had this race in mind throughout the season. The tireless Valverde should once again challenge whilst the Dutch team may light up the short cobbled climb.