Some have branded the 254.8-kilometre course around Ponferrada in north west Spain as too demanding for the sprinters. Others have claimed it’s not hilly enough for the climbers.
This should make the men’s world championships road race a thrillingly unpredictable affair – and if the expected rain falls, then we could be in for a repeat of last year’s epic race for the rainbow jersey.
In line with worlds tradition, it’s a circuit affair: 14 laps featuring two climbs – the gentle, leg-stretching Alto de Monteanrenas (5.1km at 3.5%) and the more demanding Alto de Compostilla (1.1km at 6.6%).
This second climb peaks out at almost 11 per cent and is followed by a 4-kilometre run to the finish which includes a tricky 2.5-kilometre descent.
Here are half a dozen scenarios at how it could all pan out.
The selective bunch sprint
On paper, courses like this can make us instantly discard the possibility of a bunch sprint – but that should not be totally excluded. Sure, the absence on the start list of the likes of Mark Cavendish, Marcel Kittel and Andre Greipel does indicate that this is not one for the pure sprinters – but it still may well be a fast man that prevails.
Time and again we saw Germany’s John Degenkolb getting over back-to-back tough Cat.2 climbs in the Vuelta before going on to take one of his four stage victories. Of course, two climbs in a 190-kilometre stage if very different from a succession of 28 climbs over 250 klicks – and that may be the undoing of the likes of Degenkolb and his fellow Vuelta sparring sprinter Nacer Bouhanni of France.
Both riders have shown that they have what it takes to stick with a pack – even lead a pack – over a short and sharp climb; whether they can do it again and again remains to be seen.
They will rely a lot on the input of their teammates. While Germany are a solid unit, you get the impression that the French team is comprised a number of individuals each with their own ambitions. And yet, Bouhanni is fully fit while Degenkolb has been recovering from an infection picked up during one of his crashes in Spain.
Tastier options in this ‘sprint scenario’ are perhaps Michael Matthews, the live-wire Australian, and Peter Sagan, the Slovakian whose terrible showing in the Vuelta has all but written him off in many camps. Sagan may benefit from being the underdog for a change, while Matthews is a key component of arguably the best national squad on display in Ponferrada.
Throw in Alexander Kristoff, too. The Norwegian showed his ability to get over the Gavia and Poggio before sprinting to victory in Milan-San Remo. Kristoff has had a superb season as he emerges as his Thor Hushovd’s heir apparent. Could he go one further and emulate his countryman’s rainbow title?
Let’s get something certain: the race will not be won by a pure mountain goat – which is probably why even an in-form Alberto Contador is refusing to take to the start in his native Spain.
Contador said he’s about as suited to the course as Cavendish is to winning the queen stage of a Tour. While he may have a point, the recent Vuelta winner is clearly over-egging the pudding because this is a race that could well see a pair of climbing legs top the podium.
With this in mind, the name that springs to mind of Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali, who will have recovered from his Tour-winning exertions and be motivated to steal some of the limelight back from the absent Contador.
Nibali’s strengths were more suited to last year’s parcours in Tuscany – where he crashed but still recovered to play a role in the finale. But don’t discount him on a course that sees a technical descent following a punchy climb.
Colombian cycling was very much in the shop window earlier in the season – primarily because of the Quintana-Uran one-two in the Giro. Results have dried up since – and Rigoberto Uran will be fresher than some of his rivals after pulling out of the Vuelta early with bronchitis.
You get the impression that Joaquim Rodriguez’s boat has sailed when it comes to nailing that elusive rainbow jersey. The Spaniard has been a shadow of his former self since bungling last year’s finale and losing out to Rui Costa of Portugal.
Could he finally put this setback to bed before the inevitable return to a flatter pure sprinter’s course next year? Perhaps – but it will take a lot.
Other riders in this bracket include Ireland’s Dan Martin – impressive in fits and bursts in the Vuelta – and Italy’s Fabio Aru, although he may be required to put in a shift for teammate Nibali. Dutchman Steven Kruijswijk has had a strong end to the season with victory in the Arctic Race of Norway – and the flame-haired climber won’t be weighed down by a torrent of expectation.
For many, this is the ideal scenario: the chance to see a rider at the top of his game pull off a surprise which, in hindsight, may actually appear entirely logical.
I’m thinking primarily of Simon Gerrans here – whose win in Milan-San Remo in 2012 was greeted either as a sleight or a piece of tactical brilliance after the softly-spoken Australian hitched a lift to the finish in the wheel of Fabian Cancellara before bounding clear in the finale.
Gerrans has all the attributes to win on Sunday – but it will take a similar scenario for him to do so. He’ll have to lay low throughout the race and he’ll have to use his Australian teammates to cover any early attacks.
He has the strength to hold on in the hills – and his recent Canadian Quebec-Montreal double shows that his kick is back after partial emasculation by the hands (and shoulders) of Cavendish in the Tour’s opening stage in Harrogate back in July.
With the likes of Cadel Evans, Heinrich Haussler, Adam Hansen, Simon Clarke and Mathew Haymen as able teammates, Gerrans – like Matthews – will benefit from without a doubt the strongest collective of riders around him.
Give him the opportunity, and Gerro will be right up there.
Also in this bracket are the likes of Greg van Avermaet, Sep Vanmarcke and Tony Gallopin. Belgian van Avermaet would be everyone’s bet for second-place, but the 29-year-old put in a rare winning turn last week at the GP de Wallonie and has the attributes to keep that streak going and give BMC yet another rainbow jersey (to add to those of Alessandro Ballan, Philippe Gilbert, Thor Hushovd and Evans).
Fellow Belgian Vanmarcke is a classy rider and adept at getting into the pointy end of a race with options greater than merely making up the numbers. Frenchman Gallopin came of age during the Tour with a yellow jersey cameo on Bastille Day plus a stage win in Oyonnax. He’ll be a marked man but has nothing to lose.
Portugal’s Rui Costa has nothing to lose, either – besides the rainbow jersey he denied Rodriguez in rainy Florence. Costa has had largely disappointing debut season at Lampre-Merida, but did secure a third successive Tour de Suisse and finished second behind Gerrans in Montreal and so is coming into a bit of form.
The usual suspects
One name you always consider in a rolling parcours is that of Alejandro Valverde – for good reason, the Spaniard now has five world championships medals to his name. And yet, those three bronzes and two silvers may be quite a weight around his shoulders. The fact that he’s failed to top the podium despite coming so close so many times suggests a lack of tactical awareness.
That run could change in Ponferrada and the Poulidor of the world championships may finally win gold and the right to wear those elusive rainbow strikes next season.
The climbs won’t trouble veteran Valverde and he has a decent kick – albeit it a kick with diminished powers after a flat run-in. This will play into the hands of someone like Fabian Cancellara or Philippe Gilbert.
You can sense that Cancellara is going all-out for the road race: four times a world time trial champion, the Swiss is not even entering the ITT in a bid to concentrate on the one glaring hole in his illustrious palmares. In the Vuelta Cancellara was often seen pacing – nay, attacking – in the hills, a sign, perhaps, that he was getting in some vital uphill training with Ponferrada in mind. He also notched some top five finishes in the sprints – so the intent is clearly there.
At 33, Cancellara knows his days are numbered; this could be his last realistic chance to wear a rainbow jersey outside of a race against the clock.
The same could be said for Gilbert – although the Belgian already has that victory on the Cauberg in 2012 in the memory bank. Gilbert, 32, has been in decline since that victory – although a win in Amstel Gold this spring showed that there’s perhaps life in the old dog yet.
This is basically the chance to speculate on those riders whose unpredictable characteristics could see them spring a surprise on Sunday. I’m thinking the likes of Belgium’s Jan Bakelants, France’s Cyril Gautier, Italy’s Alessandro De Marchi, Slovenia’s Borut Bozic, the British twins Adam and Simon Yates, perhaps even Cadel Evans on his professional swansong.
The final scenario is one in which all scripts go out the window. The expected showers are worse than feared, the succession of climbs more leg-sapping than first thought, an early break perhaps given more leeway than entirely sensible.
In this scenario – the most unlikely of the lot – anyone can get the win (within reason, of course – no-one is predicting a gold medal for Algeria’s Azzedine Lagab, for instance).
Heinrich Haussler or Andrey Amador (Costa Rica) could show their love of wet weather, a Jan Barta (Czech Republic) break may finally stick, Jack Bauer (New Zealand) could hold on to the last, Yukiya Arashiro (Japan) could find another reason to smile other than merely being alive and riding a bike.
Heck, Frank Schleck or Ben Gastauer may even put Luxembourg on the map. As I said, this scenario is the most outlandish – so don’t hold your breath…