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Matthews firmly among favorites for the Worlds Road Race title

Michael Matthews was not happy with German rider John Degenkolb. (AP Photo/Gian Mattia D'Alberto)
Expert
17th September, 2015
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Come September 27, millions of cycling fans around the world will be glued to TV sets for one of the most hotly anticipated men’s elite World Championships in years, thanks to a punishing route that looks set to serve up an action-packed race.

At 259.2km the race will be a real test of endurance and staying power, but added to this are more than twenty 90-degree turns per 16.2km lap, which have to be dealt with 16 times each.

There are also three hills on each lap, the first being Libby Hill, coming 12km in, averaging 8 per cent over 215 metres.

Next up is Third Street at the 14km point, averaging 12 per cent over 185m, and finally with just a few hundred metres to go to the line there is Governor Street, averaging 7 per cent over 295 metres.

Non-cyclists might scoff at these short climbs but any racer will tell you that the cumulative effect of smashing up these kind of energy-draining hills over 259.2km is huge. Each climb offers up perfect launch points for attacks and counter attacks, offering – if the riders are feeling feisty – no rest for the fatigued.

Libby Hill comes first and might seem too far from the line to be decisive but its unevenly cobbled surface, off-camber start and narrowness will make it a critical point in the later laps.

So what kind of rider does this course suit?

While none of these climbs is truly up there with, say, the sharper bergs of the Belgian classics, they are hard enough and come consistently enough to put the true sprinters such as Andre Greipel and Mark Cavendish down on the list of race favourites, if not out of the running altogether.

A more versatile sprinter such as Alexander Kristoff seems a stronger favourite. He was flying earlier on in the year but with the climbs all coming so close to the line, odds are that even if he’s in the leading group on the final lap, a more natural all-rounder will get the jump on him to erase the Norwegian’s natural advantage in the sprint.

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Many analysts have Classics men Peter Sagan and Greg Van Avermaet down as the hot favourites, for obvious reasons.

Sagan was robbed of the chance to use the Vuelta a Espana as preparation due to abandoning the race early on after being hit by a motorbike.

Sagan’s a master on this kind of hilly route and has a devastating sprint to boot, but he’s lost the air of invincibility that he was beginning to formulate a couple of years ago due to a string of near misses this year, which means there are doubts surrounding him. He’s the most naturally talented rider in the pro peloton but he seems to have lost a little bit of faith in that predatory instinct that saw him win races and stages seemingly at will.

He definitely can win on the 27th, but one would baulk at saying he definitively will.

Van Avermaet is desperate for a victory that would finally confirm his talent, being an all-round one-day rider who’s ridden in more than 30 Classics without ever taking the top position on the podium. He’s been talking up the importance of the Rainbow Jersey of late, saying it’s even more important than taking the win in one of the Monuments.

“Winning a big Classic like San Remo, Roubaix, Liege or the World Championships has always been my main goal,” he told Cyclingnews, “and when a classics rider can reach one of these goals then his career has been really nice.

“But having a world title is even more special because there is a jersey involved and it can be worn the whole year. For a one-day racer like me, the World Championships is the ultimate goal.”

Time’s not exactly running out for GVA but he’s not getting any younger, and this course does indeed suit his talents.

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However he suffers from a recurring habit of somewhat telegraphing his attacks, going off the front just when he’s expected to do, thus losing that critical element of surprise. Powerhouses such as Fabian Cancellara or an in-form Tom Boonen – even Sagan – can do this when on song and they are untouchable, but a less-gifted rider like Van Avermaet needs that element of slyness that he so far hasn’t displayed.

Still, unlike Sagan, he will have a very strong team on his side and will not be hurting for support, if indeed he does stay in the hunt as the latter stages of the race unfold.

One rider with a good chance here is the oft-overlooked Zdenek Stybar. He’s the sort of rider who is very consistent at making breaks in Classics yet rarely gets a proper look-in when pre-race favourites are mentioned. His bike handling skills of course are well known, having such a rich cyclocross palmares, and his victory this year at the Strade Bianche shows that he knows how to make the kill when the chance presents itself. I expect a very strong ride from him.

John Degenkolb is being talked up as a big favourite and that comes as no surprise, as he has proven himself a very adaptable and intelligent rider, as well as strong as an ox when on form.

One of the highlights of this year was seeing the German drive the break in Paris-Roubaix, when he took the race by the scruff of the neck and charged forward to the line, not even caring that he had hangers on, so unassailable was his belief in his superiority. It was a beast of a ride and showed a true warrior’s spirit. Degenkolb can climb, he can grind, he has that fire burning within, and he is one heck of a sprinter – the thinking man’s Sagan, if you will.

He won the final stage at the Vuelta and is a real threat to everyone else’s aspirations at the Worlds.

Australia is bringing two riders who have all the abilities required to become world champion on this testing course too, and that depth of talent means they have an extra card to play, one that could eventually either be seen as a blessing or a curse.

Simon Gerrans is a rider proven on this type of route. Clever, tenacious and full of vim when in top form, he’s carved quite a reputation out for himself in the pro peloton, to the point that he will be a marked man here. If he’s in a group with Sagan and Degenkolb though I see him losing out and taking another podium spot that isn’t the top. He’s got a heck of a punch on him but it doesn’t compare with the other two.

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Gerrans is also coming back after an injury-riddled year and though he did ride the Vuelta it looked very much like he was riding himself back into form, rather than sharpening his arrows.

Michael Matthews though, does have the kind of firepower over 300 metres that will be required to win this race if no one busts out solo. And he’s not hiding his desire to win this one at all.

“My season’s been really based around the world championships this year,” he said to VeloNews, “with a few peaks during the season and then the buildup towards the world championships. Everything I’m doing at the moment is for that one-day race, but it is a one-day race, so it’s difficult to judge how you’re going to be on the day.”

He’s had an ideal preparation too, beating Kristoff at the Grand Prix Cycliste de Quebec recently.

“It would be truly incredible to wear that jersey if I eventually do get to,” he went on. “It’s a really good race for me this year. It’s probably the one that’s suited me the best over the last few years and for the next few years also. So I’m going 110 per cent for it and I’m focused more than I ever have been.”

Spain though have the strongest team on paper, and the two in-form favourites in Joaquim Rodriguez and Alejandro Valverde.

Valverde has earned six medals at the Worlds but never the jersey he so covets, and though he had a great Vuelta he is citing tiredness after a long season, something that may be more kidology than real.

“I hope to be ready for the worlds,” Valverde told VeloNews. “I am tired from a long season, and that’s one reason why I wasn’t up to the top level at the Vuelta. The worlds are important, and with Spain, we always bring a competitive team.”

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Aa an unrepentant ‘ex-doper’ though, a Valverde win would not be universally popular.

Rodriguez had a brilliant Vuelta, riding for the majority of it out of his skin. He’s won the Giro di Lombardia twice and La Fleche Wallone once, and with both races having similar climbs to this Worlds course, he has to be right up there with Degenkolb, if not slightly ahead due to his prowess on hard, short hills.

We’re almost guaranteed a classic of a race. Whoever finds the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow this year will be a worthy world champion.

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