Ah, the Worlds. Aren’t they great? They’re half the reason everyone loves the Olympics, as they present a different view on the cycling world, providing the one day a year where riders race for their country, not for their trade team, and thus super squads brimming with talent are born and we get to watch them battle not only the other nations, but themselves for mere superiority in their own team. It’s a colourful, vibrant and tense day full of action, drama, and glamour as the world’s best strain ever sinew for just a few seconds longer to gain the immeasurable pride of wearing the rainbow jersey for a whole year.
Personally, the rainbow jersey got me into cycling. Well, I tell a lie, like everyone my age, Lance Armstrong was the main draw, but that was only in July. It was one of those April days in the cool sun when I saw Tom Boonen win the Tour of Flanders, resplendent in his multi-coloured bands set against that white jersey, and I was hooked – I had to know everything about this great rider, the jersey and so on.
I even committed the now criminal fashion crime of buying the Quick Step world championship kit, so much did I desire to emulate my hero, even down to some Boonen edition Northwave shoes and rainbow band-kitted shades. I still use the shorts, and the shoes were actually defective and had to be returned, but the rainbow jersey is something I can’t wear again. It’s simply not mine, I haven’t earnt it, so I decide not to. This suprises me, as I happily wear team kit which I’m sometimes berated for wearing by some older members of the cycling establishment, but hey, guess everyone’s a hypocrite.
Anyway, after that no doubt boring brief history of my fifteen year old self, lets get back to the race.
The course, despite being populated by a numbers of hills along its route, is defined by just one – the Cauberg. Of course, if the winning attack doesn’t go on it, then all the journalists will claim this is because of the overwhelming media coverage on the Cauberg- they should know, they’ve been writing it. It’s almost certainly helped deliver the direction of the TTT medal, and will probably be the place to be to watch the race.
The race should still be much more interesting than last year mind, where Copenhagen’s flat course, with one climb (the finish) not exactly lending itself to sporting action like the amazing Geelong race won by Thor Hushovd or the two wins Paolo Bettini took in Salzburg and Stuttgart. That course, which looks like being repeated when Qatar hosts the worlds in 2016, was just an easy sprinters course, but this one is for the classics men, the climbers and everyone in between. In other words, only the pure sprinters and climbers have been excluded from a chance of victory, and that leaves an awful lot of men in contention…
So to help out, I’ve tried to pick out 10 riders most likely of making their impact felt on the Dutch soil. Of course, there will be suprises – we haven’t had a ‘minnow’ rider win for quite some time, so no doubt they’ll manage to this year, but with a route that suits the classics men, it’s up to them to make the race.
Gilbert is in the unfortunate position of being a favourite on pretty much every single one day race he enters following his stellar 2011. His 2012 was comparatively weak, with only two Vuelta stage wins, but they were on very similar finishes to the route of the worlds – The Barcelona finish featured a climb and a drag to the finish like the 1.7km the riders will face over the top of the Cauberg, and his second win was from a very long uphill sprint. He’s certainly in the form, but can he finally take the win he desperately needs?
Gilbert’s biggest completion may be from his own Belgian team mate. Tornado Tom has had a remarkable and unprecedented 2012, winning almost everything he wanted, and with an ease not seen since his 2005 wonder season. Which, as we’ll be reminded many times on Sunday, was also the last time he did the Flanders/Roubaix double – perhaps history will repeat once more?
Sagan has already said he isn’t really on good form, and he looked unlike his usual self in the Canadian races, where his late attacks were reeled in fairly easily, but he can never be discounted. We know he can take the distance after his strong Milan San-Remo performance earlier in the year, and we know he can beat most people on a uphill finish. But has he burnt himself out too early in the year?
Oddly, the Italians don’t have a real true contender for the worlds for the first time in a while, with six debutants in the azzuri. NIbali however has made a habit of going for the beautiful, not the sane, way of winning – see his attempts to win Lombardy last year and Liege this year, and, if third time is lucky, this could be the one for him, especially on a course that suits him well. Otherwise, Italy will be looking at their Sagan impressionist, Moreno Moser, who is still very young but an extremely powerful rider. Watch for him in coming years.
Contador has never really been a man for one day races. He’s misjudged the Mur de Huy in Fleche Wallone before, and got overhauled by Evans, and you feel that for all his explosive kicks in the Grand Tours, he’s still maybe a notch below the real classics men such as Gilbert, Sagan and Rodriguez in terms of acceleration. Still, this was one of his targets, and whilst after his time trial performance (still a creditable ninth) he looks unlikely to win, we’ve learnt not to count him out when he looks out of it after that Vuelta stage…
Spain have an embarrassment of riches coming into this race: between just five of their riders, they can boast 12 Grand Tour podiums of which 6 were victories, 44 Grand Tour stages, 5 Monuments, 3 rainbow jerseys and an Olympic Gold. Rodriguez himself has contributed 10 of those stage wins, and mostly on the sharp hilly terrain that will punctuate the route in Valkenberg. His team mate Alejandro Valverde has a similar hit rate, and the green bullet certainly has the capabilities to win the Worlds – he was always joint favourite to win with Gilbert when he wasn’t banned. Whether both can hold their Vuelta form, which is also the question of Contador, will be important.
Australia have had Cadel Evans as World Champ (and indeed, this course isn’t bad for him either…but he isn’t riding, but Hugh Porter probably will say he is), and now their best chance is in Gerrans, who has had a annus mirabilis after a stint with Sky. After getting heavily critisied for winning Milan-San Remo because, boo hoo, he used tactics (oddly enough the people moaning that Cancellara was the strongest and deserved to win for that reason were quite happy to call Wiggins destroying everyone in the time trials at the Tour boring, which is novel),he proved it wasn’t a fluke by winning GP Quebec as well. He has the punch, and can sprint well, as he showed by taking the bunch sprint at San Sebastian, and with a united Australia behind him (as much as we’d like to see the old Heinrich Haussler attack!), he could be a dark horse.
Edvald Boassen Hagen
The Norwegian changing of the guard may be on in more ways then one – Hushovd appears to be in the death throes of his career (watch him win Roubaix next year now…), and the young Norwegians are coming through, with medals in the U23 and Junior worlds this week. Lars Petter Nordhaug would be my out there betting man tip for a win, as I can see him getting into a group and winning from it, but Boassen Hagen, freed from domestique duties for Sky, will have a chance from a variety of circumstances. He’s won bunch sprints, he’s broken away…even if he doesn’t look as awesome as he used to as a youth at High Road, probably because he’s not a leader any more for some reason, he has the ability to win.
The evergreen Freire is staking everything on this race, even his very career, as he will probably continue if he wins, or retire if he doesn’t. He used the Amstel Gold Race this year as practice, going for along break before the Cauberg, being caught horribly close to the top, the still managing to take a high placing. Freire has always thrived when everyone has forgotten about him though, with his wins in Milan San-Remo being key examples, and he may be putting a bit too much pressure on himself. Still, the man has won the World’s three times, and could distinguish himself by taking an unprecedented fourth tomorrow.
It’s odd to look at how well France did in the Tour this year and last, with stage wins galore and men in the top 10, then look at their team and not see any real contenders for the win. Either Voeckler or Sylvain Chavanel will be the men for France, although they will need to go long – thy can’t sprint, so the dream scenario for many fans will be Voeckler soloing up the climb to be gloriously clad in white for a year.
Lars Boom, Greg Van Avermaent, Robert Gesink, Niki Terpestra, Taylor Phinney, John Deglenkob and Alexandre Kolobnev are all other names to throw into the hat. Kolobnev has made a habit of near misses in one day races, and seems to have a thing for attacking at the worlds, whilst the Dutch will be psyched for a home win after Vos got them off to a good start with the women. Van Avermaent will be keen to take advantage of any Boonen/Gilbert marking, and Taylor Phinney will probably come 4th again. Sorry, Taylor. Who won’t be winning is Britain, unless they have some diabolical scheme with Wiggins, Froome and Tiernan-Locke, who will probably be brought back to earth with a bump.
The Defending Champion
Mark Cavendish has already said he doesn’t stand a cat in hell’s chance of victory, but I’m intrigued as to what his secret 4th target of the season is, after he named Milan San-Remo, A Green jersey and Olympic Gold as his 3 targets, only to claim there was one more he desired but wouldn’t name. This could be Ghent Whevelgem, but could it also be the Worlds? Cavendish has certainly lost weight to climb better, and this ability has been much hyped, but he still can’t always cut it when the going gets tough. Still, he’s is notoriously determined, and is always keen to prove others wrong. Watch this space, even if he’ll likely go a fair way before being distanced in the last couple of laps.
What’s going to happen?
This is tricky. All the races up to the Elite Women ended in quite sizeable bunch sprints. Then, Vos broke away with a small group and then attacked on the Cauberg to win solo. What’s thus likely in my book is a synthesis of these scenarios – a la Bettini’s wins, I forsee a small group getting up the Cauberg and going to the win, with probably Valverde, Gilbert and Gerrans taking the medals, but if the attacks are brought back on the Cauberg itself, then we may well see a bunch sprint, in which cas Boonen should still be there with a sizeable Belgian contingent. Indeed, the Belgian may find he has to beat the same man into Silver, Valverde, who possesses a good sprint.
On another point, identifying riders – use their helmets as an indicator of which team they’re on as regard the make and colour, then run through who on that team is from which country if you’re struggling. After an hour or two, it’s easy enough!
In the end, we don’t have a clue. That’s the joy of the most unknown race in the world, so just enjoy it: it’ll be a long wait till the next one!