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World championship course preview: harder than it looks

PONFERRADA, Spain (VN) — Harder than it looks — that’s the general consensus the pros have after taking a closer look at the undulating circuit nestled in the otherwise lost Bierzo valley in northwest Spain.

There’s nothing spectacular about the world road cycling championships course. There are no major climbs, nor dramatic backdrops, like the Duomo featured last year in Florence, Italy, but while the Ponferrada circuit lacks in superlatives, it could deliver a very exciting race.

Spain’s worlds courses will get a dress rehearsal this weekend at the Spanish national championships, held on the same circuits to be featured September 21-28.

The road race circuit is not hard, but it’s not easy, either. With two moderate climbs each lap, the course won’t be a back-breaker, but after five hours of racing, the pack will start to feel the fatigue.

VeloNews inspected the course in late April when the Italian national coach Davide Cassani previewed the course with Luca Paolini, Oscar Gatto, and Flippo Pozzato. Cassani came away with a very clear impression after his riders rode three laps on the course.

“In theory, 30 riders could finish in the first group, but that’s only on paper. The last lap, after 3,900 meters (12,870 feet) of climbing, anything could happen,” Cassani said. “You could see riders like [Peter] Sagan, [Philippe] Gilbert winning here. It’s also good for [John] Degenkolb or [Simon] Gerrans.”

Despite the towering mountains surrounding Ponferrada, the UCI nixed the idea of having a climbing time trial and avoided running the road race over steeper terrain. The UCI was adamant they wanted all races, time trials and road races, starting and finishing in the same place, and forcing organizers to keep the race close to central Ponferrada.

They came up with an 18.2km circuit that features two moderate climbs. Each lap features 1,010 feet of climbing, but it’s more grinding than punchy, with the steepest sector at 11 percent. When Pozzato rode it at race speed, he never dropped out of the big ring.

The first four kilometers wind through downtown Ponferrada, past the emblematic Knights of the Templar castle, before the first climb which never gets steeper than six percent. A sharp descent leads to the second climb, called the Alto de Compostilla. At 1.1km, it’s steeper, with grades up to 11 percent, but nothing that should put any serious candidate into danger.

The climbs are packed in midway through each lap, and with wide, smooth roads, it will be hard even for the most aggressive rider to make headway against a determined chase. A technical descent off the second climb offers interesting terrain for attackers, but it’s still a long way to the finish line — almost 4.5km on flat roads.

As Cassani suggested, it would not be surprising to see a relatively large select group to make it to the line to contest the rainbow jersey.

Pozzato countered, however, by saying the accumulated effect of the climbs will prove decisive in the final laps, typically when all the key moves of the world championships take place.

“I think the final part of the race will be very tough, because if you add up all the climbing from every lap, it’s not easy,” Pozzato said. “I think it’s good for riders like Sagan and [Alejandro] Valverde.”

Riders and teams have been trickling in over the past several weeks to inspect the course. Defending women’s world champion Marianne Vos of the Netherlands also said the course would prove difficult in the late going of the race.

“The two climbs don’t see to be so hard, but after a few laps, somebody can make a difference there,” Vos told organizers. “The final descent is also very interesting.”

This weekend’s Spanish national championships, held on the same routes, will provide a telling preview of what to expect in September. The worlds, of course, feature a much larger peloton with competing teams. The Spanish national championships will be a dogfight between Movistar and anyone else who shows up.

A team time trial will also be back to open “worlds week,” with a women’s race at 36.2km and a men’s course at 57.1km. Both courses feature minor climbs, but nothing to disrupt the ebb and flow of the top teams.

Individual time trials favor the specialists, with a men’s course set at 47.1km and a women’s course at 29.5km. Both courses are mostly flat.

Ponferrada marks the seventh time Spain will host the world titles. The last came in Madrid in 2005, when Tom Boonen won out of a bunch sprint on an urban circuit that also included some deceiving elevation. The Ponferrada course, however, is much more challenging than what the peloton faced in Madrid nine years ago.

Organizers have also brought the event back from the brink. There was a moment last year when there were doubts that Spain’s economic crisis would torpedo the event, but local organizers have pulled it together to bring the event to fruition.

The races should be fan-friendly, with all of the team areas as well as start and finish lines within walking distance of each other. Though not very big, Ponferrada is a bustling city, with an active “parte vieja” full of Spanish taverns serving up tangy Bierzo wine and spicy tapas.

UCI road cycling world championships, September 21-28

September 21: men’s and women’s team time trials
September 22: Junior women, U23 men time trial
September 23: Junior men, elite women TT
September 24: Elite men TT
September 26: Junior women (4 laps), U23 men (10 laps) road races
September 27: Junior men (7 laps), elite women (7 laps) road races
September 28: Elite men road race (14 laps)

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