Spain bets on Alejandro Valverde at worlds, but Aussies, Belgians look tough
PONFERRADA, Spain (AFP) — Alejandro Valverde will have his work cut out for him if he is to end years of near misses and finally land the world road title on home soil next week.
The 34-year-old Spaniard will be one of the favorites for the road race at the UCI Road World Championships in Ponferrada, but time is running out for the 2009 Vuelta a Espana winner to finally claim the rainbow jersey following five previous podium finishes.
Spain is putting almost all its eggs into the one basket, although it has an excellent backup plan in Joaquim Rodriguez, who finished second behind Portugal’s Rui Costa last year in Florence.
Valverde was third in 2013, a position he also took in 2006 and 2012, while he was second in 2003 and 2005.
But the field is tough this year on a course that offers potential opportunities to a great number of riders.
The men’s elite road race does not take place until Sunday, September 28, and a number of world champions will have been crowned before then.
Action begins Sunday with the team time trial, which is contested by pro squads rather than national teams, though in every other event riders represent their countries.
Omega Pharma-Quick Step is taking this event very seriously but should face a challenge from Orica-GreenEdge, Sky Procycling and BMC Racing Team on the 57km course.
The time trials continue with junior and under-23 events before the elite races. Elite women race on Tuesday; men, on Wednesday.
Dutchwoman Ellen van Dijk will be favored to retain her title in the women’s 29.5km event, while German Tony Martin will be the big favorite in the men’s 47km race as he tries to land a fourth consecutive title.
But Britain’s Bradley Wiggins, who won the Tour de France and Olympic time trial in 2012, looks to be coming into shape at just the right time to challenge on the 47km course, which has a couple of tricky climbs in the final 10km.
That could play into Wiggins’s hands, as he is a better climber than Martin, but he will have to match the German’s power output on the flat sections.
One contender who won’t tackle the time trial is four-time winner Fabian Cancellara, who has decided to concentrate on the 255km road race, to be run on a course suited to his abilities.
Liège-Bastogne-Liège winner Simon Gerrans comes into this worlds in fine form, having won the Grand Prix of Montreal and Quebec in the last week.
The 34-year-old Aussie will be ably assisted by Michael Matthews, as long as the 23-year-old, who won a stage and wore the leader’s red jersey in this year’s Vuelta, can keep up with the puncheurs on the climbs.
There are two climbs on the 18.2km circuit around Ponferrada, and while the first at 5.5km is not very steep, the second averages 6.6 percent over 1.1km, and that could allow the strongmen to get away.
With only 4km left over the top on the final lap before the finish line, the sprinters could struggle to get back in contention if they lose touch.
But Germany’s John Degenkolb, winner of the points jersey at the Vuelta, and Norway’s Alexander Kristoff, a two-stage winner at July’s Tour, both have the ability to stick with it on short, sharp climbs.
Degenkolb came away from the Vuelta with an infection that sent him to hospital, but hopes to be back at full strength for the road race.
Many eyes, though, will be on the Belgian team, starring two former world champions — Tom Boonen and Philippe Gilbert — and the in-form pair Greg Van Avermaet and Sep Vanmarcke.
Other riders not to be overlooked are defending champion Costa and Slovakia’s Peter Sagan, who has had a relatively poor season by his standards.
In the women’s race, the question is whether anyone can beat Marianne Vos. The Dutch star has never finished worse than second in eight attempts at the road championship, although she has won only three times, in 2006, 2012 and last year.