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Worlds preview: The climbers get their shot at rainbow stripes

Ardennes specialists and even grand tour stars will battle for the rainbow jersey in the elite men's road race at Innsbruck worlds.

The rainbow jersey will be up for grabs on Sunday on a battleground tailored to the climbers. It’s not an opportunity that rolls around often.

For the last few years, the worlds road title has been contested by the sprinters and classics hardmen — with a rider that fits both descriptions, Peter Sagan, winning three years in a row. The Florence world championships in 2013 and Ponferrada worlds in 2014 were the last climber-friendly editions of the event.

With that in mind, some of the sport’s biggest names have been dreaming of a rare shot at the rainbow stripes since the route was first announced.

That route features well over 4,000 meters of climbing. Only those who can survive the challenging terrain on offer in Innsbruck, Austria will have a chance at the potentially career-defining victory.

With all the vertical gain on offer and so many strong climbers vying for the title, fans should be in for some fireworks this weekend.

The Route: A lumpy circuit with a sting in the tail

The elite men’s road race at the Innsbruck world championships runs 265 kilometers in full. The peloton will set out from Kufstein and take on a few rollers before hitting the challenging Gnadewald climb a little over 60 kilometers into the day, and then they’ll descend to Innsbruck, where several laps on a challenging circuit await.

The central feature of the 23.9-kilometer Innsbruck circuit is the Igls climb, 7.9 kilometers in length with a 5.7% gradient. It’s a pretty steady ascent, but repeated trips up and over (the pack will visit the climb a total of seven times) should inject some serious fatigue into the legs.

The seventh and final lap includes an extra challenge to spice up the race finale. The 2.8-kilometer Höttinger Höll (Hell) climb features a vicious 11.5% gradient. That should be steep enough to encourage some big attacks. From the top, it’s roughly eight kilometers to the finish line.

All told, there are 4,670 vertical meters on tap for the elite men on Sunday. There might not be a standalone high-mountain slog on the road from Kufstein to the Innsbruck finish line, but that kind of vertical gain is comparable to a tough mountain stage at the Tour de France.

The Contenders: Ardennes specialists vs. grand tour stars?

Thanks to the parcours, defending champion Sagan does not look like a top favorite. He’ll give it a go anyway, but riders with stronger climbing credentials have earned most of the pre-race attention.

The big question: What kind of climber does this race suit? Is it a course for a punchy Ardennes-style climber or a purer stage race climber? That final ascent could be the decider. It’s steep enough to blow the peloton apart, but it’s short. It should host the final showdown among a select group of survivors.

Spain’s Alejandro Valverde certainly has the skillset to be there. He’s one of the talented few that falls comfortably into both categories, a dominant Ardennes rider with a whopping four Liège-Bastogne-Liège titles to his name who also manages to be a constant presence in the high mountains of grand tours. He can even hold his own in a sprint, should a small group stick together up and over the last climb. This may be the final shot at a rainbow jersey for the 38-year-old. Spain can rely on strong climbers like Ion Izagirre and Enric Mas to make things especially hard.

France will look to Julian Alaphilippe to lead another strong climbing team. He’s got the punch to hang with almost anyone on a short steep climb, the engine to survive solo, and a handy finishing kick too. This year, he has also proven that he can turn his immense talents into marquee victories, and that is an important step forward for a rider who often found himself just short of the big wins in past seasons. With Romain Bardet, Thibaut Pinot, and Tony Gallopin also on the roster, France has some options.

Former world champion Michal Kwiatkowski will fly the flag for Poland. He can run hot and cold as a race favorite, sometimes disappearing when he’s expected to shine only to snatch a big win by surprise. As one of the most versatile riders in the peloton, he has what it takes to battle it out for the win in Innsbruck — if the form is there.

Great Britain will look to Simon and Adam Yates to shine on the lumpy course. Tour de France stars Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas will not be in attendance, but the British squad still has plenty of firepower in the Yates twins.

Simon is fresh off a Vuelta a España overall win. Adam had a more under-the-radar campaign in Spain, but he is a sterling climber in his own right whose 2015 Clásica San Sebastián title marks him as a proven one-day winner.

Colombia does not have one clearcut leader, but a stable of climbers worth watching. Miguel Ángel López and Rigoberto Urán may be the best options with Nairo Quintana and Sergio Henao in the mix too.

Ditto for the Dutch who have Wout Poels, Tom Dumoulin, Bauke Mollema, and Wilco Kelderman. That’s a lot of talent, although no one rider stands out from that list as an obvious favorite.

Italian fans had high hopes for this course when it was announced, but those expectations have come down considerably after a back injury sustained at the Tour de France derailed Vincenzo Nibali’s season. Gianni Moscon will likely be the protected rider instead.

Slovenia’s Primoz Roglic, Ireland’s Dan Martin, Canada’s Mike Woods, Luxembourg’s Bob Jungels, and Belgium’s Dylan Teuns and Tim Wellens are others to watch in Sunday’s battle for the rainbow stripes, with Greg Van Avermaet as a wild card. He did, after all, manage to win an Olympic title on a route most people thought would be too hard for him.

Speaking of wild cards, you can never totally count out the guy who has spent the last three years in possession of the jersey. This may not be the best course for Slovakia’s Peter Sagan, but he’s not the kind of rider to pack it in just because a route is not perfectly tailored to his skillset.