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Preview: Worlds courses favor risk takers

The hilly Limburg region is the canvas for the breakaway artists this week in the Netherlands

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MADRID (VN) — The famous steeps of the Cauberg climb in the heart of the hilly Dutch country around Valkenburg set the stage for what should be wildly unpredictable racing this week at the UCI Road World Championships.

The hilly Limburg region is hosting the worlds for the fifth time and Dutch fans by the tens of thousands will be pouring into the southeast corner of the Netherlands that’s quite unlike the rest of the pancake-flat Northern European country.

The Cauberg climb, the centerpiece of the Amstel Gold Race one-day classic each April, is the focal point of the week’s racing, which includes both time trial and road racing events for men’s, women’s U23 and junior categories.

Racing clicked into gear Sunday with the trade team time trial races for men’s and women’s squads. Omega Pharma-Quick Step and Specialized-lululemon opened their Dutch accounts with wins, respectively.

Here’s a quick look at what to watch for this week.

The bergs

The short but very steep hills of the Limburg underscore the dynamics of the worlds this week. Valkenburg has hosted the worlds four times and nearby Heerlen has done so once in what is considered the hotbed of Dutch cycling culture.

Strong winds, narrow roads and a seemingly endless string of punchy hills mark the courses for this week’s races. Weather forecasters are calling from mostly clear skies, with temperatures in the mid-60s Fahrenheit and only a small chance of occasional showers.

Courses vary based on discipline and category, with different starting points spread across the hilly Limburg region. All races end, however, just past the top of the Cauberg climb. The women’s time trial course, for example, starts in Eijsden and tackles two major climbs, while the men’s race starts in Heerlen and features three major climbs.

All the road races — with the exception of the elite men’s race — are held on a 16.5km circuit. It’s more or less the same circuit used in the 1998 worlds, the last time the world championships were held in the Netherlands.

Two climbs are featured on each lap of the circuit. The Bemelerberg Hill at about the midway point of each lap is just over 900 meters long and features a maximum grade of seven percent. The Cauberg comes near the end, with a total length of 1.5km and a maximum grade of 12 percent. The finish line is 1700m past the summit of the Cauberg on a slight decline — something that will make the finale of each race very different than how the Amstel Gold Race plays out.

The elite men will start in Maastricht and cover just over 100km on an approach that features seven climbs before hitting the circuit (see list below for distances).

The tactics

The location of the finish line nearly 2km past the top of the Cauberg will greatly shape the outcome of the road races.

The steepest portion of the Cauberg is on the lower half of the climb and even at the Amstel Gold Race, chasers almost inevitably catch riders that have gone too early (think Philippe Gilbert overtaking Joaquim Rodríguez in 2011). That will be even more likely this week with the finish line coming well beyond the top of the climb.

The section after the Cauberg climb features a false flat, a short descent and then a long drag to the line. It will provide plenty of terrain for riders to counter-attack and teams to work in unison if anyone arrives with numbers.

With such a hilly and demanding route, breakaways and attacks are inevitable. Anyone trying to play it conservative and wait for the last lap risks missing out on a race-winning move. Teams with big numbers will have the advantage to be able to put riders into early moves, cover counter-attacks and then save their top favorites for the closing two or three laps.

With good weather in the forecast, at least riders will not have to contend with wind and rain, which make the notoriously treacherous farm roads east of Maastricht even more hazardous. Positioning will be key as well as good (radio-free) communication within the team structure.

The favorites

Dutch Olympic champion Marianne Vos will be the overwhelming favorite to win the elite women’s race. Despite her lengthy palmarès, she has finished second at the road worlds five consecutive times and has only won the world road title once. The Giro Donne and world cyclocross champion will be the heavy favorite and carry the press attention and pressure to win on home roads.

Vos will headline a strong Dutch squad built largely to protect her interests. Vos has the tactical savvy and the legs to take control of the race, much like she did in London en route to the gold medal when she and four others made a late breakaway to lock up the podium.

The Italians also bring a strong squad while Emma Pooley (Great Britain) and Judith Arndt (Germany) will like the hilly parcours. The experienced Emma Johansson (Sweden) should be a factor with the Americans looking to Flèche Wallonne winner Evelyn Stevens to carry the red, white and blue.

On the men’s side, Philippe Gilbert (Belgium) won two confidence-boosting stages at the Vuelta a España — his first victories of the year — to enter the worlds. How Belgium decides to race remains to be seen. Tom Boonen will also have personal ambitions as well as Greg Van Avermaet. Gilbert won the Amstel Gold Race in 2011 with a vicious attack on the Cauberg, but if Boonen is in the mix late, the worlds finish suits him better.

Perhaps the strongest team for the men’s road race is Spain. With Alberto Contador, Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodríguez, the Vuelta podium in that order, the Spanish squad will have the luxury of numbers. Three-time world champion Oscar Freire should not be overlooked in one of his final races, while 2008 Olympic champion Samuel Sánchez is hoping to start while coming off injury, but is also always a threat on hilly courses.

Spain will certainly put men into early moves and can afford to race aggressively, with Freire for the finale and Rodríguez and Valverde with free hands to attack in the closing laps. Anything less than a podium will be viewed as a disaster for the favored Spanish team.

The Italians come with a young squad, following the Italian federation’s hardline stance against any rider that has been handed down a racing ban or has been implicated in a doping investigation. That means that Vincenzo Nibali will captain the young squad that will race very differently than how the once-mighty Italians have taken on the worlds.

With a relatively young and inexperienced team, the Italians will likely follow the tone set by the Spanish and Belgians.

The Dutch home team will be under heavy pressure to put a man on the podium on home roads. Lars Boom and Robert Gesink, hot off the Vuelta, will be the home team’s best bets. The squad will also be putting riders into breakaways, with the likes of Laurens Ten Dam, Bauke Mollema and Johnny Hoogerland enjoying the freedom to ride early.

Norway brings a small but loaded team despite the absence of Thor Hushovd, with Edvald Boasson Hagen and Grand Prix Cycliste de Montréal winner Lars-Peter Nordhaugh in with a shot for the podium.

Slovak phenom Peter Sagan will at least have some teammates at the worlds compared to riding alone at the Olympics. Though the Tour de France green jersey winner’s trainer said this week that he is off his best form, Sagan was third at Amstel Gold Race and will give it a shove if he’s within striking range.

The Americans bring a young squad anchored by veteran Chris Horner. The U.S. team usually puts a man in the day’s early move and will be riding to surprise the favorites on a hilly course favoring aggressive tactics. Riders like Tejay van Garderen, Timmy Duggan and Alex Howes should go on the attack before the final climb of the Cauberg.

The Germans, Great Britain and Australia all bring deep squads. Anything can happen at the worlds and riders such as Michael Albasini (Australia), Rigoberto Urán (Colombia), Matti Breschel (Denmark) or Aleksandr Kolobnev (Russia) could easily pull a heist.

Schedule of events

Monday, Sept. 17: ITT, junior men, 26.6km; ITT, U23 men, 36km
Tuesday, Sept. 18: ITT, junior women, 15.6km; ITT elite women, 24.3km
Wednesday, Sept. 19: ITT, elite men, 45.7km
Thursday, Sept. 20: no racing
Friday, Sept. 21: road race, junior women, 64.5km, 4x circuit (16.125km)
Saturday, Sept. 22: RR, U23 men, 161km, 10x circuit; RR elite women, 129km, 8x circuit
Sunday, Sept. 23: RR, elite men, 267km, starts in Maastricht with 106km of racing, then 10x circuit