Road

Can anyone break the Italian-Spanish stranglehold?

In what’s no surprise, the Italian and Spanish teams are leading the odds to win Sunday’s elite men’s world title. Just as they have for the past decade, Italy and Spain bring deep squads with two or three options to win the season’s most important one-day race on the calendar. Leading Sunday for Italy will be last year’s runner-up Damiano Cunego, with defending champion Alessandro Ballan and Filippo Pozzato waiting in the shadows. Spain comes with Alejandro Valverde, with Olympic gold medalist Samuel Sánchez and three-time world champ Óscar Freire ready to step up.

By Andrew Hood

In what’s no surprise, the Italian and Spanish teams are leading the odds to win Sunday’s elite men’s world title.

Just as they have for the past decade, Italy and Spain bring deep squads with two or three options to win the season’s most important one-day race on the calendar.

Leading Sunday for Italy will be last year’s runner-up Damiano Cunego, with defending champion Alessandro Ballan and Filippo Pozzato waiting in the shadows. Spain comes with Alejandro Valverde, with Olympic gold medalist Samuel Sánchez and three-time world champ Óscar Freire ready to step up.

More often than not, it’s an Italian or Spanish national anthem playing at the end of the race, with the two nations winning eight of the past 10 worlds.

The breakthrough came with Freire’s first of three titles in 1999. Italy and Spain have since dominated the worlds.

Only two riders have been able to break the Italian-Spanish stranglehold since then. Roman Vainsteins won in 2000 (with Freire third) and Tom Boonen won on Spanish roads in Madrid in 2005 (with Alejandro Valverde second).

Since 1999, Spain and Italy have each won four titles; three with Freire and one with Igor Astarloa for Spain, and two for Paolo Bettini, Ballan and Mario Cipollini for the Italians.

The two nations have also notched two silver medals each and two bronzes for Spain and one bronze for Italy. Spain leads Italy in the medal count, 8 to 7, meaning that the two countries have hogged half of the 30 podiums in offing in the past decade.

Too much travel
Why are the two nations so consistent and productive at international competition?

First, top riders from both nations typically fight to earn spots on the worlds squad because they have a strong incentive to perform.

With nine spots each, the top Italian and Spanish pros ride hard to impress their respective national team coaches to gain a bid. The fight to earn spots on the worlds team fill newspaper pages in the weeks and months before the race.

In contrast, many top American pros, who are winding down their racing seasons and don’t typically like to return for the world championships, especially when it involves another long trip back to Europe.

The worlds are typically held in Europe. Since 1999, every worlds has been held in Europe except in 2003, when Canada hosted the event.

Lance Armstrong, a world champion in 1993 when the worlds were still held in August in the weeks immediately following the Tour de France, never raced the world championships following his 1998 cancer comeback season (when he finished fourth in the time trial and road race).

American men have stepped up on occasion, especially when the worlds were held in Canada in 2003 or when focusing on the individual time trial events, but for the most part, the top U.S. riders consistently opt out of the late-season worlds.

Follow the money
There’s a big pay check for Spanish and Italian riders to earn spots on their respective national teams.

Flush with government funds, the teams can afford to pay their riders handsomely for making the extra effort. Spain pays each rider $10,000 just to be on the team while Italy has a huge payoff waiting if they strike gold.

In addition to the $9,000 prize money from the UCI, the Italian federation is throwing in an additional $200,000 winner’s bonus.

On top of that, other sponsors and pro teams are upping the incentive, adding another $300,000 to the kitty, meaning that each member of the nine-man team could earn nearly $50,000 if one of their captains claims the rainbow jersey, equal to a typical winner’s bonus from the three-week Tour de France.

In contrast, the U.S. team does no receive federal dollars and is funded by donations and fees. “Non-funded” U.S. riders attending the Mendrisio worlds paid $1,500 to cover costs and were responsible for their own airfare.

Team size
One advantage Spain and Italy have is the depth and size of their respective teams.

Recent changes to worlds qualification reduced the maximum number of riders from 12 (13 for the defending champion team) to nine members per squad to bring more parity among the top nations.

Even with nine, the Spanish and Italian teams have enough legs to put men in early breakaways, then have designated workers to control dangerous moves before finally having two or three cards to play in the final.

And with so much money in the offing, there are always stories of riders from smaller teams being paid off to work for one of the favored teams or riders from pro teams collaborating across national lines.

Smaller, out-gunned teams often have only one leader to play or riders will only have one chance to try to get into a breakaway before being swallowed up by the blue and red of Italy and Spain.

The one-day lottery
The demanding nature of the Mendrisio course, with two steep climbs per lap, will provide the best chance for teams to try to break the Italian-Spanish rainbow jersey stranglehold.

Cunego leads the odds at 9/2, with Valverde at 6/1, but a glance down the betting form reveals a strong list of favorites who could break the chain.

Home-crowd favorite Fabian Cancellara (Switzerland) is at 7/1 and is poised to become the first rider to win the world road and time trial titles in the same event.

Others include Philippe Gilbert (Belgium), Edvald Boasson Hagen (Norway), Jakob Fuglsang (Denmark), Simon Gerrans (Australia) and Alexander Kolobnev (Russia), all with strong teams who will be riding to protect their captains against the gauntlet.

The odds say a Spanish or Italian rider will win, but it wouldn’t be bike racing if the winner was a foregone conclusion.

Follow Andrew Hood’s twitter at twitter.com/eurohoody