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RICHMOND, Virginia (VN) — It’s as if the Flemish classics have been imported to the United States.
No, this isn’t the Ronde van Vlaanderen, but with cobbles, rain, wind, and punchy climbs, it might seem that way Sunday for the UCI Road World Championships.
The 261.4km elite men’s road race promises to be a wide-open, attacking affair. With three short, but steep climbs in the closing 5km of each 16km circuit, it’s almost impossible to predict what will happen. Add a chance of showers to slicken up the roads, and almost anything can happen.
“It’s almost sure the race will break up, and there will not be a mass sprint,” said Spanish coach Javier Mínguez. “How many? That depends. 10, 20? Maybe even less.”
Most expect the race to breakup in the closing of 16 laps, but will it be a reduced bunch sprint? A small breakaway? Or even a Cancellara-style solo flier? No one knows, but everyone predicts a highly explosive, unpredictable race.
Many favorites, many contenders
Everyone’s tipping a classics-style racer for what’s very much a classics-style course.
There are many candidates who could win, and nearly every major nation brings at least one legitimate medal contender to Sunday’s start line. There’s only room for three on the winner’s podium, and luck will play a major role in who survives crashes and splits to battle for the medals.
Ever since the course was unveiled, John Degenkolb (Germany), Alexander Kristoff (Norway), and Peter Sagan (Slovakia) have been named as top favorites. All three have the engine to go the distance, to be there in a select group, and have the legs to finish it off on a slight uphill finish.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s a group of 10 or 20 or 30,” Degenkolb said. “I need to do my thing, focus on my race, and trust my instincts. We are prepared for every scenario.”
Sagan is coming off a crash at the Vuelta a España, so his form is a question mark, while Kristoff and Degenkolb each scored promising results to bolster their confidence coming into Richmond. Degenkolb will have the advantage of strong support from the German squad, while Kristoff leads a six-man Norwegian team, and Sagan will have the weakest team of the favorites, with just two teammates.
“The course is hard, but I think it’s easier than a classic,” Kristoff said. “It’s easier than Flanders, because the climbs are shorter. To sprint after the final climb will be tough, not just for me, but all the sprinters.”
Strength in numbers
The traditional European powerhouses bring power in numbers. Spain, for example, will have six-time worlds medalist Alejandro Valverde, 2013 runner-up Joaquim Rodríguez, and white-hot sprinter Juanjo Lobato. Italy will have Vincenzo Nibali, Diego Ulissi, and Matteo Trentin, three riders capable of going the distance. Neither team, however, will want to leave it too late, and will set a hard pace to break up the pack, and eliminate some of the fastest threats.
Belgium is also loaded with options, including two former world champions in Philippe Gilbert and Tom Boonen as medalist threats. However it’s Greg Van Avermaet who seems to be generating the most pre-race buzz inside the Belgian team.
“I like the course, but I would have preferred longer climbs,” Van Avermaet said. “I will try to save my strength for the finale.”
All the major teams will be determined to set a hard pace to eliminate as many rivals as possible, and trim the front group, ideally with one of their medal hopes in contention.
Too hard for sprinters?
Most agree that the course is too hard to produce a true field sprint. Some sprinters will be able to survive the distance, but few expect 80 riders to roar into the final together.
“Positioning will be key, especially going into the final three climbs,” said France’s Tony Gallopin. “It will be a nervous race, especially if it rains.”
Gallopin said he still expects a group of up to 40 to 50 riders to arrive to contest a sprint. In that scenario, riders such as Michael Matthews (Australia), Nacer Bouhanni (France), Elia Viviani (Italy), André Greipel (Germany), or Ben Swift (Great Britain) could be in with a chance.
Ideal for a solo flier?
The other scenario that’s making the rounds is the possibility of a Fabian Cancellara-style, late-race solo attack. The trio of closing climbs presents a tantalizing option for a strong, powerful rider to open a gap, and with a grinding final 800m, it might be possible to drive it all the way to the line.
Last year, Michal Kwiatkowski (Poland) did just that. In a very different scenario, Kwiatkowski pounced early over the hillier finale at Ponferrada, and narrowly held off the chasing favorites to win the rainbow jersey.
The rider who fits such characteristics for Sunday’s road race could be someone like Niki Terpstra (Netherlands), a powerful time trialist who won Paris-Roubaix in similar fashion.
Others who could power away alone could be such riders as Zdenek Stybar (Czech Republic), who won a stage in a similar coup during this year’s Tour de France, or even young British rider Adam Yates.
“I think a solo win would be difficult,” Kristoff said. “If you are strong enough, you can always go solo. I think there are so many teams. France, Germany, Australia, also us, and some other guys, who want this to be a sprint.”
After falling out of the top tier of the nation’s rankings, the U.S. will line up with a six-man squad, a disadvantage against the nine-man maximum of most of the top favorites at the first American worlds in nearly 30 years.
Tyler Farrar, 10th in the 2011 worlds, will be the team’s sprint option, while Alex Howes, Lawson Craddock, and Ben King should be in top condition after coming off the Vuelta a España. Brent Bookwalter is a consistent worlds performer, while his BMC Racing teammate, Taylor Phinney, will be an unknown factor at such a long distance after coming back from his crash in 2014.
The U.S. team will be looking to place a rider in the day’s main breakaway, and then follow the moves late in the race. So far, the advantage of racing on home roads has served as a boost for the Americans in this worlds. Megan Gaunier’s bronze medal Saturday was the first U.S. elite road worlds medal since Jeannie Golay won bronze in 1994. Perhaps the men can deliver as well, to cap off a week of world championship racing in Richmond.