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Spain and Italy, once world championship powerhouses, will play secondary roles Sunday

Alberto Bettiol lead the Italians and Iván Cortina García heads up Spain as both nations race Sunday in the unfamiliar role as outsiders in the elite men's road race.

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Italy and Spain, two perennial favorites in any edition of the elite men’s road race, will be outsiders in Sunday’s race at this year’s UCI Road World Championships.

Why?

Generational change, the inevitable toll of crashes and illness, the rise of other nations, and the UCI’s relegation battle all are contributing factors.

It’s Belgium, the Netherlands, Australia, and Slovenia which line up Sunday as the favorites for the rainbow jersey.

Spain brings Iván García Cortina and Marc Soler while Italy sees podium hopes with Alberto Bettiol and Matteo Trentin. But the odds are against both longtime worlds powerhouses of winning the stripes in Wollongong.

“Everyone is here with a lot of motivation, and they want to take advantage of the opportunity that’s been given to them,” Spanish selector Pascual Momparler told MARCA. “We have to race together, compact, and understand how the others are going to race. There are other favorites, but we can take confidence in Soler and Cortina.”

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Squaring-off against the likes of Wout van Aert or Mathieu van der Poel on the classics-style circuit course won’t be easy for anyone, and both the Spanish climbers and mixed Italian squad will be on the back foot.

Neither selection packs a five-star favorite

Valverde is missing the worlds in the closing weeks of his racing career. (Photo by Bas Czerwinski/Getty Images)

Spain once brought several leaders to any edition of the worlds, especially over the past 25 years, when the likes of Óscar Freire, Alejandro Valverde, and Igor Astarloa carried home five rainbow jerseys between them.

Valverde, who won Spain’s last world crown in 2018, is being held back by his Movistar Team for the closing races of 2022 to assure its spot in the WorldTour going forward. Other Spanish riders, such as Enric Mas and Carlos Rodríguez, are also being held in check. Juan Ayuso, the promising 19-year-old hot off third at the Vuelta a España, cited fatigued in passing up on the worlds.

It’s a similar tale of woe in Italy.

Sonny Colbrelli, the 2021 Paris-Roubaix winner, will likely never race again following cardiac arrest in March during the Volta a Catalunya. Vincenzo Nibali, who never won a world title, retires next month, and there hasn’t been a rejuvenation among the Italian ranks following the retirement of the standard-bearers of Mario Cipollini, Paolo Bettini, and Alessandro Ballan, Italy’s last world title in 2008.

“We are not favorites in the World Cup, the boys will honor the jersey,” said Italian national coach Daniele Bennati. “We have Bettiol and Trentin as the pillars of the team, with [Andrea] Bagioli coming up. We are not favorites but it is an unpredictable race, especially once the race opens up.”

Racing against the odds will be different for both teams that are long accustomed to being pre-race favorites in any worlds.

Italy and Spain once ruled the elite men’s road worlds as their private domain.

Both Spain and Italy would pack up to 10 riders onto its worlds squad. They would snuff out any early action to set up their designated captains. It was nearly impossible to break free of the stranglehold the two nations carried on the worlds for the better part of three decades.

The fight to earn a spot on the national selection in Spain and Italy was once a story that journalists followed across the entire season. Now both teams are lucky to find enough top-level pros ready to race.

It’s been a fast fall from the top for both nations.

Italy ranks second to Belgium on the all-time list of elite men’s world champions. The azzurri claim 19 world titles, with its last in 2008 with Alessandro Ballan. Spain is fifth on the nation’s list, with six wins, with Valverde last striking gold for Spain in Austria in 2018.

What’s behind the slow malaise?

This year, it’s a combination of the UCI relegation battle and some key injuries that have kept some important riders on the sidelines who otherwise would be racing.

A generational change is also happening in both countries.

Valverde is the last of Spain’s “Spanish Armada” that included the likes of Freire, Joaquim Rodríguez, Alberto Contador, Carlos Sastre, and others.

In Italy, Nibali’s carried national colors for the better part of a decade, but “The Shark” is finally swimming toward retirement, and there are not a lot of younger riders to fill the gaps.

Spain sees more young talent bubbling up, with Ayuso and Rodríguez providing hope for the future.

Economic woes in both countries don’t help, either. Spain is down to one WorldTour team with Movistar, and Italy lost its last WorldTour team with Liquigas in 2014, and would-be teams cannot find backers.

Both nations still have several second-tier and lower level development squads, so Spanish and Italian riders are forced to find their spot in the international peloton.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but insiders say the diminished WorldTour footprint in both nations plays out over the years as other rival nations continue to see steady backing for both professional cycling as well as their respective national federations.

Another reason is the classics-style circuit racing typically does not favor the current crop of grand tour/climber profile of riders.

Nibali and Contador rarely found a worlds course that suited their style of racing. Colbrelli packed the ideal worlds profile, but he’s likely finished for the Italians. The next generation of Spanish riders seem more carved from the mold of Contador than Freire.

Spain’s national coach admits that it could be a bumpy ride ahead.

“Everyone knows the favorites — France, Belgium and the Netherlands,” Momparler said. “We’ll leave happy if we can do a good race. We believe that people will see us move in the race. If we’re in the top-10, like at the European championships, that would be good. We couldn’t really contest for it the past few years. Let’s see if we can get back into the fight.”