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By Andrew Hood
Big names and big teams have dominated the world’s for the past several years, with established stars such as Oscar Freire, Tom Boonen and Paolo Bettini from Spain, Belgium and Italy, respectively, taking the rainbow jersey in the elite men’s road race.
Is it time for an outsider to hold off the favorites?
On paper, the 19.1km circuit in Stuttgart looks like it could be challenging enough to serve up an attack-laden finale and perhaps deliver a breakaway victor to end the run of relatively large bunch sprints that have dominated the world championships for the better part of a decade.
Each lap features two climbs onto a rising finish with some 405 meters of climbing per lap. With the men riding 14 laps, that’s an eye-popping 19,000 feet of vertical climbing during the 267.4km race.
After a rolling opening 2km, the course dips before tackling the Herdwig climb at 4km. It’s the steepest climb on the course with ramps as steep as 17 percent, but there’s a false flat immediately following that could provide a launching pad going into the next major hill.
Another quick descent brings the course to the base of the 1.2km Birkenkopf hill at 7km with sections as steep as 11 percent. Neither is very long. The Herdwig is just under 700 meters and the Birkenkopf is just a little more than 1.2km.
From there, it’s a long, 8km rolling descent that will allow groups to come back together before a rising 2km run to the finish. The finale rises nearly 100 meters in 2.8km.
Despite the significant amount of climbing, but not everyone thinks the course is as hard as many believe.
“When I actually previewed the course, I was disappointed because it wasn’t so hard as I was led to believe,” said Spain’s Alejandro Valverde earlier this season. “I think the big teams will be able to control the race and I can imagine that a group of 30 to 40 riders could still be together for a sprint.”
Who can win?
The racing world has converged on Stuttgart, a bustling city in southern Germany that plays host to the road world cycling championships for the second time.
The German city hosted the world’s in 1991, when Italian Gianni Bugno won the first of two rainbow jerseys in an exciting sprint ahead of Steven Rooks with the recently crowned Tour de France champ Miguel Indurain taking bronze.
The course is held in the forested and hilly 125-acre Höhenpark west of town with the start-finish area at the Killesberg expo area.
Teams from cycling nations big and small will race over four days of competition, with the under-23 men and elite men and women fighting for medals in time trial and road racing disciplines.
The Germans will be hoping to strike gold with a strong home team that includes medal candidates in all disciplines. Defending U-23 world champ Gerald Ciolek will be riding alongside Erik Zabel and Stefan Schumacher in a strong men’s team while Regina Schleicher and Judith Arndt will be defending the women’s team.
Once again, the Spanish and Italians will bring the strongest squads with the highest expectations.
Spain will be waiting to the last minute to see if Valverde can race. The Court of Arbitration for Sport is expected to hear arguments and decide this week whether or not to give a green light for the beleaguered Valverde, who’s been accused by the UCI of being part of the Operación Puerto doping scandal, an allegation he’s denied.
Even if Valverde isn’t there, Spain will be able to count on a healthy Oscar Freire – hunting for his record fourth rainbow jersey after missing the past two world’s – and Samuel Sánchez. Both won three stages each at the Vuelta a España with Sánchez finishing third overall.
“I hope to be at the disposition of my team to help Oscar and Alejandro gain medals,” said Sánchez, who sprung Valverde to third last year en route to finishing fourth himself. “If Alejandro doesn’t come, then I don’t discount my own chances. I have good form now and I have a good finishing punch, so why not.”
The dominant Italians, who won recent world titles with Mario Cipollini in 2002 and Paolo Bettini in 2006, look to be spreading around the responsibility on a strong squad that looks to bolster its chances of success without a clear captain.
Defending champ Bettini is back, but Il Grillo has only won two races all season, a fact that perhaps influenced national coach Franco Ballerini to bring a team with more than one option to win.
Alessandro Ballan, Danilo Di Luca, Davide Rebellin and Filippo Pozzato will all have freedom to ride if Bettini isn’t at his best.
“This year the team is completely different. We have a very strong team to try to win by playing some different cards,” Bettini said. “I already won the world’s and the Olympics, but I only have one rider from my team this year (Tonti). This season has been a lot of problems for me. I couldn’t demonstrate what I wanted to in the rainbow jersey. I am normally there at the front. I have a lot of respect for Ballerini. We have a very strong team to try to win with a lot of riders with a little of style of poker.”
The Aussies could be the outsiders, with Cadel Evans, fresh off fourth at the Vuelta, and Allan Davis, though Davis is facing the same resistance as Valverde from the UCI for alleged Puerto links.
The French are another team who could deliver a surprise in the men’s race, especially if a small group comes in for a bunch sprint. Speaking of sprints, riders such as Mark Cavendish (Great Britain), Robbie Hunter (South Africa) or Thor Hushovd (Norway) could profit from the work of the bigger teams if they can stay in contention.
The Belgians will be without the services of 2005 world champ Tom Boonen, still nursing wounds from a crash at the Vuelta, while Michael Boogerd will be racing for the last time with the Dutch.
Strong U.S. team
The U.S. team comes with perhaps its strongest and competitive squads since 2003.
The Americans will be looking to improve on its two-medal haul from last year in Austria and brings defending world time trial champion Kristin Armstrong and such ProTour riders as George Hinicapie, Bobby Julich, Dave Zabriskie and Christian Vande Velde.
Eight elite men, including seven from ProTour teams, eight elite women and six U23 men were named to the U.S. national team.
Armstrong will be back to defend her world time trial championship and returning silver time trial medalist Zabriskie will be favorites to strike medals in the race against the clock.
Included on the elite men’s squad are George Hincapie (Discovery Channel), David Zabriskie (CSC), Bobby Julich (CSC), Christian Vande Velde (CSC), Jason McCartney (Discovery Channel), John Devine (Discovery Channel), Tyler Farrar (Cofidis) and Danny Pate (Slipstream-Chipotle). All eight will contest the 267-kilometer road race while Zabriskie, the defending silver medalist, and McCartney, a recent stage winner at the Vuelta a España, will compete in the time trial. Representing the women’s team in the road race will be Kristin Armstrong (Team Lipton), Amber Neben (Flexpoint), Christine Thorburn (Webcor Builders), Mara Abbott (Webcor Builders), Tina Pic (Colavita-Sutter Home-Cooking Light), Lauren Franges (Team Lipton) and Katheryn Curi (Webcor Builders). All seven women will contest the 172-kilometer road race as the U.S. secured the maximum number of start positions plus an entry for Pic, the current Pan American road race champion. The U.S. will also have four time trial entries for the elite women’s category which are filled by defending world champion Armstrong, current Pan American champion Alison Powers (Colavita-Sutter Home-Cooking Light), Neben and Thorburn. The five athletes representing the United States in the U23 road race will be Peter Stetina (Slipstream-Chipotle), Craig Lewis (Slipstream-Chipotle),Tejay Van Garderen (VMG Racing), Max Jenkins (California Giant) and Tom Peterson (Slipstream-Chipotle). Van Garderen and USA Cycling U23 National Time Trial Champion Nick Frey (HART) will contest the U23 time trial.
Wednesday, Sept. 26 – U-23 time trial, 38.1km; elite women’s TT, 25.1kmThursday, Sept. 27 – elite men’s TT, 44.9kmFriday, Sept. 28 – no competitionSaturday, Sept. 29 – elite women’s road race, 133.7km; U-23 RR, 171.9kmSunday, Sept. 30 – elite men’s road race, 267.4km Courses
(1 lap = 19.1 km – altitude: 405.7 meters)Men’s elite (Sunday, Sept. 30)
14 laps, 267.4 km – altitude: 5679.8mWomen (Saturday, Sept. 29)
7 laps, 133.7 km – altitude: 2839.9mMen U23 (Saturday, Sept. 29)
9 laps, 171.9 km – altitude: 3651.3m