Thor Hushovd, Philippe Gilbert downplay chances at 2011 world road championships

Defending champion Thor Hushovd and Belgian ace Philippe Gilbert are downplaying their chances of winning the men's world road title on Sunday.

COPENHAGEN (AFP) — Defending champion Thor Hushovd and Belgian ace Philippe Gilbert accept that if one of them is to win the world road race title then it will be very much against the odds.

One of cycling’s most coveted prizes, the rainbow jersey is up for grabs on Sunday when the elite men bring the road world championships to an end after 266km of racing.

Hushovd made history for Norway last year by triumphing on a far hillier course in Geelong, Australia, ahead of Dane Matti Breschel and Allan Davis of Australia.

And while he is being tipped for a rare double, the Norwegian is playing it cool.

The elite men’s peloton will complete a mainly flat 14km circuit 17 times after riding 28km from Copenhagen city centre, with the finish line at the end of a rising 500-meter stretch.

Those characteristics suit some riders — mainly the powerful sprinters — better than others. Hushovd, Slovakian Peter Sagan, Australian Matt Goss, Oscar Freire of Spain, Mark Cavendish of Britain and Gilbert are all in the mix.

Hushovd, who confirmed he had fully recovered from a course of antibiotics by winning a stage at the Tour of Britain last week, is taking nothing for granted.

“With guys like Peter Sagan, Philippe Gilbert, Oscar Freire and Mark Cavendish, there are plenty of potential winners,” said Hushovd.

“(Italian) Daniele Bennati has one of the strongest teams in the race, and the Germans will have a very solid team led by Andre Greipel.

“We only have four riders, so we’re going to have to rely on the work of others.”

Having fewer teammates than the rest of his rivals because of the relative lack of Norwegian participants in top-level cycling failed to prevent Hushovd from triumphing last year when tactical nous and sheer power made the difference.

This year, with no major hills or difficulties on the race, tactics alone could be the decider.

Teams who are counting solely on their main sprinters to finish the job will likely race to create a bunch or select group sprint, while others lacking fast finishers could work with others to avoid such a scenario.

Although Gilbert has a powerful sprint going uphill, the Belgian is downplaying his chances.

“I’m feeling in great condition at the moment, and ready for the worlds … but the course isn’t the best one for me,” said Gilbert, who is about to finish the season as the world number one.

“But everyone knows that it will be long, fast and difficult to control over 266 km. I’m sure it’s going to finish in a sprint, but that won’t be easy to do in the last 500 meters. You have to really get your effort and your timing right.”

Cavendish, a 20-time stage winner on the Tour de France, has been the name on everyone’s lips since Copenhagen’s course was announced.

And while Cavendish will benefit from a full British line-up — he only had three support riders last year — he might not get another shot at the rainbow jersey on his preferred flatter terrain for years.

“If there’s ever a course for us to win on with Mark, with the team we’ve got, and the form the team is in, based on recent results, this is it,” said teammate Bradley Wiggins.

“He’s also got the disadvantage that most of the peloton know he’s one of the favorites, so we’re not going to be handed it on a plate.”