Road

UCI road world championships: Five riders to fire up the elite men’s road race

Wout van Aert, Julian Alaphilippe, Michael Woods, Marc Hirschi and Jakob Fuglsang are among the top favorites to take the rainbow bands in Imola.

The 2020 road world championships come to a close with the men’s race on Sunday, a 258km test on a challenging circuit in the heart of Italy.

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The short, sharp hills of the Imola loop are set to make it a race for the hardiest climbers and puncheurs, and with cool and wet conditions on the forecast, it could be a fight of attrition. The difficulty of the course has already deterred defending champion Mads Pedersen and superstars Mathieu van der Poel and Peter Sagan, but there’s still a huge list of talent to watch out for Sunday.

Here are five riders set to light up the race in search of the rainbow jersey this weekend  – and a handful of extras just to be sure.

Wout van Aert – Belgium

2020 Tour de France Stage 5 Wout van Aert
What can’t Wout van Aert do? Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

What can’t this guy do? Having been on red-hot form since the start of the summer season with a victory at Strade Bianche and again a week later at Milano-Sanremo, Wout van Aert is the stand-out favorite for the worlds. Having proven he can win with a long-ranger on the stony climbs of Sienna, in a bunch sprint at the Tour de France, or in a last-gasp dash after seven hours of Sanremo, van Aert has the versatility to make it count no matter what the scenario.

The 26-year-old has the form and the pedigree and will feel on familiar territory on the steep slopes of the Emilia Romagna.

“It’s a bit Strade Bianche-ish, albeit without gravel strips,” Greg Van Avermaet told Sporza when describing the parcours after a recon on Thursday. “He [Van Aert] can handle this course. He has not yet seen it himself, but he will be confident when he does.”

With van Aert backed by a powerful team including “Golden Greg,” Jasper Stuyven and Oliver Naesen, Belgium has the brawn to maneuver many of its riders deep into the final laps of the tough Imola circuit. Should van Aert falter, any one of his teammates could go on to take up the Belgian battle.

Michael Woods – Canada

Michael Woods.
Michael Woods has the climbing legs and the wind at his sails. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Michael Woods started the summer season looking a little akin to his nickname – “Rusty.” The Canadian was largely anonymous through August’s Italian classics, but having broken his femur in March, a slow start was excusable.

However, after a strong showing and stage win at Tirreno-Adriatico earlier this month, the 33-year-old is on a roll and hoping he can equal, if not better, his third-place finish in Innsbruck.

“I think the stars are really aligning before the world championships,” Woods told the Canada Cycling Magazine podcast this week. “I don’t think I’m the favorite. Watching guys like Wout van Aert and Julian Alaphilippe at the Tour, certainly, those guys are strong … I think van Aert is the hands-down favorite, but I do have a lot of confidence and think I can do a good result there.”

A trip to the podium in Imola would make for a remarkable comeback from a career-threatening injury, and Woods has the potential and confidence to pull it off.

Julian Alaphilippe – France

Alaphilippe pounced to reclaim one second on GC.
Julian Alaphilippe: The peloton’s pick. Photo: Sebastien Nogier – Pool/Getty Images

French baroudeur Julian Alaphilippe is arguably a watt or two off his 2019 best, with the back-half of his Tour de France fizzling out after his controversial loss of the yellow jersey due to a time penalty.

Nevertheless, you can never rule out the wiley 28-year-old. Heck, he claimed to be off-form before Milano-Sanremo this August, and then just days later went on to take second behind van Aert on the Via Roma.

All eyes will be on Alaphilippe in Imola. Not only has Woods earmarked him as a challenger, but Van Avermaet likewise sees him as a threat.

“He has a tough breakaway that few riders can follow,” Van Avermaet said. “That last climb is perfect for him.”

With the final climb of the race falling just 12 kilometers before the finish, the parcours is perfectly set for Alaphilippe to make the trademark “attack over the top and descend to victory” move that has given him success at the Tour de France, Milano-Sanremo, and Clásica San Sebastián. It could all depend on how well he’s bounced back just one week after the Tour.

Jakob Fuglsang – Denmark

Fuglsang has the form, taking Il Lombardia this August. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Could Jakob Fuglsang make it two-in-a-row for Denmark at the worlds? Why not.

The 35-year-old excels on long, tough, hilly races, taking Il Lombardia this summer, and last year winning a particularly gritty edition of Liège-Bastogne-Liège. The wet, cool weather forecast for Sunday could play into Fuglsang’s hands, with the hardy Dane proving resilient in the foulest of weather, winning in cold, wet Liège and surviving the harrowing storms of Harrogate in last year’s worlds to take 12th.

Like Woods, he’ll be heading to Imola having last raced at Tirreno-Adriatico two weeks ago, while many other contenders are red-hot off the Tour. Whether the attritional Italian course proves more favorable to either riders with race-fitness from the Tour or those with relative freshness after a turn at Tirreno could be an interesting wrinkle to follow this Sunday.

Marc Hirschi – Switzerland

Team Sunweb has been the animators of the race so far. Can they take a stage win?
Marc Hirschi may be young but that didn’t stop him going on the front-foot at the Tour. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

The young Swiss rider lit up the Tour de France with countless attacks and was rewarded with a stage victory. He won the 2018 U23 worlds. He’s grabbed a podium place at the 2019 Clásica San Sebastián, and did better than around 100 others by actually getting to the finish at last year’s senior championships in Harrogate.

Marc Hirschi has got the form, he’s got the punch, and he’s got a course well suited to him. Could the 22-year-old take the rainbow bands in his second-ever elite worlds? Don’t rule out Hirschi because of his age. He’s proven through his racecraft at the Tour that he’s got the know-how, and he’s got the grinta to get through a long day of racing.

Hirschi’s stage win at the Tour came after profiting from his teammates’ aggression to go clear on the steep final climb of the day before speeding solo into Sarran. Though he won’t have a whole gang of attacking teammates like his Sunweb comrades in France, the youngster will have more-than-able wingman Michael Schär to support him.

Hirschi is undoubtedly an outside bet for grabbing victory in Imola, but you can guarantee he’ll give it his best shot.

Others to keep an eye on: Michal Kwiatkowski (Poland), Vincenzo Nibali (Italy), Tadej Pogačar (Slovenia), Max Schachmann (Germany), Alejandro Valverde (Spain).

You possibly didn’t think Tadej Pogačar was going to win the Tour, but he did. Could he pull another surprise in Imola? Photo: Marco Bertorello – Pool/Getty Images

It was a tough call to leave 2014 champ Kwiatkowski out of the above five after the Pole proved to be Ineos Grenadiers’ MVP of the Tour. Germany’s Max Schachmann looked equally-impressive through the three weeks in France, and before that, had taken top-10 at both Strade Bianche and Il Lombardia.

Oh, if we’re talking about Tour de France stars, we’d best mention Tadej Pogačar. Sure, the Slovenian Tour champ has risen to glory through his stage-racing skills and has relatively little one-day racing experience, but the 22-year-old took a top-15 behind Schachmann at Strade Bianche and bagged another top-15 at Sanremo a week later. He’s got the wind at his sails and his mojo is sky-high.

It would be rude not to include ever-present and ever-reliable Valverde. He’s been lurking at the front of the racing through summer, and the 40-year-old has the tenacity and tactics to win.

Fellow grizzled veteran Nibali is also worth watching – the circuit suits his aggressive style and he’s leading a strong host team. “The Shark” came close on home soil at the 2014 worlds, taking fourth-place in Firenze, and could well go a few places better six years down the line in Imola.