VALKENBURG, Netherlands (VN) – The biggest secret going into Sunday’s men’s road race at the UCI Road World Championships is how Spain is going to play its tactics. With five riders capable of winning the race, Spain’s overabundance of favorites could throw a stick in the spokes of the strongest team going into the 267km event.
“It’s better to keep our plans under our hats,” said Spanish national coach José Luis de Santos.
In fact, the Spanish team was only sitting down to have its first tactical team discussion Saturday night on the eve of the race.
What’s sure is that the Spanish team will come loaded with firepower. How it directs and manages that ammunition remains to be seen.
Joaquim Rodríguez, Alejandro Valverde and Alberto Contador all come hot out of the Vuelta a España in top shape and ambitious on a course that favors their explosive style of racing. Samuel Sánchez, back from injury, and three-time world champion Oscar Freire are the team’s second-tier options, giving the team more viable options than any other selection in the race.
Behind them are a committed core of four workers, with Juan Antonio Flecha, Pablo Lastras, Jose Castroviejo and Dani Moreno filling out the nine-man roster.
“Our experience, not just in the worlds, but in all national team races, was fundamental to being selected for this team,” Flecha said. “We each have our role and we know we are here to work.”
Of Spain’s first five, Valverde and Freire are best-suited for the Cauberg course. Rodríguez proved once again during the Vuelta that he is the king of the punchy climbs and, as a Flèche Wallonne winner, he should be right there come crunch time.
“The circuit is perfect for me,” Rodríguez said. “It will be a hard race and you have to know when to get in the moves. The Cauberg will be a challenging finish and the strongest will get over the top first. I think the riders who are at the front up the Cauberg will be strong enough to ride to the finish.”
Valverde is also sounding optimistic about his chances on Sunday. He came flying out of the Vuelta, riding to second place and winning two stages.
“We still haven’t discussed who is the team captain, but I am arriving here feeling good and motivated,” Valverde said. “The circuit isn’t as hard as expected. The first climb isn’t hard at all, but there could be headwind. After 10 laps on the circuit, the Cauberg is going to be difficult.”
Sánchez, who crashed out of both the Tour de France and Olympic Games, and Contador, looking weary after winning the Vuelta, both seem to be a touch off top form, but cannot be counted out.
The team realized that the course was not as difficult as expected after inspecting the 16.1km circuit. The Cauberg climb, so decisive in the Amstel Gold spring classic, comes nearly 2km from the finish line.
The Spanish team admits it’s difficult to know what to expect. On Saturday, the U23 men’s race ended in a 40-man bunch sprint while the women’s race blew up with two laps remaining and Marianne Vos won solo from a five-woman group. It’s hard to compare those races to how the elite men will tackle the course, particularly given the longer distance in Sunday’s main event, but Spain wants to make the race hard and and wants to be represented in any early breakaways.
With so many cards to play, the peloton will undoubtedly expect Spain to carry the responsibility of the race.
That’s something other teams can play off of, and that’s certainly on the minds of the U.S. team. USA Cycling vice president of athletics Jim Miller said the Spanish team is so strong they will have to carry the weight of the race.
“We can key off of the Spanish and other teams. I am very excited about how this team will race. We have nine guys who are very motivated to race their bikes,” Miller said. “We have both Tejay (van Garderen) and (Andrew) Talansky coming here in strong form. We will be working for them and trying to get into breakaways. Anything can happen once you hit the Cauberg.”
Other traditionally strong teams, especially the Italians and defending champion Great Britain, come with somewhat weaker teams than they’ve brought in the past.
The Italians come with Vincenzo Nibali, but line up with a younger, inexperienced squad after Italian cycling federation officials decided to leave home any rider with any hint of doping scandal. The Brits will be rallying around Jonathan Tiernan-Locke, winner of the recent Tour of Britain.
Great Britain is perhaps as strong as the Spanish, but lacks a clear favorite for the race because its riders are not tailored for the Cauberg finale. Defending world champ Mark Cavendish downplayed his chances on such a demanding course.
The Belgians, Germans, Dutch and Australians also bring strong teams, but it’s the Spanish that everyone will be looking at.
“We will be the team of reference, but it’s not something we’re afraid of,” said Freire. “I’ve come here to win. Though I realize it’s difficult, I don’t discount it either. It’s a good final for me, the best in years. With my fitness and experience, I know I can be at the front. And if not, I will be the first to work for my teammates.”
Freire confirmed that if he wins, he will race one more season. If not, the worlds will be his last race.
With so many cooks in the Spanish kitchen, it could be a recipe for disaster.
What happens if Valverde, Rodríguez and Freire all arrive at the base of the Cauberg with the front group? Or if there’s a strong rider in a breakaway? Does the team work to bring up its favorites or play lottery? Those are questions that the team was mulling on Saturday night.
De Santos dismissed suggestions that there would be a civil war within the Spanish team.
“Before being good teammates, they are good people,” he said. “We are all professionals and we are here to win the race. We must work together to achieve that. We will communicate during the race.”
Whether they end up pointing fingers at the sky or at each other at the end of the race remains to be seen.