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Teams prepared for all scenarios on unpredictable worlds course

Will the elite men's road race at the world championships come down to a sprint finish, or will a breakaway survive the lumpy profile?

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PONFERRADA, Spain (VN) — The race for the rainbow jersey is always unpredictable, but this year’s unconventional worlds loop makes that guesswork even more difficult ahead of Sunday’s race.

The buzz heading into the elite men’s road race at the UCI Road World Championships is whether it will be a reduced bunch sprint or a breakaway that can pull away in the closing laps.

The 18.2-kilometer loop features two short climbs, but neither is hard enough to truly be selective. Yet with 4,284 meters (14,137 feet) of vertical climbing at a distance of 254km over 14 laps gives many second thoughts.

It’s too hard for the pure sprinter, yet it’s not hard enough to force a major selection. Heading into the weekend, opinions were varied on just what to expect.

“It’s hard to say what will happen. It depends on how hard the big teams make the race,” said Nicolas Roche, riding for the three-man Ireland team. “There is not a lot of room to chase. It’s up, and then straight down. It’s going to be a fast race.”

The lumpy profile kept the pure sprinters at home, such as Marcel Kittel and Mark Cavendish, while the gentle climbs saw such riders as Alberto Contador also steer clear of these Spanish road worlds.

Starting and finishing in Ponferrada, the course loops through the technical, urban street works of downtown Ponferrada, replete with traffic islands and roundabouts that will leave little room to organizer a proper chase later in the race. At 4km, the first climb surges past Ponferrada’s Templar castle, before a 4km steady climb with ramps as steep as 8 percent. Most riders will be riding the big ring. On Strava, for example, the fastest average speed up the climb was posted by Spanish pro Angel Madrazo at 36.3 kph.

Off the top of the first climb, there is some false flat for about 2km before a tricky descent to the reservoir, leading to the base of the second climb, which is shorter but steeper. At just more than one kilometer, the climb features kickers as steep as 10 percent, but nothing that will be little more than a speed bump for the top pros. On Strava, Madrazo’s speed of 31kph up the climb reveals just how fast the race should be.

From the top of the final climb, the course quickly drops down to Ponferrada via a high-speed, technical descent where position will be key. There are barely any flats before the red kite and the final right-hander at 500m to go.

One rider summed up the world championship course perfectly: “The long climb isn’t steep enough, and the steep climb isn’t long enough.”

Circuit course racing often follows a predictable pattern, with an early breakaway forming in the opening laps, followed by hours of tempo and control, book-ended by an explosive finale, with all the daring moves packed into the final lap or two.

Also with circuit racing, there will be droves of abandons, especially from riders who do their work early, and from riders who are not accustomed to racing at the elite level. That usually means there will be a reduced, select group of favorites coming into the final laps.

With Ponferrada’s undulating course, many expect it to come down to a bunch sprint of 20 to 40 riders. That’s what nations are betting on. The pack is full of teams playing this card: Australia, with Simon Gerrans and Michael Matthews; Germany, with John Degenkolb (who is confirmed to race despite spending nearly a week in the hospital following the Vuelta a España); and France, with a motivated Nacer Bouhanni.

“The course isn’t so hard that I cannot be there in the finale,” said Bouhanni, who won two stages at the Vuelta. “I rode the big ring on the first climb, and the second climb isn’t so long, so I should be able to be there in the decisive moments. If it does come to a sprint, I will give everything to win.”

Host nation Spain is betting everything on Alejandro Valverde, a winner of five world championship medals. With last year’s runner-up Joaquin Rodríguez as a backup, Spain wants to win its first rainbow jersey in a decade.

“Our objective is to be in the race and play our cards. The course is harder than people think,” said Spanish coach Javier Minguez. “We know that everyone will be watching Valverde. We are not the only protagonists and we are not going to carry the race by ourselves.”

All of the above nations, starting as pre-race favorites with full, nine-rider teams, will be expected to carry the weight of the race.

Other nations with deeper squads are bringing more cards to play in the finale. Belgium, for example, is spreading its bets between Greg Van Avermaet for the finale, with Tom Boonen an option for a bigger group sprint and 2012 world champion Philippe Gilbert as a wildcard.

The peloton will be packed with smaller teams and riders who also think they can win. Fabian Cancellara and Peter Sagan, racing for Switzerland and Slovakia, respectively, will be racing with only three-man teams, meaning they will have to be patient and smart.

“We have three riders. We have to ride smart. We have to use the others,” Cancellara said. “We cannot have the team in the front, and they pull for you. I am not going to say we ride negative. The other big nations are with nine riders.”

Denmark, starting with six, will be somewhere in the middle, with a strong team ready to play off the favorites.

“The course doesn’t seem as hard as other years, and it reminds me of Melbourne a few years ago,” said Denmark’s Chris-Anker Sorensen. “My guess is that a group of 40 riders will be fighting it out, and Matti [Breschel] will be our guy for the sprint.”

Italy, for example, doesn’t come with a big favorite, even though it promises to light up the race with its nine-man squad. Vincenzo Nibali, fourth last year, said he’s nowhere near his top form from winning the Tour de France, and is coming off a crash in his return to racing earlier this month.

“The course is hard, but not that hard. It’s going to depend a lot on the race rhythm. We want to make it hard,” Nibali said. “We have great riders and we are all near the same level. It’s going to be hard for the others to always mark our moves.”

Many expect a very fast, tightly controlled race. With such a technical course, especially in the flats through a series of roundabouts in Ponferrada, there likely will be splits in the peloton rather than outright attacks. In the final laps, the peloton will be strung out single file, and any weak link will lose the wheel, creating openings for those at the nose of the action.

Forecasted rain for Sunday afternoon could dramatically alter the outcome, giving wings to perhaps more breakaways and chaos in the chase.

“The more selective it is, the better it is for us,” said Italian coach Davide Cassani. “I expect beautiful planned chaos. We have to be ready to take advantage of any opportunity that arises.”

What’s sure, the men’s road race won’t be boring, at least not in the final, decisive hour of racing. But then again, no worlds ever are.

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