When the elite men’s route was first revealed during the formative stages of the bidding process, pundits were unequivocal in their assessment of the road race course. Virtually every expert commentator said a sprinter would triumph in Geelong, a coastal city roughly an hour’s drive south of Melbourne and the second-largest in the state of Victoria.
However, as Melbourne, the Victorian capital, became more involved in the bid and Australia won the right to host the worlds, the route had been altered to include a flattish 88-kilometer opening trek from Melbourne’s Federation Square – the first for a world road championship – thereby truncating the number of circuits around Geelong to 11 laps, or 175km, for a combined race distance of 262.7km.
“Obviously, Mendrisio [in 2009] was a fantastic course for me and the worlds course in Geelong was good. But then they changed it to Melbourne-Geelong, and that for me… it’s not a race I’ve geared my own season around,” said reigning world champion, Cadel Evans, at July’s Tour de France.
Given the initial commentary, the course change, and Evans’ assessment that he’s unlikely to defend his title, one would have thought the revised design would further tip the balance in favor of the sprinters.
But in recent months – and particularly after a second visit by Italian national selector Paolo Bettini and three of his charges in July, including pre-race favorite Filippo Pozzato – opinions appear to be swaying against a triumphant fast-finisher being a foregone conclusion. Instead, an Ardennes Classic type of rider is likely to prevail, now say the analysts.
So much so, that Belgian Philippe Gilbert is now the outright favorite, with Fabian Cancellara, Oscar Freire and Pozzato all on an even keel.
The Italians won’t let sprinters be there at the finish
“Some of comments [Paolo] Bettini has recently made make it clear that the Italians aren’t certainly going to Geelong to let the sprinters be there at the finish,” Australian national selector, Shayne Bannan, said of the two-time world champion, considered one of the finest – if not the finest – Classics rider of his generation. Bettini, who retired at the end of the 2008 season, took over from predecessor Franco Ballerini, who died in February at the age of 45 from injuries sustained in a rally car accident in Larciano, Italy.
Bettini’s appraisal is noteworthy not just because of his extensive palmarès, but also because of the fact that he’s twice won on a course that bears strong similarities to the Geelong circuit. His first came in Salzburg, Austria in 2006, and he then backed it up the following year in Stuttgart, Germany. In doing so, Bettini became one of only five riders to have successfully defended their crowns since the worlds were first held in 1927, the others being Georges Ronsse (Belgium, 1928-29), Rik Van Steenbergen (Belgium, 1956-57), Rik van Looy (Belgium, 1960-61) and Gianni Bugno (Italy, 1991-92).
As in the majority of previous world road championships or major one-day races for that matter, it is unlikely the opening 100 kilometers will play any role in deciding the winner – although the wind-exposed passage from Melbourne will keep the 200-odd riders on their toes.
Designer of the original course, John Trevorrow, himself a four-time Australian road champion, said the opener could be decisive.
“That’s going to be an interesting little aside,” he said. “It’s not just a small meander down; it’s on very small roads, with that time of year, propensity for strong winds. And that could really make an interesting beginning. It won’t be like [the Olympic road race in] Beijing, where they just cruise out to the circuit.”
Once in Geelong, a pair of short, sharp hills – just like Mendrisio
Like Mendrisio last year, two climbs feature on the 15.9km Geelong circuit. The first up Challambra Crescent, at 1,100 meters in length, is also the toughest, coming after 4.6km and boasting a 13 percent maximum gradient (with an 8 percent average). But according to Robbie McEwen, who, much to his chagrin, was not selected for the Australian team for this year’s worlds, his altimeter recorded sections of 20 percent when he reconnoitered the stair-cased climb back in January.
Once crested, a lightning-fast 2.5km downhill run along Scenic Road takes the riders to a newly-built, narrow-section bridge (the wooden original was what Australians refer to as a ‘pick-a-plank’, and would have been treacherous) that crosses the Barwon River, marking the race’s low point and the start of the second incline up Queens Park Road and the road it leads on to, Aphrasia Street, making for an 800-meter-long ascent.
“The [entire] course may not be quite as hard as Mendrisio but the [first] hill is,” says Trevorrow. “And now, this new twist at the bottom of the second hill with the new bridge, it puts a stop on you – you don’t get a run at it, and that second hill becomes nearly as tough as the first one.”
At the crest of Aphrasia Street, riders face 6.2km of undulating roads that includes a 1.6km run along the crosswind-prone Eastern Beach Esplanade to the start/finish in Moorabool Street, with the final 750m slightly uphill.
A Stuttgart or Salzburg type of course
“I’d say there’s greater periods of recovery on the Geelong circuit,” said Evans, “[whereas] on the Mendrisio circuit, what really worked to my advantage when we got into the final was that everybody was left on their own and pretty exhausted, and that’s why the race suited me.”
Asked to compare this year’s parcours with other worlds courses, Bannan, who is also Cycling Australia’s national performance director and head coach of the Australian Institute of Sport cycling program, had this to say: “This course is probably a little bit more difficult than Madrid [in 2005], so it’s around a Stuttgart  or Salzburg  type of course.
“The big difference being – and this is where it could play a significant difference in how the course is raced – is that the [elevation gain] is in the last 180 kilometers, as opposed to 3,076 meters being spread over the [entire] 260-kilometer distance,” Bannan said.
True enough, when one takes this into account, the eleven circuits make the final 180km of the 2010 worlds on par with Mendrisio, which boasted an elevation gain of 4,655 meters – but over 262.2 kilometers. Between the two circuits, in terms of the final 175km, there’s just 30 meters’ difference in elevation gain; 3,105m in Mendrisio versus 3,076m in Geelong.
Don’t count Cadel out – even if he might be
It’s exactly why Trevorrow believes Evans has a bona-fide shot of winning again. “I disagree with Cadel completely on that,” he says, refuting Evans’ statement that “it’s not a climbers’ course”.
“I don’t think it’s changed at all – it just means less times up the hill. How many times in the first four laps are they going to go [at full speed] up the hill, anyway? I don’t believe it’s changed at all.
“[Because Evans] couldn’t ride the Vuelta, it’s going to be a little bit hard for him to hit the worlds in the form he had last year. But he’s capable. I mean, it’s a course for Cadel – I didn’t design it for Cadel but it is a course that Cadel can win on.”
In recent weeks, it appears Evans too has changed his mind, albeit slightly. “Ultimately, I’d like to repeat last year’s performance,” he said.
“I think it’d be a mistake not to have me as a protected rider. I think, what it comes down to in a race, whether it be Simon Gerrans or myself, or Allan Davis or Stuart O’Grady, it’s up to us as leaders or co-leaders to say what’s in the best interests of the team, and the team as a unit, what’s in the best interest to get a result for the team and the country.
“In the past, I know with Allan Davis and Stuart O’Grady, that’s never been a problem at other world championships that I’ve done with them. If it comes down to a bunch sprint, it’ll be a very select and small bunch sprint, I’d say.”
So who’s Evans’ pick?
“Looking at who was riding well at the Vuelta, I’d say Philippe Gilbert looks to be the man to beat right now.”
“It depends how they race it,” Trevorrow says. “If they race it like they race Mendrisio, if you’ve got Cancellara in that sort of form – and I know he’s aiming for it – then it will just be all over the place.
“And Cadel, in Mendrisio form, is a contender.”
***** Philippe Gilbert
**** Fabian Cancellara, Filippo Pozzato, Oscar Freire
*** Cadel Evans, Mark Cavendish, Samuel Sanchez, Alexandr Kolobnev
** Simon Gerrans, Tyler Farrar (USA), Alessandro Ballan, Peter Sagan, Edvald Boassen Hagen, Matthew Goss, Matti Breschel, Sylvain Chavanel
***** Marianne Vos
**** Tatiana Guderzo, Noemi Cantele, Nicole Cooke, Emma Pooley
*** Evelyn Stevens (USA), Giorgia Bronzini, Diana Ziliute, Emma Johansson
Elite Road Race schedule: 2010 UCI Road Cycling World Championships
Saturday 2 October
Women’s Elite Road Race, 8 x 15.9km laps, 127.2km, 13:00 p.m. AEST start
Sunday 3 October
Men’s Elite Road Race, Melbourne start + 11 x 15.9km laps, 262.7 km, 10:00 am AEST start