From he final days of La Vuelta, through to the finale of Lombardia, where the first rider crossing the line is inevitably, in victory, illuminated by the headlights of motorcycles, we enter a period of increasing melancholy. For an entire season we’ve gorged on cycling, and like the hours after a Christmas lunch, we’re now tired, bloated, and our hangover is already creeping up on us. There is one brief moment of respite in this part of the calendar, before Paris-Tours comes around and confirms that the year is definitely ending, and our only remaining sporting highlight will be around New Year, when we get to find out who the World’s Strongest Man is.
The World Championships of Cycling sounds like a breakaway event, organised by a new federation with aims of adding some razzamatazz to the sport. The sort of event where Peter Sagan would roll out to the start line accompanied by flames and nu-metal entrance music. It’s not that and it’s actually just called the UCI Road World Championships.
The roads are one of the few races where it is worth watching the entire race. The formula of most grand tour stages, where there’s a fight for the breakaway, followed by a long lull, followed hours later by a finale, is abandoned. Instead, much like with Paris-Roubaix or Ronde Van Vlaanderen, we’re treated to 7 or so hours of increasing tension. I’ll certainly be watching all of it, unlike in 2013 when I popped out for an hour or so, came back and the entire GB team had dropped out of the race. Unlike the 2 previously mentioned races, the World’s has an element of the unknown. It’s often on roads that the professional peloton has rarely visited, and so the outcome is made more difficult to predict. Events that take place on the same roads, year in year out, run to a kind of algorithm, where the output is known to be dependent on the input, and the riders try to manipulate the value of the former to ensure that the result is victory for them or their teammate. With the Worlds, the chemistry always remains slightly uncertain. This year the consensus seems to be that the course is one for the strongmen who have the ability to punch up short steep hills, and it’s hard to disagree. Here we’ll take a look at it in more detail, and pick out the riders who look like having a realistic chance of wearing the rainbow bands for the next 12 months.
It’s long, of course. These are the world championships, so the men will be riding 267.5km, made up of a long run through the Fjords, to Bergen, where they’ll then have to tackle 11.5 laps of a city circuit. The fact that it's in a city, and the fact that people there might actually enjoy watching bike racing, means that it is likely that there will be a welcome return of fans to the roadside, after last year’s ghost town in Doha. The race starts in a place called Rong, so put a few quid on whoever is commentating saying something like “we’re rolling out of Rong, but who will be getting it right in 267kms time.” I'd say the same thing. Don’t hate the player, hate the game. Although it’s by the sea, don’t expect the crosswinds to cut the race to pieces, as the Fjords should offer up quite a bit of shelter from the wind.
The circuit is where the difference will be made, and it should be an attritional process, exacerbated by the 1.5km climb of the delightfully named Salmon Hill. It’s listed as having an average gradient of 6.5%, but the first 500m are at around 8%. The men will take this 12 times, and it could be the place where the final selection is made. Any rider or group getting away over the top will have 3km of descent, before around 9km to the finish line. Ample time to be chased down, but after over 250km, who will have the resources to do so? Somewhere, on the run in to the finish, there is a brief cobble section just before the line, but it is a smooth city centre section, unlikely to pose a problem unless it’s soaking wet.
It’s a bit too far ahead to be sure, but my preferred predictor says it’ll be mostly cloudy, not very windy, and with a 25% chance of a shower. That’s pretty much the default prediction for anywhere in the north of Europe, but it suggests that the weather is unlikely to play a big part in the race. It’ll definitely be cool, so no problem staying hydrated.
As you know, the Worlds is ridden by national teams, not trade teams, and so a strong rider can suffer from having a poor team. That is exaggerated by the fact that the smaller cycling nations get to select fewer riders. Saying that, Slovakia will qualify 6 riders, mostly due to the points accrued by Peter Sagan. It changes the dynamic but trade team alliances are still strong. It's hard to imagine too many Bora-Hansgrohe riders out to disrupt Sagan's chances of winning.
Sagan is where we’ll start. Can anyone stop him from becoming the first rider to win 3 world championships in a row? Only 4 riders have ever won the race 3 times (Binda, Mercx, Van Steenbergen, and Freire), but none of them managed it in consecutive years. This course seems made for Sagan. He’s strong enough to make a selection, or get away solo on the climbs, and if it comes down to a sprint you’d fancy him to be the fastest man left.
On a similar level to Sagan is his nemesis, Greg Van Avermaert. Something seem to click with GVA when he beat Sagan in Stage 5 of the 2016 Tour De France. Since then he’s been on a run that has seen him claim the Olympic Road Race, E3 Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgem, and Paris-Roubaix. Like Sagan, the hills should play to his strengths, and he’s a super fast finisher, who is probably more tactically adept than Sagan. He also comes with a team packed with talent. Philippe Gilbert will be their other protected rider, and he comes off the back of a season that has seen him rekindle his old magic, with a memorable solo win at the Tour of Flanders. The team also features Oliver Naeson, Tiesj Benoot and Tim Wellens. I don’t expect any of those 3 to win, but they allow Belgium to make the race hard by having riders attack late on.
Edvald Boasson Hagen would probably be the most popular winner of the Worlds in the last decade. Not only is the race taking place in his home country, but he is a rider that cycling fans love to see win. Maybe that’s down to the fact that he hasn’t been able to dominate bike racing, as his early promise suggested he would, and so he hasn’t given us any win fatigue. The fact that he comes across as being a thoroughly nice person also helps. He’s on good form, judging by his ride in the Tour of Britain, and this race is a massive target for him. Expect him to be as well prepared as anyone in the bunch, and his finish seems to be as fast as it’s been in years. His team also features Alexander Kristoff. A couple of years ago he’d be on the top rung of favourites for this race, but he’s not been able to get back to his peak of 2015, when he won the Tour of Flanders.
You can be forgiven for not watching the Primus Classic at the weekend. It’s not a race that’s on most fans’ radars, but if you did you’ll have seen a thoroughly dominant performance from Matteo Trentin. Picking up on the back of his ride at La Vuelta, where he won 4 stages, he broke away from the lead group to win solo. He’s absolutely the form pick of the race, and his finish is as fast as anyone. He’s also got the confidence in his abilities that only winning gives you. The difficulty for Trentin will come with the repeated climbs. This won't be like a grand tour stage where the bunch takes it easy until close to the finale. In this race the climbs are going to be ridden increasingly hard, in order to dislodge riders like him. If he’s got the legs to cope with that, then Italy could have another world champion on their hands. If it’s not Trentin, then Moscon, Viviani, and Cobrelli could all
Austalia’s Michael Matthews looks destined to wear the rainbow bands at some point in his career. He’s the archetypal world champ, strong and with a lightning finish, but with enough to punch over the short climbs with the best in the race. If this course had an uphill finish then he’d be the pick of the bunch. Matthews’ achilles heel could be his predictability, you’d expect him to bank on coming to the finale and sprinting from the group of favourites, it’s hard to see him surprising anyone and attacking any earlier. He’s backed by a strong team that will be all in for him. Simon Gerrans might have been a plan B but he’s not in the team.
Another big favourite is Michael Kwiatkowski. Team Sky’s “vanity signing” proved at the Tour de France that he’s an integral part of the team, and an invaluable mountain domestique. Add to that the fact that he’s won Milan-San Remo and Strade Bianche, this year, and you can swap “vanity” for “highly astute”. Already a winner of this race, Kwiato can follow any of the moves of the faster finishers, and knows how to lean on them in order to swing the odds in his favour. Remember how he rode Sagan’s wheel, before pipping him to Milan-San Remo? Or when he out-sprinted him at the 2016 E3-Harlebeke?
If Matthews, Sagan, Van Avermaet, Boasson Hagen, Kwiatkowski, and Trentin are the top level favourites, then on the level just below them are two Colombians. There’s is a true super team, featuring Nairo Quintana, Miguel Angel Lopez, Esteban Chaves, and Jarlinson Pantano. They’ll be riding in support of Fernando Gaviria and Rigoberto Uran. Uran might not spring to mind as a favourite for this sort of race, but he’s got real one day pedigree. He probably should have been Olympic champion in 2012, but somehow managed to lose out to Alexander Vinokourov. I'll leave you to formulate your own opinions on what happened there. In the last few weeks he has come close to winning GP Quebec with his customary attack in the final km. He won’t win a bunch sprint so a late attack from him is almost inevitable. Gaviria is another rider who i'd bet my mortgage on winning a world championships at some point in his career. He’s a finisher who can sprint with the best in the world, but he’s also got the legs to stay at the front of the bunch when the race goes up short, fast climbs, like those we’ll see in Bergen. Inexperience could be his downfall, but knowing that there will, almost certainly, be more chances for him to win this race, means he can race without too much pressure. Despite being lightning quick, he’s also a man who can quickly rewrite the script, and go on the attack well before the sprint comes into view.
I’m just going to throw another couple of riders into the mix now. Julian Alaphilippe got in some good miles at La Vuelta, and he’s a faster finisher than you may think. He’s got a racer’s instinct that saw him place third at Milan-San Remo this year. It was also in evidence in stage 1 of Paris-Nice, where he went on the attack after a day in the crosswinds, only to be beaten by Arnaud Démare in the sprint. If someone asks you for an outside bet, or a left field pick, then I don’t think there’s anyone better than Alexey Lutsenko. He’s got classics chops, with third place in this year’s Dwars door Vlanderen on his palmares, and he comes into the race in super form having won Stage 5 of La Vuelta, and having looked strong throughout. He’ll have to go from range, and if he does, he’ll need to be followed.
The race starts at 10am on Sunday 24th of September.
I haven’t written about any of the other races, but will happily link to any previews that come recommended.