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The final and most prestigious event of the UCI Road World Championships week, the elite men’s road race, will be held on Sunday night (AEST). The event is shaping up to be a battle between the heavyweight teams of Britain, Spain and Italy but with such a strong field and a very tough course, the winner could realistically come from anywhere.
The first UCI World Championship road race was held in 1927 at Nürburgring in Germany and was won by Italy’s Alfredo Binda. Since then, the race has been held annually, barring the World War II years of 1939 to 1945. The last time the race took place in Italy, in 2008, it was won by an Italian, Alessandro Ballan with his teammate Damiano Cunego taking second place. Whether an Italian can win on home soil this time around remains to be seen.
This year’s 272km course around Firenze (Florence) has been described as the toughest world championships course of the last ten years. It doesn’t come as a surprise that Angelo Zomegnan, famous for selecting the brutal 2011 Giro d’Italia course, is the head of the organising committee. The race will remember the late Franco Ballerini by passing the cemetery in Casalguidi where he is buried. The race will also pass the spectacular Florence Duomo, showing off the cultural heritage of the city.
The race starts in the Tuscan city of Lucca where Renaissance-era city walls can still be found intact. The route follows a southeasterly direction and jaunts towards Florence over the next 100 kilometres.
The riders will face the first climb of the day in the form of Montecarlo, a 3.75km long hurdle with an average gradient of 3.5% (max 9%). Coming after just 10km, this climb can only provide a platform to establish an early breakaway.
Next up on the day’s menu will be the slightly harder climb of San Baronto. This is a 3.9km long climb with an average gradient of 7.1% and a maximum as high as 11%. This climb comes roughly 54km into the race and should see a breakaway form if it hasn’t already. The top contenders shouldn’t be much affected given what they will face later when the race hits Florence.
As the riders reach Florence, they will tackle a 16.6km loop around the city which features a 4km climb up to Fiesole and then a short, steep, climb of Via Salviati. As a standalone climb, Fiesole is not a fear-inducing entity but climbing it 10 times over 150km makes it a very difficult proposition.
Nearly 60km of the race is spent going uphill and by the end of the 272km the riders will have amassed more than 3,000 vertical metres of climbing.
Via Salviati will provide a perfect ramp for the puncheurs to escape from the clutches of the remaining peloton on the last lap. Further help will be provided by another 10% ramp 3.5kms before the finish line.
Of the top 50 riders in the UCI World ranking, 42 will be taking part in the road race. This means the race will be very open and the winner could come from a very large field of contenders.
Italian Vincenzo Nibali will have a strong team on his side and decent climbing support in the form of Michele Scarponi and Ronaldo Nocentini. Nibali was the favourite to conquer the Florence circuit but after his defeat at the hands of Chris Horner at the Vuelta, it’s unclear if he’s in top condition to win the rainbow jersey. Nibali should also be able to count on support from the team from Kazakhstan given he’s the leader of the Kazakhstan-based Astana trade team.
The Italian squad will likely face the greatest challenge from the Great Britain team with Chris Froome as its leader. Froome will be supported by the likes of Bradley Wiggins, Ian Stannard and Geraint Thomas. Froome hasn’t done particularly well in one-day races yet and this lack of experience is his biggest disadvantage.
The Spanish national team will complete the triumvirate of big contenders. Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez will be the team’s joint leaders and will be ably supported by Alberto Contador, 2008 Olympic road race champion Samuel Sanchez and Daniel Moreno. Valverde is the most experienced rider in the team, having already finished four times on the podium. He finished third at the Vuelta a Espana and will be desperate to break the rainbow jersey voodoo this time around.
Australia may give Great Britain a run for its money when it comes to the quality of their team. The 2009 World Champion Cadel Evans and 2013 Paris-Nice winner Richie Porte will likely be their joint leaders. They will be supported by Rory Sutherland, Matty Hayman, Simon Clarke and Cam Meyer for the extreme climbing circuit.
The Aussie team has the necessary experience and youthful energy to disrupt the plans of the favourites. Porte has a slight edge on Evans in terms of form and we should see the team throw their weight behind the Tassie rider.
Given the nature of the route, one team that is certain to cause trouble is the Colombian national team. Nairo Quintana, Rigoberto Uran and Carlo Betancur will look to cause panic and mayhem on the climbs of Fiesole and Via Salviati. They will also have cards to play with Sergio Henao and Darwin Atapuma. On paper, Colombia looks to be the most equipped team to conquer the circuit and it will be very interesting to see their strategy for the race.
As outsiders, they don’t come any bigger than Philippe Gilbert. Gilbert showed last year that he is always capable of springing a surprise in a one-day race but this year’s circuit doesn’t suit his abilities. The heavyweight teams of Great Britain, Italy and Spain will try to keep the pace very high and will look to eject heavy riders over the 272km.
If the pace is kept high, it will most definitely put an end to Gilbert’s dream of defending the rainbow jersey, a feat last achieved by Paolo Bettini in 2007.
Fabian Cancellara also fancies his chances in this race and, as was evident in Wednesday’s ITT, has shed some weight to increase his chances for the road race. But realistically, heavy riders will suffer on this painful route and it’s likely that the winner will be one of the climbing goats of the peloton.
Similarly, if the top teams maintain a stifling pace, punchy rouleurs like Peter Sagan and Edvald Boassen Hagen will also find it difficult to break free on the last lap.
There’s great camaraderie between the members of Dutch national team and this may prove decisive come Sunday. Bauke Mollema shone brightly for the Dutch at the Tour de France and Vuelta and will be champing at the bit to help Robert Gesink. Laurens Ten Dam and Tom Jelte Slagter will provide the necessary support on the climbs.
Gesink has seen an upsurge in form by winning the GP de Quebec after a disastrous Giro and a disappointing Tour. He looked very strong in the final kilometre of that race and surprised everyone with a late attack.
Two riders who could turn out to be the jack in the box are Dan Martin of Ireland and Rui Costa from Portugal. Martin won this year’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege which had similar amount of climbing and should be one of the outside bets. But his early departure from Vuelta a Espana due to an injury means that he is short on racing days and this may come back to bite him at the business end of the race.
Rui Costa is similarly short on race days but did well in the recent Canadian races of Montreal and Quebec. It would be exciting to see the dual Tour de France stage winner don the rainbow jersey.
As with any one-day race, the world championship road race could go a number of ways:
Rouleurs out of the back
If the top teams with solid climbers like Nibali, Froome, Valverde, Rodriguez and Porte have their way in covering the attacks and maintaining a high pace, it will mean that the rouleurs like Cancellara, Sagan, Boassen Hagen will be quite exhausted by the last lap. This will give an opportunity for climbing stalwarts and the Colombians to launch attacks which could see a winner coming from the smaller men.
Continuous attacks from weaker teams
If the smaller teams continuously cause havoc by attacking throughout, the rouleurs could still be around to contest the final lap. There’s enough firepower in the teams from Poland, France and United States to cause trouble for the big teams of Great Britain, Spain, Italy and Australia. If there’s confusion and panic at the end of second-last lap, riders like Cancellara and Sagan are more than capable of drilling it for the last 20km.
Free for all
The most-likely scenario is that all the contenders wait for the last climb of Fiesole and then launch their respective attacks on its slope. This could provide a chance to punchy riders like Gilbert and Sagan to latch on to the wheels of climbers and contest the final sprint. But Via Salviati and the 10% ramp will play a crucial here. The wily climbers will once again have an upper hand.
There’s a prediction of showers and thunderstorms on Sunday with mild temperatures of 25 degrees. Wet roads could give an edge to fast descenders on the last lap down the Fiesole and Via Salviati.
Australian TV coverage of the elite men’s world championship road race will come courtesy of SBS2 (from 10:30pm AEST or from 5:30pm at the CyclingCentral website) and Foxtel’s Eurosport channel 511 (from 9:00pm AEST).
If you’re in Melbourne and looking to watch the race in some great company, why not join The Bike Lane’s Matt Keenan & Wade Wallace, with special guests, to watch the race at the Grosvenor Hotel? Click here for more information and to buy your ticket.
Who do you think will win?