Preview: elite men’s World Championships road race

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The 2015 Road World Championships culminate this Sunday with the elite men’s road race. Contested over 261.4km, the race will determine who gets to wear the coveted rainbow bands for the next 12 months. So, what’s the course like? And who are the contenders? Mikkel Conde put together the following preview.

The route

The day starts near the University of Richmond where riders begin a 5.3km section which takes them to the course’s main circuit. The peloton crosses the finishing line for the first time with 243km left to go — from here they’ll complete 15 laps of the 16.2km circuit.

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The first 10km of the circuit are mostly flat and take place on big roads with only a few corners to overcome. A long straight-out part, slightly downhill, leads the riders towards the canal. Here, they continue for about 2km before a U-turn takes them back towards the city centre. The road kicks up alongside Libby Hill but it’s nothing compared to what awaits the riders when they turn right onto the cobbled climb.

The next 200 meters are uphill with an average gradient of 8%. This is one of the designated fan zones on the circuit. We can expect a euphoric atmosphere on this climb.

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After a quick descent and a short flat section, the riders start the steepest ascent of the day on 23rd Street. Roughly 100 meters at 12% will definitely make its mark on the legs of the riders. From the top, there are just 2.5km to the finishing line. About a kilometre later, the road starts to kick up again. Soon after, the riders turn right onto Governor Street.

As we know from the time trials earlier this week, the following 300 meters have an average gradient of 7%. After turning left with 700 meters to go, it’s slightly uphill before the last 100 meters are more or less flat.

The favourites

As always, the list of candidates is very long for the world championships. On this type of course, it’s hard to talk about one top favourite. However, some riders naturally stand out. To win this race you need to be able to cope with the long distance, be strong on the short but steep hills, and pack a good sprint at the end.

My personal pick is Michael Matthews. Despite having his Tour de France ruined by a crash on stage 3 (Matthews still finished the Tour), the young Australian has had a great season so far. He won a stage and wore the leader’s jersey at Paris-Nice, the Vuelta al Pais Vasco and the Giro d’Italia.

His two big targets in the spring were Milan-San Remo and the Amstel Gold Race. In the Italian one-day race, he followed Peter Sagan — with ease — on the Poggio and in Amstel, only Matthews could stay with Philippe Gilbert, when the Belgian dropped everybody else on Cauberg. In both races, the late attacks were neutralised and it ended in a sprint where Matthews finished third.

He claims to be in the shape of his life right now and, after finishing second in GP de Québec and riding well in Montréal two days later, it would be a huge mistake to underestimate him this Sunday. If the Australian team can give him the support he needs and help close down any late attacks, I think Matthews will win the sprint within a reduced peloton and take the rainbow jersey as he did in the U23 Worlds road race on home soil five years ago.

Back in 2010, Matthews outsprinted John Degenkolb to take the U23 win in Geelong; something that still bothers the German. This year, Degenkolb has had his most successful season ever after winning both Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix.

He came very close to winning a stage in the Tour de France several times this summer but luck wasn’t on his side. The same scenario continued in the Vuelta a España until he finally got it right on the last stage of the race. For his morale ahead of this world championship, the stage win in Madrid was of huge importance. Degenkolb was starting to doubt his own abilities in the sprints and for a sprinter there is nothing worse than a lack of confidence.

He would probably object to being called a sprinter and he would be right. He’s much more than just fast on the line. However, to win this race, he has to rely on his sprint. At Giant-Alpecin, Degenkolb usually has Koen de Kort as his final leadout rider. It’s curious to notice that despite his great shape, the Dutchman hasn’t been selected to represent his country in Richmond. Luckily for Degenkolb he still has great German teammates to support him, amongst them Andre Greipel who could be a dangerous outsider as well.

Another rider who did extremely well in the first part of the season is Alexander Kristoff. By the end of May, the Norwegian had won no fewer than 15 races already. Among those were Scheldeprijs and Ronde van Vlaanderen, which I still see as the most impressive win of his career. That day in Belgium, Kristoff proved that he’s not just fast on the line. He was by far the best rider on the short steep hills.

According to his trainer, Kristoff’s shape is even better now. He has set a new record on his training hill back in Norway and shown great output numbers. After finishing second to Greipel in the Vattenfall Cyclassics, Kristoff won GP Ouest France-Plouay less than a month ago and recently finished third in GP de Québec.

Norway may not have the strongest team to support him but with the likes of his Katusha teammate Sven Erik Bystrøm and the in-shape Edvald Boasson Hagen, Kristoff should have at least one or two riders to help set him up for the final sprint.

Talking about a sprint, one has to mention Peter Sagan as well. It’s easy to scorn and say the Slovakian will probably just finish second like he has done so many times the past couple years. It may very well happen again on Sunday but Sagan also has a big chance of finally improving on all his second places to take one big win.

On paper, the course suits him perfectly. His biggest challenge is that he only has two teammates at his side. This lack of strong teammates is also why Sagan still hasn’t been able to win a Monument. It could very well hamper his chances once again. Luckily, he knows both his teammates very well, one being his brother Juraj the other his teammate at Tinkoff-Saxo Michael Kolar.

On paper, Sagan should be the big favourite but this season he has been outsprinted by Matthews, Degenkolb and Kristoff in the big races already. I have my doubts that Sagan can produce a fast-enough sprint after 261km to win this race. On the other hand, I wouldn’t be surprised if he ended up in the rainbow jersey either.

For other fast riders who will be eyeing off a top result, look to Elia Viviani (Italy), Tom Boonen (Belgium), Juanjo Lobato (Spain) and Matti Breschel (Denmark) who always finds his best level at the big championships. The Dane has finished on the podium multiple times and last year he narrowly missed out in the final sprint taking fourth place. I expect him to be up there again this time.

The outsiders

In case a late attack succeeds, we should shift focus to the Classics specialists. First up is Greg Van Avermaet. The Belgian has been close to the best riders for years but always lacked a little. This year, however, Van Avermaet has taken his game to a new level. Finishing second in Strade Bianche, third in Ronde van Vlaanderen, third in Paris-Roubaix and fifth in Amstel Gold Race, Van Avermaet has been one of the most consistent riders this season.

He won an impressive stage in the Tour de France, finished second overall in the Eneco Tour and fifth in the Vattenfall Cyclassics before taking 10th place in GP Québec earlier this month. If there is one rider we can be sure will be up there in the final on Sunday, it’s him. However, Van Avermaet also knows it will be more than difficult for him to outsprint the riders mentioned above. He needs to attack if he wants to win.

The same can be said for his teammate Philippe Gilbert, which may be the biggest problem for Van Avermaet’s chances. The two riders share the same abilities. They would most likely prefer to attack on the same place on the course. Last year, Gilbert sacrificed his own chances trying to chase down Michal Kwiatkowski to set up Van Avermaet, who then only finished fifth. It will be very interesting to see how the roles will be this time.

One thing is certain, Van Avermaet will definitely try something on the final laps. Time will tell if it works out.

Last year, Michal Kwiatkowski was my personal outsider due to the fact that Poland had eight riders fully dedicated to work for him, compared to other teams with multiple leaders. This year, Kwiatkowski will only have five teammates to support him. He started out the season very strong, winning the Amstel Gold Race, but ever since June, when it seemed clear he would leave Etixx-Quick-Step, his results have faded significantly.

Personally, I don’t think he has shown the rainbow jersey much honour in the second part of the season. Kwiatkowski says he’s ready to fight for the win again now, but it will be very difficult for him to repeat last year’s performance.

Instead, my outsider this year is Zdenek Stybar. He doesn’t have eight teammates like Kwiakowski had last year, but with five riders at his service, the Czech won’t be short of strong support either. Like Van Avermaet, Stybar had a great spring. He won Strade Bianche, finished second at E3 Harelbeke, ninth in Ronde van Vlaanderen and second in Paris-Roubaix. Afterwards he took the peloton by surprise with a late attack to win stage 6 of the Tour de France.

He proved to be very strong in Tour of Britain two weeks ago and now hopes to crown a big season with a win in Richmond. Stybar is not only strong on these types of hills, he’s also very fast on the line after a long race. Furthermore, he’s not afraid of attacking. I doubt he can win a sprint against the top favourites but if a couple of riders arrive together, it will be very hard for anyone to beat him.

For other strong outsiders who can both climb and sprint within a reduced group, look to riders like Diego Ulissi (Italy), Alejandro Valverde (Spain), Tony Gallopin (France), 2013 winner Rui Costa (Portugal), Simon Gerrans (Australia) and spring revelation Julian Alaphilippe (France) who finished second in both Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège this year.

Another recent revelation is José Gonçalves. The Portuguese Caja Rural rider was one of the big surprises in this year’s Vuelta a España. He’s fast in a sprint and good on the hills. However, it may be too much for him to fight for the win in a 260km race just after finishing his first-ever Grand Tour. If he can keep his outstanding shape though, I wouldn’t put it past him to make a big result this Sunday.

How to watch the race

Viewers in Australia can catch the elite men’s road race live on SBS TV from 10:50pm Sunday night to 6am Monday morning AEST. For broadcast details outside Australia, be sure to check your local guides. The race will also be streaming live on the UCI’s YouTube channel, although this feed will be geoblocked in countries where the race is being broadcast live on TV (including Australia).

To follow the race live on Twitter, be sure to check out the hashtag #Richmond2015.

Related: Read the women’s race preview here.

So who’s your pick for elite men’s road race at the 2015 Road World Championships? And how will the race be won?

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