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by Matt de Neef
October 14, 2016
Photography by Kristof Ramon & Cor Vos
After a week’s worth of racing in the Doha heat, the 2016 Road World Championships come to a close on Sunday with the elite men’s road race. At more than 250km in length it’s one of the longest races of the year and the chance for one rider to earn the right to wear the rainbow jersey for the next 12 months.
Here’s what you need to know about the elite men’s road race at the Doha Worlds.
The course features an out-and-back section before laps of technical circuit
Starting from the Aspire Zone sporting complex in West Doha, the riders head north out of the Qatari capital, past the time trials starting location and out into the desert. After roughly 70km kilometres the route heads south back towards Doha, then east towards the now-familiar Pearl island.
It’s on this artificial island that the riders will complete seven laps of a 15.2km circuit; a circuit that’s replete with roundabouts, tight corners and speedhumps. While the course is about as flat as you’ll ever likely see in a bike race, there is a slight uphill drag to the finish line. All told, the race is 257.5km long.
The race could be shortened significantly if it’s too hot
Much has been made of the decision to host the Road World Championships in Doha, given the extreme temperatures riders could potentially face, particularly in the desert sections of the elite men’s road race. However, the championships were moved back several weeks to avoid the worst of the heat and the UCI has a extreme weather policy in place for the road races.
An exact temperature cut-off hasn’t been specified publicly, but the UCI suggests that “in the event of high temperatures”, the plan will be to shorten or completely remove the initial 150km of the race — the section through the desert. In the event of that out-and-back section being skipped entirely, the race would be little more than 100km long — just the seven laps of the 15km Pearl island circuit.
At this stage the weather forecast is suggesting a maximum temperature of 35ºC at around 1pm local time, two-and-a-half hours after the start. While uncomfortable, these temperatures aren’t as hot as those seen at other races throughout the year, including the Tour Down Under.
The race should be decided in a sprint finish
“I can’t see any situation where it’s not going to be a bunch sprint,” said Mark Cavendish when asked about the course back in May. Given how flat the course is, it’s hard to disagree. But there will be many on the startlist that are hoping it doesn’t turn out that way.
“Hopefully there will be enough wind in the desert,” said Belgium’s Jürgen Roelandts in a pre-race press release. “I hope several countries will want to make the race hard by creating echelons, but I expect they will look at the Belgians.”
Wind and Qatar go hand-in-hand.
Wind is often a factor at the Tour of Qatar with the peloton frequently torn into echelons in the crosswinds. And while the Belgians and the Dutch will likely be among those looking for a similar experience in the Worlds road race, they might be left a little disappointed.
At the time of writing, the forecast is only for winds of 10km/h from the north-north-west — unlikely to be strong enough to tear the race apart. And as Greg Van Avermaet told CyclingTips earlier in the year, there’s a chance that even if the wind has an impact, the technical closing kilometres could nullify that impact.
“At first I thought that maybe the winds could have an effect but there are so many twists and turns around the course that other than the beginning, wind will not be an important factor,” Van Avermaet said.
When considering how Sunday’s race might play out, it’s worth noting that the U23 men’s road race ended in a sprint contested by less than a third of the field. The technical nature of the circuit and several crashes both served to thin out the field. A similar situation is more than possible on Sunday as well.
Given the likely bunch kick, the big-name sprinters are the favourites
By way of reminder (or for those watching their first World Championships), the structure of the Worlds road race is a little different to almost every road race on the professional calendar. Rather than racing in their trade teams, the riders race in their national colours. The more powerful cycling nations have the most riders on the startline, giving them a numerical and tactical advantage over the smaller nations.
This is particularly relevant in a sprinter-friendly race — the teams with more riders will have more firepower when it comes to controlling the race (e.g. reeling in a breakaway) and when it comes to the all-important lead-out. It’s no coincidence then that most of the big favourites also have big teams around them.
Alexander Kristoff has been the most successful rider at the past two editions of the Tour of Qatar, winning three stages in 2015 and the same again this year. One of his wins this year, on stage 2, took in some of the same roads used in Sunday’s race (but finished in a different location).
Kristoff’s also had 13 victories this year, the equal most of any WorldTour rider (alongside Peter Sagan). Crucially, the Norwegian team is very strong and with Edvald Boasson Hagen likely his last lead-out man, Kristoff is a genuine chance of adding to his nation’s victory in the U23 men’s race.
Alexander Kristoff is no stranger to success in the Qatari desert.
The last time we had a sprinter-friendly world championships road race, in 2011, it was Mark Cavendish that took the win. Five years on, there’s every chance the Manxman will be able to earn himself another year in the rainbow stripes.
Cavendish has a formidable Great Britain team behind him, arguably the strongest on the startlist. With Geraint Thomas, Alex Dowsett, Stephen Cummings, Luke Rowe, Ian Stannard, Ben Swift and Adam Blythe, Cavendish will have plenty of support early on and in the lead-out.
The only question around Cavendish might be how his transition from the track (for the Rio Olympics) back to the road has gone, given he hasn’t won on the road since then. But people wrote off Cavendish before the Tour de France and he went on to win four stages.
There are few better big-race performers in the pro peloton than Mark Cavendish. He certainly shouldn’t be underestimated on Sunday and could even be the one to beat.
Mark Cavendish was the overall winner of this year’s Tour of Qatar off the back of one stage win.
Germany had the tough but enviable choice of having to decide between Marcel Kittel and Andre Greipel as Option A for Sunday’s race. Realistically, either of them could win the race but the German federation eventually went for Andre Greipel leaving Marcel Kittel free to play a wild-card role. What that means on the day remains to be seen, but it’s clear that, even with fewer riders than the biggest teams, Germany will be in the mix.
With two-time Monument winner John Degenkolb on lead-out duties and four-time ITT world champion Tony Martin able to do just about anything, Greipel will be well looked after.
Andre Greipel is Germany’s go-to man for Sunday’s race and a genuine contender.
While some of the other favourites will have big teams looking after them, defending champion Peter Sagan won’t have any such luxury. With just two teammates on the startline, Sagan will have to find his own way in the closing stages. But that’s unlikely to be a problem — Sagan is often left to his own devices and manages just fine. Like at last year’s World Championships, for example.
On paper, Sagan isn’t what you’d call a pure sprinter, but he’s more than capable of beating his more fancied rivals on Sunday. Indeed, it was only a couple weeks ago that he beat Kristoff and Greipel on stage 4 of the Eneco Tour.
If Sagan is able to take the win on Sunday he would be the first rider to win back-to-back elite men’s road titles since Paolo Bettini in 2006/7. It’s certainly not out of the question.
Could Peter Sagan win back-to-back world titles?
Perhaps the last of the big favourites is Frenchman Nacer Bouhanni. On his day, Bouhanni is capable of beating the best in the world, as he showed on stage 4 of Paris-Nice when he ousted Andre Greipel and Alexander Kristoff. He’s also got a strong French team around him, including Milan-San Remo winner Arnaud Demare who will likely be on lead-out duties.
It’s worth noting that while Bouhanni has 10 sprint wins for the year, the most recent of those have been at lower level races against second- or third-tier sprinters. He’ll need to be at his very best to win on Sunday. He’ll also need to make sure he sprints in a straight line.
Nacer Bouhanni has a tendency to tangle with his rivals.
There are many other sprinters that could challenge for a win
Beyond the big-name favourites are a bevy of would-be challengers. Australia’s Michael Matthews was given the nod over young teammate Caleb Ewan and seem to be the smart pick given his ability to get to the end of long, hard one-day races in good shape (see his third place at Milan-San Remo last year).
Matthews might find it difficult to get around the likes of Greipel and Cavendish in the bunch sprint, and would probably prefer a more selective finale. But all going well, he could well find himself on the Worlds podium for the second year in a row. With the likes of Mat Hayman, Mark Renshaw and late-inclusion Steele von Hoff around him, he’ll certainly have the necessary team support.
Italy brings a full compliment of nine riders to Doha and will ride for Elia Viviani and Giacomo Nizzolo. Neither tend to win as often as the big sprinters and Viviani, likely the Italians’ best bet, has only won two races on the road this year. One of them was stage 2 of the Three Days of De Panne, though, where he beat Kittel and Kristoff.
Fernando Gaviria is Colombia’s hope for victory and the 22-year-old is another potential dark horse. He won the important sprinters lead-in race of Paris-Tours last week, albeit with a late escape rather than in a bunch kick. Despite his age, Gaviria shouldn’t be troubled by the distance — the Colombian was a genuine chance to win Milan-San Remo earlier this year before crashing out in the final kilometre.
Dylan Groenewegen is another rider to watch. The Dutch champion won the Tour de l’Eurometropole earlier this month and also beat Bouhanni, Sagan and Kristoff on stage 1 of Eneco Tour last month. He’s also gotten the better of Greipel this year, having won the Rund um Koln in June.
He’s an outsider, sure, but with a strong Dutch team around him, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Groenwegen well positioned and in with a chance as the final sprint begins.
Sam Bennett, while an unlikely winner, also deserves a mention. He won Paris-Bourges recently and also managed to beat Mark Cavendish to take out stage 2 of the Giro della Toscana less than a month ago. A lot will need to go right for the Irishman to win, but he’s worth keeping an eye on.
If the race doesn’t end in a sprint, look to the low-landers
It seems unlikely at this stage, but if the race does get torn apart in the crosswinds and a small group gets to the finish — look to the Classics specialists, and particularly to the Belgians and Dutch — to make the race.
The likes of Tom Boonen and Jürgen Roelandts will be looking for a chance to split the race up and if they manage to, expect them to be on the right side of the split. If it’s a small group that gets to the finish — or even a bigger group without the big-name sprinters — Tom Boonen will be a big chance to win his second world title, 11 years after his first.
For the Netherlands, look to the likes of Niki Terpstra and Sebastian Langeveld to force their way to the front if the race splits up, while Great Britain has genuine threats like Ian Stannard, Luke Rowe and Geraint Thomas. Zdenek Stybar of the Czech Republic also deserves a mention in such a situation.
The elite men’s race will be broadcast live around the world, on TV and online
Throughout the Doha Worlds the UCI has provided live-streaming on its YouTube channel. The elite men’s road race will be streamed live, too, but bear in mind that the stream might be geoblocked in your region depending on the local broadcast deal that’s in place.
In Australia the race will be live on TV in the eastern states, from 10:20pm AEST on SBS 2. US viewers will be able to catch delayed coverage on Universal HD from 9am Sunday local time and a replay from midnight that night. BBC Red Button will have live coverage in the UK from 7:20am while delayed coverage will be on Eurosport 1 from 5:30pm. For more broadcast information, check out this document at the UCI website.
If you’re following the race on Twitter, note that the official hashtag is #UCIDoha2016.
Who’s your pick for the elite men’s road race at the 2016 Road World Championships?