Preview: 2017 elite men’s world championship road race

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The elite men’s road race is the final event of the 2017 Road World Championships in Bergen, Norway and, as ever, it’s shaping up to be a fascinating contest. Ahead of Sunday’s race, here’s what you need to know about the course, how the race might unfold, and the contenders for the rainbow jersey.

The course

The course for the elite men’s road race can be divided into two main parts: an opening section as the riders make their way into Bergen, and laps of a finishing circuit around the city.

The opening section comprises a scenic 39.5km journey south east from the village of Rong into Bergen. The riders then join the finishing circuit roughly 1.2km after the start/finish line. This means there’s a 17.9km part-lap before the riders begin 11 laps of the full 19.1km circuit. In all, the race will cover 267.5km.

The opening section of the elite men’s road race course.

The finishing circuit around Bergen contains three main climbs. The first is just 500m long, the second is 1km long, and the third, Salmon Hill, is 1.5km long. Peaking 8.4km into the circuit, it’s this ascent of Salmon Hill that’s likely to be the most decisive part of the course. It’s not a particularly steep climb — the average gradient is just 6.4% and the toughest section is at the start. In all, the riders will tackle this climb 12 times.

It’s more than 10km from the top of Salmon Hill to the finish line. There are a few small rises along the way, but nothing as significant as Salmon Hill. The final 2.5km of the race is flat.

The finishing circuit map and profile.

How it might play out

It seems almost certain that we’ll see an early break get up the road as the riders make their way towards Bergen. These World Championship breakaways tend to be comprised of representatives from the smaller nations, the riders keen to animate the race and show their faces before the big teams take control.

The breakaway will almost certainly lead the race through the early laps around Bergen while the peloton slowly reels the leaders in. Depending on when the catch is made, we might see other groups get up the road as the kilometres tick away. Either way, there certainly won’t be any shortage of attacks in the closing laps.

Given the nature of the course, the most likely outcome is that a decent-sized group will reach the finish together and that the race will be decided in a sprint. The Salmon Hill climb probably isn’t long or steep enough to force a major selection, and besides, the distance from the finish — 10.7km — might assist any chasers that get dropped on the climb.

There are some similarities between Sunday’s race and the closing kilometres of Milan-San Remo. While the final climb of Milan-San Remo — the Poggio — is more than twice as long as Salmon Hill, it’s considerably gentler, putting the two ascents on roughly equal footing. Milan-San Remo normally finishes in a reduced bunch sprint and Sunday’s race seems likely to as well. In this way, the race is best suited to riders with some amount of climbing ability that also pack a fast finish.

Of course Milan-San Remo has certainly been won solo or in a small group before with the winner getting away on the Poggio. The same might happen on Salmon Hill on Sunday. It’s worth noting that the finish is nearly twice as far from the top of the final climb than in Milan-San Remo, meaning the lead group will need to feature very strong riders (that are working well together) in order to hold off the peloton.

On balance, a sprint from a reduced peloton seems the most likely outcome.

How Worlds works

The World Championships road race is one of the only races each season where riders race for their country, rather than their trade team. This can lead to some interesting scenarios.

Riders from the same country who normally head up different teams can end up on the same team, with neither willing to race for the other. (Think Simon Gerrans and Michael Matthews in 2015, or Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez in 2013). You also often see trade team alliances at play, with riders helping out their regular teammates in addition to (or even instead of) their national teammates.

Spaniards Joaquim Rodriguez (left) and Alejandro Valverde (right) raced on different trade teams, and couldn’t seem to work together in the 2013 Worlds road race. Portugal’s Rui Costa made the most of the lack of cohesion to win the sprint.

Another difference with Worlds is the number of riders on each team. In the vast majority of races, each team has the same number of riders. At the World Championships, each nation is entitled to a certain number of starters, according to the strength of that nation’s riders. The result is that the big cycling nations have teams of nine riders, while the smaller nations might have just one or two riders on the startline. The more riders, the more cards to play in the race.

Click here to see how many riders will start for each nation.

Contenders for a bunch sprint

If the race comes down to a bunch sprint, there are a number of riders that should be considered among the favourites.

No man* has ever won three World Championship road races in a row, but Peter Sagan (Slovakia) has a genuine chance this Sunday. In fact, assuming he’s over the illness that saw him skip the teams time trial last week, he’s probably the favourite.

Sagan brings great form into the race, having won the GP de Quebec earlier this month and, before that, two stages of the BinckBank Tour (formerly the Eneco Tour). Sagan’s versatility as a rider is beyond doubt. At the 2015 Worlds he rode away from the field on a steep climb to win the race solo (see video below). In 2016 he beat the world’s best sprinters in a flat bunch kick.

He’s certainly capable of winning on Sunday in a sprint, likewise if he decides to try and get away on the last time up Salmon Hill (although he’ll need to be part of a strong, hard-working group if he’s to avoid being chased down. And few riders will want to help Sagan get to the finish.)

Michael Matthews (Australia) has finished second and fourth in the last two World Championship road races and he has another great chance of victory this year. Unlike in Richmond in 2015, where he was sharing leadership of the Aussie team with Gerrans, Matthews has a team built around him this year.

Matthews has had a strong season, headlined by two stage wins at the Tour de France, and will be riding high after winning the TTT world title with Sunweb last week. As has been the case in so many races in recent years, Matthews’ biggest challenge will be overcoming Sagan. In fact, on the 32 occasions the pair have both finished in the top 10 on a stage or in a one-day race, Sagan has come out on top 25 times, taking 17 victories in the process. Matthews has finished higher seven times, with only three victories …

Matthews was second behind Sagan at the 2015 Worlds.

If Matthews and Sagan have had some entertaining battles in recent times then Greg van Avermaet (Belgium) and Sagan have been fierce rivals. Van Avermaet was second behind Sagan in Quebec (Matthews was third), then he beat Matthews and Sagan in the bunch sprint for seventh at the GP de Montreal.

So well-matched are Sagan and Van Avermaet that the pair have gone 1-2 in no fewer than 11 stages or one-day races in their careers. Van Avermaet has the edge, with six wins to Sagan’s five. This season, the pair have both finished in the top four in five races, with Sagan leading the count three (GP de Quebec, BinckBank Tour stage 3, and Tour de France stage 3) to two (Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Gent-Wevelgem).

The upshot: the pair are very evenly matched against once another and if the two get to the finish together and get the chance to sprint, it’s anyone’s guess who will come out on top.

Van Avermaet beats Sagan in the sprint to win Omloop Het Nieuwsblad earlier this year.

Norway has a strong outfit on home soil with two genuine contenders for the rainbow jersey (even if they don’t tend to race too well together). Edvald Boasson Hagen has had another strong season, with a stage win at the Tour de France, likewise at the Tour of Britain, three stages and the overall at Tour des Fjords, and two stages plus the overall at the Tour of Norway. Another fast finisher on lumpy terrain, Boasson Hagen will be desperate to fight for rainbows at home.

Perhaps Norway’s best chance of winning gold is for Boasson Hagen to try and get away late in a small group, while his teammate Alexander Kristoff stays in the bunch. Should the race come down to a bunch sprint with Kristoff there, he’ll be one of the men to watch. He hasn’t had his best season ever, but with nine victories, including the European Championships road race, Kristoff is certainly in the frame.

Boasson Hagen pulled off a thrilling solo victory on stage 19 of this year’s Tour de France. Could he do the same on Sunday, on home soil?

Fernando Gaviria will be Colombia’s big hope if the race comes down to a bunch kick, and a decent hope he is too. The 22-year-old was the sprinter of the Giro d’Italia, winning no fewer than four stages, and looking near unbeatable in the process. Gaviria can climb in long, hard races too — he was in prime position to win the 2016 Milan-San Remo, having gotten over the climbs in the finale, before he crashed out of contention. He’s compelling prospect for sure.

If Gaviria was the sprinter of the Giro, then Matteo Trentin (Italy) was the sprinter of the Vuelta a España. The QuickStep Floors rider claimed four stage wins and was unlucky not to win the points jersey for his efforts. Trentin is more than capable of winning a reduced bunch sprint and he knows how to win on the big stage — in addition to his Vuelta stage wins he’s also a two-time Tour de France stage winner, and also has a Giro stage win to his name. If it’s a bigger bunch that reaches the finish, look to Elia Viviani to be Italy’s man for the sprint.

Trentin won four stages at the recent Vuelta, including the final stage as pictured here.

Michal Kwiatkowski (Poland) mightn’t be the fastest sprinter in the world, but he certainly shouldn’t be overlooked on Sunday. He can win a sprint from an elite reduced group, as he did at the 2015 Amstel Gold Race where he beat Matthews and Van Avermaet. Or at this year’s Milan-San Remo where he outsprinted Sagan.

Of course, Kwiatkowski is also a master of the late attack. He did this to perfection to win the 2014 Road Worlds (see video below), and likewise at Strade Bianche this year. In short, it would be no great surprise if Kwiato found a way to snag a second world title.

For other fast finishers if it comes to a bunch kick, consider Sonny Colbrelli (Italy) and possibly even Adam Blythe (Great Britain).

Contenders from a late escape

Of course, not everyone on the startline will be working towards a bunch sprint. There will be plenty of nations whose best chance of a medal lies with an opportunistic attack. Some of the riders mentioned above have a good chance of winning this way — Sagan, Kwiatkowski, Boasson Hagen — but so do a number of others.

France has too very compelling options when it comes to an opportunistic attack. Lilian Calmejane has had a breakout season, winning a stage at the Tour de France and no fewer than three stage races as well. Two of those stage races were won off the back of solo stage victories, the other after he won the sprint from a breakaway. Calmejane is a super-aggressive rider that needs to be watched.

Likewise with Julian Alaphilippe, a rider who is equally at home in a small-group sprint and getting away on his own. Alaphilippe was third at Milan-San Remo this year after making the winning move with Sagan and Kwiatkowski, and he won a stage of the Vuelta a España after getting away solo. A dangerous rider.

Alaphilippe made the winning move in this year’s Milan-San Remo and finished third behind Kwiatkowski and Sagan.

Few that saw it will forget Philippe Gilbert’s Tour of Flanders win earlier this season. The Belgian spent some 55km off the front on his own to ride to what was an astounding solo victory. While Greg Van Avermaet will be Belgium’s man for the final sprint on Sunday, having a rider like Gilbert to try and get away late is a great luxury.

And that’s to say nothing of the rest of Belgium’s stacked line-up. Oliver Naesen, Dylan Teuns, Jasper Stuyven, Tim Wellens, Tiesj Benoot, Jens Keukeleire — these are all riders that are well capable of getting away and having an impact on the race.

Dylan Teuns has had a breakout season for BMC. Here he is winning stage 3 of the Tour of Poland after a late solo move.

The Dutch also bring a strong line-up and one that will be looking for escape opportunities rather than a bunch sprint. Among the team’s best chances are Lars Boom, who won a stage of the recent BinckBank Tour solo, or Niki Terpstra, who rode away late in the 2014 Paris-Roubaix to win his first Monument.

Other compelling prospects for a late move include Nikias Arndt (Germany), Daryl Impey (South Africa), Michael Valgren (Denmark), Alessandro De Marchi (Italy), Rui Costa (Portugal), new ITT world champion Tom Dumoulin (Netherlands) and Rigoberto Uran (Colombia).

Watching the race

The 2017 Road World Championships are being broadcast live around the world, both on TV and online. The UCI has published a handy list of each nation’s broadcaster — check it out to see where and when you can catch coverage in your neck of the woods.

Australian viewers will be able to catch the elite men’s road race live on SBS Viceland and streaming via SBS OnDemand from 6pm AEST on Sunday night.

For countries that won’t have a live TV broadcast of the World Championships, you’ll be able to livestream the elite men’s road race (as with all other events) via the UCI’s YouTube channel.

If you’re following the racing on Twitter, the hashtag you’ll need is #Bergen2017.

Who’s your pick for the elite men’s road race at the 2017 Road World Championships?

Follow the link for a provisional startlist for the elite men’s road race at the 2017 Road World Championships. Stay posted to Ella CyclingTips for a preview of the elite women’s road race.
* Jeannie Longo won four World Championship road races in a row: 1985-7 and 1989 (there was no women’s road race in 1988).

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