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As ever, the elite men’s road race is the final event in the 2018 Road World Championships. It’s set to be a bruising encounter with the most climber-friendly course we’ve seen in more than two decades. It means that Peter Sagan is unlikely to win a record-extending fourth-straight world title and it also means that we’ve got a fascinating contest to look forward to.
Ahead of Sunday’s event we take you through the course, the contenders, and how you can catch all the action.
If we had to describe the men’s road race course in one word, that word would be “brutal”. At 252.9km long with 4,670m of climbing it’s the Worlds course with the greatest elevation gain since the mid-1990s.
There’s well over 60km of climbing for the riders to contend with, much of it at very steep grades.
The course can be broken down into three distinct sections:
1. Kufstein to Innsbruck (84.7km): This opening section isn’t flat, but it certainly isn’t as tough as the kilometres that follow. Winding its way through the valley to the host city of Innsbruck this opening section only features one notable climb: the 2.7km Gnadenwald ascent which comes after roughly 60km and averages 10%.
2. Six laps of the ‘Olympic Circuit’ (142.8km): This is the heart of the course — half a dozen times around a punishing circuit near Innsbruck. Each lap is 23.8km long and features a 7.9km climb that averages 6% and maxes out at 10%.
3. One longer lap including the Höttinger Höll climb (31km): This final circuit is essentially another Olympic circuit with the nasty Höttinger Höll climb tacked on. And the climb is nasty: it’s 3.2km long at an average gradient of 11.5%. At its steepest it gets to a leg-snapping 28%.
In all, that’s seven ascents of the Olympic Circuit climb plus one ascent of the Höttinger Höll climb. There’s no denying that it’s an extremely challenging circuit and one that will ensure that only the strongest riders have a chance at victory.
If it wasn’t clear from the above, this is a course that suits the climbers — something of a rarity at Worlds. So how might the race unfold?
Expect a breakaway to get clear in that opening section from Kufstein down to Innsbruck, likely featuring riders from the smaller cycling nations or riders that aren’t deemed by the peloton to be a threat of a breakaway victory. It might take a while for a proper breakaway to get clear — the terrain suits itself to a breakaway more than a flatter course and the big teams will likely be attentive early to ensure no big threats get clear (read more on the teams below).
The ‘Olympic Circuit’ is where we’ll likely see the peloton thinned right down as the weaker riders are unable to match the world’s best uphill. And once we get into those final laps and the last, longer circuit? Well, it’s anyone’s guess from there.
Expect there to be plenty of attacks in the closing kilometres with riders trying to go long range. Just as likely though is that it’s an elite reduced peloton (say 20-30 riders) that reaches the final two climbs and that’s when it all kicks off.
Look for plenty of attacks on the final of the seven circuit climbs, and of course, on the Höttinger Höll climb. That final ascent is super steep and peaks just 8.3km from the finish. From there it’s a very technical descent of roughly 6km before 2km of flat road to the finish.
It’s hard to imagine more than half a dozen riders getting to the line together. Perhaps the most likely scenario is that a solo rider will get a gap over the top of that final climb and be able to ride clear to victory.
The Worlds road race isn’t like most road races, for a number of reasons. For a start, it’s raced by national teams rather than trade teams. And unlike at the vast majority of races, where each team has an equal number of riders, Worlds isn’t an equal playing field.
The number of riders a country can take to Worlds is determined by the UCI World Rankings, with the strongest teams getting the most riders. The top 10 nations get eight riders, the next 10 get six, the following 10 get four, and the next 20 nations get a single rider.
Here’s how the quotas look for this year’s road race:
8 riders: Italy, Belgium, France, Great Britain, Netherlands, Spain, Colombia, Australia, Denmark and Slovenia.
6 riders: Germany, Norway, Slovakia, Poland, Switzerland, Ireland, Czech Republic, Russia, Austria and Luxembourg.
4 riders: Portugal, USA, South Africa, New Zealand, Canada, Kazakhstan, Ecuador, Latvia, Belarus and Estonia.
1 rider: Ukraine, Eritrea, Japan, Argentina, Algeria, Rwanda, Iran, Romania, Croatia, Costa Rica, Turkey, Hong Kong, Venezuela, Lithuania, Sweden, Morocco, Azerbaijan, Greece, South Korea, and Brazil.
So what does this all mean for the race? It’s hard to say. On paper, having more riders means more firepower to close down attacks and breakaways that don’t suit a team plan, and greater control over the race more generally. In practice though, it’s debatable whether having extra numbers means as much as people think.
Peter Sagan has won the past three Worlds without a full-strength line-up, instead relying on his ability to follow decisive moves and dictate terms himself. Sure, not everyone’s as freakishly talented as Sagan, but the nature of the Innsbruck course could serve to reduce the potency of the bigger teams. That is, when it comes to the crunch in the closing circuits, it will likely be down to the strongest climbers anyway. Team support is likely to be defined not by how many riders you had on the startline, but how many gun climbers are left when it counts.
It’s also worth remembering that for the vast majority of the year, riders race in trade teams rather than national teams. Trade team allegiances don’t disappear easily and it’s not uncommon to see riders of different nations with one another. (Then there’s the issue of compatriots not working together as well as they should. Just ask the Spanish team from the 2013 Worlds.)
As ever with road racing it’s difficult to predict how a race will unfold, let alone who will win it. But here are a handful of riders and nations with a great chance of victory:
If there’s one nation that stands out as the favourite for Sunday it’s France. Julian Alaphillipe, Romain Bardet and Thibaut Pinot are all expected to start and all could realistically win the race.
Alaphilippe has arguably been the world’s most versatile and most impressive rider in the past 12 months and has been winning all over the place. He won two mountain stages at the Tour de France (both solo from the day-long breakaway) on his way to winning the KOM jersey and since then has won Clasica San Sebastian, the Tour of Britain and Oko Slovenska. Add to that his win at Fleche Wallonne, plus stage wins in the hilly Itzulia Basque Country and Colombia Oro y Paz, and there’s little doubt of Alaphilippe’s class in hilly bike races.
If he can get away on his own late in proceedings, and if he leads into that final descent, he should win. He’s one of the best descenders in the peloton and arguably the #1 favourite for Sunday.
Romain Bardet can also descend like a demon and is among the world’s best climbers. Pinot is similarly impressive uphill, but unlike his teammates he’s not nearly as proficient downhill. He’ll need to get away with a decent lead over the top — not impossible given his climbing form at the recent Vuelta a España where he won two stages.
In short, France has a stacked line-up with three stellar options. Sending Alaphilippe up the road with Bardet and Pinot lying in wait sounds like a pretty solid strategy.
Alejandro Valverde (Spain)
We’ve seen some exciting battles between Alaphilippe and Valverde in recent years and we might get to see another on Sunday. If Alaphilippe isn’t the most versatile rider in the men’s peloton then Valverde is. The Spanish veteran is able to fight with the best in the mountains and able to win the sprint from a small group at the end of a long, hard day — two skills which might be necessary on Sunday.
While he’s never worn the rainbow bands before, Valverde has a record total of six Worlds road race podiums — four times third and twice second. Coming between 2003 and 2014, these results show Valverde’s consistency, longevity and his ability to perform on the big stage. And with 13 wins for the year, including two stage wins at the Vuelta, he’s clearly in great form.
If Valverde’s there in the leading group at the end, there will be few that can beat him.
Note that Spain also takes a very strong line-up to the race. In addition to Valverde the Spaniards have Ion Izagirre, Jesús Herrada, Mikel Nieve, David de la Cruz, Jonathan Castroviejo and Vuelta runner-up, Enric Mas. Mas in particular is worth keeping an eye on — the 23-year-old showed at the Vuelta that he can beat the best uphill, and has a good sprint too.
Primoz Roglic (Slovenia)
For the first time ever Slovenia will start the Worlds road race with a full complement of eight riders. They’ll do so with Roglic as their lone leader, and a leader that’s thrown everything at this road race. His decision to skip the Worlds time trial (where he was second last year) shows his commitment.
While the Slovenian squad lacks the depth of some other nations, their leader is no slouch. While Roglic was fourth overall at the Tour de France this year, it’s his win on stage 19 that’s perhaps most relevant to Worlds. Roglic climbed with the best in the world before riding away from his rivals on the descent. He won’t have such a long descent after the final climb at Worlds, but he’s still a major threat.
Simon Yates (Great Britain)
The Brits will start the road race without Giro d’Italia winner Chris Froome and Tour de France winner Geraint Thomas and yet they will still have one of the big favourites: Vuelta a España winner Simon Yates.
There can be little doubting Yates’ form. He was the best climber at the Vuelta, winning one stage, and was far and away the best climber at the Giro earlier this year, before he blew up spectacularly while in the pink jersey.
Yates will be very hard to distance uphill. Quite the opposite — others might well find him hard to stick with, if recent form and aggression is anything to go on. Yates has a penchant for going solo in hilly races and it would be no great shock to see him do likewise on Sunday.
Yates’ twin brother Adam is worthy of a mention too. The former Tour of Turkey winner rode himself into some good form at the Vuelta and was particularly strong on the final mountain stage supporting his brother. He might again be in a support role on Sunday or he might be given his own opportunity. Either way, the Great Britain team is strong.
Another powerhouse cycling nation, Colombia has several great cards to play. Miguel Angel Lopez brings great form into the race after finishing third at the recent Vuelta and is a genuine threat in any hilly race he enters. He will perhaps be Colombia’s best chance of a medal.
That said, Rigoberto Uran can climb with the best of them, and can win from a small, select group (see stage 9 of the 2017 Tour de France). Nairo Quintana, while not at his best of late, is capable of just about anything on his day. Sergio Henao shouldn’t be discounted either.
This is a Worlds course that suits the Colombians perfectly and it would be a shock if they didn’t have a significant role to play, particularly in the closing kilometres.
Michal Kwiatkowski (Poland)
‘Kwiato’ probably didn’t have the Vuelta he was hoping for, particularly after taking red so early, but it would be folly not to consider him among the contenders for Sunday. The 2014 world champion has a terrific sprint from a small group in long, hard one-day races, and it’s clear he’s improved his climbing considerably in recent years.
The question will likely be whether the Tour of Poland winner can match it with the pure climbers on the final ascents. If he doesn’t think he can, we might see him attack from a little further out, a move that would surely prompt some action from those behind.
Tom Dumoulin, Bauke Mollema, Wout Poels, Steven Kruijswijk, Wilco Kelderman — it’s a pretty impressive Dutch line-up. The team will likely ride for 2017 Giro d’Italia winner Dumoulin but with Mollema and Poels in free roles.
The Dutch are one of 10 teams taking a full eight-man squad to Innsbruck and you can expect they’ll be typically present and effective in the key moments. Look for Mollema to try getting up the road and for Dumoulin to stick with the big favourites until the final climb.
If Vincenzo Nibali was at his best, he’d be among the top favourites. But the Sicilian’s recovery from a vertebrae fracture at the Tour de France has been long and slow and he admits he’s not sure where he’s at. Instead it will likely be Gianni Moscon that is Italy’s best chance of victory.
The controversial 24-year-old has been in impressive form of late, winning the Coppa Agostoni and Giro della Toscana this month. He’s among the most versatile riders in the peloton and a proven performer in one-day races. Can he make over the many climbs in contention with the favourites? It’s not clear. One thing that is clear: if he wants to win, he’ll need to make sure he resists the urge to grab onto a team car or take a swipe at any of his rivals.
Don’t forget about pure climber Domenico Pozzovivo either. In short, Italy has a strong line-up with several good cards to play. Who knows: Nibali might even find some form when it counts. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time.
Michael Woods (Canada)
Woods will have just three teammates to support him but don’t rule him out. The Canadian has a massive engine and is one of the very best in the world on super-steep climbs. He showed that on stage 17 of the Vuelta where he rode to an emotional solo victory. Don’t be surprised if he can open a gap on the Höttinger Höll. The question might be whether his descending is good enough to hold a gap all the way to the finish.
Dan Martin (Ireland)
Martin’s been quiet since the Tour de France, where he notched up another top-10 finish, but this dogged Irishman should not be overlooked on Sunday. He should be fine on the mountainous course, and the final steep ascent should suit him reasonably well. He’s perhaps an outside chance, but not a rider to let up the road.
Several nations head to Innsbruck without a big-name favourite but instead with an outside chance at victory. Here are a few:
There was a feeling of “not again” among Aussie cycling fans when the news came through of Richie Porte’s withdrawal from Worlds. It hasn’t been the best few months for the Tasmanian. The result is that Australia starts Worlds with a full squad of eight great riders but no genuine leader.
Rather than helping to control the race for Porte, the Aussies will now have to be more opportunistic. Simon Clarke won a stage of the Vuelta from the breakaway and might be tempted to get up the road. Jack Haig has had his best season yet and is climbing very strongly. Newly crowned world time trial champion Rohan Dennis is capable of just about anything. It will be fascinating to see how the Aussies play their cards and what sort of impact they can have on the race.
Ben King (USA)
The USA will only have four riders on the startline come Sunday, but among them is at least one potent threat. Ben King showed at the Vuelta what he can do when he’s given an opportunity, winning two stages from the breakaway. You’d think he’ll be looking to slip away again at Worlds. A win is unlikely, but who would have thought he’d win a stage at the Vuelta, let alone two?
Omar Fraile (Spain)
While Valverde and Mas will be the Spaniards attracting the most attention, their compatriot Omar Fraile could well slip under the radar. Fraile has won a Tour stage and a Giro stage from breakaways in the mountains, and that might be what he tries to do on Sunday. Other nations won’t want to give him too much rope, that’s for sure.
Ever a powerhouse at Worlds, Belgium comes to Sunday’s race without a five-star favourite. Instead they have a team of world-class opportunists — riders that have a knack of getting away at the right moment and making a move stick. Looking for a rider to get in the early break before going solo? Serge Pauwels is a great option. Looking for plucky riders to attack later? Tim Wellens is one of the best in the world, and Tiesj Benoot is no slouch either. Greg van Avermaet and Dylan Teuns are also capable of great things.
On paper the course doesn’t suit the Belgians terribly well, but with this much class in the line-up they’re hardly like to sit back and do nothing.
Peter Sagan (Slovakia)
Ok, so the chances of Sagan winning are very slim. Maybe if he’d looked good in the mountains at the Vuelta it might be a different story but that crash at the Tour seems to have done more damage than first thought.
Regardless, it will be great to see how the three-time reigning champ goes about his business. What does he think will be his best chance of victory? And how will he go about doing that? A fourth-straight win would be a near miracle but it would be quite something if it happened.
Wherever you are reading this from, you’ll almost certainly have access to a live broadcast of Sunday’s road race. In Australia, SBS Cycling Central has the livestream from 5:30pm AEST, with TV coverage on SBS Viceland from 11:05pm. The Olympic Channel has the broadcast in the U.S. and the BBC will be showing it in the UK.
Want more information, or watching from outside these jurisdictions? Check out this broadcast guide from the UCI. And if there’s no live broadcast scheduled in your country, be aware that you can stream the race live via the UCI’s YouTube Channel.
If you’re on Twitter and you’re looking for the official Worlds hashtag, it’s #InnsbruckTirol2018.
Who’s your pick to win the elite men’s road race at the 2018 Road World Championships? And how will it be won?