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by Matt de Neef
September 27, 2019
The 2019 Road World Championships conclude this Sunday with the elite men’s road race. It’s one of the biggest and most important days of racing on the men’s calendar and it’s the race that decides who will wear the rainbow bands for the next year. Ahead of Sunday’s race, here’s your guide to the course, how the race might play out, the contenders, and how you can tune in.
It’s the second-longest race on the professional men’s calendar.
At 280km, Sunday’s race is longer than all but one other race: Milan-San Remo (291km). The extreme distance means riders are in for a solid seven hours in the saddle.
The race comprises a big opening lap then a bunch of finishing circuits.
Like the elite women, the elite men start with a long jaunt through the Yorkshire countryside. From Leeds the race heads north west to Skipton, up north into the Yorkshire Dales, then east and south towards Harrogate. All up it’s about 180km of winding, ever-lumpy and often-narrow country roads from the start to Harrogate where, with about 97km to go, the riders will commence seven laps of the 13.8km finishing circuit.
There’s 3,645m of climbing on the day.
That’s not as much as a race like Liege-Bastogne-Liege or a Grand Tour mountain stage, but it’s still a very lumpy day out. A look at the profile (see below) shows a race that’s constantly up and down, with a multitude of short and sometimes-steep ascents for the riders to tackle.
The opening loop features three notable climbs. The first, Cray/Kidstones, averages 3.4km at 4.7% and peaks 64km into the race. Buttertubs peaks after 100km and is 4.5km at 5.5%, while Grinton Moor is 3km at 6.7% and tops out after about 125km.
All of these climbs are a long way from the finish and are unlikely to have a meaningful impact on the race. The finishing circuit, however, is a different story.
The Harrogate circuit features nine short climbs of different lengths.
The shortest climb is just a couple hundred metres long at about 5%, the longest is 1.6km at 3.4%. In short, these climbs aren’t super hard, but they are numerous, meaning they’ll have a sapping effect on the peloton, particularly as the pace increases in the closing laps.
The last 650m is gently uphill.
The race ends with a tricky little drag to the line. It starts off relatively steep (7.5% or so), flattens off briefly with about 400m to go, and then rises gently for the last few hundred metres.
A reduced bunch sprint or late attack is likely to decide the race.
Given the frequency and volume of climbing, it’s hard to see a big group reaching the finish for a bunch gallop. The peloton should thin right down as the kilometres tick by and as riders drop out the back of the bunch. This is your classic (and cliched) “race of attrition”.
The winner is likely to come from a reduced bunch sprint, or from a late attack (either solo or in a small group). And with so many climbs throughout the race, and particularly in the closing circuit, there are many potential launchpads for a winning move.
The steepest part of the final ramp is likely to be a crunch point. As the riders turn right onto the finishing straight the gradient is steep enough to force a meaningful selection, but it’s far enough from the line that most riders won’t be able to hit the front here and hold on. Someone like Van der Poel might, though …
The riders race in national teams, rather than in trade teams.
Worlds is one of only a few races throughout the year where riders leave their trade team responsibilities behind (mostly) and instead represent their country. The result is a different dynamic to what we see at most races — the big cycling nations (e.g. The Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Spain) have the strongest teams with the most riders, and therefore the most cards to play.
Trade team loyalties don’t die easily, though, and it’s not uncommon to see riders of different nationalities helping each other out on occasion. Similarly, it’s not uncommon to see a lack of unity among national teams. Just look at the Australian team in Richmond in 2015, or Spain in Tuscany in 2013.
(Pro tip for identifying riders at Worlds: most will wear their trade team helmet and ride their trade team bike. The combination of trade team gear plus national colours can help you deduce which rider is which. For example, Great Britain kit with Mitchelton-Scott helmet? That’ll be Adam Yates. Aussie kit with Katusha-Alpecin helmet? That’ll be Nathan Haas).
Note Valverde’s Spanish kit plus his Movistar-branded helmet and bike.
Mathieu Van der Poel is probably the #1 favourite.
Everything points towards the Yorkshire course being perfectly suited to the Dutchman. The frequent ups and downs make the course quite similar to the Amstel Gold Race, a race Van der Poel won with one of the most remarkable come-from-behind wins we’ve seen in a long time. It also finishes with an uphill drag which, as we saw at the Tour of Britain a few weeks back, suits Van der Poel perfectly.
The 24-year-old won three stages and the overall at that race. All three stage wins came on uphill sprints. He didn’t just wait until the last moment before pouncing, either. Like his compatriot Marianne Vos, Van der Poel is happy to go early, and strong enough to hold everyone off once he does. See his win on stage 7 for a perfect example.
Van der Poel has been doing a lot of winning this year, including at the recent Tour of Britain.
Van der Poel has proven over and over that he has a strong sprint, but as he’s done so often on the cyclocross track, he’s more than happy to go it alone too if he feels that’s his best chance at victory. It will be interesting to see how he plays his cards on Sunday. A reduced bunch sprint probably suits him best (and he has a strong team to help nudge the race in that direction) but you just never know.
Julian Alaphilippe is the other five-star favourite.
It feels like the Frenchman has won just about every race he’s set his mind to this year. Milan-San Remo, Strade Bianche, Fleche Wallonne, a stage of the Tour (not to mention his yellow jersey exploits) — it’s been a career-best year for a man who only seems to be getting better with each passing season.
Alaphilippe is incredibly versatile. He can win a reduced bunch sprint (see Milan-San Remo), he can go it alone and win solo (see stage 3 of this year’s Tour de France), he can climb, he can descend. He’s simply an excellent bike racer who’s very hard to keep down.
Alaphilippe took a great solo win on stage 3 of this year’s Tour de France.
While Van der Poel might fancy his chances from a reduced bunch gallop, Alaphilippe might be more interested in getting clear by himself or in a small group. That’s not easy to do, of course, but if anyone can do it, Alaphilippe can. Throw in a strong team that includes some very in-form riders — Remi Cavagna won a stage of the Vuelta, Benoit Cosnefroy won the Tour du Limousin recently — and you’ve got a great chance of a French medal, if not a world title.
Alejandro Valverde has a genuine chance of going back-to-back.
The Spanish veteran won on the uber-hilly Innsbruck course last year and is just as likely to win on the lumpy roads of Yorkshire a year later. His prowess in uphill sprints is beyond question — four Liege-Bastogne-Liege titles and five Fleche Wallonne wins, anyone? — and he showed at the recent Vuelta that he’s in red-hot form. At 39 years old Valverde won a stage and finished second overall — clearly his age isn’t slowing him down yet.
Valverde has a strong team around him — Luis Leon Sanchez, the Izaguirre brothers, Marc Soler, Jose Joaquin Rojas, Ivan Garcia and Imanol Erviti are all classy bike riders and all should be riding in support of Valverde. Garcia is a handy understudy if Valverde isn’t up to the task — he was third on the uphill finish at the recent GP de Montreal.
Valverde has said that last year’s Worlds course suited him better (he won in Innsbruck) but he’s definitely in with a shot on Sunday.
Peter Sagan shouldn’t be ruled out of taking a fourth world title.
Sagan hasn’t had his best year ever but it would be folly to write him off on Sunday. Lumpy races with an uphill drag to the line have Sagan written all over them and were it not for his relatively sub-par year, he’d probably be the main favourite.
Sagan was second on the uphill finish at the GP de Quebec earlier this month, suggesting he’s not far off the mark. It would be little surprise to see him step up on the big stage, yet again, and become the only male rider to win four road race world titles. On paper, his relatively weak Slovakian team could put him at a disadvantage, but if there’s anything we’ve learnt from watching Sagan in recent years it’s that he needs barely any team support to perform well. He’s a very good chance.
Sagan already has three world titles to his name. A fourth would put him at the top of the tree.
The Belgian team is absolutely stacked with potential winners.
The women’s road race has a ridiculous Dutch team; the men’s race has a ridiculous Belgian team. It would be fascinating to sit in on the Belgian team meeting before the race — of the eight riders on the squad, seven are proven winners, and at least three have a very good chance on Sunday.
Greg Van Avermaet is probably Belgium’s best chance of a gold medal. The Olympic champ won the GP de Montreal just a few weeks back and was third at the GP de Quebec. Both are uphill finishes similar to that at Worlds.
For a guy who was once known as something of an almost-man, Van Avermaet has certainly found a way to win big races in recent years. If it comes to a reduced bunch sprint or a small group, and Van Avermaet is there, he’s as good a chance as any.
Van Avermaet won the recent GP de Montreal.
Philippe Gilbert is probably a few years past his best now, but the 2012 World Champion is still a very dangerous contender. He’s coming off two stage wins at the Vuelta a España and clearly brings good form to Yorkshire.
Where Van Avermaet might be best served waiting for a reduced bunch sprint or an elite selection towards the very end, Gilbert might be tempted to go on the attack a little earlier. We’ve seen him go long-range to great effect — remember the 2017 Tour of Flanders? – and even if he doesn’t win, a Gilbert attack will certainly shake-up the peloton, forcing others to chase — and that only helps Van Avermaet.
A late attack on stage 12 of the recent Vuelta netted Gilbert a stage win.
And then there’s Remco Evenepoel. It’s crazy to think that last year he was still racing in the junior ranks, obliterating the field in seemingly every race. Now nearly 10 months into his neo-pro season, having skipped the U23 ranks, the 19-year-old has already won the Belgium Tour, the European time trial title, taken silver in the elite Worlds ITT, and won the WorldTour Clasica San Sebastian, solo.
That last win is particularly instructive. He rode away from and held off some very good bike racers that day. If he gets the chance to go on the attack on Sunday, his rivals need to chase him down right away.
At 19, in his first season out of the junior ranks, Remco Evenepoel won the WorldTour Clasica San Sebastian, solo.
As if those three weren’t enough, Belgium also has serial escape artist Tim Wellens (top 10 in both Quebec and Montreal), Dylan Teuns (a Tour de France stage winner this year), Yves Lampaert (who just won the Tour of Slovakia) and Oliver Naesen (who recently won a stage of the Binck Bank Tour). It’s a truly stacked line-up, and a team that has cards to play regardless of how the race shakes out. The Belgian camp should be disappointed if they don’t leave Sunday’s race without a medal.
Michael Matthews has been close a bunch of times and is a big chance yet again.
In 2015 he was second. In 2016 he was fourth. In 2017 he was third. Matthews is due for a win at Worlds, and that’s very possible this Sunday.
The Aussie recently won the GP de Quebec for the second time in a row, proving yet again that he’s one of the best in the world on tough uphill drags. He’ll have the full support of a strong Aussie line-up which includes the likes of Jack Haig, Nathan Haas, Mitch Docker and recently re-crowned time trial world champ, Rohan Dennis.
Matthews took the win at the recent GP de Quebec.
Simon Clarke will lead the squad as road captain, but is also a very dangerous #2 if Matthews is unable to contest the win. Clarke has had a great year, taking second at Amstel Gold Race (behind Van der Poel), ninth at Milan-San Remo, plus two third-place finishes at the recent Tour of Britain. Another strong performance wouldn’t be a great surprise if it’s required of him.
Alexey Lutsenko has timed his run perfectly.
The Kazakh champion comes to Yorkshire off the back of his best season ever, and having won two races this month alone. He won both the Coppa Sabatini and Memorial Marco Pantani, both with late moves, to add to his overall victory at the Arctic Race of Norway back in August. He’ll probably be looking to make his move in the closing laps, and could be very dangerous if he does.
Alexey Lutsenko winning the Coppa Sabatini.
Matteo Trentin is in very promising form but might be scarred from the Tour of Britain.
Trentin too, has built his form beautifully into Yorkshire with victory at the Trofeo Matteotti last week, plus second overall at the Tour of Britain. Trentin won a stage at the latter and finished on the podium five times in eight stages. The only problem was the bloke who finished ahead of him, both overall and on a bunch of stages.
There was a memorable moment on stage 7 when Trentin followed Van der Poel’s early sprint on the uphill finish and looked to be beautifully placed. But then Van der Poel rode Trentin off his wheel and away to victory, prompting the Italian to throw his hands in the air as if to say “I did everything I could. This guy is just too good.”
Trentin is a great sprinter in hard, hilly races, including uphill finishes, and he’s in great form, but Van der Poel had his measure at the Tour of Britain. It’s hard to imagine Trentin not having that in mind on Sunday as they head towards the closing laps. All that said, the Italian is capable of victory if things fall his way, and certainly capable of a podium if he times things right.
Denmark has a very strong line-up with some genuine contenders.
Jakob Fuglsang has had the best season of his career, with overall victory at the Criterium du Dauphine, a stage of the Vuelta a España and a win at Liege-Bastogne-Liege. That one-day victory will give the Dane great confidence ahead of Sunday’s race. It has a similar parcours — lots of short climbs — and there Fuglsang was able to ride away from the likes of Alaphilippe to take a great victory.
A solo attack is probably his best shot at victory on Sunday too and it would be a surprise not to see him try something late.
Fuglsang winning this year’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
Kasper Asgreen has been one of this season’s breakout riders, highlighted by a stage win at the Tour of California and a plucky second on a stage of the Tour (after dragging the peloton around France for two weeks). He too can go it alone and is dangerous if he does so.
Throw the fast-finishing Magnus Cort and the attacking all-rounder Michael Valgren (fifth in Montreal) into the mix and you’ve got a solid Danish line-up.
A few other nations have potential contenders.
Geraint Thomas (Great Britain) pulled out of the Worlds time trial to focus on the road race and he’ll be one to keep an eye on. We think of Thomas as a Grand Tour rider these days but let’s not forget that he was a very good one-day Classics rider before he turned to three-week racing.
Great Britain will have its national champion Ben Swift for a reduced bunch kick if the race goes that way, which will probably free Thomas up to go on the attack at some point. Bear in mind that Thomas has a good sprint for a Grand Tour GC contender, so if he can get in a small group late in proceedings, he’ll be quite dangerous.
Geraint Thomas on his way to winning last year’s Tour de France.
Primoz Roglic (Slovenia) looked tired in the Worlds time trial on Wednesday, losing three minutes to winner Rohan Dennis … which isn’t surprising given the former won the Vuelta and the latter hadn’t raced since July. If Roglic is feeling the effects of fatigue on Sunday he probably won’t feature. If he’s able to conserve energy and feels good towards the end, he could be in the mix, although the course doesn’t really suit him. A late attack might be his best bet?
The same could be said of Roglic’s young compatriot, Tadej Pogacar. The 20-year-old is in great form, having taken three stage wins at the recent Vuelta (his debut Grand Tour), but he’d love a hillier course … and fresher legs.
Daryl Impey (South Africa) is an excellent all-rounder who’s very handy in a reduced bunch sprint. Don’t expect to see him put his nose in the wind until the final sprint … unless he senses an opportunity from a small group. Dangerous.
Norway has the inconsistent but occasionally brilliant Edvald Boasson Hagen. On his day, he can be very good on a course like this.
In the unlikely situation that the race plays out quite defensively, a handful of other sprinters could come into the frame; riders like Sam Bennett (Ireland), Pascal Ackermann (Germany), Alexander Kristoff (Norway) and Alvaro Hodeg (Colombia).
Sam Bennett won a couple of stages at the recent Vuelta. The lumpy course is likely to prove too hard for him, but you never know.
You should be able to catch the race live wherever you are.
Watching Worlds from Australia? Tune in to SBS OnDemand or the Cycling Central website between 5:40pm and 1:10am AEST on Sunday evening. SBS Viceland will also have the broadcast from 10:55pm.
If you’re in the UK, check out BBC Red Button from 8:30am to 11am local time, and BBC Two from 11am to 4:30pm. US viewers will be best served by NBC Sports Gold’s Cycling Pass.
Of course, be sure to check your local guides, and if you don’t have official coverage where you are, you should be able to catch the livestream via the UCI’s YouTube channel.
Want to follow the race on Twitter? The official account is @yorkshire2019 and the official hashtag is #Yorkshire2019.
Who’s your pick to win the 2019 world title?