The Belgian team leading the peloton during the elite men's road race at Imola Worlds in 2020.

Preview: What you need to know about the elite men’s road race at Flanders Worlds

Wout van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel, Julian Alaphilippe, and plenty of other big names are set to battle for the rainbow jersey on Sunday.

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More than five months after the heart of Classics season, the stars of one-day racing are back in Flanders this week for a shot at a world title. The 2021 UCI Road World Championships will conclude with the elite men’s road race on Sunday.

As ever, most of the biggest names in the sport will be in the mix to vie for the rainbow jersey, and this year, we’ll have a chance to see them battle for that title in the bike racing heartland that is Belgium. The stage is set for a great show.

Here’s what you need to know ahead of the race …

The Route

The elite men’s road race at the World Championships covers 268.3 km, starting in Antwerp and finishing Leuven. The geography of the course is best understood accompanied by a map, because the route jumps between two circuits multiple times.

After leaving Antwerp, the peloton will head south to Leuven. There, the riders will do one and a half laps on a Leuven-area circuit, one lap on a larger circuit to the southwest that organizers have dubbed the Flandrien circuit, four more Leuven circuit laps, one more Flandrien circuit lap, and then two and a half Leuven circuit laps to close things out.

Although “Flanders Worlds” may bring the Tour of Flanders to mind, the event heads more into Brabantse Pijl territory. A steady stream of very short but punchy climbs awaits once the pack arrives in Leuven, and the ascents build up to a total elevation gain of 2,562 meters. None of the climbs is all that hard on its own, but most could be a launching pad for a solo attacker or a small group trying to get clear from a tired pack late in the race.

The final trip up the Smeysberg on the Flandrien circuit could be an interesting place for a long-range move, while any one of the Sint-Antoniusberg (ascended three times in the finale), or the Keizersberg, Decouxlan, or Wijnpers climbs (ascended twice in the finale) could see attacks fly. Whatever the size of the lead group in the end, the finish is slightly uphill, which will add another element of intrigue in the waning moments of the race.

It will be interesting to see how the weather affects the racing in Flanders. As of Friday, the forecast calls for rain in the morning, with things likely to clear up as the day goes on, but with the wind picking up in the afternoon as well.

The Favorites

While there are plenty of riders worthy of contender status for the elite men’s road race at Flanders Worlds, it should be a pretty open race with no rider enjoying odds-on status ahead of the field. The nature of the course plays a big role there. Two days out, it’s tough to say whether this will come down to a solo attacker, a small group, or even a reduced bunch sprint. What’s more, this is a Worlds race, meaning that national teams of varying sizes will be tasked with keeping things under control, and that can make things unpredictable, as we saw at the Tokyo Olympics. In other words, there are a lot of names in play as potential winners here.

The one that stands out most of all is Wout van Aert, who headlines a strong home team. Van Aert’s big engine, strong climbing legs, and elite finishing kick make him a potential winner in practically any scenario, and he put his strong form on display with an impressive Tour of Britain and a runner-up ride in the individual time trial at Worlds last Sunday. Belgian fans have reason to be optimistic with a rider who has won Milan-San Remo, the Amstel Gold Race, Gent-Wevelgem, and Strade Bianche leading the way on a course like this.

Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) sprints to his fourth win of the week on stage 8 of the Tour of Britain, snatching the overall title in the eleventh hour.

What’s more, the Belgians have a bit more team firepower than they did in Tokyo to chase down late moves or even try something of their own. Remco Evenepoel, Jasper Stuyven, and Yves Lampaert will make excellent lieutenants and possibly additional cards to play for the squad.

Van Aert’s longtime rival Mathieu van der Poel (Netherlands) is another obvious contender. The course suits him too, with the biggest question mark being his health after he has dealt with back issues for some time now. That said, he won the Antwerp Port Epic earlier this month, and he is Mathieu van der Poel, so it wouldn’t be all that surprising to see him on flying form. While he does have a fast finish of his own, Van der Poel may be best suited to putting in a late attack, so keep an eye out for the Dutchman on the late climbs.

The defending champion, Julian Alaphilippe (France), would probably have preferred a harder course, but if he puts in a big dig on one of the late climbs, he could potentially get clear. He did win Brabante Pijl last year on similar terrain, and strong showings at the Bretagne Classic and the Tour of Britain suggest that he is in fine form.

Julian Alaphilippe en route to victory at Worlds in 2020.

Benoît Cosnefroy will give France a solid second option, with Arnaud Démare also in attendance, hoping to hold on just in case this comes down to a bigger sprint.

Sonny Colbrelli headlines the Italian squad, and he comes into the race on fantastic form after winning the Benelux Tour, the European road title, and the Memorial Marco Pantani. The highest-profile wins have eluded the extremely talented Colbrelli thus far in his career, but this Worlds suits him perfectly. He doesn’t mind a tough day on the bike following by a reduced sprint, and there’s a great chance of that being the way this race plays out. His teammate Matteo Trentin makes for a fine backup option for Italy.

The Danes have perhaps the most interesting squad in this race. The way I see it, there are no fewer than four potential winners in Denmark’s lineup, with Tour of Flanders winner Kasper Asgreen leading the way. Asgreen looked good in the Worlds TT, finishing fourth, only two seconds off the podium. Michael Valgren and Magnus Cort have both put their form on display with recent wins as well, and Mads Pedersen is of course a former world champ who thrives on Classics terrain. If all four are feeling good, Denmark could potentially try make or get into moves with Valgren, Cort, and Asgreen, and look to Pedersen should things end in a bigger sprint. Outside of the Belgians with the top pre-race favorite, the Danes seem like the most likely team to take home the world title, one way or another.

Slovenia also has an intriguing squad with three big names who will all be trying to surge clear of the pack and avoid a sprint. Matej Mohoric, who has a history of thriving on this terrain at the race now known as the Benelux Tour, has enjoyed a great year, taking two Tour de France stages along with a few other big results. And then, of course, there are Tadej Pogačar and Primož Roglič, who are far better one-day racers than we’re used to seeing from Grand Tour champions these days.

Tadej Pogačar and Primož Roglič in action at the Itzulia Basque Country.

If anything, the Slovenians at least have the firepower to make this an interesting race.

Four years ago, Peter Sagan (Slovakia) probably would have been the number one overall favorite for this race, but it’s been some time since he showed the kind of dominance that made him such a strong contender all across the calendar. Still, he’s only 31, and if he’s in form, he certainly has the tools and the experience to be in the mix. Michael Matthews (Australia) is another rider with the versatility and the experience to be a contender. Like Sagan, he would have been more of a favorite a few years ago, but he’s still a rider to watch. Australia also has Caleb Ewan; it’d be a surprise to see him hold on through to the finale, but if he can, he would obviously be a contender in a sprint.

Other outsiders to keep an eye on include Tom Pidcock, Ethan Hayter, and Mark Cavendish (Great Britain), Marc Hirschi (Switzerland), Alexander Kristoff (Norway), and Michal Kwiatkowski (Poland).

We won’t have long to wait now to see how it all plays out. The battle for the elite men’s world road title kicks off on Sunday at 10:25 local time, and by sometime that evening, we’ll know who has earned the right to wear the rainbow bands for the next year.

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