It’s that time of year when ProTour colours are cast away and national loyalties re-engaged – the UCI Road World Championships.
The year sees the world’s finest head Down Under to Geelong, Australia with Sunday’s elite men’s road race the main attraction…
The 262.7km men’s road race course has split opinion since it was announced – will the lumpy finishing circuit in Geelong prove too much for the sprinters jostling for a position on the podium?
A northerly wind is forecast for Sunday, making the possibility of an early split on the 85km run from Melbourne to Geelong very much a reality.
If the peloton arrives in Geelong intact, 11 laps of a 15.9km city circuit will determine the winner – that’s 11 ascents of Challambra Crescent.
Averaging out at approximately eight per cent and peaking at 13 per cent, the short, sharp climb shouldn’t prove difficult early on but will be decisive as the race progresses, attacks fly off the front and legs tire.
A 2.5km descent follows the main climb, leaving the likes of Fabian Cancellara and Thor Hushovd the opportunity to get away from the bunch.
Hats off to the organisers for creating an unpredictable course. Whatever the outcome, expect fireworks.
Manx missile Mark Cavendish proved he has the legs to handle punchy climbs with his 2009 Milan-San Remo victory – safely negotiating the Cipressa and Poggio before overhauling Heinrich Haussler on the finishing straight.
With just a hint of a bunch sprint in the offing, the HTC-Columbia star has been touted as potentially Great Britain’s first world champion since Tom Simpson in 1965 – but the cumulative effect of the Geelong circuit may see the 25-year-old struggle.
“According to what people had been telling me beforehand the rainbow jersey was a possibility, but now that I’ve been able to check it out for myself, I’ll have to revise my ambitions,” he told CyclingNews.
But the question may not even be whether the course is capable of lending itself to a bunch sprint, instead whether the opposition will let Cavendish mop up victory.
Cavendish will have just Jeremy Hunt and David Millar to chaperone him and reel in any breaks – a far cry from the HTC-Columbia train which has so often propelled him to victory.
Should a break get away featuring riders from stronger nations, Hunt and Millar will not be able to dictate the chase, while Cavendish will have to rely on his ability to jump from wheel to wheel in any sprint.
Still, Cavendish is flying, having secured the green jersey at the Vuelta a Espana following two individual stage wins.
And, although unlikely, a bunch sprint is not beyond the realms of possibility, which leaves Cavendish as the fast man to watch.
Classics specialist Philippe Gilbert has been installed as the bookies’ favourite and all signs point to the Belgian sweeping up in Geelong – but road racing is rarely that simple.
The 28-year-old has enjoyed a stellar year to date, claiming two stages – three and 19 – at the Vuelta.
Gilbert was red-hot during the 2010 spring classics, finishing ninth in Milan-San Remo, registering third place finishes in Liège–Bastogne–Liège, Gent–Wevelgem and the Tour of Flanders and taking top spot in the Amstel Gold Race.
The Omega Pharma-Lotto man will be supported by a full complement of team-mates, with only the French and Italian outfits also granted the full quota of riders.
Strength in numbers is the name of Australia’s game with the host nation having a quartet of rainbow jersey candidates in their ranks – Simon Gerrans, Matt Goss, Richie Porte and defending champion Cadel Evans.
The Australian line-up is packed full of talent – and all will know the Geelong circuit better than any other team.
Gerrans has stage wins in all three Grand Tours to his name, Goss has been a key component in HTC-Columbia’s engine this season, Giro d’Italia white jersey winner Porte impressed during the recent Tour of Britain while Evans is seeking to become only the sixth rider to retain the title.
As individual riders, Gerrans, Goss and Porte may not jump out as overall contenders but the Australian firepower should not be underestimated on home soil.
One side note on the Australian team: former rower Drew Ginn – five-times a world champion and triple Olympic gold medallist – will make his cycling World Championship debut.
Italian Filippo Pozzato, another classics specialist, has proved himself to be an aggressive, combative rider who should thrive on the unforgiving finishing circuit.
The 29-year-old is in fine fettle having won the Herald Sun Cycling Classic on Sunday. The Katusha rider was part of a four-strong group that escaped on the sixth of seven laps, before outsprinting Poland’s Maciej Bodnar, Chile’s Carlos Oyarzun Guinez and Fabian Cancellara.
With a full complement of riders, the Italian team also have Vincenzo Nibali to call upon.
Nibali has enjoyed a supreme year, finishing third at the Giro before taking the top sport at the Vuelta.
Who else should I keep an eye on?
Fabian Cancellara – The Swiss is seeking to become the first rider to do the road race and time-trial double in the same year.
Thor Hushovd – This year’s course represents the sprint and classic specialists’ best opportunity of adding the rainbow jersey to his Palmarès.
Tyler Farrar – The American proved at the Vuelta that he has the legs to beat Cavendish in a head-to-head sprint.
Alexandre Vinokourov – Vinokourov’s typically attacking riding lit up the Tour de France and similar form could prove the difference.
Edvald Boasson Hagen – An outside shot, but the Norwegian is the sort of all-round rider who could thrive in Geelong.
Richard Hallett: “The course will suit an all-rounder with a good finishing kick so someone like Luis Leon Sanchez has a chance. Philippe Gilbert is in great form but Fabian Cancellara would be my wild card.”
David Arthur: “I would put my money on Fabian Cancellara. He’s the best descender in the bunch and that could prove the difference on an attack.”
George Scott: “Philippe Gilbert is the rider to beat for me – unoriginal, I know. The course suits him down to the ground and his attacking style is a joy to watch.”
Men’s elite time-trial
The men’s road race may be the show stopper but Thursday’s 45.8km time-trial should be equally fascinating.
Having finished a lowly – by his impeccable standards – third on the Vuelta’s stage 17 time-trial, overwhelming favourite Fabian Cancellara is, by his own admission, some way off the form which propelled him to a third world title in Mendrisio last year in such dominant fashion.
Cancellara has highlighted Richie Porte as his main threat, while Porte’s Australian team-mate Michael Rogers is seeking to add a fourth World Championship gold medal to his collection.
But while Porte and Rogers and worthy contenders, it is German juggernaut Tony Martin who has the power to dethrone Cancellara.
Brit David Millar has a shot at a medal but may be wary of leaving something in the tank for the road race.
Any other Brits to look out for?
Reigning European under-23 time-trial champion Alex Dowsett, who has just signed for Team Sky, goes in Wednesday’s 31.8km under-23 time-trial.
Olympic silver medallist Emma Pooley will need to maintain her 2010 form if she is to emulate her Beijing success on Wednesday’s 22.9km women’s time-trial. One from Sharon Laws, Nicole Cooke, and Emma Trott will take Great Britain’s second spot.
Friday sees Dowsett, Andy Fenn, Jonny McEvoy and Luke Rowe line-up for Team GB in the men’s under-23 road race. Jonny Bellis grabbed bronze in 2007 while Peter Kennaugh was fourth last year.
But forget Cavendish et al; Great Britain’s best chance of a medal comes in the women’s road race, when any one of Pooley, Laws, Olympic champion Nicole Cooke and Lizzie Armitstead – in great nick having finished third at the Tour de l’Ardèche – could take gold.