Mark Cavendish will defend the rainbow jersey of world road race champion on Sunday (23).
The Manx Missile, who has racked up 15 wins in the rainbow jersey won in Copenhagen last year, will not be favoured to extend his tenure as world champion.
The 265 kilometre course in Limburg, Netherlands, ends with 10 laps of a punishing 16.5 circuit that includes 10 ascents of the 900 metre Bemelerberg and the 1.2km, Cauberg, the concluding ramp of the Amstel Gold Race.
Riders who can combine the explosive finish of Cavendish and his fellow sprinters with the strength demanded by short, steep climbs will be more fancied than the Manxman for victory on Sunday.
We’ll consider the teams of three nations: Great Britain, and two with a strong chance of producing the winner – Belgium and Spain.
British Cycling has yet to announce who will lead the Great Britain team. They have a wealth of talent in their nine-man squad but none entirely suited to the task at hand, if past results are a guide.
Bradley Wiggins must surely be among the most versatile of all champions, with Olympic track and time trial titles and the most prestigious stage race victories on his palmares, but, his 2011 national road race title aside, he has not won any major one day races.
Is now the time to start? Wiggins says he will ride in service of the team, but he will be well rested, having completed just five days racing since his victory in the Tour de France in July. His performances in the Tour of Britain showed he has lost little form, despite a stomach bug from which he is now recovered, while his stage one victory in the Tour de Romandie, showed he has the mettle for a bunch finish. It’s perhaps far fetched to consider Wiggins a contender for victory on Sunday, but the prospect of a unique Tour de France, Olympic time trial, worlds ‘Triple Crown’, however remote, is an enticing one for British fans.
Chris Froome is perhaps a more likely candidate to lead the team. His performance in the Tour de France, where he finished runner up to Wiggins after guiding his leader through the mountains, has rightly made him one of Great Britain’s senior riders. He is an explosive climber of the sort expected to do well on Sunday. The residual effects of a long season with two Grand Tours appear to be his only handicap.
An outside bet? Jon Tiernan-Locke, fresh from overall victory in the Tour of Britain, and expected to be confirmed as Team Sky’s newest member, perhaps replacing an outgoing Cavendish, excels on short, steep climbs, as victories this season in the Tour de Mediterranean, the Tour d’Alsace, and the Tour of Britain have shown. At 265km, and with a quality of field greater than any he has previously encountered, assuming the mantle of protected rider for Sunday’s contest may be a step too far at this stage of his career.
Belgium, home of many of the great one day Classic races, will field a team of specialists in the discipline, and are likely to pursue a twin-pronged attack, supporting whichever of their two strongest riders is in contention at the denouement.
Philippe Gilbert is the choice of many observers. Last year’s world number one and ‘king of the Classics’, the Wallonian suffered a difficult start to 2012, where a move to BMC Racing coincided with a loss of form. Or so we thought. Recent results, including two wins in the Vuelta a Espana, hint at a different scenario, one in which Gilbert has planned his entire season to peak for this race, a contest that ends at the scene of his Amstel Gold Race triumph of last year.
Gilbert’s principle rival may be his teammate, Tom Boonen, the 2005 world champion, whose achievements this year place him among the great Classics riders of all time. Victory in both the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix made him the first rider to complete this remarkable double twice in a career. He also notched up a record fifth victory at E3 Harelbeke and a record-equalling third win at Gent Wevelgem. Just two weeks ago, he won Paris-Brussels.
At 82kg, Boonen may be too large to maintain a sustained assault on the brutal ramps of the Bemelerberg and Cauberg, the latter a 1.2km slope with an average gradient of seven per cent and a peak of 12 per cent. The obvious omission from his formidable palamares is a victory in an Ardennes Classic.
One rider who has triumphed in the Ardennes this season, and who has a stature and talent ideally suited to Sunday’s contest, is Spain’s Joaquin Rodriguez, a man who, like, Boonen, is enjoying the best season of his career. Significantly perhaps, his first victory of the season came at La Fleche Walloone in a sprint to the top of the Mur de Huy. His recent performance in the Vuelta a Espana, where he finished third overall after 13 days in the red jersey of race leader, notching up three stage wins, showed he will enter the worlds in good form.
Like Belgium, Spain has more than one contender. Alberto Contador ultimately enjoyed a more successful Vuelta than Rodriguez, although ‘Purito’ was his superior on many occasions. ‘El Pistolero’ may be better suited to longer climbs than the worlds’ course will supply. Alejandro Valverde, runner up in the Vuelta, and winner of stage three, will also start among the favourites. His victory at the top of Old Willunga Hill in January’s Tour Down Under proved his ability on ramps like those awaiting the field on Sunday. And Oscar Freire, a three-time world road race champion, who experienced something of a revival of form in the Classics season, could roll back the years.
Check back tomorrow for our preview of the elite women’s road race.