The most intriguing race to decide the UCI elite men’s world road race championship for years will unfold in Florence on Sunday.
A 272.2km course, which will see the riders contest the final 166km over 10 laps of a hilly circuit in Firenze, looks set to offer the Grand Tour riders a realistic chance of victory in the race for the rainbow jersey. The race offers the mouth watering prospect of a showdown between Tour de France winner, Chris Froome (Great Britain) and Giro d’Italia winner, Vincenzo Nibali (Italy).
The strong men of the Classics will fancy their chances, too, and one in particular, Slovak sensation, Peter Sagan, has long been identified as a potential winner. Defending champion, Philippe Gilbert, whose recent return to form suggests a season built around Sunday’s race, cannot be discounted.
Here we’ll consider the chances of five men who could find themselves pulling on the iconic stripes of world champion on Sunday afternoon.
The Shark has taken repeated bites from the hopes of his opposition this year and his second place in the Vuelta a Espana last month suggests a rider close to his best. Nibali was imperious at the Giro in May, and has spoken since of making the world championship his second major target of the season. La Vuelta was never intended to be more than a form finding exercise for Nibali, and his ability to carry the fight to the penultimate stage suggests he has found it.
The Sicilian will be able to call on the support of a host of talented riders in a strong Italian line-up, including Luca Paolini, one of Nibali’s predecessors in the maglia rosa at this year’s Giro, and exciting prospect, Diego Ullisi, so impressive in his pursuit of Paolini’s Katusha team-mate, Joaquim Rodriguez, on stage 19 of the Vuelta.
Nibali vs. Froome could present the most tantalizing sub-plot of Sunday’s race. Froome emerged victorious at the Tour of Oman, but Nibali took revenge at Tirreno-Adriatico. The Italian will again race on home soil on Sunday and will ride with the intention of delivering a home victory.
Froome’s seemingly insatiable desire for victory, witnessed at its fullest extent at the Tour de France, and the support of arguably the strongest team in the race, could see a second British rider in three years crowned world road race champion. Froome was matchless in France, and reunited with colleagues almost entirely from the ranks of Team Sky, will roll out of Lucca with every chance of victory.
Two question marks hang over the Kenyan-born Brit, however. His team will need to be completely united to see off Sagan, Gilbert et al before the denouement, presenting an interesting tactical challenge for Froome and Sir Dave Brailsford concerning the deployment of Great Britain’s considerable resources.
The second is to be found in Froome’s record in one day races, and that of what, as previously mentioned, is effectively a Team Sky line-up. Few (and not even Bradley Wiggins) now question the Tour de France champion’s credentials as a stage racer, but having focused on Grand Tours since his breakthrough at the 2011 Vuelta a Espana can Froome deliver in an event where there is no second chance, no long game? Victory in a major one day race is notably absent from Team Sky’s list of accomplishments. Froome has the ability, and the backing, but will need to show a new facet to his considerable talent if he is to hang the rainbow jersey alongside his maillot jaune.
Wiggins must necessarily be considered an outsider for victory on Sunday, given Great Britain’s stated aim to ride for Froome, but the outsider role is one that the Londoner has cultivated. He has consistently performed at his best only when his back is to the wall and his options are fast disappearing, a tendency witnessed most recently at the Tour of Britain but also evident in a dominant 2012 campaign in which he decisively confronted the disappointments of his 2010 and 2011.
The method in which Wiggins is deployed by the Great Britain team could hold the key to Sunday’s race. His relish for the team role – when it his choice, rather than thrust upon him – is frequently overlooked, but his work for Cavendish at the 2011 world championships and again on the final stage of the 2012 Tour de France showcased Wiggins the road captain. Will he be asked to provide a formidable engine to power the GB train? Or will he be sent up the road early to break Sagan? And if he goes clear with a Tony Martin-style time trial effort, who could haul him back?
Wiggins has stated categorically that he will ride for Froome on Sunday and must be taken at his word. His potential as a ‘plan B’, however, represents one of the many intriguing sub-plots to Sunday’s race.
Peter Sagan was earmarked as a favourite for this race almost as soon as the parcours was unveiled. The Slovak’s prowess on short, punchy climbs and his formidable sprinting talent makes the course look tailor made for his abilities. Having made the Tour de France green jersey competition his personal fiefdom, the Tourminator will be hungry to add the rainbow jersey to an impressive wardrobe.
Unhappily for Sagan, his prospects will depend largely on the actions of his rivals. The Slovakian team is not without talent, containing Omega Pharma-Quickstep’s Velits twins, and Sagan’s brother, Juraj, a team-mate at Cannondale, but it does not compare to the formidable squads of Great Britain, Belgium, or Spain. Equally, Sagan must hope against repeated attacks in the hills. While his climbing abilities far exceed those of a sprinter, he is not equipped to cope with the attack and counter attack routines deployed by Contador, Rodriguez et al whenever the road rises.
If Sagan is present at the dénouement, few will bet against him. His ability to get there, however, will depend as much on the actions of other as his own.
The defending champion has suffered a largely barren campaign in the rainbow jersey, collecting his first and only victory in the stripes on stage 12 of the Vuelta a Espana. The timing of the victory, just weeks before the defence of his title, and the nature of the course, means the prospect of a second year in the rainbow jersey cannot be ruled out for Gilbert.
Sunday’s race will end with 10 laps of 16.6km circuit punctuated by the 295m climb into Fiesole. Gilbert’s ability on short, punchy climbs, the deciding factor in his victory last year, combined with an effective, if not devastating sprint (see his straightforward defeat of the Schlecks at the 2011 Liege-Bastogne-Liege), likely to be necessary for any rider who finishes the final descent into Firenze with company, could leave him well placed for a second worlds victory.
Like Froome and Nibali, Gilbert will not lack support. The Belgium team is a veritable who’s who of Classics hardmen, despite the notable absence of 2005 world champion, Tom Boonen. With the exception of Thomas De Gendt, however, most are men with reputations made in the northern Classics. Gilbert, like Sagan, may be forced to become the master of his own destiny if he is to emerge victorious.