Sunday sees the big finale to this year’s World Cycling Championships in Ponferrada; the 254.8km Elite Men’s road race. The riders will battle for the Rainbow Jersey over 14 laps of a circuit designed to deliver the sort of excitement we have come to expect from this annual event. The modern tendency to construct the race around a city centre location has meant that the possibility of seeing the serious mountain men (Contador, Froome, Nibali etc) duke it out has remained unlikely for sometime now. Preferring to create something of a one day classic which swings between favouring powerful Roubaix men and punchy Liége finishers. Any route would look easy when comparing it to last year’s nightmarish day in Florence, but Ponferrada’s challenge will have an air of the Vuelta about it as riders find themselves spending the day either looking skywards, or with their noses to the stem as they drop down the descents.
The two features on course are the climbs of Confederacion (5.2km, 3.3%) and Mirador (1.14km, 5.5%), their subsequent downhill runs being as equally important as their leg sapping ascents. The former varies frequently in gradient, touching 8.8% for a moment, making it a struggle for some to find their rhythm. The latter maxes out at 10% and will be tackled with just over 5km left on the final lap, offering its ramp and fast descent as a possible launchpad for a last minute attack under the noses of the sprinters’. The win appears destined to be fought for amongst a select group of 20 – 40 survivors, though a late solo attack could occur as in the Men’s U23 race. A real factor which is likely to shake things up amongst the peloton is the chance of rain. Some of the downhill passages have already been troublesome for others during the week and a quick shower could put an unlikely contender in the rainbow bands by the end of play.
A total of 203 competitors are scheduled to take to the start line, and realistically, only 10% are likely to have a chance of becoming World Champion. Though the list of contenders might seem extensive to some, when you compare it to the number of those starting, it becomes apparent as to how talented individuals will need to be if they want to contest the win – let alone finish at all.
Everybody is looking to Simon Gerrans as a ‘guaranteed dead cert’ for Sunday’s race, with recent back to back wins in Canada and a history of success in the classics, he appears the favourite. The uphill sections are certainly well within the capabilities of Gerrans and he will be a tough man to drop over the terrain, the finish though is less suiting to his talents and the tactical headaches of being part of such a strong Australian team could see him lose out. His teammate Michael Matthews on the other hand will see the finish as near perfect for his talents. Though the proceeding climbing will be less appealing, Matthews has shown an ability to beat the big sprinters at this year’s Vuelta and could be the man to benefit from the anxiety around protecting Gerran’s chances.
Had he managed to avoid a recent stay in hospital, John Degenkolb would probably have been the dominate favourite to become World Champion on Sunday. It is relatively unclear as to how much conditioning he may have lost from his recent sickness as well as the toll of his Green Jersey winning effort’s at this year’s Vuelta. On the assumption that he is close to ‘match fitness’, Degenkolb will be the man to beat if part of a select group contesting the finish. He displayed an ability to stay with the pack over testing terrain far beyond people’s assumptions on Stage 19 of the Vuelta and will be seeking to repeat this once more. Plan B for Germany might be André Greipel, the 32 year old has failed to display much of his ‘strong-man’ form this year, but he does have a habit of rising to the tougher sprint occasions.
A man who signalled his intent to win a long time ago was Fabian Cancellara, ditching taking part in the Individual Time Trial in order to focus upon the Road Race. Throughout the year, Cancellara has proven his aptitude over the kind of distance required of him on Sunday, as well as being present in the decisive sprints for Milan-San Remo, Paris-Roubaix and several hard Vuelta stages. He has raced lightly since the spring and will look to make the most of any technical downhill sections in order to get off the front of the peloton. A man with a similar plan could be Peter Sagan, the instant favourite when the course was originally announced for the Road Race, but a season of average results for the boy wonder has left backing to wain. It would be naive to dismiss him totally on this basis, as he might be a tough protagonist to drop late on, but a lack of ‘kamikaze’ team support normally afforded to him by Cannondale could expose his lack of tactical nous.
Britain bolster a strong team once again and can only build upon the shockingly embarrassing performance of 2013 in the Florence rain. The biggest negative for the Brits will be how the course does not play to the strengths of their riders’ Grand Tour mountain pedigree. Instead they are likely to ride exclusively for their burgeoning classics man Ben Swift, who rode to an impressive 3rd place at this year’s Milan-San Remo. With Chris Froome, Geraint Thomas and Pete Kennaugh all at his disposal throughout the day, he will be one of the most well protected riders for the entire race. Considering he is approaching the prime of his career, winning the World Championship title would be the perfect way to announce himself as a big name.
The man who beat Ben Swift to his first ever monument was Alexander Kristoff, a rider who often benefits from extremely gruelling conditions on a regular basis it would seem. The current reigning Milan-San Remo champion is likely to savour the terrain and distance of the Road Race, saving his energy for a late surge amongst the seemingly inevitable select group which will contest the title. Earlier in the year he did get the beating of Fabian Cancellara and Ben Swift, but a greater depth of competitors is likely to prevent a repeat.
Another impressive performance on that day was Sonny Colbrelli, a man who seems to exhibit his best form when everyone around him is suffering like a dog. Having demonstrated his solid form at the Tour of Britain, Colbrelli made the cut for Italy’s squad and could end up being their best performer when all is said and done.
Alejandro Valverde is all too familiar with the podium positions at the Worlds and will be eager to finally claim his gold medal at his home event. With the lack of a late steep ramp which saw him take La Flèche Wallonne this year, Valverde is only likely to benefit from a very small group reaching the line and displaying his solid sprinting skills in order to win.
Another man who will benefit from a hard ridden race over the day’s climbs could be France’s Tony Gallopin. He has shown fantastic form in the recent weeks since completing the Vuelta, placing highly behind Simon Gerran’s performance’s at the two Canadian GPs’. If he manages to slip into a very small bunch to contest the finish, he does have a rapid kick to ensure he is favourite amongst any other escapees.
On a good day, another serious favourite for the win might just be Poland’s Michal Kwiatkowski, a rider who has been consistent in the classics recently. His performance at the Tour of Britain a few weeks ago suggested that the young man is in good form, even taking a win on stage 4 from a very late surging attack. During his time at the Tour of Britain, he also displayed his talents for attacking on downhill sections during Stage 2, a talent which may benefit him in his attempts to win the stripes. Should he be in the mix during the deciding moments, he is a likely individual to instigate a last minute attack in order to prevent a bunch kick.
Should the Polish rider attempt such a move, he is likely to find a small army of allies in the latter stages of the race. Ramunas Navardauskas, Daniel Martin, Daryl Impey, Zdeněk Štybar and Jelle Vanendert will all be interested should a late break form in the final 10km or so. Some outsiders who have displayed a knack for winning over similar distances and terrains are Tom Dumoulin, Romain Bardet and Giampaolo Caruso – these could all place in the top ten with favourable conditions.
Not many races prove to be a greater headache than the World’s Road Race when it comes to picking a winner. The likelihood is that a sprint finish of 20 – 30 riders will contest the win at the end, something which John Degekolb would usually be the clear favourite for. However, he has recently had to spend time in hospital, but he would only be riding Sunday’s race if he thought it was possible to win. Although Simon Gerrans is most people’s pick for the win, Michael Matthews would appear to suit the final stages more than his compatriot and has proven his ability against the strong sprinters at this year’s Vuelta on several occasions. Cancellara’s willingness to ditch the Time Trial in order to focus upon the Road Race would suggest he will do everything to be a key protagonist when it comes down to duking it out for the rainbow bands. Assuming that nobody manages to get away on the final descent, a sprint finish should be Degenkolb’s for the taking.
1st Degenkolb 2nd Cancellara 3rd Matthews