Richmond 2015 signals the World Championships’ return to a pure circuit race for the first time in over ten years, rather than the use of an opening sector to warm the riders up before starting the laps, something which has become common in recent editions. Instead a smaller run of 5.3km will lead the riders onto a shortened first circuit, before beginning the 15 laps of 16.2km which comprise this 261.24km World Championship contest. Many will already be accustomed to the demands of this course having watched the preceding time trials and road races work their way around Richmond’s streets, ensuring few surprises should now remain on this technically demanding circuit. Tight bends and fast descents are present during the course, but the three most standout aspects of the race will be the climbs which are expected to decide the outcome of the day’s racing.
The first of these is Libby Hill, a snaking 200m cobbled hill which has already seen a variety of riders suffer mechanicals and even slide out on the opening bend once some light drizzle is added to the equation. Position is crucial here and there will be a high pace heading into the bottom as nations attempt to protect their leaders’ by finding the safest path to the top; often by riding in the gutter. After this comes a brief descent which includes some very fast bends, before leading the pack into the second challenge of the day, 23rd Street. Significantly stepper than its predecessor, 23rd Street will compress the bunch on each rotation of its cobbled 100m and possibly serve as a springboard to attack late on in the race. The descent from here would see a breakaway push on rapidly as they strive to hit the final climb of Governor Street first. This 300m climb is a steady grind and tops out 680m short of the finish, where the final straight immediately begins running right the way to the line.
As a whole, the course looks to favour powerful classics styled riders who can repeatedly chase and counterattack their rivals with short anaerobic efforts. With the final climb concluding with almost 700m of flat racing still separating them from the line, a sprint from an elite group of 8 to 15 riders could be the most likely fashion in which the rainbow stripes are won in Richmond. There is of course the chance that it will come down to a bigger bunch sprint, meaning that many of the teams here have made their uncertainty regarding the expected race dynamic clear and called up a pure sprinter and a stronger classics rider to cover both eventualities.
Alexander Kristoff has been tipped by many to return the rainbow bands to Norway since his compatriot Thor Hushovd won them in 201o, but he faces a difficult task to achieve that ambition here. His success earlier in the year encompassed a dominant showing in the Spring classics and included winning the Tour of Flanders in impressive fashion. On that occasion he was aware of his status as a marked man coming off the back of early season victories in the Middle-East and subsequently went on the offensive; going clear with Niki Terpstra before rolling past the Dutchman at the finish with ease. This shows an awareness and willingness by Kristoff to take action against those who perceive him to be the biggest threat during a race. This may also prove to be the biggest problem during today’s battle, patience is often the key to these one day affairs and the week’s preceding road races have already demonstrated that those who bide their time often emerge with greater success than those chasing the win. Instead, he might lean upon Edvald Boasson Hagen to chase down any dangerous moves on the final repition of the three climbs, aiming to set up Kristoff for a reduced bunch sprint, within which many anticipate him to dominate. There is no question surrounding the Norwegian’s ability to perform at a single day race, but his current condition is not certain after an average Tour de France but an encouraging third place at GP Quebec recently. Ultimately Kristoff comes to the fore as the attrition rate approaches its maximum (the harder and longer the better), so with cobbles, hellingen, 261km and a high chance of rain; he might just get his way.
John Degenkolb ranks alongside Kristoff in two clear ways, the first being his nation’s desire to see this race decided by a sprint, as well as a shared ability to demonstrate their best during the hardest of one day races. This year saw Degenkolb secure victories at two of the biggest monuments in cycling; Paris-Roubaix and Milan-San Remo. These notoriously long and arduous affairs bode well for the German, but it is the contrasting styles in which he won them that offer the greatest insight as to his chances in Richmond. The former saw Degenkolb protected by his teammates until he perceived the race winning move to occur, attacking solo to bridge the gap to the break and eventually out sprint the likes of Zdeněk Štybar and Greg Van Avermaet to win. In contrast, his victory at Milano-San Remo came off the back of an immense team effort to protect Degenkolb over the day’s climbs, controlling the race and finally delivering him into a race winning position to sprint from. The biggest difference for Degenkolb today is that he will not have the luxury of the well oiled machine that is Giant-Alpecin, instead he will be operating from within the German team on this occasion and could find himself exposed during the final ascent of Governor Street. His recent performances at the Vuelta a España were lacking his normal clinical finishing, but this is less important on a day which comes down to the ability to suffer and survive. Spokenforks believes Degenkolb is likely to find greater success seizing the initiative and protecting his interests firsthand, rather than placing the responsibilities on his German team to ensure a sprint finish. A situation which could throw up yet further problems if his compatriot André Greipel is also present with less than 700m remaining in Richmond.
Michael Matthews won this competition as an Under-23 in 2010 and will surely fancy his chances of repeating this success at a senior level on a course which favours his attributes convincingly. The Australian has found success on similar terrain at both grand tour and one day races in the last couple of seasons, especially those involving late climbs. Matthews’ biggest supporting evidence to a claim at the win here is his performance at Amstel Gold earlier this year, a race which saw him able to match Philippe Gilbert on the notorious Cauberg. He walked away with third on that day, though had he not dug so deep in order to pursue the Belgian classics specialist, he may have been able to muster enough to secure the win. Regardless, it was a demonstration as to his talent for such a course and he will be aware as to how unlikely it is that a World Road Race course will suit him so well again anytime soon. The Australian team can guarantee him great protection throughout the race and could possibly offer up their ‘Plan B’ Simon Gerrans as a leadout man for Matthews in a sprint finish. Though he usually prefers an uphill sprint to the line, the fact that three tough climbs are present in rapid succession on the final lap should be enough to tilt the odds in his favour, marking him out as one of the fastest finishers after Governor Street is tackled for the final time. Perhaps most encouraging of all however is the fact he has not simply added this race at the tailend of his season, rather Matthews has actively prepared and focused upon performing in Richmond and is thus a major contender.
Peter Sagan is bound to face the biggest array of dilemmas during the race, the immensely talented Slovak could win from a variety of situations, but lacks the support required to convincingly back any of them. Teammates Juraj Sagan (brother) and Michal Kolar well simply attempt to protect their leader for as long as possible, before leaving him to go it alone (when this will happen is uncertain). The strength, courage and tenacity we have witnessed from Sagan this year has reignited him and subsequently earned him some belated victories. He has proven to be incredibly strong on climbs this year and is bound to out perform his most likely rivals who are hoping for a sprint finish. Sagan is also not afraid to take the race by the scruff of the neck and join or instigate a breakaway move, working hard to drive it to the line alongside his escapees. However, despite encouraging showings at several classics during his career so far, the distance of 200km+ and a high attrition rate often blunts his abilities, or simply rules him out of the running entirely. It could be a waste for Sagan to simply sit in the wheels and wait for a sprint finish where John Degenkolb and Alexander Kristoff are likely to be in better shape, instead Sagan would bolster a very convincing chance of becoming World Champion should he join a late breakaway and punch his way across the line first.
Greg Van Avermaet has enjoyed a season which has included great results at the major one day affairs of Paris-Roubaix and Tour of Flanders, no doubt the type of form he will hope to replicate at Richmond. He is expected to lead Belgium alongside Philippe Gilbert and will be their best bet to secure the rainbow jersey if the win comes from an elite group which forms on the final lap. Avermaet beat Sagan on a difficult stage at this year’s Tour de France and he has tried to taper his exertions in order to arrive in Richmond in a comparable shape once again. Avermaet is likely to animate the race and join a break in order to ease the pressure on Belgium having to chase a move late on, possibly even finding Gilbert beside him in such a move. Alongside this, the day’s climbs are similar to that of the hellingen which he has performed consistently upon this year, playing convincingly into his hands yet further. Doubts are apparent however, predominately due to his recent displays at the GP Quebec and GP Montreal, suggesting he may not have carried his form late into the year as well as expected.
Alejandro Valverde must wonder what exactly he has to do in order to become World Champion, the Spanish rider has so far acquired a total of two silver and four bronze medals at the race since his first in 2003. This statistic is amazing in itself, but when considering that the courses upon which he has accumulated these medals have contrasted so dramatically, it become clear as to how consistently Valverde raises his game in order to contest this title. He is better suited to the Ardennes style of one day racing and has little history against the Springtime cobbles, something which certainly affects him negatively today. Valverde will be aware of those who will be better than him in a straightforward drag race to the line, adding support to the likelihood of him joining a breakaway or striking out alone on the final ascent of Governor Street. The long and wearing nature of the World Championship Road Race could in fact make him the fastest present in a group sprint, though this would surely have to leave Degenkolb, Kristoff, Matthews and perhaps even Sagan absent from its composition. Possessing such form for this race means he cannot be discounted from being present in the shake up for the rainbow jersey, especially as this might even be his last appearance.
Zdeněk Štybar is a real danger to the hopes of others with their eye upon the win today, the Czech team leader is known for sniffing out a victory and striking powerfully before others even begin to realise what is going on. Štybar has started to carve out a niche as a one day specialist, 2015 seeing him win Strade Bianche and claiming second at E3 Harelbeke and Paris-Roubaix. The support he will have on the day should be more than sufficient to keep him at the head of affairs and it will be interesting to see how he chooses to ride this race. It is easy to forget how huge a talent Štybar also is for Cyclocross, a factor which should ensure he is well equipped to cope with a frantic race upon crucial cobbled climbs which may become drenched with rain. Given his reputation, the peloton will know that any attempt by the Czech rider to go clear cannot be ignored, as Štybar is notoriously difficult to reel back in at the best of times, let alone when there is a World title at stake.
Juan José Lobato has the blend of skills required to at least make it onto the podium if all goes to plan for the strong Spanish sprinter. He enjoyed a successful Tour of Britain earlier in the month, contesting the sprinters’ stages well and even holding the leader’s jersey at one point too. He has enough to suggest he will last the course and his fourth place at Milan-San Remo in 2014 came during some of the worst downpours the race has experienced in recent years, so weather should not be an issue for him either.
André Greipel could cause a real stir if present in the bunch as they turn left onto the finishing straight at the final time of asking today. The end of this season has seen a great showing at the Tour of Britain where he reminded people why he is likely to be the fastest man in this race, as well as his ability to climb impressively for a man of his talents. He is not known for his one day ability and is also notorious for vanishing when the charge to the line is contested in heavy rain. As mentioned previously, the biggest issue should he remain in contention ahead of the finish line is teammate John Degenkolb, a situation which could cause chaos as they decide who should support one another. Certainly an outsider for the title, but if he showcases the same form we saw earlier in the year at the Tour of Flanders, then he cannot be totally discounted from the contest.
Matti Breschel never seems to offer much in the way of excitement during the season and yet he consistently emerges as a protagonists during the final moments of a World Championship Road Race. Because of this he warrants a mention on a course which does indeed play into his hands, the Dane being an extremely strong rider when it comes to long and testing races. The Danish team is certainly underestimated as the likes of Rasmus Guildhammer, Christopher Juul-Jensen and Michael Valgren are just some of the riders which offer a great depth of strength in order to support Breschel throughout the day. Given Breschel’s history for performing at the Worlds, he clearly has the knack of peaking at this time of year down to a fine art, so do not be too surprised if he records at least a top ten placing.
Elia Viviani is likely to lead this year’s Italy squad, a jumbled selection of pure sprinters and tougher fast finishers who should cope with the hills. Viviani was in stellar form during the Tour of Britain, but could struggle to make his presence felt on this particular course, though he has stated how he has replicated the required climbs in training as intervals in order to prepare for Richmond. Fabio Felline will ride alongside Viviani in support, but deserves a mention on the back of a seventh place finish at the Giro d’Italia’s epic 264km long Stage 7, a day won by another Italian teammate Diego Ulissi. A harder race will certainly favour Ulissi, especially if it rains, but the squad still has further firepower in the shape of Giacomo Nizzolo and Matteo Trentin who could both contest the win if circumstances are right. This Italian team appears extremely confused on paper, lacking a coherent plan which could see this talented squad walk away with nothing of note.
Niki Terpstra might be given the task of spearheading a Dutch team which bolsters no sprinters and will rely upon animating the race with the intention of getting at least one rider into the day’s decisive move. Terpstra copes well on this sort of terrain which includes cobbles and is known for being able to choose the perfect moment to solo away from his competitors and take the win. However, this course does not suit that style as neatly as he will have hoped, so attention may instead lie elsewhere within the Dutch ranks. Lars Boom was fourth and six at Paris-Roubaix and Tour of Flanders respectively this year and would like to think this type of form can be mirrored to a certain degree in Richmond; Boom also sprints strongly remember. He is yet another rider the Dutch possesses which the peloton cannot afford to let slip off the front with little reaction to chase. The biggest question mark surrounding the team however can be placed upon Tom Dumoulin, arriving here after a gruelling Vuelta a España and a modest showing in the individual time trial earlier in the week. It is difficult to anticipate what form he will be in, but the parcours do suit him particularly well and if he had of focused specifically on peaking for this affair he would have been a favourite. Regardless, he cannot be dismissed entirely as this year has shown how well he is climbing, while people also forget he can be the fastest sprinter from an elite group at this type of race.
Julian Alaphilippe emerged this year as a talented once day racer and should be confident of being present in the mix in the final stages of today’s race. The Frenchman finished seventh at Amstel Gold, before going on to place second at both La Flèche Wallone and Liège-Bastogne-Liège later on in the week. His talents are perhaps more Ardennes styled than what the expected skill set is to dominate here, but Alaphilippe is unlikely to be caught out on the climbs and is a very quick finisher too. Teammate Tony Gallopin offers similar talents and is sure to be another option for the French team which arrives in Richmond with modest ambitions. Gallopin is always showing a great capability for rising to the occasion of a classic and even managed a top ten finish at Milan-San Remo this season; eighth place at the recent GP Quebec also adds to his case.
Ben Swift could be Great Britain’s best chance of a medal, the Yorkshireman’s grit has often seen him perform well at longer races and he even took third at the notoriously miserable Milan-San Remo of 2014. There has not been a great deal to shout about in recent months, but his showing at the London & Surrey Classic reinforces his ability to fight at the front for these long day’s in the saddle. Ian Stannard is becoming a cobbles specialists and should be worth keeping an eye upon if he should happen to make it into a breakaway, though the finale up Governor Street might be too much for him to handle. Adam Yates was second at GP Montreal a couple of weeks ago and even won Clasica Ciclista San Sebastian, albeit in rather bizarre circumstances and should fancy this finale too.
Ramunas Navardauskas, Michal Kwiatkowski, Jempy Drucker, Edvald Boasson-Hagen, Ilnur Zakarin and Grega Bole are just a handful of names who could either force a breakaway, go it alone or feature in a reduced bunch sprint.
The permutations of what may happen seem almost limitless, but Spokenforks believes that a reduced bunch will hit the final climb of Governor Street and see a select group go clear before they turn onto the finishing straight. This small group will contest the win amongst themselves and is likely to comprise many of the sprinters fancied for the win today, though some will have to dig deeper than others to stay in contention. Taking into account the amount of climbing, preparation and the finale itself, Michael Matthews looks to be a strong contender for the win and should have enough support from his Australia team to at least place on the podium. The likes of John Degenkolb and Alexander Kristoff are likely to be in hot pursuit, but might find the pace unmanageable on the final climb and leave themselves too big a gap to close in the final 680m to the line. Peter Sagan, Greg Van Avermaet, Juan José Lobato and Zdeněk Štybar all seem to be names who could feature alongside Matthews during his charge to the line. Of course the purer sprinters do have a chance, though it seems that there may not be enough nations wishing to chase this outcome in order to guarantee a larger bunch kick, instead we might see a greater focus upon getting riders into the day’s decisive breakaway. If the heavens truly open and downpours begin, then you may as well pick a name out of the hat at random, as with cobbles and newly laid tarmac throughout the course, crashes will have a huge influence on the outcome and favour a shock breakaway even more.
1st Michael Matthews 2nd Juan José Lobato 3rd Peter Sagan