There are few races when we see sprinters line up alongside classics contenders and stage race specialists all with the ambition of winning. This year’s world championships will see 42 of top-50 riders start and then the 272km course will eliminate many contenders.
Who will win? The bookmakers think Fabian Cancellara, I think Peter Sagan but it’s a very open race with a deep field and even the weather promises surprises with thunderstorms forecast for the finish.
A 106km ride from Lucca to Firenze before starting the circuit, the race passes over the winegrowing hill of Montecarlo before heading to Collodi, the home of Pinocchio, the popular children’s tale who is the mascot of the event, then onwards to Montecatini Terme before the climb to San Baronto, 4km at 7% and a good warm up for the legs past the olive groves. The race descends and then crosses the plains to Firenze where it will begin 10 laps of the Firenze-Fiesole circuit.
As the profile shows there are two climbs. First to Fiesole, a steady push of 5.2% for 4.4km but with the last 1,500m at over 7% as the road winds its way up to give great views of Firenze below inbetween the tall cypress trees that are so typical of the region. The riders turn left at the top of the climb and descend immediately on a wide and steady road where sweeping bends can be taken on autopilot after a few laps.
After the descent ends into Ponte alla Badia, there’s a sharp right turn onto a more narrow road, the Via Salviati and a straight 600m ramp awaits. It’s hard, especially with the corner at the bottom to string out the riders, positioning will matter a lot on the final laps. This is steep, the average is listed at 10% which is hard enough but that’s because of a couple of landings on the way up, in fact it’s more a cramp-inducing 12% most of the way. Then follows a regular descent on wide roads.
Note the 10% bump on the way into the finish, it comes after the descent, there’s a sharp left and this is just long enough to rob momentum, another sharp effort and potential launchpad.
Then at 2km to go there’s an S-bend as the race climbs over the railway lines, it’s wide but another gradient to disrupt things after 250km and then the road straightens out, a long 1.5km approach to the finish line that is flat.
This year’s race has 295m of vertical gain for each lap of the Fiesole circuit and a total of 3,600m for day including the Montecarlo and San Baranto warm-ups. This is comparable to an alpine stage in the Alps or the hilliest of one day classics, Liège-Bastogne-Liège but instead of long climbs, this course has the steady ascension to Fiesole before the wall on Via Salviati meaning a chance to rest between each effort.
For comparison, last year there were two climbs every lap but the total vertical gain per 16.5km lap was a gentle 150 metres which explained the large group present at the end. The 2011 course in Denmark was flat so 2010 and 2009 are more comparable to Sunday. Interestingly the vertical gain in 2009 was 3,100m for the Mendrisio circuit and 3,075m in Geelong for 2010, yet we saw a grand tour winner Cadel Evans win and then classics contender Thor Hushovd strike the following year.
Yet perhaps the most selective element will be distance. Round numbers can be suspicious but as rule of thumb, once you go beyond 200km the cast of contenders shrinks and then beyond 250km even fewer riders will be present on such a hilly circuit. The 272km mean only the strongest and wiliest riders can act on the final laps.
There’s a shared pattern to the worlds. An early break will go with a motley collection of chancers hoping to get on TV. The race will accelerate once it reaches Firenze, first imperceptibly but soon the lap times will get faster and more riders are dropped, teams using riders until a select group remains. Watch for the team work, riders wear national jerseys but don’t be surprised to see alliances amongst riders on the same pro team.
Can we learn anything from the U-23 race?
It’s the most comparable scenario but still shorter and the team tactics less sophisticated. Still it showed the climb to Fiesole is where riders can sit on a good wheel, it’s fast enough to reward positioning and drafting whilst the Via Salvati ramp is mean but not fearsome. The fact that Caleb Ewan was there for the final sprint shows the sprinters like Sagan or Degenkolb have a chance. But the extra 100km is something else and many a good sprinter in the amateur ranks can climb well, it’s only in the pro ranks that they become a specialist.
Note the long approach to the finish line means anyone with ambitions of exploiting the final climb has to go early on the slopes because taking five seconds over the crest will be hard to maintain on the long descents.
This year’s edition has so many contenders in the field of 207 that Sunday’s race will be mouthwatering. Let’s select four and then go through the others.
Peter Sagan is the first pick. He has won more races than anyone this year and is in great shape as his bold win in the GP de Montréal shows. He’s a complete rider who can sprint with the best yet cope with the climbs. Yet these strengths are Sagan’s greatest weakness, he is so good that nobody wants to take him to the finish. But as we’ve seen in Gent-Wevelgem and the GP de Québec, that’s no problem as he will just solo away. There are two more negative elements, first his team is not strong and the best rider Peter Velits might have private ambitions; second Sagan has not ridden the Vuelta and precedent suggests the Vuelta provides the race winner.
Philippe Gilbert will find everything to his liking. A selective circuit complete with a short and sharp climb and he’s in form after a successful Vuelta. Perhaps his only issue is confidence and the tactical sense needed to get the better of Peter Sagan and Fabian Cancellara, to attack but without taking any of these two with him. But remember he’s got a very strong sprint after 270km.
Fabian Cancellara is famous for his time trialling but he’s one of the best one day racers in the world who has the knack of rising to the occasion, literally as he can climb when he has to. He was the strongest in the 2009 worlds on the Mendrisio worlds although he’d won the time trial by a crushing margin. He’ll probably need to win by soloing away on the final lap but could find his nemesis Sagan on his wheel. His weakness has been sprinting, often he’s got his hands on the brake hoods but see the way he dispatched Sep Vanmarcke in Roubaix for an example of cool finishing. Also when he’s good, he’s too good and other riders won’t give him a single second of help if he starts preening on the last lap.
Vincenzo Nibali is almost the home pick. The Sicilian now lives in Switzerland but he’ll be wearing the blue jersey today and spent his formative years living in Tuscany. Strong in the Vuelta, his only weakness was the highest of the high mountains but his aggression, form and time trialling skills could see him triumph. Yet he’s not the sharpest poker player, witness his attack on the Angliru when he tried to shake Chris Horner with a long range move that was exciting but risky to the point of suicidal.
Spanish pair Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez are known for their grand tour performances but should find the circuit to their advantage with the former being more suited to the sprint finish as his silver medal last year showed. But they’ve been on the boil since the Tour de France, can they hold their form? Also last year there was bickering in the Spanish camp, hopefully this can be sorted. Instead Dani Moreno is the back-up, fresh from a strong Vuelta and he seems better suited to punch races like this than the highest mountains.
Chris Froome‘s mission is simple, to eliminate everyone else and then solo away on the final climb, first using his climbing skills and then switching to time trial mode. If this sounds like it’s easier said than done you’ve got good hearing. He was off the pace in Canada recently and complained about going into the red in the team time trial recently so maybe he’s a contender by reputation rather than form.
Instead Sky team mate Edvald Boasson Hagen could shine. Once tipped for greatness, in recent year’s he’s been a cheap version of Sagan thanks to valuable team duties, although on a high wage. He can climb and sprint and was on the podium last year and had a good Vuelta with regular performances.
Greg Van Avermaet is the perpetual Plan B but he’s got everything to win, he can survive the climbs, wait as others watch Gilbert and finish off the race with his fast sprint. But his weakness is that he never wins much. Perhaps the opposite is Dan Martin who has proved adept at winning big with Liège-Bastogne-Liège and a stage of the Tour in the Pyrenees. He was good in the Tour of Britain but not outstanding; perhaps countryman Nicolas Roche is the better pick given his wins in the Vuelta built on climbing and fast finishing? Watch Jan Bakelants too, he’s been a revelation this year and has just won the GP Wallonie.
The Italians come with a strong team. Michele Scarponi took a rare one day win in the recent GP Costa degli Etruschi but seemed to struggle in the Vuelta. By contrast Diego Ulissi impressed me in the Vuelta with his aggression, form and sprinting and he lives nearby too… but can he go the distance? If not Paolini, Nocentini, Pozzato and Visconti all bring something, of anything the team is too top heavy.
Another squad to watch are the Dutch. Robert Gesink won in Québec and in a sprint too and Bauke Mollema had a solid Vuelta and will find the circuit suits him but can he keep his form, he was winning in the Tour of Switzerland, did the Tour and then went on to the Vuelta. Tom Dumoulin is powerful too, sixth in the recent GP Wallonie.
If riding the Vuelta seems to boost your chances then Chris Horner could be there. But he’s a pure climber and the course doesn’t seem to offer him the mountain top finish he needs. Instead Tejay van Garderen is back-up.
The French have the world’s best U-23 team with Thibaut Pinot, Warren Barguil, Romain Bardet whilst 24 year old Arthur Vichot is in great form from Canada. Pinot could be their best pick and he’s tactically astute but if not there’s always Thomas Voeckler who’s back in form after a lacklustre Tour de France.
Rui Costa was fifth and sixth in the recent Canadian races, a sign he’s in form. An excellent rider who can pick his moments, he’s yet another contender. Team mates for the year Zdeněk Štybar and Michał Kwiatkowski are rivals. The Czech is a heavier build so can he cope with the climbs whilst the Pole is very able on all terrain. Both are not red hot contenders but would make worthy world champions.
Now let’s skip through some more names. Cadel Evans seems off the boil but he’s a tough rider and been top-20 in the Canadian races. The Swiss have an interesting trio: Michael Albasini, who excels on hilly circuits, then Matthias Frank who is in form and third Sebastian Reichenbach, one of the season’s revelations and an able climber. Germany’s Simon Geshke is a tough rider suited to hilly circuits and don’t rule out John Degenkolb if the pace is gentle on the climbs. Estonian Tanel Kangert is a dangerous rider, give him a gap and it might not come back. Russian’s Sasha Kolobnev is like a falling leaf, you only see him when autumn comes. Two silver medals in the worlds and bronze in the 2008 Olympics means he’s there on the big days, especially when it’s hilly. His team have been hit by thieves but he lives in Italy and someone should be able to fetch a spare bike. Finally Thomas Löfkvist, Bob Jungels, Kanstantin Sioutsou and Nairo Quintana round out this long list of names.
Summary picks: many names above and the point is not just to identify a winner but to review the actors who should liven up the final laps.
It looks like a day for Peter Sagan. Hopefully there is variety from Nibali, Cancellara, Philippe Gilbert and more but don’t be surprised to see Van Avermaet and Boasson Hagen on the podium as the big names mark each other out.
Weather: after a week of good weather things are changing and the forecast says heavy showers and thunderstorms are possible. This matters because the circuit has fresh black tarmac and it will be very slippery in the wet. Italian roads are often binary: excellent grip in the dry but scary when wet. It also means riders might started dressed for fine conditions but could get wet and cold in the finish.
TV: the whole race is being filmed live but whether you get to see it in full is up to your local broadcaster as well your patience. The race starts at 10.00am Euro time and is expected to reach Firenze for 12.30 meaning riders have to ride through Tuscany during Sunday lunchtime.