World Championships Road Race Preview

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.

The Course

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.

Vertical gain
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.

The Scenario
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.

The Contenders
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.

50 thoughts on “World Championships Road Race Preview”

  1. I’d go with Sagan if the Cannondale team was riding in the Slovak kit, but tomorrow that’s not going to be the case. Same with Cancellara and a few other stars from less stellar cycling countries. If they win, it’ll be a great feat. Lots of pressure on the home team and Nibali, but Enzo seems to be a guy who can handle it. The Italian women’s team rode a pretty good race team-wise, as did the Dutch for Vos. Cyclingfans had a link for RAI Sport 2 that showed as much of Saturday’s women’s race as we wanted, we can only hope they do the same for Sunday. Vai Nibali! Forza Azzurri! W Italia!
    Oh, and arrivederci Pat McQuaid, don’t let that UCI office door hit you in the ass on your way out, OK?

    • Larry T, I think has the correct assumption lesser teams are going to have trouble hanging on as the strong teams try and put Sagan off the back on the roller coaster that will be the last few laps.

      I look for Cancellara making a move with two to go. Hoping to take anyone but Sagan and Martin.
      Alternatively Rodriguez making a move with help on the last climb.

    • “Same with Cancellara and a few other stars from less stellar cycling countries”

      Actually I find Cancellara has a pretty good team, all his teammates come from either protour teams or IAM, which is one of the top pro-Conti outfit. He has a a trade teammate and a couple of former teammates plus the other swiss riders don’t strike me as particularly ambitious so he’ll have complete dedication from the swiss. And he looks like a dominant personnality in the pro peloton so I wouldn’t be surprised to see some riders from other nationality actually work for him.

  2. Puncheurs for me above the climbers. Much depends on the ability of the stronger teams to control the race. The Italians look very strong. And maybe them roads are too smooth for Cancellera. Smoothest roads I’ve ever seen. 20 million euro well spent.

  3. Thanks @inrng. Four observations from “the course”: – I rode half a lap today with Kolobnev (so he’s found a bike). He likes the course a lot. I expect him to be in the final selection. The other is that I was witnessing Betancur motorpacing in Lucca a couple of days back – he’s lost the weight he had in the Vuelta. He has the strangest build I have ever seen for a climber – almost a track sprinter’s legs. I reckon he could feature. I just watched Scarponi on local TV: he reckons Froome is crazy long odds and will be better than people think. Finally, and perhaps it means nothing, but one of the Sky buses here has been brought here exclusively for EBH and his Norwegian entourage (with the other bus for GB) so they must think he’s worth “investing” in…

    Can’t wait. The atmosphere here in Fiesole is electric!

  4. Unfortunately I didn’t see any of the Canadian races to judge others’ form but Cancellara’s form in the Vuelta plus his ITT bronze give me hope he’ll do the business.

  5. Glad you are back (after software problems apparently).

    I agree that the italian team is too top heavy. Bettini should have concentrated on Nibali and get him more helpers instead of squandering his chances with too many captains. I think that this race will be too hard for Sagan. It should be one for the climbers if the teams make it hard enough.

    • A word on the software problems, an update for the software behind the site crashed. I’d backed up the site and asked the host company to restore things but they switched the backup with that of another client so people got “ABC Books” for children for a few hours on here. Weird.

      Readers using smartphones should find a new and improved design , the software update is fixed.

  6. It’s surely Sagan’s to lose. If Gilbert is in form it could get exciting as he’s probably the only one with the punch to match an in form Sagan after 270km. I can kind of see why the bookies are going for Cancellara, but I just don’t see how he’s going to get away. Maybe, just maybe, if the weight he’s lost gives him enough of a jump on the final climb to go clear over the top and TT to the finish. But 10k is a long way on your own if the likes of Sagan/Gilbert/J-Rod/Froome are hunting you down.

    The other possible scenario is someone like Avermaet going clear on his own while Sagan/Gilbert/Cancellara watch each other. However the distance and the amount of climbing might make sure that only the real strongmen survive.

  7. Great article, as always. My knowledge is not deep enough to make an intelligent selection, but I look forward to the race and hope for fireworks as opposed to a waiting game. Historically, are the World Championships more feisty and lively than other races?

  8. While the worlds are in name for national teams, trade teams are all over the race. For example, Riis was in the Irish team car coaching Roche through the tt and Ireland also have the Garmin chef cooking up the food.

    Dan Martin to win, Cancellara silver with a forlorn chase, Sagan to take bronze in the bunch kick.

  9. On the new design: Nice, just one note. It loses the ability to reply directly to a comment and makes it more difficult to follow a discussion thread than before the change. But overall I like the new feel.

  10. I think it’s too long For Sagan. I think Canc is the obvious pick but I’m going for Stybar. I don’t think the climbs are long enough for the gt guys to get away.

    • I don’t know why so many people question Sagan’s ability to go the distance. He has been present in the finish of races like Milan-Sanremo and De Ronde, not exactly short races. As for Stybar, I think he’s a great rider but his team is pretty weak and he hasn’t got a strong profile to rally riders from other nations.

  11. I have a question, I hope someone can enlighten me:

    Why is a rider like Mark Cavendish going to this race?

    Everybody knows that he will probably get dropped fairly soon in the race as he can’t climb. So his domestique duties will not be useful for the Great Britain team.

    So, is going to this race only a question of prestige for Mark Cavendish ?

    Why don’t GB instead pick a rider that could be more useful in the race than Mark Cavendish ?

    Please enlighten me! Thanks!

    • In a way, it’s because he’s Mark Cavendish. Not because of who he is, but because he’s experienced in a big pressure race, he understands the tactics and contrary to popular belief he’s not that bad a climber. Sure, he’s unlikely to ever win on Alpe d’Huez but short-ish climbs of 4km with plenty of time to recover probably won’t be a big problem to him until the hammer really goes down, probably with 70-80km or so to go. There aren’t many better than Cav to keep Froome out of the wind, fight for position and do a general domestique role for the first 150km or so – he’s used to being the one following the wheel in that position so he knows exactly what’s involved. It says a lot about Cav that he’s willing and actually seems quite proud to do this sort of job – he has other guys turning themselves inside out for him nearly every other race he does, but he’s still prepared to do his bit even when he knows it’s not going to be his day.

    • And here’s the line from the Rod Ellingworth of Team Sky:

      Ellingworth underlined that Cavendish’s contribution would be made off the road as well as on it. “Part of his role is getting the team up for it, then he will do his bit on the bike – he’s a winner, he has that winner’s attitude and that’s how he brings the team to the start line. A lot of people won’t see what he does on the road, because it may be before the television pictures start, but he will do his job.”

      Full article here from the ever excellent Fotheringham

  12. Ah… Was it just me or did anyone else notice Rochelle Gilmore’s pretty amazing boobs during BBCs coverage of the women’s road race today? Sorry it just has to be said… Let’s hope she’s commentating tomorrow…

  13. It is almost impossible to narrow down this field I agree!! I never have named so many possible winners and have never backed so many in the one race. With prices of 130 on Mollema, 310 on Stannard and 55s on Rui Costa, they are worth a few quid spread around. Should be a fascinating race and if the rain does come it will be a real race of attrition that should suit Cancellara down to the ground.

    • Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner!!! Rui Costa does the business for me at a very tasty 55/1. Rode a dream finish for me, always knew he had a great chance when Nibali and Valverde would start looking at each other and Purito was spent from all his attacking. Shame for Purito though, he was brilliant and at least made a go of it unlike a lot of others who were just left floundering when he went for it.

  14. Can not wait, what a great looking race, can you ever remember such an open field and so many contenders. I’m thinking the big names will mark each other out and expecting a surprise winner. Hoping it might be Stybars day

  15. I think Fabs to go last lap on the nasty climb and solo home while others in the final selection find their legs fail when called on – just like he did to Boonen in de Ronde … Or Sagan WILL make it, then he will be unstoppable from the last pinch … my wildcard is Kolobnev. Can’t even imagine Froome being in the final.
    It’s gunna be great.

  16. Just can’t believe GB will waste their resources on Froome when Stannard and G are much better suited to this kind of race. Anyone know what happened to Kennaugh – would have thought he’d be a good team man here, and good experience for him too…

  17. Kennaugh is injured, he announced on twitter recently. Season over i think. I’m a big fan of G (being Welsh) but he hasn’t shown enough yet i think to be trusted with leadership in a race like this. Needs to do more in next seasons classics. So Froome deserves to lead add he’s the best of a bad bunch (ie bad for a course like this)

    inrng – reading this on a smartphone and the format is much improved I think. However I can’t seem to respond to specific comments (or I Haven’t figured it out yet…)

  18. Quote: There are two more negative elements, first his ( Peter Sagan´s ) team is not strong and the best rider Peter Velits might have private ambitions.

    This is not true. Peter Velits is time trial specialist and he is current Slovakia national time trial champion. His ambitions on this World Championships was Team Time Trial with Omega ( he won ) and individual time trial. But because he is not in 100% condition ( some kind of sickness ) he decided not to start on individual time trial and he want better focused on this sunday to help Peter Sagan as much as he can. I think this should be best proof about his private ambitions.

    About strenght of Slovakia national team – well I must agree, from this 6 riders are only Peter Sagan and brothers Velits the world class, other 3 are there only because Sagan had excellent season and he gained 99% points to the National rankings.

  19. Excuse me if I’m naïve. But I will find it surprising if I see cooperation between trade team mates that are not waearing the same jersey. Surprising and ugly.

  20. JTL bio passport abnormality and then the entire British men’s elite team don’t manage to make it through the race in Florence…? Weather too bad? Have you ever cycled in the UK?

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