An open course that’s got just enough difficulties for riders to exploit in order to slip the sprinters, Sunday’s men’s road race promises and uncertain race with tension that ratchets up lap after lap.
The Course: 261.4km: 15 laps of a 16.2km circuit. After starting outside the circuit the race goes to downtown Richmond for the circuit and the anticlockwise laps. The course takes in large boulevards in downturn Richmond before a U-turn and then a series of turns takes the race towards the James River, once infamous for it rapids here. It’s here the course gets lively with a u-turn on the wide road then the climbing starts 500 metres later with the first of three short climbs.
- 12.5km: Libby Hill Park is short but steep at 8% average, peaking at 9% and long enough to rob all momentum and has a cobbled section as it winds up. The cobbles are not wild but they’re not polished urban pavé either and this section should not be underestimated. The vibrations disrupt the body’s vascular circulation. Once, twice is fine but after a while it adds up. It’s followed by an equally short descent that’s steep and has a 90° bend.
- 14km: N23 Street begins with another right-angle bend and a short run and then the steep cobbled ramp begins with a 12% average and a peak of 13%. There’s a left turn at the top and a descent to the final climb.
- 15km: Governor Street is a regular climb, no cobbles and 7-8% on the way up. The top of the climb is just 680m from the finish line but the road keeps dragging up until 150m to go where it flattens to the line.
Combined these three climbs make for a trick approach where positioning matters, it’s hard to make up for a bad position and the repetition of these climbs makes them tiring, both from the physical effort but the mental commitment to fight for position too. Then it’s 12km on wider roads.
The Scenario: “a course for sprinters” say many but it’s a 260km race. Anyone left in the race will be slogging out out rather sprinting, this is a finish for the toughest riders rather than the speedsters. The accumulated climbing and cornering should whittle down the field and the forecast rain will put others off and some will crash too. By the last lap there should be a select group rather than a giant peloton.
The three climbs allow the race to be strung out. There’s time to regroup after, however this gets harder and harder as the distance goes up and the speed increases. Several teams will try to force things: some have an interest in toughening up the race because they’ve got no chance in a sprint; others want to make things hard because they believe strongly in their leader’s sprint they’ll try to blow away the last lap chancers with a high tempo on the flatter parts. It all makes for a stressful race. This can appear negative with riders conserving energy rather than gambling but that’s a 260km race with a rainbow at the end of it for you.
The Contenders: Alexander Kristoff is the prime pick. He’s won Milan-Sanremo and the Tour of Flanders so he’s got no trouble with the distance and packs a powerful sprint to beat the rest. After a lull in July He is in good form after winning the GP Plouay and strong riding in Canada of late, seemingly preferring cooler conditions. He likes to set targets and he’s good at meeting them. He’s also able to cover moves and not scared to go in a breakaway and has a decent team of five – plus the Russians? – in his service including Edvald Boassen Hagen, once an irresistible pick for a race like this but these days still struggling in longer races but his form was excellent in the Tour of Britain. Back to Kristoff and his biggest problem is the depth of the field, there’s plenty of competition.
John Degenkolb is next. His recent form in the Vuelta didn’t look great with so many missed sprints but things came right in Madrid and all the hard work will have done him good, just look at how Vasil Kiryienka and Jérôme Coppel have shone since they lapped Spain. Just like Kristoff he’s got a great sprint after a hard race and can be entrepreneurial if needed. Arguably he’s got a stronger team too with Tony Martin on hand to neutralise rivals or even go solo to avenge his time trial ride. André Greipel is a back-up sprinter who is also a great pick and enjoying a fine season including recent success in the Tour of Britain.
Michael Matthews is a good pick but yet to win a major one day race. This can all change on Sunday and reservations about the distance needn’t deter him, he’s come close in Milan-Sanremo and the Amstel Gold Race. He’s fast, agile and has a good team in his service too. You might remember his Tour de France horror show of injuries but he rode on with the thoughts of Richmond, this race means everything to him. He’s also got the knack of delivering quality wins just when it matters. Australia will ride for him and the team is built with Orica-Greenedge riders to ensure extra harmony. Can Simon Gerrans spring a surprise? He had a quiet season but “The Sniper” might fire one of his bullets.
Peter Sagan has a weak team and the Danish exodus from Tinkoff-Saxo reduces the allies further. With brother Juraj and Michael Kolar for help things are a touch harder as he’ll be isolated late on. As we’ve seen in the spring classics he’d arguably have won more with better support over the years. But few can match that sprint and the series of climbs, cobbles and corners are perfect for his acrobatic style as he can carry speed like no other. What if his weak team means this time he has to sit tight until late rather than scaring other riders with obvious displays of strength like he did in Sanremo? That could work but we don’t have much to go on form-wise following his somersault out of the Vuelta.
Those watching the crisis in and around Syria will be aware of the complex matrix of alliances, for example two countries can be allies while each backs rivals factions in some fights: it’s partly why the situation is intractable. It’s a bit like this in the Belgian team with a top heavy squad that must be fiendish to manage for selector Carlo Bomans. Even BMC Racing team mates like Greg Van Avermaet and Philippe Gilbert have a rivalry and then come the ambitions of Tom Boonen and Sep Vanmarcke. Tiesj Benoot is also worth watching, an all round tough rider with ascendant form after 5th place in the GP Montréal but will he be allowed a chance by the team? In a straight sprint they’ll fear losing to Alexander Kristoff or John Degenkolb Tom Boonen is still a medal prospect while Van Avermaet is very good at sniffing out and instigating the late moves and has finally found winning ways this year.
Another team top-heavy team is the Italian squadra. Vincenzo Nibali has been a driven man since his Vuelta exclusion and had some great recent results in Italy. He’d be the prime pick if this was a mountainous race but the flat profile might mean he’s a warm-up act who will enliven the race but probably not come away with much. Elia Viviani is the opposite, a sprinter who could find the course too hilly and too long, the track specialist has a good kick and we saw this in the Tour of Britain but even if he’s keen, he’s has yet to show over long distances and the spring classics. Diego Ulissi is in good form but again rides a course that doesn’t suit, he’ll have to break away to stand a chance while Fabio Felline and Giacomo Nizzolo bring more options but will they ride for others or sit tight and hope? But what if Matteo Trentin was their best bet? He’s a punchy rider with a good sprint, has friends on other teams and seems to take a big win now and then and he’s been coming into form.
Robert Gesink and Bauke Mollema are strong riders for the Dutch team but again on a course that doesn’t suit, instead the best chance could be Niki Terpstra and a late solo attack just like he can do in the spring classics; second in the team time trial suggests some form is there but there’s not much else to go on.
One team who don’t seem to have what it takes on paper at first glance is Spain as they come with Joaquim Rodriguez and Alejandro Valverde. But look more closely and Valverde has finished third in the Worlds for three years running and if the race is split apart he’s got the nose to find the winning move. Relations with Rodriguez are rotten but both know they’ll pay a price if they’re seen to chase each other down. Juan-José Lobato is an outsider for the sprint finish too as he’s got a good sprint and appears to be improving in form.
Michał Kwiatkowski would prefer a hillier course but he’s still a contender to win a again. He can float over the climbs and packs a good sprint as we saw in the Amstel Gold Race, not normally fast enough to rival the others so he’ll have to try something more inventive.
A cobbled course? Step forward Zdeněk Štybar. His win would mean a year of frustration for those forced to type his name repeatedly. But he’s a solid pick too after a good Tour of Britain and comes with a dedicated Czech team plus some alliances in Etixx-Quickstep. He’s good and he can deliver big wins but this would be his biggest triumph ever. How he goes about getting the win is difficult, he’d need to slip away late in the race and use the climbs and corners to establish a lead… or do what he did in the Tour de France and jump on the final climb and hope the others hesitate.
The French have Nacer Bouhanni who’s had a bad season but has been planning for this race for some time; tenth last year says he can cope with the climbs and distance but this course’s more staccato climbs rather than the drags of Ponferrada don’t suit him. Julian Alaphilippe is one of the revelations of the year but a win here seems too big an ask while Arnaud Démare won the U23 title in Copenhagen and can sometimes pull out a big sprint but here? Surely it’s pas possible. Tony Gallopin is another potential candidate who’s focussed on the race but again can you imagine the scenario where he beats everyone else?
Among the others Matti Breschel is as much part of the late season rituals as falling leaves and armwarmers, fourth last year he’s not done much in recent weeks. Future Cannondale-Garmin team mate Ramūnas Navardauskas is a dark horse who usually takes a big win every year but has nothing to show so far. Rigoberto Uran took silver in the Olympic road race on a course that didn’t suit and, again a win seems too much but an outside shot at a medal. None of the British team look to sharp right now although Adam Yates is the exception, he’s in good form and could be good for a late move.
|Michael Matthews, Peter Sagan, Greg Van Avermaet
|Philippe Gilbert, Zdeněk Štybar, Michał Kwiatkowski, Tom Boonen
|Valverde, Terpstra, Trentin, Ulissi, Greipel, Boasson Hagen, Mollema, Alaphilippe, Bouhanni, Lobato, Yates
Weather: (updated Sunday AM) rain showers and temperatures of 23°C or 70°F mean if it’s damp it won’t be too cold but it this will sap the energy and there will be a 15km/h wind from the NE meaning a fast section after the climbs and a light headwind on the approach to the climbs section.
TV: watch as much as you can. The worlds is a lot like Milan-Sanremo with an early break, a procession and it’s only in the latter stages that things go wild. But you have to watch the calm to enjoy the riders storming the final lap and feel the tension. The race starts at 9am EDT/local time and finishes at 3.40pm, that’s 3.00pm Euro time to 9.40pm.