World Championships Road Race Preview

It’s not Martigny but it’ll do nicely. Italy has swept in to replace the Covid-cancellation of the world championships in Switzerland and the substitute course heads to the hills with a tough circuit, a viable replacement that opens up the title to a wider cast of characters. In an unusual year this is one of the few races post-lockdown to keep its habitual spot on the calendar. Only with much of the field coming out of the Tour de France and large portion lining up for the Giro it’s attracted plenty of star names who are in top form rather than flaming out after a long season. Sit back and enjoy…

The Route: Imola but not as we know it, the famous autodromo features but thankfully only in passing, because while a motor racing circuit circuit evokes the thrill of speed, what is sporty at 250km/h feels humdrum at 45km/h. Instead we have a circuit into the Apennine foothills of 28.8km, long for the worlds, to be completed nine times , a total of 258km.

The circuit begins with a gradual drag out of Imola which is chased by a small descent including a tight hairpin. Then comes the Tre Monti climb nicknamed “Mazzolano” this week for the chapel it passes along the way. It’s got a steep start with 10% for the first kilometre and then gradually easing off, all on a narrow road and protected at the start but exposed at the top. There’s a gradual descent to the town of Riolo Terme. From here then it’s flat across to the next climb, there’s a right turn where the road kicks up for 300 metres before levelling off and then its into the second climb to the Gallisterna chapel and a kilometre at 12%. Then comes the descent which is like a staircase at first, a series of downhill ramps and flatter parts before a sustained downhill run into Imola where the race uses part of the famous motoracing circuit to complete a lap with a flat finishing straight.

If Martigny was for the climbers they’re still in with a chance but this is a course for punchy riders too, a route comparable to Lombardia or Liège. Ride the circuit once and it’s ok, do it multiple times and the gaps will quickly open up. There’s 4,600m of vertical gain which is a lot but it’s spread across 258km when a compact mountain stage of the Tour could try to cram this into 158km.

  • Side note: you’ll see the vineyards and the grey hills, the race takes part in the Vena di Gesso park, literally “the vein of gypsum” and Italy’s natural construction material site. As well as plaster, the hills are also quarried for clay which is processed and exported around the world as ceramic tiles. What’s this got to do with cycling? Well it’s a busy region for cycling and firms like Ariostea, Flaminia and Panaria have all had their own pro teams and the tiling industry spawned Mapei which had cycling’s superteam in the late 1990s and still sponsors the worlds today

The Contenders

Wout van Aert is the safe pick, the Belgian was second in the time trial earlier this week and as you know by now he can do it all,the picture of all-round dependability that an auto brand trying to promote a new 4×4 vehicle probably craves. It’s up to rivals to make the climbing hard all day, and launch longer range moves, otherwise they might be resigning themselves to silver, or as L’Equipe puts it today in more terrifying terms, “driving themselves to the abattoir”. Greg Van Avermaet has got a climbing test here while Tim Wellens ought to be good on a day like this but missed out on the Tour de France because a crash while training and his been playing catch-up. Tiesj Benoot gives the Belgians more options, he’s good on a filthy day so if the rain comes early his stock will rise but all could equally be pressed into service to control the race.

He can win the Tour de France but can Tadej Pogačar do it on a wet weekend in Emilia-Romagna? He’s yet to win a one day race and that’s perhaps a matter of time but it’s still a different test. Slovenia are the form nation of the month but that’s more a quirk and they won’t be able to control the race. Primož Roglič is a punchy rider who’s won steep uphill finishes in Tirreno-Adriatico before and a win would mark a full recovery from his sacking on the Planche des Belles Filles.

Marc Hirschi (Switzerland) was an impressive U23, so good he was fast-tracked out of Sunweb’s development team. But he looked even more special in his first season as a pro when he was in the early break in the GP E3 Harelbeke and then latched on to the big winning move when it caught him and he stayed with them to show endurance for a tough race. He showed on the Suc-au-May he’s got what it takes to launch on steep climbs.

Michael Woods (Canada) had the Olympics as his big goal for the year and now the Worlds are the substitute. He took a good win in Tirreno-Adriatico recently but how to succeed here, he’s ok in a sprint among a few riders but no certainty so he’ll probably have to launch a knock-out attack on the final lap to go solo.

The circuit is ideal for human jack-in-the-box Julian Alaphilippe (France) if he can contain his restless legs syndrome, to save himself for one spectacular attack and use the descents to build a lead. Perhaps others will follow him but he’s good in a sprint too. Guillaume Martin was fading in the Tour de France, look to see if he’s refreshed and they’re backed by a solid squad of domestiques or rather équipiers.

Alejandro Valverde (Spain) had a good if unspectacular Tour de France and now finds a circuit suited to his skills and experience but so far it’s not been his year, as if time is finally catching up with the 40 year old. He’s only the figurehead of a strong Spanish armada where Pello Bilbao, David de la Cruz, Jesus Herrada, Mikel Landa, Enric Mas, L-L Sanchez and Marc Soler are all conceivable winners.

It’s home advantage for the Italian team, especially as national selector Davide Cassani is from here. Vincenzo Nibali is ideal for a course like this but the Giro’s his big objective and he tends to gradually find form; he was adrift in Tirreno-Adriatico and so he’s not an easy pick today. Mind you he wasn’t when he won Milan-Sanremo either and if it rains it might help him. Alberto Bettiol had a very discreet Tour de France but can be strong in a finish like today but as ever his win rate is low while Diego Ulissi is quietly having one of his best ever seasons, rarely out of the top-10 once the terrain suits him and a crafty finisseur.

Jacob Fuglsang (Denmark) is aiming for the Giro but he’s arguably a better one day racer and on a course that resembles a Lombardia or a Liège he can take over the mantle from Mads Pedersen.

Max Schachmann (Germany) had a great start to the season but a cracked collarbone in Lombardia has spoiled the second half and having battled around the Tour de France might find he’s recovered and fit but how to win, he’s not the punchiest climber for the climbs nor the best sprinter for the flat finish.

Michał Kwiatkowski (Poland) won the worlds on a wet and hilly course, exploiting the downhill run to the finish. Today he probably doesn’t have the punch of old but can win from a crafty sprint instead.

Colombia’s Dani Martinez is probably their best rider today with Rigoberto Uran and Esteban Chaves as outsiders.

Australia bring a big team with Richie Porte as the form rider but he’s never taken a one day win and given a career as a worker at Ineos beckons for the next too years is today his last chance and a few days at home with his new daughter might not be ideal but just with the Tour there’s no pressure. Simon Clarke is the modern version of Simon Gerrans who might have only one match to burn while rivals have a box but all the more reason for him to play things carefully and Michael Matthews is an option in case of a sprint from a group.

Tom Dumoulin started out as a good one day racer and the same for Dylan van Baarle as they look to keep up Dutch morale after their women’s team have done so well.


Richard Carapaz (Ecuador) is handy in one day races and this kind of circuit suits, as ever if he can get ten metres he’ll risk taking a kilometre. Alexey Lutsenko should look familiar given he rides in Kazakh colours all year although there’s talk he might leave Astana, he’s a chance to make his contract value soar is out following a Covid test. A long shot for the win but Tom Pidcock (Great Britain) is a curiosity, normally a five-chainring pick for the U23 race but there isn’t one so he’s riding and worth watching just to see how long he lasts.

Wout van Aert, Jacob Fuglsang
Julian Alaphilippe, Alejandro Valverde
Diego Ulissi, Alexey Lutsenko, Michael Woods, Richard Carapaz
Max Schachmann, Vincenzo Nibali
Pogačar, Kwiatkowski, Hirschi, Mas, Roglič, Martinez, Benoot

Weather: a switch from the recent weather, a 20km/h wind will come from the east meaning a tailwind up the Mazzolano climb to Riolo and then a light headwind on the Gallisterna climb and the descent so to attack on the final time up the last climb is to risk launching into a headwind. The breeze will also bring rain for the latter part of the race which matters as much of the circuit has been freshly tarmacked for the race so it’s smooth and could become slippery. A top temperature of 18°C mid-way in the race before it cools.

TV: live from start at 10.00am CEST to the finish, forecast around 4.45pm CEST. Normally the men’s worlds are an attritional affair that make for slow television at the start with the pace gradually picking up until a frantic final lap but this year’s route features a much longer lap.

34 thoughts on “World Championships Road Race Preview”

  1. Thank you for this piece, and congratulations on a very thorough write-up of the favorites.

    One who I don’t see mentioned anywhere among those to watch, yet worth keeping an eye on IMHO, is Damiano Caruso. There were whispers in L’Equipe that he was the chosen boy for the Italian squad, and the Squadra Azzurra often punches above their weight in the world champs. No doubt having it take place in the Italian heartland will give them a bit of a morale boost as well.

  2. We will see how it plays out. My expectation on seeing the course description is that i feel it does not suit the real punchy one day riders like van Aert, Mattews etc unless the others let them but time will of course tell the story. The repeat efforts will take a toll.
    My pick is Fuglsang as he has been riding one day races like this so well the last couple of years and this course really seems to suit a strong rider / climber. If he is riding i will put a single chain ring on my countryman Bennett. Perhaps a bit optimistic but he’s capable of top 10 on a good day for sure.

  3. WVA has demonstrated endurance in winning MSR and ability over punchy climbs in Strade Bianche but Worlds has many more climbs than the former and is 50+ km further than the latter. Without him in contention the race would appear wide open so dozens I think have an interest in sustained pressure. On that basis Fuglsang, Benoot or Lutsenko. I too would love to see countryman (George) Bennett in contention but suspect he’s not quite there post TdF. Can’t wait…

  4. Having watched a tiny snippet of the women’s race the course looks pretty hard. Maybe on a similar difficulty level to the Rio Olympics course. I’d expect similar riders to thrive now as then – hilly one day riders with a couple of cobble munchers on top form. It might play out in a similar way too as there is quite a way from the last climb to the finish. Climbers might get away but not stay away. I’d put Fuglsang favourite narrowly ahead of Van Aert. I can’t see Valverde as a 4 star favourite. It’ll be interesting to see how Roglic and Pogacar do.

  5. Very interested to watch Pidcock and the potential next installment of ‘20 something mountain biker / crosser make seamless transition to pro road”.
    Dominating the baby giro is one thing but now he’s with the big boys. Still, he seems to have really good head on your shoulders and this kind of step up doesn’t seem to faze the kids these days. Should be interesting.

    • Pidcock is interesting. He’s obviously very punchy being a good crosser, and at 58kg (according to pcs) he’s very light. Almost like an English Joaquin Rodriguez. I hope to god he doesn’t just get turned into just another carriage on the mountain diesel train at Skyneos.

      • Richard S – it’s a big step up in class for Pidcock and the distance has gotta hurt too but I’ll be watching with great interest. Rainbow bands? I think there’s no chance but it’s a strange year with strange things happening…

  6. Hirschi both for two and one chainrings?
    I think Kwiato deserve more than one ring – he is clearly in form (maybe better than in 2014) and he showed in TdF that when he is out of team duties he can win. I would switch him with Carapaz – good climber, but on a punchy course like that with a flat finish he will struggle to drop likes of WvA or Fulsgang.

  7. Looking at yesterday’s race there could be a scenario with one or two riders escaping during the penultimate lap. Men and women’s races are not always comparable (and VdB was a big favourite anyway), but using the last lap to escape, build time in the descent (think Nibs or Hirschi) and hesitant chase (eg WvA and van Avermaet are there but no other Belgians) could be rewarded with the win. That’s just one scenario though.

  8. Thank you the review Inrng. I’m interested in how you think a team like Columbia’s or Spain’s prepare for today given they have so many potential leaders/winners. Do they agree on who to work for amongst themselves on the day or on the road? Are they told by their national cycling authority who to ride for? Or are they left to their own devices?

  9. Interesting that foreign media all over the place rates Fuglsang higher than danish experts. Im not sure he is firing all cylinders yet in his aim for the Giro (which i think is a mistake – the final week in the Giro is too much time at altitude for him). His goal for the season was Worlds in Switzerland and Olympics with routes suiting him better than this one. Only way he can win it is by riding a small group out of his wheel on the undulating platau after the final climb like he did in Liege, and i think the group coming over the top will be a bit too big for that to happen. Medal is likely, but he needs to be solo as the only riders from INRNG’s pick list he may have a chance to outsprint is Mas and Porte.

    nb. GVA cant win on this parcour and probably wont ride for anyone else but GWA – i would not be surprised to see a similar scenario to Yorkshire with GVA derailing the belgian team teactics – aka a smal group is up ahead with 1-2 laps to go, belgium is genreously represented in the chasing peloton, once the beligian team is whittled down chaseuing and its GVA’s time to close the final gap it never happens because GVA never rides for a team mate (Lotto, BMC, CCC, team Belgium) and VWA wins the sprint in the chasing group.

    VWA and Fuglsang may be the favourites, but i have a feeling it will be someone else as this route is less select with many riders able to win due to many riders coming out of the TDF in form and similar many riders near peak form for the Giro.

    • Van Avarmaet has said he’s riding in support of WVA. But it’s easier saying that than pulling on the last lap and sacrificing your own chances.

      • Im sure he will support WVA with the same finesse and determination as he has supported Gilbert in the past and this year for Trentin 🙂

    • Sid it.

      Too eqsy for fuglsang althoug he almost got away over the top so make a seious attept to claw back Alaphiplipe if the pole hd jsut managed to get on to his wheel a bit sooner.
      GVA & WVA. Didn’t work out – parcour was too difficult for WVA and GVA was unable to make a selection.

      Excelent Champion – proves he has been the best rider in the world since jan 1st 2019 and that he still is. Happy not to see a non Sky/Inios or Rabobank/Jumbo rider on top to prove that its at least posible to win the biggest 1 day races Without questionable help.

  10. I don’t know why they don’t put a Portuguese in the favorites. The Portuguese have a good team. It has a category to show that they can be world champions. In fact, they were champions, the last time with Rui Costa.

    • Hehe, no. Just that he rode better than the Grenadiers collectively. But it’s an isssue for the future at Jumbo-Visma, his valued as soared and his contract ends next year, if he’s not in talks with teams like Ineos yet he could soon be.

  11. Lutsenko’s team have said that they will await the retest before deciding his future programme. As PCR tests are much more liable to give a false negative (incubation incomplete, failure to obtain virus bearing material on the swab…) than false positive (cross contamination in a laboratory), this approach seems illogical, despite th TdF applying the same “logic”.

    A long day out in the rain: who will survive?

  12. Just looked at the start list and Enrico Gasparotto, who presumably has rode a good few worlds for Italy is down as riding for Switzerland. What’s that all about?!

    • No Mathieu. Several reasons why he’s not here are going around. First that’s it’s too hard for him (but with WvA as a favourite you’d think he could have a chance as well?). Second is that the classics are his goal and the worlds (possibly going out of his ‘bubble’) doesn’t fit in his schedule.

    • MVDP, Sagan, Kragh & Mads P opted out. For MVDP, Kragh & Mads P getting the feel of ‘belgium’ in BinkBank is more importanbt before Flanders & Rpoubaix + Sponsors WANTS them in their race this year.

  13. Hill near end + downhill finish = Alaphilippe. It’s one dimensional but it’s reassuring to see the natural order restored and one of the more established riders reasserting control.
    What a weird six weeks… I feel like a drought of cycling has turned into a flood that i’m drowning in. I’m exhausted just trying to follow it.

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