World Championships 2019 – Men’s Road Race

By David Hunter

Leeds – Harrogate 285km

A long day in the saddle.

Not far off 300km is a demanding day, throw in the grippy roads and horrible weather and we’re in for an elimination race. We’ve all seen enough of the circuit to know what to expect, it’s a lap that is much harder than it seems on the profile. We have two tricky moments, especially on wet roads, the first of them is the turn over the bridge, which is taken at pace. The second is the tight left-hand turn inside the final 3km, which is horrible given the slippery conditions.

The lap circuit features one main climb, 1.1km at 5.8%. This will be attacked on every occasion, but it does come straight after the technical bridge section, meaning that poor bike handlers will start it too far back to make a difference.  It’s not a hard climb, but as we get closer to the end of the race, it will start to become very important.

Weather

Awful. The local area has a weather warning in place for heavy rain, with the chance of flooding. The worst of the weather will be in the morning, which would normally be good news for a bike race, but this race starts at 0840. The heavy downpour will leave the peloton feeling wet, something they won’t be able to shake for the rest of the day. The rain is to continue into the afternoon, but won’t be as heavy as the morning. The roads will be wet and slippery, expect to see many crashes throughout the day. Poor weather will make this a hugely challenging day, a race of attrition. 2013 was the last wet world championships, we only had 61 finishers that day. I think we’ll see even less riders completing the race this year, it’s going to be a huge battle out there.

Tactics

Over to Belgium. They arrive with the best squad of riders, but how will they manage so many leaders? I think we’ll see Tim Declercq lead the race from the beginning, until the lap circuit. Once there, the attacking will begin. Belgium won’t want to be forced to chase any move, they will be under instruction to make every attack, and they’ll be plenty. You could argue that they have five potential winners, but who will sacrifice their own chances to work for others. Without an out and out fast man, it also forces them into attacking and not waiting for a sprint, something the other teams will be watchful of.

Looking to stop the Belgians are the Dutch. Despite his relative lack of experience at this level, Van Der Poel is the favourite to win the title. They have a strong team, with a clear leader, something that I like. As this is the world championships, we won’t just see a couple of teams involved in chasing, the squads with the most riders will be expected to shoulder much of the burden, that means a busy day for Italy, Spain, France, Denmark and Germany.

Most teams will want to follow the wheels in the opening section of the race, waiting for the circuit before attacking. Once in Harrogate, each lap will see an increase in pace and attacks. Each time over the line, we’ll see less riders in the race. The last three laps is when we’ll see the big boys come out to play, but will they risk losing the race by putting in a huge attack? Will we see a negative race, thanks to the conditions? Due to the weather, I don’t see many domestiques left deep in the race, it will be leader versus leader.

In summary, Belgium will control the race until the lap circuit. Once into Harrogate, they will attack on every lap, trying to force breakaways and put domestiques into trouble. The final three laps will see the big players come to the front and the bunch will explode. I think we’ll get a sprint from a handful of riders.

Contenders

Mathieu Van Der Poel – after he won the Amstel Gold Race, he was immediately installed as the favourite for the rainbow jersey. His preparation has been good, taking three stage wins in the Tour of Britain, and the overall title. Yes, there are question marks about his ability to last the distance, but he coped fine in Amstel. The lap circuit will be to his liking, his bike handling skills are second to none. He won’t be put off by the weather either, he’s used to lots of rain and mud in CX races. I am interested to see how the Dutch DS will try to manage him. Van Der Poel is a huge fan of ripping up the rule book and attacking when he wants. Will he be asked to ride a “normal” race? Will the Dutch encourage his unconventional tactics? A bold move could win the title, but it could also lose it.

Peter Sagan – the great man is looking for his fourth rainbow jersey. 2019 hasn’t been as good as previous years, but he still won a stage, and the green jersey, at the Tour de France. In recent races we’ve seen Sagan testing his legs and working for others, he looks in great condition. Slovakia aren’t the strongest team in the race, but this is an issue Sagan is used to facing. With just three teammates, Sagan knows he’ll be isolated quite early in the race, which means he’ll rely on other teams to chase attacks. This is the world championships, there is always a team who’s willing to chase! Sagan will come to life in the closing laps, but don’t expect to see him wait for a sprint.

Belgium – Van Avermaet, Gilbert, Wellens and Naesen. Anyone of these riders can win this race, especially with the rain predicted. Wellens is the obvious pick for the rain, it’s his favourite conditions. He’ll be used in an attacking role, forcing other teams into chasing. I also think Gilbert will go long, leaving Naesen and Van Avermaet for the final laps. Without doubt, the Belgians are the strongest squad, but do they have the best riders? Looking at the lap circuit, they don’t have the big favourites to win the race, there are too many with faster finishes. They have to attack, they will attack, but will they win?

Julian Alaphilippe – his stunning Tour de France is one of the highlights of the season. Since that point, he looked good in Canada, which will have given his nation some hope. Similar to Holland, the French arrive with one plan, which is the correct decision. This circuit is a good one for Alaphilippe, but not a great one. He would prefer more climbs, but the final kilometre will interest him, remember he won a bunch sprint in Tirreno this season.

Alexey Lutsenko – the man in form. In the last month, Luts has won the Arctic Race of Norway, was 4th in the Deutschland Tour, finished 2nd in Coppa Agostoni and won Coppa Sabatini and Memorial Marco Pantani. Put simply, he’s flying! He only has four teammates to help, but he’ll follow a similar tactic to Sagan. Lutsenko will hide in the bunch and spring to life in the closing stages. He knows he has to attack and drop the faster finishers, something he’s more than capable of doing.

Italy – they arrive with two clear options: Trentin and Colbrelli. They have one of the strongest teams in the race, expect to see plenty of them attacking and dictating pace. Trentin will be used as an attacking option, holding Colbrelli back for a sprint. Trentin was brilliant in the Tour of Britain, and recently won Trofeo Matteotti. Colbrelli’s form isn’t as good, but he performs very well in rainy conditions. Italy will expect a medal.

Ben Swift – the home favourite. Swift has been preparing for this race for years! His season was interrupted by a horror crash in Tenerife, but he’s recovered very well and has a decent chance of causing an upset. He’s climbing better than ever, knows these roads well, and is super motivated. He will hope to claim a medal, something I think he’s capable of.

Michael Valgren – did someone say rain? The big Dane has hit a nice run of recent form and he’s looking back to his normal self. He’ll love the poor conditions and the distance of the race is good for him. The Danes don’t have the biggest squad, but they possess a huge amount of quality. Given the sprinting speed of the other contenders, Valgren will need to go long.

Prediction Time

Got to be Peter Sagan. This is a perfect route for Sagan, and I think he’ll expose the tactical naivety of MVDP and seal his fourth rainbow jersey.

David Hunter

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