By David Hunter
Imola > Imola 258.2km
Welcome to one of the hardest road races you’ll ever likely to see.
With over 5000m of climbing, this is a monster of a circuit. The 28.7km lap has to be tackled on nine occasions, and it has two muros contained within.
The first climb is 2.3km at 7.1%, but the opening 1.2km averages 9.6%. After a short descent the riders bounce straight into the hardest climb of the day.
1.2km at 11.5%, this is proper little muro. Again, if you classify the whole climb it does sound much easier, 2.1km at 7.9%, but that isn’t doing it justice. This is the climb that everyone will fear.
The forecast has changed every day for the last week. At one point it looked like we would get biblical conditions, but the latest forecasts says it will be dry for the vast majority of the race. There is a chance that the rain could arrive at the end of the race, but that is not certain.
Coming one week after the Tour de France, this race occupies the same spot as San Sebastian. If you cast your mind back to previous editions of that race you’ll recall that the winner of the yellow jersey never does well. As this race is significantly harder, I think this will make it very difficult for those riders who went very deep in the last few weeks. San Sebastian is usually won by a rider who carefully managed their efforts in France, leaving the race with good legs, not tired legs.
Riders who don’t race the Tour rarely do well in San Sebastian, apart from Evenepoel, but he’s special! However, that’s because their normally route in features small races like Tour de Wallonie, but this year riders have been able to race in the Tour of Poland, Lombardia, Emilia and Tirreno, which gives them solid preparation. I sense that the Tour riders will have an advantage, but they won’t get it all their own way.
Who’s the strongest team? For me, three teams stand out amongst the rest. Belgium, Italy and Spain look mighty strong in my book. Unusually, Spain actually look the best to me. All of their riders come from the Tour, and most ended the race looking strong. This isn’t a position the Spanish usually find themselves in, it does give them a significant advantage over their rivals. Valverde, Mas and Landa could all win this race, thanks to the steep slopes in the circuit. The squad is punchy, it isn’t full of proper climbers like Colombia, but it has more climbing strength than the Belgians and Italians.
Speaking of them, Belgium come with a classics squad. As the climbs are relatively short, it should play to their strengths. Van Aert has been a monster since the season restarted, but will he be tired after all his efforts in France? If the weather is bad, riders like Wellens, Naesen and Benoot will be very dangerous, but is the route too hard for them?
Italy are strong, but I don’t think their team leaders are as good as some others. This means they’ll need to ride a clever race in order to win, which won’t be easy.
As the race is very hard, we should see a small front group for the final two laps. With the big riders fairly equally matched, it could allow the strongest team to get a rider up the road and put pressure on the rest. If the race is that hard, they’ll just be team leaders left, which opens the door for a surprise winner. Either that or it will be a complete blood bath and the strongest rider will win. If we get heavy rain then it will be utter chaos.
Wout Van Aert – I was thinking he would be tired, but his performance in the TT suggested he’s not. The Belgian has quickly developed into the best cyclist in the world, his transformation this year has been nothing short of extraordinary. He is climbing with the very best, so the route can’t be too hard for him. If the race ends in any type of sprint, he’ll be the quickest. He gives the other teams a massive headache, they must make the race hard from early on. Belgium have a strong team, but if the race is really tough, they might regret a lack of climbers.
Tadej Pogačar – too tired.
Julian Alaphilippe – he’ll love the look of this race. We’ve all watched him during the Tour, looking a little off his best. After a tough lockdown period, Alaphilippe will hope that the Tour will help him to reach his top level. France don’t have the strongest looking team, which could be a problem deep in the race. We’ll have to wait and see how Alaphilippe approaches the final laps, I think he’ll want to attack early and force others into joining in. Whatever happens, you know he’ll be attacking, which is why we love him.
Marc Hirschi – too young.
Michal Kwiatkowski – ended the Tour in good shape, which is crucial for this race. Had this race been a few years ago, the Pole would have been one of the big favourites. In recent years he’s not been at the level required to win a race this hard, I don’t see him winning another rainbow jersey.
Alejandro Valverde – if you compare this race to San Sebastian, Bala has to be one of the big favourites as he’s brilliant at managing his effort during the Tour in advance of the Basque classic. Valverde is another rider who suffered during the lockdown, he uses races to get in top condition, not training. After finishing twelfth in both the Dauphiné and Tour, I think he is now approaching his best. At forty years of age, time is not on his side, but experience is crucial in big races. I think this race has been his number one target since the restructuring of the race schedule, do not write him off, especially as Spain have a super strong team at the race.
Jakob Fuglsang – of all the non-Tour riders, he has the best chance. The Dane has been flying for over a year now, don’t let his performance in Tirreno mislead you. After winning Lombardia, he clearly decided to knock it off a bit to ensure he’s at top form for this race. He has improved across all areas, but steep climbs is where I’ve noticed his biggest improvement. The Dane is one of the most dangerous riders in the current peloton, but will he find himself behind the Tour riders?
Michael Woods – not good enough.
Mikel Landa – being the second-best rider on the strongest team could be hugely beneficial in a race like this. The Basque rider finished the Tour in fourth place, which was a good result for him, but he would have wanted more. Landa is brilliant on steep climbs, I’m sure we all love to see him on the drops powering away. As I’ve mentioned, Spain have the strongest team in the race, and if Landa isn’t too tired he should give them a great option in the last two laps.
Greg Van Avermaet – it’s weird to write this, but GVA could benefit from flying under the radar. On first look the course is too hard for him, but remember back to Rio, Greg can survive tough days. With all eyes on Van Aert, it is possible for Greg to get into a key move and fight for the title.
I’ll stick my neck on the line and go with Alejandro Valverde. Yes, he’s not shown anything this year which backs this up, but I think his form has been growing and he knows how to time his peak to perfection.
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