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The top 10 Worlds contenders

By:
Daniel Benson
Published:
September 25, 2011, 0:51 BST,
Updated:
September 25, 2011, 12:08 BST
Race:
UCI Road World Championships, Elite Men road race
Mark Cavendish in Geelong in 2010

Mark Cavendish in Geelong in 2010

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Mark Cavendish (Great Britain)

Arguably the race favourite and as Bradley Wiggins kindly pointed out, the sprinter won’t have a better chance of pulling on the rainbow jersey.

One of the biggest factors surrounds Cavendish's timing. As the junior women's and men's under 23 sprint showed, it's a crucial element on such a long drag to the finish.

Throughout the week a number of riders have, and will continue to launch their kicks too early. Cavendish will have to wait until the last 150 meters - unless Sagan goes early - to ensure victory. No rider is faster in a straight line.

Of course he has to get to the bottom of the long drag to the finish, and that's easier said than done, with plenty of teams including Belgium, Switzerland and France all expected to make the race as hard as possible in a bid to either drop him or at the very least isolate him. Much, if not nearly all, of Cavendish's race depends on the likes of Cummings, Froome, Stannard, Wiggins, Thomas, Millar and Hunt delivering him to the line. As Cavendish said earlier this week, there's no plan B. It's all or nothing.

Phillipe Gilbert (Belgium)

71 race days, 24 victories including, Amstel, Liege, a national title, a Tour stage, San Sebastian and the GP Quebec. Frankly there are WorldTour teams that would skin their bus drivers for season's return that fruitful.

Why has he been so unstoppable is a debate in itself but what makes him stand out from so many of his rivals isn't one particular aspect and in that lies his strength. Whereas Cancellara relies on brute power and telegraphed attacks, Cavendish on his double kick and Freire on his improvisation, Gilbert has almost all those strings to his bow. Climbs, sprints, breaks, solo moves from the front, he can do all of that and more. There simply isn't a more complete one day rider on the planet.

So where can he be beaten? Well, as we saw at the Classics this year the best rider doesn't always win and Gilbert could find himself marked out of the race. One may argue that riders have tried that tactic against Gilbert before and failed but the parcours will suit a tactic to negate the Belgian.

Tyler Farrar (United States of America)

The US has had a dreadful Worlds so far but that could change if Farrar discovers the form that saw him win his first Tour de France stage this year. The American is certainly capable of going the distance and the finish isn't to his disliking either. The major doubts are over his health and his team though.

Having crashed out of the Vuelta in the first week the American hasn't raced since and has spent the last few weeks recovering - he was coughing up blood for 10 days - and motor pacing. He's admitted that he's going into the race as an unknown but stressed that he wouldn't have made the trip from his base in Belgium if he didn't fancy his chances.

The measure of his credentials is perhaps summed up best by his teammates in Copenhagen. Bookwalter, Phinney, Louder and King are all fine young professionals but they're not Vande Velde, Zabriskie, Pate or Hincapie. Why Garmin didn't choose to back their man with more firepower is a telling indictment.

Thor Hushovd (Norway)

Only five riders have defended the rainbow jersey successfully but like Cavendish, Hushovd may never have a better chance of winning. The course is tailor made to his build, stamina and sprint, while in Boasson Hagen he has potentially the strongest right hand man in the race.

Whether or not Hushovd will rely on a sprint is a serious question for debate though. He can certainly handle a sprint but this course is far less selective than the one on which he won in Geelong last year. The likes of Cavendish, Greipel and even Boasson Hagen will still be within striking distance.

And this year's Tour demonstrated once again that Hushovd shouldn't be pigeon holed as just a sprinter. He can climb, attack, and most importantly read a race with expert precision. Should Gilbert or Cancellara break free from the bunch put money on Hushovd and not Boasson Hagen being glued to their back wheel.

Fabian Cancellara (Switzerland)

Everything may point to a disappointing outing for Cancellara on Sunday: the parcours, the expected weather, the shallow strength of his team, and of course his questionable form. However, there's no doubt that the Swiss rider will play a part in the action at the very least.

Whether or not he'll be spurred on to pull out a pride-saving performance after losing the men's time trial on Wednesday is almost irrelevant. Yet perhaps, just as David Millar hinted after the TT, that loss could be just what Cancellara needs.

A strong Cancellara is always a danger but there was the suspicion this spring that he raced too confidently - that Spartacus thought he was invincible. A more calculating performance could bring out the best in him though. Brian Holm summed things up perfectly mid-week when he told Cyclingnews that, "you only have one bullet in the Worlds and that you have to use it wisely."

Just for a second think of San Remo in 2008 and the Tour stage in 2007. While the time trial showed Cancellara's powers are on the wane, it was also intruiging to hear of comparisions to Roger Federer. The tennis star has been on the wane for over three years but in that time he's still won several majors.

Matthew Goss (Australia)

Goss's storming ride to win Milan San-Remo was one of the most impressive victories this year. It was a breakthrough win for the Australian as well, who had been promising much since his ride at Gent-Wevelgem in 2009.

However his season has petered out since May and he's failed to win a single race since the Tour of California. While that's doesn't in itself smack of crisis there's no denying the fact that his season has seen him take three steps forward and two steps back. Illness, injury and a lack of racing in recent weeks won't have helped and there's a suspicion that his position could be a smokescreen for a Simon Gerrans or even Stuart O'Grady, both of whom are in form and capable of leading.

The fact that the Australian team chose not to select Mark Renshaw is still a mystery too. If Goss is a sprint contender, then surely he would stand a better chance having the world's best lead-out man at his side? Perhaps it's GreenEdge politics, perhaps it's a lack of faith - Renshaw wasn't selected last year either - but Goss's chances will suffer as a result. No Renshaw gives Cavendish an even better chance.

Oscar Freire (Spain)

Like Germany in football's World Cup, you can never write off Oscar Freire when it comes to the world championships road race. Three times a rainbow jersey winner, third in Plouay in 2000 and a silver medallist at under 23 level in 1997 to boot, Freire's Worlds credentials are impeccable.

That said, it is now seven years (Verona in 2004) since Freire last won the world championships, as a combination of injury and ill-suited courses have conspired against the Spaniard. Last year in Geelong, he had a golden opportunity to move clear of Merckx, Van Steenbergen and Binda at the head of the roll of honour, but he could only manage 6th on the uphill sprint as Thor Hushovd roared to the title.

The Copenhagen course is a similar one, and in theory, tailor-made for Freire, but his form remains a perennial conundrum. Illness forced him out of the Vuelta a España at the end of week one, and on arriving in Denmark, he was coy about comparing his condition to that of world championships past. Even so, Freire has a long history of pulling out a big performance when it is least expected, and his judgement in an uphill finish like Sunday's is second to none. If he is still in contention coming into the finale, his will be the wheel to watch in the final 300 metres.

Peter Sagan (Slovakia)

A recurring trend at pre-race press conferences in Copenhagen this week has been the number of senior members of the peloton speaking in hushed tones of Peter Sagan and earmarking him as a potential world champion. Just 21-years-old, no other rider arrives at these Worlds in as rich a vein of form as the Slovak.

After taking overall honours at the Tour de Pologne, he rattled off a precociously assured trio of stage wins at the Vuelta, and followed that up with victory at the GP Prato last weekend for good measure. Indeed, throughout the season, Sagan has repeatedly triumphed in uphill sprints of varying degrees of difficulty, and the finishing straight in Copenhagen seems pitch-perfect for a rider of his power.

There is a school of thought, however, that at 266km, the Worlds road race is simply too long for a rider of Sagan's tender years to realistically aspire to victory. The naysayers can point to his failure to make an impact in the longer cobbled classics, and it is also worth noting that he will have just two teammates to support him in Denmark.

Oscar Freire, himself a world champion at the age of just 23, is well-placed to judge, however, and he believes Sagan is well capable of staying the distance, particularly given the nature of the course. "He's a rider who has won hard races, so I don't think the distance will be a big problem for him," Freire told Cyclingnews on Saturday. "If it was 300km maybe it would be different, but the nature of this circuit means that the 260km will seem 'shorter.'"

Daniele Bennati (Italy)

In theory, the Tuscan is well-equipped to make an impact on the Copenhagen circuit, as he is a fast-finishing rider with the capacity to absorb a hard day's racing. The great problem for Bennati is that he will be up against a number of riders, such as Hushovd and Freire, who have proven themselves even more adept at the combining those two skills.

Bennati began the season in enviable form, and was prominent at the business of a number of races that had seen the majority of the sprinting fraternity quickly deposited out the back of the peloton. Frustratingly, however, he was unable to convert those performances into wins, including at Gent-Wevelgem, where Tom Boonen beat him into second. Though the floodgates finally opened at Circuit de la Sarthe, a broken collarbone ruled Bennati out of the Giro, and his season since has been a race against time to prove his fitness to lead an Italian team that has been shorn of riders who have been suspended for failed doping tests.

A late stage win at the Vuelta a España earned Bennati the nod from coach Paolo Bettini, and he will be led out by Daniel Oss if it comes down a sprint. Though doubts over his ability to win races beyond 200km persist, Bettini has suggested that the Italians will go on the offensive to make the race difficult in a bid to eliminate the likes of Mark Cavendish from contention. If a significantly reduced group reaches the finish, Bennati could snag a medal, but the rainbow jersey might be a step too far.

Edvald Boasson Hagen (Norway)

According to Bob Stapleton and prior to the HTC meltdown Boasson Hagen was the one rider who the American businessman truly regretted leaving the team. Considering that some of the most talented riders of the last few years have come off the Blue Chip production line it speaks volumes of the Norwegian's talent.

Coming into the Worlds and Boasson Hagen is perhaps at a cross roads, one major win away from moving from the realms of great to world class, a bracket that honestly only relates to a handful of riders in the current peloton.

The problem for Boasson Hagen is that one of those men happens to be on his team and that team only consist of two other riders. Two leaders, two domestiques may not work and the younger Norwegian may find himself bowing to the authority and stature of his old compatriot.

Like Cavendish and Sagan the course looks ideal for the Norwegian and he Hushovd does falter then the door will be open. Who knows, maybe Boasson Hagen is ruthless enough to kick it open regardless.

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