Philippe Gilbert (Belgium)
Twelve months ago Gilbert saved his season with a vintage ride over the Cauberg to seal his rainbow jersey and he’ll be banking on another repeat performance on Sunday. A stage win in the Vuelta last month partially mirrored his build up to last season’s Worlds but it’s a big ask to expect Belgian’s number one to pull off a Bugno/Bettini defence of his title, especially when the course suits so many other riders this time around.
Comparisons are continuously made to Gilbert’s purple patch in 2011 and why he hasn’t lived up to expectations since. Some argue it's the typical trappings of a lucrative three-year deal, or that the set up at trade team level hasn’t been ideal. Whatever the true nature of Gilbert’s inconsistency, he remains one of the favourites for Sunday’s race. With seven riders (Spain and Italy both have nine) the Belgian team will be looking to others to make the race but Bakelants, Van Avermaet and Monfort should provide reasonable cover.
Alejandro Valverde (Spain)
No winner in almost a decade for the Spanish but Valverde has been an ever present feature (doping ban aside) for his nation in the world championships, with two silver and two bronze medals. On those occasions where he’s missed out he’s simply been out-gunned by a better sprinter (Boonen and Freire) but his consistency means he will lead the line for Spain once more. And it’s hard to see a weakness in his overall armoury. Strong in the hills, a capable descender, and tactically astute he has the full skill set needed for the course in Florence. Third in Liege this year and second in Amstel –in which he won the bunch sprint behind Roman Kreuziger -suggests he still has the staying power.
Chris Froome (Great Britain)
Great Britain’s hopes for a win on the back of Brian Cookson’s ‘Project Aigle’ success will depend on which Froome turns up on the start line. Will it be power meter gazing powerhouse who controlled the Tour de France or will it be the rider who abandoned the USA Pro Challenge. Results suggest that the British rider is regaining some of his form. He put in a solid ride in Sky’s bronze medal ride in the team time trial event and if the Italians and Spanish execute their plans of making the race as hard as possible Froome may find himself in the selection over the final two laps. In the build-up to Sunday’s race Froome has consistently talked down his chances of success and he certainly doesn’t start with the same pressure that surrounds Sagan, Cancellara or Nibali.
Chris Horner (United States of America)
Twenty years after the last American winner of the World title, Chris Horner lines up as captain of the American team. Fresh from his jaw dropping win at the Vuelta a Espana, Horner returned to his base in Oregon before flying back to Europe less than 72 hours before the men’s start. Last year the American team had a race to forget with Andrew Talansky their highest finisher in 43rd place. This time around Horner leads a squad deep on climbing talent, even more so after Freddie Rodriguez withdrew in favour of Matthew Busche. The course itself suits Horner’s style of riding, the final ascent similar to the terrain on which he dominated the Vuelta. His weakness may be his one-day pedigree: aside from the odd placings in Lombardia, Fleche and Liege-Bastogne-Liege, he’s rarely shined in one day races. Saying that, until last month he wasn’t even ranked as a favourite for a Grand Tour and we all know what happened next.
Fabian Cancellara (Switzerland)
The bookies favourite at 7/2, Cancellara returns to the Worlds looking to claim one of the few one day victories still missing from his trophy cabinet. Fifth over a similarly tough course in Mendrisio in 2009 and fourth two years later in a sprint in Copenhagen, there’s no doubting Cancellara’s credentials for a road world title. The missing link has always been whether he can marry his undoubted strengths with every other element within a racing scenario. His record in the Classics speaks for itself but on too many occasions his plan A of riding everyone off his wheel appears limited if he’s not the strongest by a country mile, or he’s marked out of race. On Sunday, Cancellara, with arguably the strongest five-man team in the race (Rast, Frank, Albasini, Elmiger) must hang on over the Fiesole before taking matters into his own hands and forcing a selection on the Via Salviati.
Daniel Martin (Ireland)
Crashing out of the Vuelta certainly wasn’t the plan but a week of racing on the roads of Britain will have given Martin more of a chance for the Worlds had he decided to simply train at home in Girona instead. His performance in the Tour of Britain suggested that the Irish rider remains motivated, even if his attacks were nullified throughout the race. With a stronger team than in previous years the Irish will be looking to position Martin towards the head of affairs for the final laps where his climbing talents will be expected to make a challenge. Perhaps the Worlds comes too early for Martin with his Vuelta crash and a possible tilt at Lombardia in a week’s time.
Nairo Quintana (Colombia)
For the record we originally had Robert Gesink in this list after his win in Quebec earlier this month but Quintana shades the Dutchman out of the reckoning based on his results this season and the fact that his training regime appears to differ from most riders. It means that the adage that you’ve had to have ridden the Vuelta in order to win a Worlds may not count for a rider who didn’t race once between Liege and the Tour. And in case you were wondering, the last time a rider skipped the Vuelta and won the Worlds was in 2000 when Romans Vainsteins was the surprise winner.
Rui Costa (Portugal)
In the previous 87 editions of the professional men's road race world championship a Portuguese rider has never won a medal, but that may change this year courtesy of Rui Costa. The 26-year-old has enjoyed a stellar season this year with a pair of stage wins in the Tour de France, a second straight Tour de Suisse victory (including two stage wins) plus a victory in the Spanish one-day race Klasika Primavera de Amorebieta. Costa has shown form of late as well with fifth and sixth place results in the pair of one-day WorldTour races in Canada. While Costa only has two teammates for support, Tiago Machado and Andre Cardoso are able climbers and should be by Costa's side deep into the 272km Worlds finale. If his second stage win in the Tour is any harbinger then Costa should be unfazed by inclement weather and if the favourites mark each other too heavily on Sunday then Costa may prove an adept spoiler in a groundbreaking victory for himself and his country.
Peter Sagan (Slovakia)
Conventional wisdom says that you have to ride the Vuelta a España if you want to win the world championships in the modern era, but the normal rules don’t seem to apply to Peter Sagan. The Slovak spent six weeks in North America after the Tour de France, training at altitude and clocking up an impressive eight victories in Colorado, Alberta and Montreal, and he arrives in Florence focus, prepared and with his morale at a high.
It’s a stark contrast to last year, when Sagan all but threw away his hopes of becoming world champion with an exhausting round of post-Tour criteriums. Sagan is comfortably the fastest finisher of the Worlds favourites and he has repeatedly demonstrated his ability to survive whittling down processes on climbs of various shapes and sizes, making him a natural favourite for the rainbow jersey.
Rather than the climbs of Fiesole and Via Salviati, however, the biggest obstacle Sagan faces is the 280km distance of the Worlds course. True, he was second at both Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Flanders this year, but Sagan has yet to win a race in excess of 250 kilometres. He may yet rue missing out on the base of endurance Cancellara, Gilbert et al have built up at the Vuelta.
Vincenzo Nibali (Italy)
The second half of Nibali’s season has been built around peaking for September 29, but it remains to be seen quite how much his Vuelta a España campaign has taken out of him. Certainly, Nibali’s form in Spain was nowhere near as sparkling as it had been when he dominated the Giro d’Italia in May, yet had it not been for a wholly unexpected performance from 41-year-old Chris Horner, Nibali would have claimed a rare Giro-Vuelta double.
Rather than building form as the Vuelta progressed, however, it appeared as though Nibali was suffering in the final week. It remains to be seen just how well Nibali has recovered in the two weeks since, but the Sicilian rarely fails to make an impact in the races he targets. Like Quintana and Froome, Nibali and Italy need to make the race as difficult as possible so as to shed the likes of Sagan and Cancellara before the final lap. But even if such an opportunity can be engineered, Nibali will still have to be inventive if he is to beat someone like Valverde in the finale. In the event of a sprint at the end of a less selective race, the Italians’ back-up option is Filippo Pozzato, but one imagines that the squadra azzurra will wait a long time before reverting to Plan B.