The 2017 UCI Road World Championships kick into life on Sunday with the trade team time trial, and Orica-Scott's Matt White believes the men's 42.5km test around the Norwegian city of Bergen is the hardest team test his squad have faced.
Orica-Scott are no strangers to the TTT at the Worlds, having finished on the podium in all but one season since the event's debut in 2012. The Australian WorldTour team have racked up two silvers, two bronzes and missed out on gold by less than one second in 2014.
"It's the most solid triple-T that I've seen," White tells Cyclingnews.
The former athlete arrived in Norway on Monday and along with his six-man team of Alex Edmondson, Luke Durbridge, Svein Tuft, Damien Howson, Daryl Impey, and Michael Hepburn rode reconnaissance over the route.
The majority of the course is run over rolling terrain, while there is a long flat section just before the biggest climb with roughly 12 kilometres remaining. The final section is downhill or flat and teams must finish with at least four men in order to post their times. The official start order will be picked at random, with squads notified of their slots on Saturday. For now, White and his riders have been using their time to familiarise themselves with the location and route.
"There are a couple of little climbs, and the one with around 12 kilometres to go has a pitch at around 12-13 per cent," says White.
"It's the most amount of climbing I've seen in a TTT compared to what we've had in the Tour, Giro or Vuelta, and it's different to what we've seen in the TTTs at the Worlds in the last couple of years, when it's been about pure speed with big guys. It's a long distance too. There's no mucking around at 42 kilometres."
Many predicted that the weather could be a significant factor for the weekend races, but with temperatures around 12-14 Celsius and little wind set for Sunday, White believes that the terrain will be the most telling and important factor.
"It's relentless, and teams can implode on the final climb. It's up and down but manageable for around 30 kilometres, but then there's this 1,500m climb with 12km to go," he says.
"The climb goes up in three different steps, and the hardest part at 12 per cent is right near the top. If you've got big guys who have been going flat out for around 30 minutes, or your fourth guy is on a bad day and you have wait for five, 10 seconds, then that's going to hurt your chances. There's no chance to even make that time back up the downhill run into Bergen. It means that there's going to be less recovery. You're going to be going up and down all the time."
White is understandably keeping his cards close to his chest in terms of his team's strategy, and which riders might have specific roles before, on and after the final climb. But he has assembled a strong team, picking riders who have competed at the Vuelta – Tuft left the race after two weeks just to focus on the Worlds TTT – and others who have raced in Canada and the Tour of Britain.
While the team are stacked with experience, they face-off against the usual powerhouses of BMC Racing and Quick-Step, the not-to-be ignored Team Sunweb and a Team Sky squad that have brought Vuelta winner Chris Froome, Geraint Thomas and Michal Kwiatkowski.
"I'd say that it's going to be the usual suspects for the win," White says. "I'd also throw Team Sky into the ring. For me, with the team they have, they're the favourites for the win. It's going to be between us, Team Sky, BMC and Quick-Step for the win, but Sky are the favourites for me. Quick-Step might be a little weaker without Tony Martin, but they've still got a solid team."
Unlike in a team trial at a Grand Tour, where teams must ride with climbers, sprinters and non-TT specialists, squads at the World Championships are made up of genuine experts against the clock. For White that's both an advantage and a disadvantage, but the fact that teams run with six riders, rather than the nine they can have in Grand Tours, means there's little room for error this weekend.
"We've got guys who can climb better and need to go the distance," he says. "And then we've got bigger and stronger guys who need to put more out in other sections. The 10 kilometres before the final climb is probably the fastest section and that where you can take time, but I think that it's going to be a pretty tight races."