Powered by triple individual world time trial champion Tony Martin, the Etixx-Quickstep squad won the first two UCI Road World Championship team time trials in 2012 and 2013, but their storied rivalry with Orica-GreenEdge took a new twist when BMC Racing snatched the world title by a rather large margin of victory in Ponferrada last year. Now the Belgian team is looking to regain the team time trial (TTT) world title in Richmond, and with a shorter course and increased competition, they are expecting the race to come down to seconds, or less.
"We want it back, for sure. It's all about that first [place] spot," Etixx team director Tom Steels said to Cyclingnews. "The podium is nice, but winning is completely different."
Steels might have been a sprinter in his days as a racer, but in the team car driver's seat he's been busy honing the six riders who will fight to regain their world title, and he expects a big battle between the top teams. In addition to Martin, who provides a huge motor for the entire course, he has selected powerful climbers Rigoberto Uran, who just won in the GP Quebec, world road champion Michal Kwiatkowski, and former Paris-Roubaix winner Niki Terpstra, in addition to the ever-reliable Tom Boonen and newcomer Yves Lampaert, who has done stellar work for the team in addition to winning the Driedaagse van West-Vlaanderen.
"I think we're really competitive with this team, they're all riding well, they've shown that in the last races, and the numbers are very good as well. I think that we are again competitive, but the event has grown for every team. BMC, Movistar, Orica are always there. Every team has built over the years more and more and done more efforts and training camps to get the best out of the team together. It's grown as an event, so to win it's going to be close."
The elite men and women's TTT kicks off the Richmond world championships on Sunday, and while many squads have seen sections of the course outside of downtown, Saturday's training session will be the first time they'll experience the course in its entirety. The route bisects downtown, heading from the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden through the city center, to the south before turning around and heading back to the finish via Shockoe Bottom with a gruelling climb to the finish line.
In making his selection, Steels factored in not only recent performances, power numbers and the results of a specific test session on an airstrip in Belgium, but the nature of the course, which is much shorter than recent editions.
"There are a few uphill sections, and the final is not so easy, and you need that extra power to go really fast in the end," Steels said to Cyclingnews. "That we have. Niki is coming out of the Vuelta, Rigo and Kwiatowski - uphill they are really strong. Also Tom and Yves will go fast. If it's really close and we really have to start to take risks, then it's an advantage to have those kinds of riders in the team."
In 2014 in Ponferrada, BMC had the advantage of starting early before rain moved in and caused later teams like Etixx (then Omega Pharma) and Orica to slow down to avoid risking a crash, but Steels expects BMC to be good this year even without that type of advantage.
"BMC were already very good. This year will be the same, we will again be very close. The race is shorter - usually it's 55 or 60km, now it's 38, and for a TTT in Worlds it's short. So there will not be time to gain if you're behind."
The team did specific testing on that airstrip, looking carefully at the the power numbers, the heart rates, determining which order of riders provides the best recovery for each rider while maximizing the speed. On a course this fast and short, he expects the hard work done in the test sessions to pay off. The aim is to keep all six riders together until well into the final kilometre, even though the team's time is taken on the fourth man.
"You always try to keep them together as long as possible, for recovery. They're human beings. Everybody suffers. You try to keep six together as long as possible - on this course it will be probably until the last right turn [the beginning of the final climb with about 600m to go], then you can start to take any risks to go flat out. If someone has a bad day, for sure he goes off early, but we don't want that and don't expect it."
Steels expects Martin, Kwiatkowski, Uran and Terpstra to be the strongest, "but I expect Tom will be there. Maybe Yves will suffer the most, but for sure with those five, we have to make it with four, but I think everyone can make it home."