Gerrans and Matthews will decide Worlds leadership on the road

Australia in Ponferrada with wealth of options

A man with the rare ability to win both Milan-San Remo and Liège-Bastogne-Liège makes a natural favourite for the World Championships road race where nobody can decide if the course is too hard or too easy.

Simon Gerrans' recent form, too, has seen his odds tighten considerably, thanks to the impressive brace of victories he scored in Canada earlier this month, where he landed the GP de Montréal and the GP de Québec in quick succession. When he met the press in Ponferrada on Friday evening, however, he downplayed his prospects, insisting that this year’s race is far tougher than many have anticipated.

"I've been crunching numbers on the Worlds over the years and looking at the amount of metres we’re going to climb on Sunday, it's going to make the race quite selective," Gerrans said. "Although that's just the parcours and it's the riders who make the race. Liège is a very difficult race too but the main point of difference is that Worlds is on a circuit and there's very little recovery, so it becomes a real race of attrition."

Received wisdom has long suggested that riding the Vuelta a España is a prerequisite for winning the World Championships, although Rui Costa's victory last year – and, to all intents and purposes, Mark Cavendish's win in 2011 – give lie to that assertion.

"I wasn't at the Vuelta but by all reports it was a difficult one and maybe some guys are coming out carrying more fatigue than they expected," Gerrans said. "And Costa winning the Worlds coming out of the one-day programme last year has given me a bit of confidence that I made the right choice. It's difficult to say which is a better way to prepare, but when you get to this point, you can't change it."

Gerrans' Australia and Orica-GreenEdge teammate Michael Matthews, by contrast, went to the Vuelta to prepare for the Worlds, a choice foisted upon him by his injury-enforced absence from the Tour de France. Matthews duly picked up where he left off at the Giro d'Italia, claiming a fine uphill sprint and enjoying a spell in the leader's jersey. Few teams, if any, line up on Sunday with two complementary contenders in such enviable form.

"I was going really well in the Vuelta. After I missed the Tour, I prepared really well it, so now I'm coming in here in the best shape possible. I could feel the progression through the Vuelta," Matthews said, adding that team leadership was not something that will be fixed beforehand.

"We're here with a strong team but we’ll go for the best person and we'll decide in the last few laps who is the strongest. We're all Australian and here with the same goal of winning the race."

Australia's third man is Cadel Evans, riding in Australian colours for the final time after announcing that he will retire in February of next year. He sets out with a supporting role, and he laughed off the prospect of continuing for another full season if he managed to conjure up a repeat of is world title victory in Mendrisio in 2009.

"I don't know, you'd have to ask to Jim Ochowicz," Evans smiled. "I'm here for my experience and my ability to be there in the final and do what's required for the team. I'm not going to pretend I'm going as well as these two guys, but I've got my [world champion’s] stripes on my jersey so I'm pretty calm about it in some regard as well."

A world of difference to under-23 race

Friday saw the first road races of the Worlds programme and the jury is still out on the Ponferrada parcours. The under-23 race saw a solo winner – Norway's Sven Erik Bystrom – but Australian Caleb Ewan won the large group sprint for silver just behind him.

In theory, Ewan's ability to survive and prosper on the circuit augurs well for Matthews' chances. As a former under-23 world champion himself, however, he is aware that there is a world of difference between the elite and espoirs categories, differences that extend beyond the additional distance.

"The Aussies rode to make a bunch sprint for Caleb but for our race that's going to be difficult because there are so many strong riders who'll be going on the attack from three laps out," Matthews said. "It gave me a bit more confidence knowing he was there in the final but it's going to be a totally different race."

Small wonder, then, that the Australian hierarchy is a fluid one. "I think you've heard Michael saw it four times already, but it's a decision we're going to make on the road, we're not going to set it in stone before the race," Gerrans said of the leadership issue.

Gerrans also looked to debunk one of the feats of strength that so impressed his peers in Canada, when he recovered from a puncture in the final 20 kilometres to win the GP de Québec. "It was an inconvenient time to have a mechanical mishap but fortunately at that time, the peloton had slowed for tactical reasons and I had some teammates waiting, so I got back on without expending a lot of energy," he said.

One of those days, perhaps, when the stars aligned and everything fell into place. But then Gerrans has had far too many of those in recent times to put it all down to chance.

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