Australians Robbie McEwen (2nd in Zolder 2002) and Allan Davis (4th in Verona 2004) today spoke about their expectations of Sunday's 273km elite men's road race at the World Championships in Madrid.
Q: You are being touted as one of the favourites for Sunday how does that sit with you?
RM: I feel like I'm one of the favourites. My preparation's gone really well. I took a relaxed approach through August after the Tour (de France) and then really started my build up in the last week of August. Everything fell into place at the right time and I've been able to win a couple of hard races then fine tune my training in the last week so now I'm ready for the race to start.
Q: What are your impressions of the course.
RM: It's a really fast course and I think it will be a race of attrition with guys disappearing off the back. I think if we're going to sprint for the world title it won't be a big group at all, maybe 40 guys, but it's a course that's also good for attacking riders like Paolo Bettini, Peter Van Petegem, and just about the whole Spanish team, so it will be a race on a 'knife's edge' - one where attacking guys will have to be really good to stay away, and to get them back, the sprinters' teams are going to have to be really organised. It's going to be a difficult world title like every world title is. Also unpredictable because at World's, there is always somebody who pops up you don't expect. Even with the two relatively small climbs, after the 200km mark, they are going to get pretty hard, and the 273km distance will sort out the men from the boys.
Q: Bearing in mind those short, sharp climbs, did you tailor your preparation with that in mind?
RM: Definitely. Part of my program was doing some races not completely suited to me but that were really good training outings with this in mind. I did some hillier races like Grand Prix Fourmies (Sept 11) then Wallonie (Sept 14) in Belgium in the hilly part of the Ardennes which was a really good hit out. Then Grand Prix d'Isbergues (Sept 18) with ten or twelve sharp, nasty climbs during the race, so it was another good prep with up and down all day and no flat. Here in Madrid the course is either going up, going down, or cornering which suits me. Also the fact it's fast means you should be able to, if you like, get a free ride for 150km before it's really going to start being a telling race. But it still has to be ridden, and before the race it doesn't really matter what you say it's what you do on the bike on the day of the race that counts.
Q: People have been saying the final corner has been purpose built for you. Do you agree?
RM: When I first heard of it I thought maybe a possibility for somebody to jump away but since then they've extended the distance after the corner to the finish. Instead of 600m it's now almost 700m and apparently they're going to change the last corner shape so instead of being a 'hotdog turn' (sharp U-Turn on Paseo de la Castellana) they're going to round the barriers almost like a roundabout, so we'll have to follow the curve of the road. That will stop guys dive bombing on the inside and coming to a standstill in the corner. We'll only know really what it's like after we watch the women's race tomorrow.
Q: Changes to the qualification rules for the World Championships have reduced the maximum number of riders for the top ranked countries from 12 to nine. How much impact will that have?
RM: I think the fact there is only nine riders per team will make it more difficult and require more organisation. Obviously doing the math, you have three less riders to chuck on the front when it's needed. The cooperation between the teams that want it to be a sprint finish will have to be much better. It does open the race up more. Also some strong countries have only one rider, like Luxembourg and Norway, some have only three and then, with all due respect, a country like Iran has six riders because they're leading the Asian Continental Tour. It's sort of makes it an unbalanced race.
Q: Does it also put more pressure on teams like Australia, Italy and Belgium who have key sprint stars in their ranks?
RM: The obvious teams to look at for sprinters are us, the Belgians (Tom Boonen), Italians (Alessandro Petacchi) and to a certain extent the Germans for (Erik) Zabel. But if you now look at it, some of those are divided into two blocks. It's perhaps more the case with the Italians who have the Quick Step side and the Fassa Bortolo side. (Paolo) Bettini, (Luca) Paolini and (Filippo) Pozzato with (Davide) Bramati as a worker will have their own clique going to try to break the race apart, but once it comes down to an unavoidable sprint, they'll do the work for Petacchi with what's left in their legs.
It's a little similar with the Belgians, because someone like Peter Van Petegem is a proven Classics winner who won't just ride the race as a functionary for Boonen from start to finish. He's going to try his own thing first, and then if it's a sprint, help Boonen. Australia is one of the most cohesive teams, which doesn't mean you are going to win, but it's good to go out there knowing the planning that has gone into the team and that everyone is on the same page.
Q: Of course Robbie the best laid plans sometimes don't eventuate - is there a contingency?
RM: A well laid plan always includes a Plan B and a Plan C that's why you have myself (Baden) Cooke and (Allan) Davis as, if you like, the three leaders or protected riders. If something should happen to me and it's still a sprint, it will be worked out between them, but should the race break up and be way too hard, then someone like Allan (Davis) has the ability to be in a very select group like he was in Verona (2004 World Championships) with just 20 guys left. So there are a few scenarios and we'll go through them further before Sunday. But you can overload with scenarios and in reality the race sort of works itself out. If someone can't hang on, they are gone and forgotten and you go to the next natural Plan B.
Q: How are you dealing with the pressure of expectation that you will be on the podium?
RM: Pretty good. The most pressure comes from within myself which is how it's always been with me. I like to be in a position of being the leader of the team, of being the captain and of being the favourite and I like having earned that position. If I feel I've earned that position then I am totally comfortable with it and the biggest expectation comes from me. That others join me in those expectations I don't see as pressure more like confidence.
Q: How is the team coming together behind Robbie?
AD: Robbie has the runs on the board as far as I'm concerned, and we all respect that and he has a good chance on Sunday. There's a couple of others in the team with good chances as well, but as the race goes on, it's easier to plan out how it will end up. It could be really hard race that is busted up lots of times and harder than what anyone expects, but we have riders who can fit into that style of the race and if it's a bunch kick, Robbie definitely has the sprint to back.
Q: Last year in Verona, you were in the final group approaching the finish but placed fifth and missed a podium place after copping an elbow from Paolini in the final sprint. How much motivation did that give you?
AD: I'd love to undo last year and I've lost a lot of sleep over it ("He was robbed," chimes in Robbie McEwen) but it's in the past and has made me a bit more eager, and more than anything it gave me confidence. To be in a race like the World Championships, especially last year where the course was as hard as it was, has given me confidence inside myself that I can be there at the end of that style of race.
Q: Some people find it difficult to understand how a group of individuals, all employed under contract with competing professional teams, can join together to support one team mate. How do you explain it?
AD: Personally it is in my nature to respect the team concept. If you have a job to do you do it 100 percent, and as an Aussie it's what I've always done. You have to realistic as well because not everyone can win and the national teams I've ridden in have recognised that 110 percent and combined well for the team goal. Hopefully we get an Aussie on the podium which would be a result for everyone.
Q: What has your preparation been like?
AD: I had a very solid race program after the tour from Dauphine to San Sebastian Classic in the middle of August after a flat out season, so I need a rest after that racing block. I had a rest and then we were 'umming and aaing' on what my program should be in the lead up to Madrid. My team director (Manolo Saiz - Liberty Seguros) has a lot of confidence in my training because I've proved before I can come up for big races from training (rather than racing) so we opted not to do Tour of Poland, and I just did a really good solid training block at home in Spain. Hopefully it pays off, it works but I've got no excuses, I'm ready to go and feel in even better condition than last year.
Q: Should be a nice hot race?
AD: The weather here is like it's been where I live in Spain (Basque region) which is good and, being a Queenslander, (Bundaberg) a bit of warm weather is always handy.