Almost 2,000 years on, they again come to north-western Spain in search of gold. When the Roman Empire was approaching its greatest extent towards the end of the first century AD, its most important gold mine was located at Las Médulas, near what is now Ponferrada. Next week, an increasingly globalised peloton descends upon the town for the World championships, sifting for rainbow jerseys, for medals or simply, contracts for 2015.
Ponferrada could certainly have done with some of that Roman gold to defray the costs. Host cities now pay the UCI the princely sum of €5 million simply to host the event, and it is estimated that the total cost of organising the Worlds could stretch to €14 million by the time the curtain falls on September 28.
The seemingly spiralling expense of staging the Worlds should be a concern for the UCI. Economic factors contributed to the decision to shelf the proposed uphill finish for the time trial events, after all, and at this rate the pool of financially viable prospective hosts seems destined to shrink over the next decade. Even so, from a purely sporting point of view, Ponferrada promises to provide a fascinating week of racing across all categories.
Much of the intrigue is set to be provided by the road race circuit, which, depending on who's asking, is apparently either too tough for the sprinters or too easy for the climbers. Bluff or not, it's certainly a parcours that defies easy description and should thus encourage inventive racing – a welcome development after the sure-fire bunch sprint in Copenhagen in 2011, the inevitable Cauberg shoot-out in 2012 and the (admittedly enthralling) war of attrition that preceded the explosive final lap in Florence twelve months ago.
For the first time in five years, the point-to-point preamble for the men's race is dispensed with and all of the road races take place entirely on the 18.2 kilometre circuit around Ponferrada. The course features two climbs, which, on first glance, seems to follow the popular Worlds template of a long, steady ascent followed by a shorter, shaper climb nearer the finish.
First up is the Alto de Montearenas, which is 5.1 kilometres long but with an average gradient of just 3.5%, and the early ramps of 8% are unlikely to shed too many of the in-form fast finishers, as new Italian coach Davide Cassani has pointed out. The second climb, the Alto de Compostilla, is a stiffer prospect. Just 1,100 metres in length, it pitches up to 10% and averages 6.6%. It's certainly tough enough for the strongest to punch clear. It remains to be seen, however, whether any lone rider can build up a sufficient lead to then stay away on the four kilometres to the line, which incorporate a tricky descent.
The time trials were originally slated to finish at San Cristóbal de Valdueza, atop a 9km climb, but will instead finish, like the road races, not far from Ponferrada's Castle of the Templars. The elite men's time trial features a flat opening 30 kilometres but the final 10 miles include the short climbs of Confederacion and Mirador before the drop to the finish.
Elite men – Australia with options
On a course that seems finely balanced between puncheurs and sprinters, few teams seem as equipped for all eventualities as Australia. Simon Gerrans arrives in Spain as the man of the moment after victories in Quebec and Montreal last week, and however many fast men are still in the contention come the final lap, Michael Matthews seems a certainty to be among their number. With the likes of Cadel Evans, Adam Hansen and Heinrich Haussler in supporting roles, Bradley McGee has arguably the strongest team in the race at his disposal.
When the Ponferrada Worlds were first unveiled, Peter Sagan was instantly installed as the favourite for the rainbow jersey, and he certainly has all the weapons needed to win on this course – but therein, perhaps, lies the problem for the Slovak, who has often struggled to choose correctly from a surfeit of options in the finale of major races. More pressingly, Sagan's recent form has been underwhelming in the extreme, although after a non-descript Vuelta a España, he has shown signs of life in Italy this week.
John Degenkolb has been the other man on everybody's lips since the beginning of the year, and his haul of wins at the Vuelta only heightened the expectation around the German. He was admitted to hospital this week after wounds from a crash in Spain became infected, however, and it remains to be seen if he can recover in time for Sunday week.
The home nation's challenge will be led by Alejandro Valverde, and Spanish selector Javier Minguez will hope he can dovetail more neatly with Joaquim Rodriguez than in 2013, when he conspicuously failed to cover his trade teammate Rui Costa's winning move in the finale. Valverde has accumulated five world championship medals during his chequered career but his failure to land a rainbow jersey suggests a crippling lack of tactical acumen. To miss out on gold once is unfortunate, to do so five times is careless. For Rodriguez, meanwhile, one senses his best opportunity may just have passed him by in Florence twelve months ago.
Fabian Cancellara (Switzerland) is also aware that he is running out of chances to land the victory he covets above all others, and he has begun to make notable sacrifices for the Worlds in recent seasons. Last year he skipped the Tour de France; this year, he forgoes the time trial. Cancellara will have drawn lessons from Mendrisio in 2009, when he won the strongest man contest but missed out on the rainbow jersey. Five years on, he seems more judicious in his efforts. If he gets his timing right in Ponferrada, anything is possible.
Belgium have two former world champions, Philippe Gilbert and Tom Boonen, in their ranks, yet the form men seem to be Greg Van Avermaet and Sep Vanmarcke, and it will be interesting to see how the roles are divided to everyone's satisfaction. For Italy, there is no doubting that Vincenzo Nibali is the leader, but the course hardly seems as suited to the Tour de France winner as Florence, while the squadra azzurra's option in a sprint finish looks set to be Filippo Pozzato.
France will pin much of their hopes on Nacer Bouhanni surviving the climbs, while Ben Swift seems the best bet for Great Britain. Alexander Kristoff is already a candidate for rider of the year. Worlds victory would confirm that status, but the race is perhaps coming a month too late for the Norwegian, who has barely let up all season. Michal Kwiatkowski (Poland) highlighted his form at the Tour of Britain and is backed by a potentially strong Polish team. For puncheurs such as Dan Martin (Ireland) and Romain Bardet (France), the climbs might not be selective enough, but after 250 kilometres, a rider strong of legs and fleet of mind can find a way to win regardless of the circumstances – just ask Rui Costa (Portugal).
In the time trial, meanwhile, Tony Martin is chasing a fourth consecutive rainbow jersey, where Bradley Wiggins ought to provide the sternest opposition in the absence of Cancellara. Tom Dumoulin is fancied in his debut in the event, though the strong field also features Adriano Malori, Andrew Talansky, Tejay van Garderen, Alex Dowsett and Rohan Dennis.
Elite women – Vos against the rest?
How do you solve a problem like Marianne Vos? That's the conundrum that has faced the Worlds peloton ever since the Dutchwoman entered the elite ranks in 2006. In eight attempts, Vos has never finished lower than second at the Worlds – regardless of the terrain, the road to the rainbow jersey runs through the best rider on the planet.
Vos has "only" three world road titles to show for her dominance however – 2006, 2012 and 2013 – and endured a maddening run of five consecutive silver medals. On four occasions, she was thwarted by an Italian rider, and the squadra azzurra will again pose a major obstacle here, with a line-up that includes double world champion Giorgia Bronzini, Rosella Ratto and Elisa Longo Borghini.
As ever, Vos' long-time rival Emma Johansson (Sweden) will be in the mix, but the biggest individual threat may well come from Lizzie Armitstead (Great Britain), who has one of the season's outstanding performers. The Yorkshire native wrapped up the World Cup with a round to spare and was hugely impressive in soloing to victory at the Commonwealth Games.
Tiffany Cromwell (Australia), Evelyn Stevens (USA) and Pauline Ferrand Prevot (France) will be among those looking to go on the offensive, and they can take heart from the fact that Vos has appeared short of her very best in recent weeks. However, they must also face her imposing orange guard. For the past two years, Anna van der Breggen has been the best rider in a supporting role at the Worlds, and the strong Dutch squad also includes Annemiek van Vleuten and Elen van Dijk.
Van Dijk will be favoured to retain her title in the time trial, but Linda Villumsen (New Zealand) and Evelyn Stevens ought to provide very tough opposition indeed over the 29.5km course. Villumsen, in particular, has been a model of consistency over the past four years, with four podium spots but no rainbow jersey to show for her efforts.
A week of racing
The action gets under way on Sunday September 21 with the men's and women's team time trials. Three years into its existence, the jury is still out as to the success of this venture, which was created largely to provide trade teams with a visible platform during the UCI's showpiece week of racing. That said, it is enormously popular with the teams that take the event seriously, as Omega Pharma-QuickStep's decision to travel to Ponferrada four days beforehand to train on the course demonstrates.
Tony Martin and company will be the favourites to take a third successive title on the 57km course, although a number of squads with strong team trialling pedigree – Sky, Orica-GreenEdge and BMC – will be looking to spring an upset. It's a similar scenario in the women's team time trial (36km), where Specialized-lululemon chase their third title, ahead of a chasing pack led by Orica-AIS, Giant-Shimano and Rabo Liv.
The individual time trials follow over the next three days, with the junior women (13.9km) and under-23 men (36km) in action on Monday, the junior men (29km) and elite women on Tuesday and the elite men on Wednesday. There is no action on Thursday, to allow for training on the circuit and the UCI's conference for junior riders, before the schedule resumes on Friday with the junior women's and under-23 men's road races.
At under-23 level, Caleb Ewan (Australia) is the outstanding favourite for victory in the road race, but there will be a high-level field in Ponferrada. Dylan Teuns (Belgium) impressed as a stagiaire with BMC at the Tour of Britain, for instance, while new Orica-GreenEdge recruit Magnus Cort Nielsen (Denmark) is also on hand. In the time trial, Ireland's Ryan Mullen and Australia's Campbell Flakemore – fourth last year – are among the contenders.
Mercifully, the junior men's race is returned to its traditional place on the Saturday morning, rather than clashing with their elite counterparts the following day. The elite women's road race remains in its Saturday afternoon slot, before the elite men bring the curtain down on the week's racing.
Intrigue at the world championships is not limited to what happens out on the road, of course. For amateurs and professionals alike, the week acts as something of a market place, while there is also a degree of political theatre, as the UCI gathers for its annual congress on Friday, September 26. There won't be quite the same melodrama as last year, when Brian Cookson was elected president after a bitter battle with Pat McQuaid, although the Briton's first twelve months in office have not been without incident. A year is a long time in cycling.