It has been almost 30 years since the US last hosted the UCI Road World Championships but this weekend the event returns with a plethora of racing in Richmond, Virginia.
There is a star-studded cast with Peter Sagan, John Degenkolb, Tom Boonen, Michal Kwiatkowski, Philippe Gilbert, Greg Van Avermaet, Tom Dumoulin, Michael Matthews, Alexander Kristoff and Nacer Bouhanni among some of the elite male riders.
The elite female ranks read like a who's who of women’s cycling with Lizzie Armitstead, Pauline Ferrand-Prevot, Lisa Brennauer, Emma Johansson, Giorgia Bronzini, Tiffany Cromwell, Evelyn Stevens and Megan Guarnier all set to compete.
Team Time Trials
As with the last few years the opening showcase of the World Championships is a trade team time trial. This may still be more an incentive for sponsors rather than a wholly prestigious event that fans can garner true sentimental attachment too but it has certainly become a vastly competitive event. Teams can, should they win, proclaim themselves as World Champions for an entire season, and although rainbow jerseys are not handed out, the strapline of bragging rights has become an important incentive for team sponsors willing to finance their squads.
In the men’s competition BMC Racing return with a strong line-up having gathered in Belgium recently for a specific team time trial event. They will miss the experience of Tejay van Garderen – sidelined through injury – but Taylor Phinney is expected to make the squad.
Last year, BMC Racing edged out Orica-GreenEdge and Etixx-QuickStep – second and third respectively – and those three teams will line up as favourites once more. Team Sky, Trek Factory Racing, Movistar and Tinkoff-Saxo all bring accomplished teams but lack the depth of the three favourites.
The women’s field is too close to call as well. Velocio-SRAM, who have won this event since its inauguration back in 2012, are not the force they once were, having lost a number of their riders to rival squads, but they still boast a competitive entourage. They finished a close second to Rabo Liv Women Cycling Team at the recent women’s World Cup round in Sweden, with Boels Dolmans Cycling Team, Bigla Pro Cycling Team and Wiggle Honda rounding out the top five.
As for the 38.8km course, it offers everything a team time trial should - a flat opening section that will allow squads to find their rhythm, before a series of undulations and narrow roads through Richmond National Battlefield Park. The late ascent up Governor Street will test teams’ cohesion as well as their strength before the false flat to the line.
Individual time trials
With Bradley Wiggins not defending his title, Tony Martin set to start but still recovering from a short illness and Fabian Cancellara out through injury, the men’s individual time trial could see a fair few shocks. Tom Dumoulin certainly starts as a favourite having hit peak form at the Vuelta a Espana. If he has anything left in the tank after three gruelling weeks of racing he could push Tony Martin all the way. The German leads his Dutch rival 2-1 in time trials this season, although none of those tests have been longer than 18.3km.
Vasil Kiryienka, a former medallist in this event and fourth last year, and the ever-improving Rohan Dennis could certainly finish on the podium. Taylor Phinney has not raced a time trial of this distance for almost two years but he will be aiming for at least a top-five finish, and certainly a place in the top ten in order to gain automatic selection for the men’s Olympic road race in Rio next year.
In the Women’s event, the riders will complete two laps of the 15-kilometre course around the centre of Richmond. Lisa Brennauer is the defending champion and the German has been on form lately, winning two stages (including the time trial) and the overall classification at the Boels Rentals Tour.
Brennauer will face some very stiff competition in the defence of her title with former World Champions Kirsten Armstrong and Ellen Van Dijk lining up against her. Former medallists Evelyn Stevens and Linda Villumsen are also in contention and, with such a strong line-up, the final composition of the podium is too tough to call.
The final showpieces, as ever, are reserved for the final weekend of racing with the women set to race on Saturday and the men taking to the streets of Richmond 24 hours later. The road racing courses have been described by one team manager as a long kermesse of six hours with three hills (one of them cobbled) thrown in at the end of each lap. That may be a rather simplistic view but it’s certainly one that’s backed up by the nature of the line-ups that have already been announced.
Belgium come with their best Classics team, and Italy and France come with a number of options that best suit a course in which the racing will be fast and frantic from the get-go.
As ever though, the real indication of how the elites will tackle the race will be evident by how the juniors, and U23 category level riders perform in the opening few days. Often these appetisers offer glimpse of how the elites will manage their efforts and arsenals. The weather, too, will be a factor. Rain and wind will make the racing far tougher, leaving only the team’s with the deepest reserves for the final two laps.
The course itself is 16.2km in length and starts alongside the Richmond Convention centre. The roads, to start with are wide, and flat before the first cobbled ascent of Libby Hill. Positioning will be crucial – think of the bergs of Flanders but with less severe cobbles – before a steep descent. The road then flattens before the 100-metre-long climb up 23rd Street, which pitches up at 19 per cent. Once again the road descends before the final ascent up Governor Street and the same false flat that concluded the team time trial. The men will race 259.2 kilometres, while their elite female counterparts will race 129.6 kilometres.
As for favourites in the men’s race, Kwiatkowski returns as the defending champion and will have a well-drilled team at his disposal. His season has not quite panned out in the second half, his future move to Team Sky a certain distraction, but he has the capabilities, if not the top-level form to compete in the tail-end of the race.
The Belgians once again arrive with a triumvirate of options including Gilbert, Boonen and Van Avermaet. All three have the necessary skills and experience to win and will be backed to the hilt by a strong squad.
Australia arrive with Michael Matthews as their key man. The Orica rider was in the chase group last year but has improved his stamina and changed his Worlds preparation. Simon Gerrans is not the force of twelve months ago but his experience and race craft could be crucial in helping Matthews secure Australia’s first men’s elite rainbow jersey since 2009.
Spain arrives with their top two leaders in Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez. The pair fluffed their lines two years ago when victory seemed all but a certainty but the pair are consistent to say the least. If they can get the best out of each other a medal is certainly a possibility.
Italy and France are in a similar position to Spain. They don’t have out-and-out favourites within their squads but depth and experience are crucial in races of this nature. Nibali – smarting from his Vuelta shame - Ullissi and Vivianni could all thrive, while if Nacer Bouhanni arrives with his A-game France has a genuine winner on their hands.
Three major favourites are Degenkolb, Sagan and Kristoff – and all three have re-found their form after lulls in the middle of the season. This trio can handle the climbs, have teams to support them – and know how to finish a race if it comes down to a select sprint from a small group.
Ferrand Prevot leads her defence
In the women’s field predicting and out-and-out favourite is just as hard. Marianne Vos is missing but the line-up is stellar to say the least with Jolien d'Hoore, Lizzie Armitstead, Anna Van der Breggen, and defending champion Pauline Ferrand Prevot all within a chance of securing the rainbow jersey.
Once again, the race will be decided by the peloton and how it tackles the course, rather than the terrain itself, so someone like Girogia Bronzini cannot be discounted either.
Megan Guarnier, who has had a storming season, Lisa Brennauer, Emma Johansson, Tiffany Cromwell, Lucinda Brand, Elisa Longo Borghini and Evelyn Stevens are all medal candidates who can animate the race too.