Italy has hosted thirteen world road race championships since the first ever event in 1927, yet surprisingly, this year is the first time that Tuscany has hosted what has now become a week of time trials and road races, with twelve world titles on offer.
The racing kicks off on Sunday, September 22 with the team time trial for trade teams, the event that was introduced for the first time in 2012 and ends on Sunday September 29 with the Elite men’s road race.
Tuscany is one of the heartlands of Italian cycling and has produced numerous great riders and world champions, including current Italian national coach Paolo Bettini, who is under pressure to ensure Italy wins the rainbow jersey in the Elite men’s road race, just as Alessandro Ballan did when the Worlds were last held in Italy, in Varese, in 2008.
The world championships will remember former great Gino Bartali and Franco Ballerini, the former Italian national coach and Paris-Roubaix winner, who was killed in a rally accident in 2010. He continued the tradition of legendary Italian national coach Alfredo Martini, also from Tuscany, who won a series of world titles in the eighties and nineties, creating the legend of the Italian Squadra Azzurra.
The 2013 world championships visit much of the Tuscan region, rather than focusing exlusively on the renaissance capital of Florence, with race starts in Lucca, Pistoia and Montecatini Terme adding an extra twist to the racing and possibly to the eventual outcome.
The time trials cover almost totally flat courses, with the longer Elite men’s, Elite women's and Sunday's team time trials covering straight road between Pistoia and Florence. Power, aerodynamics and speed will be the key to victory with the only corners at the start and at the finish in the streets of Florence. All the time trials pass the stunning Florence Duomo and the centre of city, with section along the banks of the Arno river before the finish in the shadows of the football stadium, the Artemio Franchi.
The men’s team time trial is over a distance of 57.2km, while the women face a testing 42.8km. The Junior time trials start in Florence and are just 16 and 22km in length. However, Fabian Cancellara, Tony Martin, Bradley Wiggins all face an effort over an hour on the 57km course. The women face a distance of 22.1km.
Watch out for Via Salviati
World championship road races traditionally race on a circuit of between 10 and 20 kilometres, with a climb on each circuit influencing the racing. In recent years, however, a point-to-point section has been introduced ahead of the circuit, and that trend continues in Tuscany.
The Elite men’s race covers a total distance of 272km. The first 106km is on largely flat roads from Lucca to Florence with just the climb to San Baronto offering any kind of challenge. They then face 10 laps of the twisting circuit with the finish line and pits on the flat roads in the north of the city.
The Under 23 men cover 57km on the flat before covering seven laps of the Fiesole circuit, while the Junior men and women, and the Elite women cover five laps.
Each lap includes the 4.37km climb up to Fiesole, a twisting descent and then the Via Salviati climb, just five kilometres from the finish. It is only 600 metres long but is on a straight road and has an average gradient of 10.6% with one section kicking up at 16%. It is a perfect place to split a group or even launch an audacious solo attack.
The local tifosi will no doubt be passionately cheering for the Italian riders but this year's world championships appear wide open, with a number of favourites in each event.
Omega Pharma-Quick Step and Specialized-Lululemon won the team time trials in 2012 and both could win again.
Omega Pharma-Quick Step have packed their team with their best rouleurs for the fast course but so too have BMC, Radioshack-Leopard, Team Sky and Orica-GreenEdge.
The Australian squad won the team time trial at the Tour de France and have Svein Tuft and Brett Lancaster as their core, Fabian Cancellara and Tony Martin will drag along Radioshack-Leopard and Omega Pharma-Quick step, while Taylor Phinney and Tejay van Garderen are the backbone of BMC six riders.
The Orica-AIS, Bepink and Rabobank teams will all be fighting for success in the women's event.
Martin, Cancellara, Phinney and Bradley Wiggins top the bill in the Elite men’s time trial, with little chance for anyone else to land a medal. Cancellara perhaps wants the road race title more than a fifth time trial title, perhaps leaving the other three to fight for the medals. Wiggins is the freshest but Martin is at his peak, while Phinney has the advantage of living close to the course during his European season.
Power and mental strength will be needed on the long straight road. A brief distraction, a moment below threshold and a poorly paced effort could prove disastrous and decisive.
Vos the boss
Marianne Vos of the Netherlands is the Eddy Merckx of women's cycling and seems unbeatable on the road race. She can attack alone in Via Salviati, go in a select move or even win the sprint if a group finishes together.
Sweden's Emma Johansson, Evelyn Stephens of the USA and Britain's Emma Pooley could all pose a threat to Vos, while the Italian team always ride as a unit and so could try to collectively take on the flying Dutchwoman.
As ever, the Junior and Under 23 men races will be a lottery with crashes and surprise breakaways likely to decide the race.
The elite men’s race will be a much more controlled affair with the early part of the course and the opening laps of the circuit expected to see some brave souls go in a breakaway to act as a hare for the peloton to chase.
Most major nations have nine riders, although Belgium are down to just eight due to slipping down the rankings.
Italy, France, Spain, Belgium, Great Britain and Australia will no doubt play a huge factor in the final tactics and outcome of the race. The Colombian team are dangerous outsiders with Nairo Quintana, Rigoberto Uran and Carlos Betancur all possible and worthy world champions.
The organisers have boasted that the best 31 ranked riders in the world will all be in the Elite men’s road race. It will be a hard seven hours in the saddle but any other predictions are difficult to make. Italy and Britain will try to split the peloton and distance fast finishers Peter Sagan and Philippe Gilbert so as to help Vincenzo Nibali and Chris Froome but they could both only sacrifice their riders and see Sagan win anyway.
Fabian Cancellara carries Switzerland's hopes, while Valverde will lead the Spanish Galacticos team that includes Alberto Contador and Joaquim Rodriguez.
There are a handful of outsiders who will like the course, too. Daniel Martin of Ireland won Liège-Bastogne-Liège this year and showed flashes of good form at the Tour of Britain, Bauke Mollema will lead the Netherlands team, Rui Costa leads Portugal, while Chris Horner could pull off another surprise after his Vuelta a España victory and attack on the climb.
Whoever makes it to the finish line first will pull on the cherished rainbow jersey and get to wear it for the next 12 months. That is the real significance of the world road race championships and is what makes it so special.