While the World Championships road race normally comes towards the end of the season – and indeed, in spite of a change of venue from Aigle and Martigny in Switzerland to Imola in Italy, this year's event has retained its late-September slot – it can often act as somewhat of an afterthought for riders that have targeted the Giro d'Italia and the Tour de France earlier in the season during a normal year.
Of course, the 2020 season has been turned on its head due to the coronavirus, with the spring Classics yet to happen and the Tour de France having become this year's first Grand Tour, taking place through September. It all means that riders are arriving at this year's Worlds road race relatively fresh, having stopped racing in March and only having resumed in August.
A number of riders still have big goals ahead of them, whether that's the Giro or the Vuelta a España, or the cobbled Classics, like Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders. The opportunity, then, to wear the hallowed rainbow jersey for more than just a handful of races before the winter break won't be lost on the riders, who get the rare opportunity to turn out in their national colours and team up with compatriots who are often their rivals for the rest of the year.
Here, Cyclingnews chooses 10 riders who we think could be in the running for the rainbow jersey at this year's 258km elite men's road race on Sunday.
Wout van Aert (Belgium)
Best Worlds road race result: N/A
The Belgian is the nailed-on favourite for the race for the simple reason that he can win from virtually any position or scenario. At the Tour de France, he was winning bunch sprints, dropping established pure climbers in the Alps and then storming around on his time trial bike. Cycling hasn't had a rider of this ilk for generations. In the here and now, it means that Van Aert can potentially ride his rivals off his wheel or wait for a sprint. His wins at Strade Bianche and Milan-San Remo demonstrated what he can do, and if he escapes in a group of two or three, the other riders will work with him because they know that at worst they'll pick up a medal.
The Belgian's second place in the Worlds TT on Friday showed that he's lost none of his jaw-dropping form from the Tour, but he may be concerned if the opposition concentrates its efforts on marking him out of contention. That could see compatriot Greg Van Avermaet benefit, but Van Aert looks to be so much in a league of his own that any attempts to try to nullify him might prove pointless.
Primož Roglič (Slovenia)
Best Worlds road race result: 34th in 2018
For the first half of the Tour de France, at least, Roglič was the race's best climber. As compatriot Tadej Pogačar came to the fore, Roglič remained in the top two, so what a luxury problem it would be for the Slovenian national team to have if the two of them managed to make it to the end of what is a hilly Worlds course together.
How much focus Roglič has managed to keep having had the Tour title wrested from him on the penultimate stage remains to be seen, but his form bar that one day was unquestionable, and won't have disappeared overnight. Pogačar has already said that it would be a "fairytale" if the older Roglič could win the Worlds after the younger Slovenian had taken the Tour win, which suggests that it could be a case of all-in for Roglič, with Pogačar as a back-up rider de luxe.
Jakob Fuglsang (Denmark)
Best Worlds road race result: 12th in 2019
Four wins at this point of the season, given the year that cycling has gone through, is no mean feat, and Fuglsang remains a deeply consistent performer who in recent years has added the ability to close out wins in major events. His victory at Il Lombardia earlier this year was his second Monument in two seasons, and with the Giro d'Italia still to come, he could end the campaign with double his current win tally.
The Dane's record in the road race at World Championships is poor, although he took his best finish of 12th place in Yorkshire last year. He's also an Olympic silver medallist, and on a course in Italy that will wear down riders due to the route's distance and climbing metres, the 35-year-old could certainly shine.
Although last year's winner, Mads Pedersen, will be watching on from at home, with this year's course being too demanding for the young Dane, the nation's squad is nevertheless still dripping with talent. If Fuglsang can marshal his troops, he stands a great chance of taking a medal.
Tadej Pogačar (Slovenia)
Best Worlds road race result: 18th in 2019
The recently crowned Tour de France champion certainly has what it takes to take on the world's best – that much is clear – and he now has the added benefit of racing alongside the man he beat for the Tour title, Primož Roglič, on the Slovenian national team for the Worlds road race.
The climbs the riders will face in Imola on each circuit – the Mazzolano and the Cima Gallisterna – are considerably shorter than those Pogačar et al faced in France, of course, but it's the attritional nature of the 258km race, with 5,000 metres of climbing over nine laps for the elite men, that will grind the field down to a select few. Providing Pogačar hasn't partied too hard since his title – and in this day and age of serious young professionals, it's unlikely that he has – expect the 22-year-old to be in the mix.
Michael Matthews (Australia)
Best Worlds road race result: 2nd in 2015
Unlike last year, Matthews goes into the race with very little pressure on his shoulders, but depending on how the Imola course unfolds, he could play a significant part in the finale. He finished third at Milan-San Remo with the use of just one hand, having injured the other along the way, and he then won the Bretagne Classic with a well-orchestrated move in the final. His Worlds pedigree is almost second to none, and while he missed the Tour de France, the 29-year-old has always had the ability to find form without needing too much racing in his legs.
The sheer amount of climbing on the course could be Matthews' undoing, but again, so much depends on how the race is taken on by the dominant squads. Matthews is no slouch on the climbs, and he does have the finish to compete with the best, so if he can remain in contention until the end of the race, he has the chance to at least play a factor in the outcome of the medals.
Julian Alaphilippe (France)
Best Worlds road race result: 8th in 2018
The Frenchman has built up an enviable palmarès in a relatively short space of time, and a road race world champion's title would go some way to completing the list of possible races that Alaphilippe is capable of winning. His recent Tour performance wasn't quite on par with the previous year, when he wore the yellow jersey for two weeks, but he nevertheless won stage 2 and wore yellow for three days, and was active again in the final week, which suggested he was approaching something close to his best.
The 28-year-old would be a very popular winner, and, if victory comes, it will likely be from a trademark explosive attack, and you'd be able to rest assured that Alaphilippe would do the rainbow jersey justice for the rest of the season – at races like the Tour of Flanders – and into next season. The French public would lose their minds with joy, too, with the nation having last won the rainbow stripes in the men's road race courtesy of Laurent Brochard back in 1997. A French victory is due.
Michał Kwiatkowski (Poland)
Best Worlds road race result: Winner in 2014
Kwiatkowski and Valverde are the only two riders on this list that have been road race world champions before: Valverde in 2018 and Kwiatkowski in 2014. The Polish rider has dedicated much of his career to the service of others, particularly after joining Team Sky from Etixx-QuickStep in 2016, where he's been part of Chris Froome's 2017 Tour win, Geraint Thomas' victory there in 2018 and Egan Bernal's success in 2019.
On the Polish national squad, however, especially as a former world champion, Kwiatkowski leads the way, and clearly has the kind of form that could net him a second world title again this year, as evidenced at the Tour this year, where he was freed up to take what was his first Grand Tour stage victory following Bernal's exit from the race.
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar)
Best Worlds road race result: Winner in 2018
Just as he has during most of the year, Valverde ghosted around the Tour to finish 12th in Paris, but without really making any impression on the race. The reality is that the veteran is clearly in decline, and without a win in over a year, he's no longer a clear-cut favourite. That said, it would be ludicrous to rule out a rider with such a vast palmarès, and who has the experience and knowledge to win races, even when his form is slightly suspect.
On paper, he has the relevant skillset, but victory would need Valverde to rediscover his form of a couple of years ago and then execute the perfect strategy. In such a manic season, the chances of such a situation taking place can't be overlooked.
Michael Woods (Canada)
Best Worlds road race result: 3rd in 2018
Woods' third place at the 2018 World Championships road race in Innsbruck, Austria, showed that the Canadian climber could be a contender over a Worlds-distance road race that suits his strengths, and this year's route will surely appeal to the recent Tirreno-Adriatico stage winner.
Woods wasn't selected for this year's Tour, having only recovered a short time beforehand from a fractured femur sustained at Paris-Nice in March, but will target the Ardennes Classics towards the end of this season. The 33-year-old will move from EF Pro Cycling to Israel Start-Up Nation for 2021, and a rainbow jersey would be a good farewell gift after five years with the US WorldTour squad, and a nice welcome gift for his new Israeli team next year.
Marc Hirschi (Switzerland)
Best Worlds road race result: 27th in 2019
Hirschi's chances rest on how well he's come out of his maiden Tour de France. The young Swiss rider made huge strides forwards during the race, with a stage and the well-deserved combativity prize, but how much does he have in the tank both physically and mentally after such an ordeal?
On paper, the course is well suited to his strengths, and he won an incredibly tough under-23 world title on the road in 2018. The Swiss team is packed with experience, too, which should help him as the race moves into the final few laps. If Hirschi fails to shine in Imola, there will be no shame in that, but if he can find the same form from the Tour, then he could certainly be a rider to watch.
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