The course of the elite men’s road race at the UCI Road World Championships in Flanders offers something for everyone, which perhaps makes it only logical that the man who can do everything sets out as the favourite.
Wout van Aert has delivered prodigious displays across all terrains in 2021 and now, on home roads, he has the grandest of stages on which to try to end his recent sequence of silver medals in global championships.
The Belgian stands alone as the leading, five-star contender for the rainbow jersey, but, as ever in this race, the permutations are endless and the list of contenders lengthy.
From Julian Alaphilippe to Mathieu van der Poel and Sonny Colbrelli, from Tom Pidcock to Caleb Ewan, riders with a variety of characteristics will set out with ambition from Antwerp on Sunday morning.
Ahead of the big day, Cyclingnews looks at a selection of the riders to watch during Sunday’s race.
Wout van Aert (Belgium)
Belgium expects nothing less than victory and the rainbow jersey from Wout van Aert.
Winner of four stages and the overall classification at the Tour of Britain, the most complete rider in professional cycling arrives at his home World Championships in red-hot form and as the most obvious contender to carry off the rainbow jersey on Sunday evening.
The burden of favouritism might have felt a little lighter had Van Aert come out on top in his duel with Filippo Ganna in the individual time trial. Instead, he missed out by five seconds and picked up yet another silver medal in a global championships, after collecting two at last years Worlds, another at the cyclo-cross Worlds and one more in the Olympic Games road race.
This Worlds route seems perfectly tailored to Van Aert’s requirements, but then most courses seem made to measure for a man capable of winning over Mont Ventoux and on the Champs-Élysées in the same Tour de France.
Van Aert's aggression and finishing speed means he has the ability to win in any number of scenarios but he needs to avoid anything like a repeat of the final lap in Imola last year – or the finale in Tokyo – where his fast finish meant the bulk of the chasing behind a lone leader and eventual winner was left to him.
Mathieu van der Poel (Netherlands)
Matthieu van der Poel is the great unknown of these World Championships.
A nagging back injury has limited his racing in the build-up to Leuven but even in his supposedly diminished state, he still won the Antwerp Port Epic and placed eighth at the Primus Classic after a puncture effectively ruined his chances of victory.
Van der Poel only confirmed his participation on Monday but after denying Van Aert a rainbow jersey in Ostend at the cyclo-cross Worlds in January, it wouldn’t exactly be a surprise if the Dutchman thwarted his great rival on home roads once again here.
Van der Poel looked sharp at the Primus Classic though the sheer length of the Worlds makes it a very different challenge, particularly given his truncated build-up.
Even so, nobody – not even Van Aert – will want Van der Poel for company on the final lap. The Dutchman, meanwhile, will be eager to excise memories of his last Worlds in Yorkshire in 2019 and his crash in Dutch colours in the mountain bike event at the Olympics.
Julian Alaphilippe (France)
In March, as Van Aert, Van der Poel and Alaphilippe exchanged blows at Tirreno-Adriatico, it seemed that the Big Three were several paces ahead of the rest.
The following Classics campaign didn’t turn out entirely that way, but Alaphilippe still ended his spring with victory at Flèche Wallonne, although he was surprisingly denied an Ardennes double by Tadej Pogačar at Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Six months on, Van Aert stands alone as the outstanding favourite for these Worlds, but it would foolish to overlook the prospects of the defending champion, who has been quietly but steadily building up a head of steam in recent weeks, with second at the Bretagne Classic and third at the Tour of Britain.
Like Van Aert and Van der Poel, Alaphilippe can win from several different scenarios and, as last year’s Worlds and the opening day of this year’s Tour proved, he has a rare ability to rise to the grandest occasions.
Sonny Colbrelli (Italy)
European champion and winner of the Benelux Tour, Colbrelli arrives at the Worlds in the best condition of his life and atop the depth chart in Davide Cassani’s squadra azzurra.
The Italian with the Miami Vice-inspired name has always had the ability to withstand distance and climbing better than many sprinters, but those qualities have been somehow amplified during his tenure at Bahrain Victorious, culminating in this season’s remarkable sequence of climbing displays.
Colbrelli’s aggression and fluid pedalling in the mountains caught the eye at the Tour de France, and he has since parlayed that form into a notable collection of victories. He dealt ably with Remco Evenepoel’s assault in the finale of the European Championships and underscored his status as Italy’s man of the moment with Memorial Marco Pantani victory.
Cassani also has Matteo Trentin and Giacomo Nizzolo at his disposal, but Colbrelli is the man that nobody – not even Van Aert – will want to bring to the finish line.
Remco Evenepoel (Belgium)
For several weeks, Evenepoel’s Worlds selection was in the balance, but it was ultimately impossible for Sven Vanthorenhout to overlook him.
Evenepoel’s physical abilities are indisputable, and he duly warmed up for these home Worlds with an array of feats of strength in the Tour of Denmark, Druivenkoers–Overijse, the Brussels Cycling Classic and the European Championships, where only Colbrelli could withstand his remarkable onslaught.
The doubts, however, surround his ability to ride in support of another. At the Tokyo Olympics, Evenepoel’s aggression didn’t quite tally with Belgium’s stated aim of riding for Van Aert, and though he has pledged fealty to the Jumbo-Visma man here, Eddy Merckx seemed less convinced.
“If there really is only one leader, you shouldn't take Evenepoel with you,” Merckx told Het Nieuwsblad, referring to the Belgian team selection. “He mainly rides for himself, we saw that at the Olympics.”
Vanthorenhout will hope Evenepoel can serve as a foil for Van Aert. Every other country will be primed for a long-range offensive from the youngster that could define the shape of this race.
Magnus Cort (Denmark)
Cort’s track record in long one-day races is underwhelming – eighth place at the 2018 Milan-San Remo is his best Classic performance – but his sparkling form at the Vuelta a España makes him a dangerman for these Worlds, particularly given the strength in depth of the Danish squad. Cort, former world champion Mads Pedersen, Tour of Flanders winner Kasper Asgreen and a rejuvenated Michael Valgren form a redoubtable quartet.
Asgreen, Pedersen and Valgren have the better records over long distances, but Cort’s hat-trick of stage wins at the Vuelta showcased his ability as a climber and a sprinter, while his second place finish in the final time trial in Santiago de Compostela simply underscored his remarkable condition and highlighted that he will be a dangerman at these Worlds.
Marc Hirschi (Switzerland)
Hirschi’s abrupt departure from Team DSM to UAE Team Emirates in January remains shrouded in mystery, as per the terms of his non-disclosure agreement, and for much of the year, the Swiss rider has fallen some way short of replicating his striking purple patch of last Autumn.
He finally looked to be hitting his stride, however, in the build-up to these Worlds, placing a useful sixth at the European Championships and then winning a stage at the Tour de Luxembourg.
Winner of the under-23 road race in Innsbruck in 2018 and a bronze medallist in Imola a year ago, Hirschi has a habit of performing strongly at the Worlds. There are contenders not on this list with altogether more robust form in 2021, but Hirschi’s all-action style makes him a rider to watch, particularly if the race is blown open ahead of the finale.
Tadej Pogačar (Slovenia)
On the basis of the course and his form, Matej Mohorič is Slovenia’s most obvious candidate for the rainbow jersey, and if he triumphs on Sunday, he would become the first rider in history to land the world title at junior, under-23 and elite level.
A stage win on the final day of the Benelux Tour underlined Mohorič’s aptitude in this corner of the world, and yet the eye is naturally drawn to the presence of Tour de France champion Tadej Pogačar in a strong Slovenian squad that also includes Vuelta a España winner Primož Roglič.
Pogačar has already demonstrated his one-day ability in 2021 with victory at Liège-Bastogne-Liège and a bronze medal in the Olympics road race. He has raced sparingly since Tokyo, placing fifth at the European Championships and 10th in the individual time trial at these Worlds, but he is an outsider for the rainbow jersey on Sunday, particularly given the number of cards at Slovenia’s disposal.
The Tour-Worlds double hasn’t been accomplished since Greg LeMond in 1989 but nothing, it seems, is beyond Pogačar.
Kasper Asgreen (Denmark)
April’s Tour of Flanders was billed as the latest instalment in Van Aert and Van der Poel’s running battle, with Alaphilippe heralded the most likely disruptor, but instead it was Asgreen who carried off the spoils with a victory that married smarts and strength. The Dane also won E3 Harelbeke in a spring campaign that underlined his status among the luminaries of one-day race.
Asgreen’s dexterity means that he spent much of the remainder of the season in the service of others, and his best results since the Tour have come against the watch. No matter, the 26-year-old’s consistency, his aptitude over long distances and his ease on Belgian roads make him a contender for the rainbow jersey.
In a Danish team that also includes Pedersen, Cort and Valgren, he also finds himself on a squad that might be minded to race with an aggressive template akin to Deceuninck-QuickStep. Fourth place in the individual time trial on Sunday underlined his form.
Peter Sagan (Slovakia)
Three rainbow jerseys speak for themselves. Peter Sagan is never to be discounted at the World Championships, not even in a season disrupted by COVID-19 in the Spring and the knee injury that forced him to abandon the Tour de France in July.
Sagan missed the Olympic Games and only returned to action at the Benelux Tour three weeks ago, where he was clearly short on race sharpness yet was still in the mix in bunch finishes.
His form appeared to be in crescendo last week on home roads at the Tour of Slovakia. The field may not have been the deepest but Sagan’s overall victory was a reminder that he always has a sense of purpose when he pins on a race number.
Van Aert and others are drawing the attention. Sagan, for once, can fly under the radar at the Worlds. “I don't know the names of the climbs,” he told Belga this week, “but the course should suit me."
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