2022 UCI Road World Championships – 10 riders to watch in the elite men's road race

Van Aert Alaphilippe Van der Poel Worlds 2022 Getty Images composite
Wout van Aert, Julian Alaphilippe, and Mathieu van der Poel are among the top favourites for glory in Wollongong (Image credit: Getty Images composite)

The stars are lining up for a shot at winning the rainbow jersey at the UCI Road World Championships elite men's road race in Wollongong, Australia.

The centrepiece of the circuit will be the climb of Mount Pleasant and its testing descent, tackled a dozen times. This race is set to pit puncheurs against Grand Tour stars and hardy sprinters as they compete for the hallowed rainbow jersey.

Belgium will be the favourites, with two of the outstanding racers of the season in their squad, but we can expect an aggressive race with 3,945m of elevation gain over 267 kilometres.

The varied abilities of pre-race favourites such as Wout van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel and Tadej Pogačar will mean different desires for how the race is run too. It should make for a fascinating dynamic.

The Road Worlds haven't been held in Australia since 2010, a race which saw Thor Hushovd beat Matti Breschel and home favourite Allan Davis in the final sprint in Melbourne.

Who will succeed the Norwegian this year? Cyclingnews casts its eyes over ten of the contenders.

Wout van Aert (Belgium)

LEUVEN BELGIUM SEPTEMBER 26 Wout Van Aert of Belgium competes during the 94th UCI Road World Championships 2021 Men Elite Road Race a 2683km race from Antwerp to Leuven flanders2021 on September 26 2021 in Leuven Belgium Photo by Luc ClaessenGetty Images

Van Aert was a top favourite on home ground last year, though he'll hope to do better than 11th in Wollongong (Image credit: Luc ClaessenGetty Images)

For a pre-race favourite, look no further. It's difficult to have a course that doesn't suit Van Aert, who has more sides to him than a dodecahedron, as bunch sprints, time trials, mountainous Grand Tour stages, hilly one-day races and cobbled Classics all fall in his wheelhouse.

You know the Belgian means business when he's missing the World Championships time trial and another likely medal to go full bore for the road race title, which has eluded him so far.

One-day race wins at the Bretagne Classic-Ouest France, the E3 Saxo Bank Classic and Omloop Het Nieuwsblad this season show his calibre, alongside a second place at Paris-Roubaix and third at Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

His sprint is devastating, but the near 4,000 metres of climbing on the Australian course is likely to scrub off some of his freshness and finishing speed, something seen when Pogačar beat him at the GP de Montréal. Therein lies a rub: his chances of victory in the most prestigious races have sometimes been scuppered by being sat on by rivals, reluctant to contribute, while breakaways stay out in front. No rider will want to tow the reigning Tour de France green jersey to the finish.

Being ridiculously versatile is not always a boon. Think of stage 4 of the Tour de France this year: Van Aert may do well going on the front foot and surprising hangers-on rather than being worn down by repeat attacks or relied on to chase.

Mathieu van der Poel (Netherlands)

LEUVEN BELGIUM SEPTEMBER 26 Mathieu Van Der Poel of The Netherlands competes during the 94th UCI Road World Championships 2021 Men Elite Road Race a 2683km race from Antwerp to Leuven flanders2021 on September 26 2021 in Leuven Belgium Photo by Kristof Ramon PoolGetty Images

Van der Poel's form is something of an unknown with only two race days under his belt since July (Image credit: Kristof Ramon PoolGetty Images)

After under-performing at the Tour de France, where he cut an anonymous, frustrated figure, the Dutchman has taken a step back this summer to build up for his final goal of the road racing season.

While it makes his form something of a mystery, Van der Poel is rarely far off when he sets his mind to something and his WorldTour one-day race record this season is enviable, with wins at Dwars Door Vlaanderen and the Tour of Flanders, third at Milan-San Remo, fourth at Amstel Gold Race and ninth at Paris-Roubaix.

Perhaps there are one or two demons to exorcise for Van der Poel. He memorably blew up in cold, rainy conditions in Yorkshire in 2019 while leading the road race and was a protagonist in last year's ultra-attacking race in Leuven.

A strong Dutch team ought to be united behind him, as the main leader while Dylan van Baarle is another Monument winner who offers an option.

Remco Evenepoel (Belgium)

LEUVEN BELGIUM SEPTEMBER 26 Remco Evenepoel of Belgium competes in the chase during the 94th UCI Road World Championships 2021 Men Elite Road Race a 2683km race from Antwerp to Leuven flanders2021 on September 26 2021 in Leuven Belgium Photo by Kristof Ramon PoolGetty Images

A year on from the controversy in Leuven, Evenepoel returns to the Worlds a Grand Tour champion (Image credit: Kristof Ramon PoolGetty Images)

The dream follow-up act to winning the Vuelta a España would be Evenepoel taking the rainbow jersey and win number 15 of his glittering year.

Cycling's newest Grand Tour champion offers an ideal foil to teammate Van Aert, theoretically taking the pressure off him and the whole team by going up the road. If rivals want to win, they'll have to chase the in-form talent down, and fast. Evenepoel has made a habit of 50-kilometre solo wins in races, most recently at the Donostia San Sebastián Klasikoa.

One caveat is that his form and motivation may not be at Vuelta levels by the time the September 25 race rolls around. Even if he's slightly on the slide, he can play a pivotal role in the race.

Belgium haven't had an elite men's winner since Philippe Gilbert at Valkenburg in 2012, but with two of the bike racers of 2022 in their colours, this is a gilt-edged chance.

However, communication and riding cohesively as a team will be key. Evenepoel courted controversy 12 months ago, by allegedly skipping the team briefing and saying he had the legs to be world champion and was denied a chance to ride for himself. His comments went down like a lead balloon with Van Aert, though the pair eventually reconciled.

Tadej Pogacar (Slovenia)

Road World Championships Imola 2020 - Men Road Race - Imola - Imola 258,2 km - 27/09/2020 - - photo Luca Bettini/BettiniPhoto©2020

Pogačar on the attack in 2020, a sight we're likely to see again in Wollongong (Image credit: Luca Bettini/BettiniPhoto)

Pogačar is usually not one shy of an attack and this rolling course will play into the hands of the former Liège-Bastogne-Liège winner. The spring Classics showed that even in races not especially suited to his characteristics, such as Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Flanders, the Slovenian can define the race.

Is the circuit's main ascent of Mount Pleasant hard enough for the two-time Tour de France winner to leave everyone behind? Possibly not, but we've seen – most recently with his triumph at the GP de Montréal – that if Pogačar gets it right, his finishing speed after a long race is up there with the best.

His best result from three elite men's road race participations is 18th, poor for his lofty standards. Expect him to improve on that in Wollongong – it's a long way to go to make up the numbers.

Michael Matthews (Australia)

Matthews, pictured here with bronze in 2017, also has a Worlds silver on his palmarès (Image credit: Tim De Waele/Getty Images)

'Bling' is one to watch out for in a reduced group finish and will be extra motivated for a home Worlds. After all, he has winning form in one – 12 years ago in Geelong, he came away with the rainbow jersey in the U23 race.

The Tour de France showed the fruit of his training labours, winning a stage in Mende ahead of more-fancied climbers Alberto Bettiol and Thibaut Pinot. He has made a career from being the strongest in smaller bunch sprints and punchy finishes, but he's arguably better than ever on tough one-day courses.

His recent second place at the GP de Québec was a suggestion that his form is coming to the boil nicely. Jai Hindley and Ben O'Connor will offer attacking possibilities, but backing the BikeExchange-Jayco racer is set to be Plan A for the home team.

Julian Alaphilippe (France)

LEUVEN BELGIUM SEPTEMBER 26 Julian Alaphilippe of France celebrates at finish line as race winner during the 94th UCI Road World Championships 2021 Men Elite Road Race a 2683km race from Antwerp to Leuven flanders2021 on September 26 2021 in Leuven Belgium Photo by Tim de WaeleGetty Images

The now-familiar sight of Julian Alaphilippe celebrating a Worlds road race victory (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

The 12 months since winning his second rainbow jersey in Leuven have been well off what the flamboyant Frenchman would have hoped.

The QuickStep-AlphaVinyl star has stage victories to his name at Itzulia Basque Country and the Tour de Wallonie in 2022, but following a disrupted pre-season, the spring was mediocre by his Olympian standards. And that was before suffering a collapsed lung, fractured shoulder blade and broken ribs in a crash at Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

The injuries scuppered Alaphilippe's next three months. While he showed his experience and class riding as a domestique deluxe for Evenepoel at the Vuelta, a crash on stage 11 wiped him out of the race and dislocated his shoulder, meaning more time off the bike and one final obstacle to overcome to even make it to the start line.

Given his pedigree, the 30-year-old is a wild card who can't be discounted. However, countrymen Romain Bardet and Christophe Laporte have had less tumultuous build-ups and may offer more reliable threats.

Biniam Girmay (Eritrea)

LEUVEN BELGIUM SEPTEMBER 24 Silver medalist Biniam Girmay of Eritrea celebrates winning during the medal ceremony after the 94th UCI Road World Championships 2021 Men U23 Road Race a 1609km race from Antwerp to Leuven flanders2021 on September 24 2021 in Leuven Belgium Photo by Tim de WaeleGetty Images

Girmay made history with U23 road race silver in Leuven (Image credit: Tim de WaeleGetty Images)

A year ago, crowds came out en masse in Eritrea for Girmay's homecoming to celebrate his historic Worlds U23 road race silver medal. The 22-year-old has kicked on since then with a breakthrough debut year in the WorldTour, winning the Trofeo Alcúdia, Gent-Wevelgem and a stage at the Giro d'Italia. His exit from the race was just as memorable, abandoning after injuring his eye with an errant prosecco cork while on the podium.

He hasn't had many race days this summer, but has recovered better than expected from damaging crashes at the Tour de Wallonie and Circuit Franco-Belge, finishing sixth at the Bretagne Classic-Ouest France, and third at the GP Québec.

Girmay is likely to be isolated when the racing hots up, with Eritrea lacking the firepower of several rival teams. But if he could achieve a podium finish, it'd be the biggest result in African cycling history – and just imagine the celebration back home for that.

Alberto Bettiol (Italy)

Italys Alberto Bettiol rides during the mens cycling road race of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games finishing at the Fuji International Speedway in Oyama Japan on July 24 2021 Photo by Tim de Waele POOL AFP Photo by TIM DE WAELEPOOLAFP via Getty Images

Bettiol heads up a refreshed Italy squad (Image credit: TIM DE WAELEPOOLAFP via Getty Images)

The EF Education-EasyPost man is set to lead a fresh-faced Italian team, with Filippo Zana, Stefano Oldani, Samuele Battistella, Edoardo Affini, and Matteo Sobrero all possible debutants going by the country's long list.

This summer Bettiol has taken second places on stages of the Tour de France and Tour de Suisse, showing his staying power and versatility in breakaways, though he's still waiting for another big win.

He doesn't win often, but when they come along, they're usually of the highest quality, with a Tour of Flanders title and a Giro stage to his name. Objectively, though, Italy's lineup will be one of their weaker squads in recent years, so it's his job to help them punch above their weight. 2019 runner-up Matteo Trentin is another option for the team.

Fred Wright (Great Britain)

WOLVERHAMPTON ENGLAND AUGUST 04 Silver Medalist Fred Wright of Team England celebrates with their flag during the Mens Individual Time Trial medal ceremony on day seven of the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games on August 04 2022 in Wolverhampton England Photo by Alex LiveseyGetty Images

Commonwealth Games TT silver medallist Wright will be hoping for more hardware in Australia (Image credit: Alex LiveseyGetty Images)

The Vuelta a España was confirmation that Wright seems to be getting better and better this summer, bothering the top reaches of the results sheets in breakaways and bunch sprints.

Another rite of pro cycling passage was being dragged into a controversy after Primož Roglic's withdrawal from the race. The only thing the Bahrain-Victorious rider is missing is a pro win. After a string of podium finishes, a world title would be quite a way to get off the mark.

His friend and fellow Londoner Ethan Hayter could also challenge in a youthful Great Britain lineup, but the Ineos rider's withdrawal from the Vuelta with a COVID-19 positive means his condition is more of an unknown.

Stefan Küng (Switzerland)

LEUVEN BELGIUM SEPTEMBER 23 LR Silvan Dillier of Switzerland and Stefan Kng of Switzerland during the 94th UCI Road World Championships 2021 Training flanders2021 on September 23 2021 in Leuven Belgium Photo by Luc ClaessenGetty Images

Küng, who heads up the Swiss squad, is an outsider in Wollongong (Image credit: Luc ClaessenGetty Images)

While Küng will challenge for time trial silverware, he's a potential joker in the road race pack, too. He has showed his improved climbing chops throughout the year, finishing fifth overall at the Tour de Suisse and eighth at Amstel Gold Race.

Throw in third at Paris-Roubaix and fifth at the Tour of Flanders, and it has been one of the finest seasons of the Swiss powerhouse's career, even if the one big win has been lacking.

His confidence should be high too, having extended his Groupama-FDJ contract to the end of 2025 and taken victory at the Tour du Poitou-Charentes at the end of August. He can rely on a solid squad featuring the likes of Mauro Schmid and Stefan Bissegger, too.

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Andy McGrath

Formerly the editor of Rouleur magazine, Andy McGrath is a freelance journalist and the author of God Is Dead: The Rise and Fall of Frank Vandenbroucke, Cycling’s Great Wasted Talent