A Sunday in Holl: Steep final climb to decide men's Worlds – Preview

Each national team has been carefully selected; the riders have all arrived in Innsbruck; the last reconnaissance rides have been completed, and the granny gears have been chosen. Now the best climbers and Grand Tour contenders in the men's professional peloton have only to be strong enough to survive the 258.5km of hilly racing and then conquer the final, steep 2.9km Höttinger Höll. Whoever leads, alone, over the top of the last climb, or wins a small group sprint in central Innsbruck, will inherit Peter Sagan's rainbow jersey.

Sunday's race is expected to be one of the hardest and most selective World Championships for years, with only the 1995 event at altitude in Colombia – won by Spain's Abraham Olano ahead of compatriot Miguel Indurain and Italy's Marco Pantani – and perhaps Sallanches, France, in 1980, when Frenchman Bernard Hinault won alone after over 6,000 metres of climbing, considered harder.

This year's race includes 4,681 metres of climbing, sparking comparisons with Liège-Bastogne-Liège or Il Lombardia.

The riders face seven long hours in the saddle, with three distinct parts to the course, starting early on Sunday morning in the small town of Kufstein, east of Innsbruck.

French national coach Cyril Guimard compared it to a hard-to-digest three-course meal: the long day starts with the 85km run along the valley and the 2.8km Gramartboden climb, followed by the six laps of the 23.9km Olympic circuit that includes the gradual 7.9km to Igls before the fast descent to the centre of Innsbruck and the finish area.

Too hard for Sagan, perfect for Alaphilippe, Valverde and Yates

The juniors, under-23 men and elite women raced on the same circuit and strangely only the elite men's race has an extra sting in the tail with the climb of Höttinger Höll. It comes after 250km of racing. Its dominance in the finale and its 25 per cent sections could spark the decisive attack from a single rider or small group, or inspire a very aggressive race beforehand.

When the leading riders saw the Höttinger Höll close up, many were shocked by the double-digit gradient and how the false flat over the top will make the final effort even harder and perhaps even more decisive. There will be nowhere to hide.

Defending world champion Peter Sagan (Slovakia) threw in the towel and dismissed his chances after hearing about the climb, but travelled to Innsbruck to honour his three-year term as world champion.

2016 Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet virtually abdicated leadership of the Belgian team after he realised the Höttinger Höll is too hard for him. Only the best climbers licked their lips and smiled after they had ridden to the top on Thursday and Friday, with Julian Alaphilippe (France), Alejandro Valverde (Spain), Adam and Simon Yates (Great Britain) considered the perfect archetypes for victory.

Tom Dumoulin (Netherlands) liked the Höttinger Höll but was worried he could struggle to go with his biggest rivals when they attack out of the saddle. Fortunately, sun and warm temperatures of 20C are forecast for Sunday.

"It's nice – I like it. It's cool. It's going to be a nice World Championships," Dumoulin said with genuine enthusiasm for the Höttinger Höll when he spoke to the media on Friday. "But there's a chance that if I wait for the last climb, I might not be explosive enough to follow guys like Alaphilippe and Simon Yates."

Vincenzo Nibali is equally concerned about surviving the attacks on Höttinger Höll. He saw the climb in March, but was keen to ride it again on Friday to make a final decision on his gears. According to reports in Italy, he will use a 36 chainring up front and 32-tooth cog behind. He dropped his Italian teammates on the climb on Friday but remains unsure of his form and chances of taking a medal after fracturing a vertebra when he was taken out by a spectator at the Tour de France in July. Italy is hoping Gianni Moscon and Domenico Pozzovivo can step up if Nibali falters.

"It's a hard climb – really hard," Nibali told La Gazzetta dello Sport. "I used a 30 sprocket in training, but I was fresh. At the end of the race, we'll probably need a 32. My favourites are Alaphilippe, Thibaut Pinot [France], Valverde and the Yates brothers."

Other contenders on the final 188-rider start list include Colombian trio Nairo Quintana, Miguel Angel López, and Rigoberto Uran. Michal Kwiatkowski and Rafal Majka lead the Polish team, while Primoz Roglic leads the Slovenian team. The Netherlands has a quartet of leaders and potential contenders in Dumoulin, Wout Poels, Steven Kruijswijk and Bauke Mollema. Like Spain, Italy and France, they also have four support riders who can close gaps. We can expect a very tactical race before the final showdown.

Spain missed their scheduled flight to Innsbruck on Thursday and had to make a late visit to the Höttinger Höll on Friday. Valverde has been quietly recovering from the efforts of the Vuelta a España and it remains to be seen if he has the energy to finally end his wait for the rainbows, or if he is destined never to win the world title.

Dangerous outsiders include Michael Woods (Canada), Jack Haig (Australia), Jakob Fuglsang (Denmark), Emanuel Buchmann (Germany), Dan Martin (Ireland), Ben King (USA) and George Bennett (New Zealand).

France has not won the world title since Laurent Brochard won a six-rider sprint in Bilbao, Spain, in 1997. The tough Innsbruck course has meant their Tour de France stars have a real chance, with Alaphilippe seemingly having the perfect mix of climbing and descending skills, attacking ability and a fast sprint finish if needed.

The Quick-Step Floors rider impressed at the Worlds in Bergen, Norway, last year with a late attack, and has shown huge progress this year, winning Flèche Wallonne, and two mountain stages and the polka-dot jersey at the Tour de France. He more recently won the Tour of Britain and the Tour of Slovakia as he prepared for the World Championships, and has spent time doing specific training on the steep climbs of the French Massif Central before travelling to Innsbruck.

If Alaphilippe struggles, or if the race explodes on the Olympic climb before the final assault of Höttinger Höll, then fellow 'Blues' Pinot and Roman Bardet will be waiting in the wings, ready to step up and end France's 20-year drought.

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