The World Championships in Yorkshire are just four months away, and preparations are already being made for a tilt at the rainbow jersey. With the Classics-style parcours, Belgium is a nation that will have its pick of potential contenders for the race come September.
The course for this year’s Worlds will take the riders from Leeds, through the Yorkshire Dales and on to the spa town of Harrogate, where the opening stage of the 2014 Tour de France finished.
Knowledge is power, so the saying goes, and recons are an all-important part of cycling these days. You can look at a map and a profile, but it doesn’t replace being able to see the roads with your own eyes.
The second stage of the Tour de Yorkshire provided the likes of Greg Van Avermaet and Serge Pauwels to have a look at the finishing circuit in racing conditions, but a special trip would have to be made to check out the earlier part of the route.
With Van Avermaet and co otherwise engaged, it was his compatriots Oliver Naesen and Yves Lampaert, along with new national selector Rik Verbrugghe, who headed to Yorkshire to check out the first 135 kilometres of the 285-kilometre men’s road race course.
Cyclingnews joined the Belgian squad for their day in the Dales, on what was a cold, grey and windy day. Being Britain, and Yorkshire, it’s entirely possible that the conditions could be similar or worse when the peloton descends on the region in September. The narrow roads and heavy surfaces will provide an additional challenge for the riders, but Lampaert, used to the hard terrain of the Classics, was pleased with what he saw on his visit.
"If it’s a hard race from the start, if there is a small bunch that goes to the final and we’re there with a lot of guys then we can play our tactic. A hard race is an advantage for the team," Lampaert tells Cyclingnews.
"The first part is quite heavy with small roads and steep climbs - not really big ones but it’s not so easy. For sure, if it’s the same conditions and it’s as cold as now then it will be really hard. If you’re really skinny and you have to ride through the bad weather then it’s not easy.
"I think it will be the same scenario as Glasgow at the European Championships last year. I think that a small group will go to the finish line."
Victory in the men’s road race at the European Championships was contested from a five-man group that had gone clear with around 50 kilometres to go. The race was run over undulating terrain and in torrid conditions that whittled down the tiring bunch.
The Euros were ‘only’ 230 kilometres, compared to the 285 that the Worlds peloton will face. Naesen agrees with his compatriot that the Glasgow race provides an insight into what it will be like in Yorkshire, but says the extra kilometres will make it harder.
"From what I’ve heard, it will look a lot like Glasgow last year or the Canadian races - one of these typical circuit races, which is very hard and intensive," he says of the finishing circuit.
"It’s after a lot of kilometres, which makes it harder. I hope before the last lap, after the 200k line, riders will start to drop faster and faster."
The 2019 men’s World Championships road race course follows the traditional formula of the Worlds with a long build-up before several laps of a local circuit – on this occasion, it will be seven trips around the lumpy finishing loop. There will be plenty to contend with before the riders reach the final laps, with almost 180 kilometres of racing to get through before they see Harrogate.
The section that Naesen and Lampaert went to see contained the route’s three classified climbs - Kidstones, Buttertubs and Grinton Moor - as well as plenty of unclassified undulations along the way. Riders who have competed at the Tour de Yorkshire, Tour of Britain or the European Championships will know about the heavy road surface too, which only adds to the grinding down process. The narrow, twisting roads mean that riders will have to be attentive throughout.
"It’s very hard, a lot of small roads in the first 100km and then afterwards it’s a bit bigger and a bit more relaxed. Let’s say, you have to be very awake in the first half of the race," explains Naesen.
"It’s never a good thing to race at the back because you can’t see what happens. Especially when there are small roads, because then when something happens, like a crash, and the bunch splits, you have to start chasing. The moment you have to start chasing is the moment you start losing most of the time.
"The guys that try something early on, they for sure will not win the World Championships because 280 kilometres is so long it’s so fatiguing with the length of the race. It would be a mistake to go super early in a race like that. Every effort you do in the approach of the local laps is something that you carry through into the final. It always takes a bit off your capacity."
Despite the technical course, Naesen says that the danger comes from the way it is ridden rather than the course itself.
"It’s always nervous, but that’s more because of the riders rather than the parcours. On these roads, there are not many corners - there are always bends but not really.
"It’s not a Tour of Flanders bunch that you find at the World Championships. There are a bunch of riders that we’ve never seen in our lives that we see for the first time at the World Championships, which also means that you’ve got a bunch of different levels at the start. It can be dangerous but I think that it will be alright. Natural selection always does its work."
Of course, both Naesen and Lampaert will be hoping to earn a spot in Rik Verbrugghe’s selection, but neither is guaranteed one with a deep field of Belgian riders vying to make the squad.
"It’s a big challenge. Everybody has seen the spring season, there were a bunch of Belgian riders in the spring season. We didn’t win a lot of races but we were always on the podium or in contention for the win with different riders," says Naesen.
"We are all leaders in our own team, so we’re not used to having to ride for other riders, which are our competitors most of the time. It will be a big challenge for Rik to bring us together on the start line. We have done it before. Qatar was my first World Championships, and on paper, we had eight leaders but really we were à bloc behind Tommeke [Tom Boonen]."
The World Championships will take place in Yorkshire between September 22 and 29.
Watch the video above to follow Lampaert and Naesen as they look at what's in store for the riders this September, and click here to subscribe to the Cyclingnews video channel.