The 2022 UCI Road World Championships will, as ever, showcase the world's best cyclists battling for one of the most prestigious prizes in professional cycling: a rainbow jersey. However, there is a sense that the fields are not what they could be.
On the elite men's side in particular, there are a host of big-name absences, owing to a wide range of reasons.
But other factors have come into play. One of them is the location in Australia, on the opposite side of the world to where almost all pro cyclists live and largely compete. Another is the controversial relegation race, with a number of trade teams unwilling to release their riders to their countries for Worlds.
Here, Cyclingnews takes a look at the biggest holes in the start list, and the reasons for their absences.
First of all, we have the riders who wanted to race, were allowed to race by their trade teams, but were snubbed by their federations. Caleb Ewan (Australia) is the biggest name to miss out, having made a major target of the Worlds since the very start of the season.
The sprinter acknowledged that the Wollongong course, with 4000 metres of elevation gain, was hillier than he'd have liked but nevertheless backed himself to cope it and possibly contend in a reduced group finish. At the start of the season he spoke of how much his climbing had improved, but he was overlooked by the selectors, who have placed their eggs in the Michael Matthews basket.
"To be honest I don’t have much to say on the matter other than I’m heartbroken I won’t be there to represent my country and that I believe I deserved to be there," Ewan said after receiving the news. "Anyways, sob story over.”
The other glaring absentee is Dylan Teuns (Belgium). The Belgian team is notoriously difficult to get into but the absence of the Flèche Wallonne champion has caused much head-scratching in Belgium, and for Teuns himself.
"The national coach did not really give a valid reason why I am not allowed to go. He just said I wasn't there," Teuns revealed. "I asked why, and then it was said that it is a bit because of the needs of the leaders, something like that. Apparently I couldn't meet that need."
Belgium head into Worlds with two leaders in Wout van Aert and Remco Evenepoel, whose failure to dovetail last year caused controversy in the Belgian camp. Selector Sven Vanthourenhout possibly opted for pure workhorses over a rider who could be considered an outside bet in his own right, but the surprise inclusion of Stan Dewulf at the expense of a rider of Teuns' class still comes as a shock.
There's also a batch of riders who would have wanted to go to Worlds, and would have been selected, but were blocked by their trade teams.
This revolves around the relegation battle and the ever-more desperate scrap for UCI ranking points. 20 teams are competing for 18 spots in the WorldTour from 2023, with two current top-tier teams set to be 'relegated' based on points totals from the past three seasons.
The winner of Worlds, somewhat incongruously, earns a hefty sum of points for their trade team, but otherwise many riders would face massive disruption to their late-season calendar at a time when their teams need them desperately.
The situation is serious enough for Alejandro Valverde, the 2018 world champion and one of the most decorated riders in the peloton, to be denied a farewell Worlds in the final season of his long career. That's because Movistar were dragged into danger after a terrible season. They've gone a long way to escaping the drop at the recent Vuelta a España, where Enric Mas was second overall and Valverde 13th, but the decision was already made.
The 42-year-old was required to serve the team he's represented for 18 seasons, at the expense of a last bow at Worlds - an event that has marked his career, with six podium finishes before he finally landed the rainbow jersey in Innsbruck.
Valverde's teammate Alex Aranburu finds himself in a similar situation. He won the recent Tour de Limousin but Movistar want him for a number of late-season one-day races, finally clocking on to the darker arts of the points hustle.
The pair aren't the only absences for Spain, whose selector Pascual Momparler has had a nightmare and has repeatedly expresses his frustrations. Cofidis are also in the relegation frame, and that means no Jesús Herrada and no Ion Izaguirre.
Lotto Soudal, who are currently in the drop zone, were prepared to let Ewan race but not Arnaud De Lie, their chief breadwinner this year and the major reason they're anywhere near escaping relegation. Likewise, fellow Belgian Victor Campenaerts - who played a key role last year - has been held back to take part in a string of one-day races that reward stacking the top positions.
Over at EF Education-EasyPost, Rigoberto Urán and Esteban Chaves are missing from the Colombian team, while Teuns insisted all Israel-Premier Tech riders were free to ride Worlds, although that team appears doomed anyway.
The blocking of riders might not just be coming from teams at the top of the table. Interestingly, Momparler suggested that Ineos Grenadiers were unwilling to release their riders as they look to overhaul Jumbo-Visma to top the 2022 teams ranking.
National champion Carlos Rodríguez, who just finished 7th at the Vuelta, is not in Spain's squad, nor Ineos' other Spaniards: Omar Fraile and Jonathan Castroviejo. Likewise, while Ethan Hayter leads Great Britain, and Tom Pidcock pulled out due to mental fatigue, it's interesting to note the absences of Adam Yates, Geraint Thomas, and Tao Geoghegan Hart, plus in-form Colombian Daniel Martínez.
Not a priority
For others, there was a green light from club and country, but they themselves chose not to race.
Mads Pedersen (Denmark) is a glaring absentee, having won the world title in 2019 and having won three stages and the points classification at the Vuelta. His uphill speed there was remarkable, and he certainly looked to have the form to potentially survive the Wollongong climbs and sprint from a reduced group if the opportunity arose.
There's more Danish disappointment as Tour de France winner Jonas Vingegaard will not represent his country. The national federation have repeatedly expressed frustrations, with the president recently saying "we do not have a completely clear picture of why Jonas Vingegaard does not ride". Whereas Pedersen explained his personal choice clearly, the federation suspect Jumbo-Visma are behind Vingegaard's absence, although the team have looked to play down the situation by indicating that Vingegaard has had 'a tough time' in the glare of his Tour de France stardom.
Rohan Dennis (Australia), two-time winner of the time trial world title, says the 34.2km course in Wollongong is too short and has already hung up his wheels for the season. According to Velonews, he also has his brother's wedding at the same time.
Meanwhile, Benoît Cosnefroy (France), a punchy rider in form after winning the recent GP de Québec, has decided the travel disruption is not for him. "In elite sport, you have to make difficult decisions at times, and not going to Worlds is a hard choice," he said.
Likewise, George Bennett (New Zealand), who also did the Canadian races last week, has too much in his end-of-season schedule. “There was no room to move the race schedule around, and something had to give," he told Velonews. "It was an impossible situation for me, and unfortunately, it’s the Worlds.
Matej Mohoric (Slovenia) and Quinn Simmons (USA) are two more riders who raced in Canda, have end-of-season Classics on the agenda in Europe, and are nearing the end of their resources towards the end of the year.
A number of riders won't be there because they're not fit. Primož Roglič (Slovenia) crashed out of the recent Vuelta a España and it wouldn't be a surprise if he hangs up his wheels for the year after his latest crushing setback. He would have been a contender in both the time trial - where he's Olympic champion - and in the road race, having previously won Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Roglič was banged up and had to abandon the Vuelta, but he looked shellshocked emotionally, having picked himself back up from an early exit from the Tour de France, worked his way into contention for a fourth Vuelta title, only to hit the deck while on the attack. Tadej Pogačar takes sole Slovenian leadership in his absence.
Perhaps in a similar vein to Roglič, the absence of Tom Pidcock (Great Britain) is entirely psychological. He was runner-up in the recent Tour of Britain so the legs are there but he admitted his head isn't in the right place as he pulled out of Worlds.
Pidcock won the cyclo-cross world title at the start of the year but recently missed out on the Mountain Bike world title that would have set him up for a historic treble.
“Mentally, I couldn’t hack another build-up to Worlds. It’s all the way in Australia. If I want to target road Worlds I need to be 100%" he said.
"I was just dreaming of winning mountain bike Worlds, so when that didn’t happen, I was a bit lost. Then trying to go and win road Worlds, to me, would have been the hardest."
There's more woes for Spanish selector Momparler, too, as Juan Ayuso - one of his designated leaders alongside Marc Soler - pulled out due to fatigue after his stunning podium at the Vuelta. In Ayuso's defence, he has just finished his first Grand Tour at the age of 19.
Brandon McNulty (USA) is another rider who has backed out citing fatigue.
On top of all the other factors, there are also considerable financial restraints associated with a World Championships far from the European bases of most riders, teams, and federations.
Belgian officials recently told Het Laatste Nieuws that they have cut back on the equipment and resources they're sending to Australia, but the total cost is still three times higher than a European Worlds.
Belgium - well-funded in any case - are contenders for success in most events and likely to recoup some cash in UCI prize money, but others have had to make difficult decisions.
Ireland have taken the step of not participating at all. They say it would "stretch our resources far beyond what has been anticipated" and while a recent visit to the European Championships was feasible, an Australian Worlds is "a different proposition altogether".
Toms Skujins (Latvia) has said that "budgetary decisions" meant that he can't go to Australia.
The problem is not limited to European federations. New Zealand, so close to Australia, has lost major sponsors in recent times and has reportedly asking riders to help fund their own campaigns.
In that respect, they share something in common with Belgian's top star, Wout van Aert, who had to pay 8000 Euros out of his own pocket for his plane ticket - albeit because he wanted to upgrade to first class.
Not on time
Finally, in perhaps the most bizarre reason for missing Worlds, Lawson Craddock (USA) missed his flight after waiting for a visa. After a series of delays, it was finally approved... 20 minutes after his flight had taken off.
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