This year's elite men's road race at the 2019 UCI Road World Championships will be fascinating to watch, with a number of the sport's biggest names right now – led by Julian Alaphilippe and Mathieu van der Poel – set to go up against each other over the 284.5km route from Leeds to Harrogate, in Yorkshire, on September 29.
While no one appears to agree on exactly which type of rider should win it, what has become clear is that the course is set to be much tougher in reality than it looks on paper. Certainly, that's what a number of national teams have concluded since doing their own reconnaissance rides of the route.
"The first part is quite heavy with small roads and steep climbs – not really big ones, but it's not so easy," Belgium's Yves Lampaert told Cyclingnews after checking out the route alongside fellow Belgian teammate Oliver Naesen in early June.
"For sure, if it's the same conditions and it's as cold as now, then it will be really hard," he added, with Yorkshire's early summer having presented them with what was a cold, grey and windy day.
Similarly, Alberto Bettiol, who rode the route as part of the Italian squad back in April, said that it was "more difficult than the Bergen Worlds in 2017."
France's Alaphilippe and Van der Poel of the Netherlands are being held up as the two men most likely to triumph and win the rainbow jersey, but very close behind them are a whole host of riders all very capable of going the distance. Here, below, is Cyclingnews' pick of 10 of them.
Mathieu van der Poel (Netherlands)
Mathieu van der Poel is being referred to less and less frequently as 'son of 1986 Tour of Flanders winner Adri van der Poel'.
Indeed, the young Dutchman has more than made a name for himself, first through his dominance of the cyclo-cross world – alongside Belgium's Wout van Aert – in which Van der Poel has won the elite world championships twice, and now through his seemingly approaching dominance on the road, at least in one-day racing.
Just like his dad, Mathieu has already won Amstel Gold Race, the Brabantse Pijl and the Dutch road race championships, and finished fourth at this year's Flanders at his first attempt.
And while fellow wunderkind Van Aert still recovers from the injuries he sustained in his crash on the stage 13 time trial at the Tour de France, Van der Poel now has a huge opportunity to take one win that his father didn't manage: the Worlds road race.
Barring accident or injury, Van der Poel will almost certainly be there or thereabouts as the race reaches its crescendo in Yorkshire. Whichever rivals he still has for company will have to hope that the near 285 kilometres, and the punchy climbs along the route, will have taken some of the sting out of the 24-year-old's blistering sprint finish, which he most recently put to good use to win three stages – and the overall title – at the Tour of Britain. (EB)
Julian Alaphilippe (France)
Not so long ago, if someone had flippantly ventured of Julian Alaphilippe, "Is there anything this guy can't win?" then the reply would have quickly come along the lines of: "Well, he's never going to win the Tour de France."
That almost changed in July when, still holding the famous yellow jersey long into the final week of the Tour, the whispers turned first to murmurs and then to shouts from a frenzied French public on the roadside. It seems that the 27-year-old really might be capable of winning anything he puts his mind, and training, to.
But while Egan Bernal emerged as the man to finally win this year's Tour, and Alaphilippe played down any intention to try to win it any time soon, France's favourite son – with apologies to Thibaut Pinot and Romain Bardet – would be very happy to instead pull on the rainbow jersey while in the meantime others keep the maillot jaune warm for him.
Let's not forget, however, that Alaphilippe was one of the big favourites for last year's Worlds, but came away from Innsbruck, Austria, with eighth place, empty-handed and disappointed.
"I have no excuses," Alaphilippe told Cyclingnews at the time. "The last climb was just too hard for me. My legs didn't have anything left. Everything was OK, but I just exploded, and I lost so much energy on the last climb."
Another year older, wiser and stronger, and with a French squad built entirely around him this year, with Pinot and last year's silver medallist Bardet sitting it out as a course not quite hilly enough for them, this is Alaphilippe's opportunity.
A nailed-on favourite for the win? He's not far off, but Van der Poel commands equal billing. (EB)
Peter Sagan (Slovakia)
Last year's hillier Innsbruck course saw Peter Sagan, finally, hand his rainbow jersey over to Spain's Alejandro Valverde after three victories in a row between 2015 and 2017.
However, once again, this year's race is up the 29-year-old's alley, and second place at the GP de Québec can only mean that Sagan is ready.
A seventh green jersey – and a stage win – at the Tour de France this summer isn't to be sniffed at, and ditto stage wins at the Tour Down Under, Tour of California and the Tour de Suisse, but it's been far from a vintage year for Sagan, who in more recent years has had season victories in the double figures going into the Worlds.
In that respect, Sagan seems to be flying slightly under the radar for this year's race, but, as one of only five riders to have won the title three times, his rivals won't be giving the Slovakian an inch if he's still there as the race approaches Harrogate. (EB)
Michael Matthews (Australia)
Australia's Michael Matthews appears to be made for the Worlds road race. Frequently flying as the racing season heads towards its end each year, Matthews' record at the world championships is quite extraordinary: third in 2017, fourth in 2016 and second in 2015.
He's still looking for that gold medal to complete the set, but a year wearing the rainbow stripes is what every rider is really looking for.
After the disappointment of not being selected for Australia for last year's Worlds road race – deemed too hilly for his skillset – Matthews will be the sole leader for this year's team, following the apparent trend from the big nations to hang everything on a single rider.
France have Alaphilippe, the Netherlands have Van der Poel, Great Britain are all-in for Ben Swift, and Matthews will be able to rely on the likes of Simon Clarke, Luke Durbridge and Jack Haig to try to deliver him to the win.
Having defended his title at the Grand Prix Cycliste de Québec last week, Matthews has proved once more that he's in flying form as the season comes down to its last few races. It's hard not to see him in the final selection, and things could come down to a desperate, winner-takes-all sprint finish between the likes of Matthews, Van der Poel and Slovakia's Peter Sagan. (EB)
Philippe Gilbert (Belgium)
Like Sagan, Philippe Gilbert has been there and got the (rainbow) t-shirt, with the Belgian's 2012 Worlds road race victory coming ahead of Norway's Edvald Boasson Hagen and Spain's Alejandro Valverde in Valkenburg, in the Netherlands.
Gilbert has enjoyed yet another fantastic season in 2019, with the highlight of course being victory at Paris-Roubaix back in April. It meant that the 37-year-old has now won four of cycling five Monuments, with only Milan-San Remo missing from his palmares.
He's in top form too, winning two stages at the Vuelta a España to take his career tally to seven at the race.
True, he's won the Worlds before, but he's certainly not going to miss the opportunity to take a second rainbow jersey if he's in with a chance in Yorkshire. What will be most interesting, however, is if national teammate Greg Van Avermaet is also still there at the end in a select group… (EB)
Greg Van Avermaet (Belgium)
While a number of other nations put everything behind their rider-most-likely, will it be a case of 'too many chiefs' on the Belgian squad as Gilbert and Van Avermaet vie for leadership in an eight-rider team that also includes young pretender Remco Evenepoel?
It could prove tricky, although national selector Rik Verbrugghe is only too aware of the pitfalls of having such a talented team, and has already said that it's his responsibility to ensure that all of his riders are pulling in the same direction.
"It's important to make clear agreements in advance," Verbrugghe said when announcing the composition of the Belgian team. "But I'm confident that we'll succeed, and that we'll have a good Worlds."
Van Avermaet's career victories include Paris-Roubaix, Gent-Wevelgem, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, stage wins at both the Tour de France and the Vuelta a Espana, Tirreno-Adriatico, Paris-Tours and the Tour de Yorkshire, and he's also the reigning Olympic road race champion. The obvious gaps in his palmarès, however, especially in terms of what he's capable of winning, are the Tour of Flanders and the Worlds road race.
And although he may not have had the 'winningest' of years in 2019, victory at the recent Grand Prix Cycliste de Montréal in Canada proves that Van Avermaet is set to be a force to be reckoned with. (EB)
Alejandro Valverde (Spain)
Reigning champion Alejandro Valverde is looking to be the first man to retain the rainbow stripes since... er, Peter Sagan in 2017, actually.
The 39-year-old is easily the oldest contender on the start list in Yorkshire, though is still as formidable as ever, even if the 'El Imbatido' shine has worn off somewhat this season.
From 14 victories in 2018, and 11 in 2017, Valverde has just five wins to his name heading into the Worlds this time around. He's trending upwards though, taking a stage win at the Vuelta a España – the 12th of his career – and finishing second overall, his best result since 2012.
Next Sunday, he'll enjoy the support of an entire squad, much like Van der Poel and Alaphilippe, with the Izagirre brothers, Luis León Sánchez and Marc Soler in the Spain squad. His chances of winning a second title might just depend on how hard they can make the race.
If they can shed the faster finishers and make it a puncheur punch-up, then Valverde will be in with every chance of remaining in rainbows as he turns 40 – just like Zoetemelk. (DO)
Alexey Lutsenko (Kazakhstan)
Another man on the list who has won a World Championships of some form, Lutsenko won the under-23 race in Valkenburg back in 2012. Not that had long to enjoy wearing the rainbow stripes though, turning pro with Astana the next season.
The 27-year-old hasn't really come close to replicating that result in the elite men's road race, with his best result – a ninth place – coming in Bergen in 2017. But the 2019 version of Lutsenko is unlike any that has come before.
The Kazakh has nine wins to his name so far this season, by a distance the best of his career. Starting off with three stages and the overall at the Tour of Oman, Lutsenko went on to take a stage and the mountain classification at Tirreno-Adriatico and finish top ten at Strade Bianche, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and the Critérium du Dauphine.
2019 has also seen him win the Arctic Race of Norway, and the Kazakh road and time trial championships. He's in form now too, finishing fourth at the Deutschland Tour, second at Coppa Agostoni, taking the win at the Coppa Sabatini after a 75km solo effort and then winning the Memorial Marco Pantani two days later.
Put simply, he's succeeded on every terrain. He may not command the headlines like the French, Dutch or Belgian leaders, but his ambitions match them all. Last month he told Cyclingnews that he believes in his chances of victory.
He's an outsider on this list, but far stranger things have happened at the Worlds. (DO)
Remco Evenepoel (Belgium)
He couldn’t, could he? A 19-year-old neo-pro as the elite world champion sounds ridiculous, but Evenepoel has done away with all concepts of normality over the past 12 months.
After storming to the junior time trial-road race double at last year’s Worlds, the former footballer decided to skip the U23 ranks and head straight to the WorldTour with Deceuninck-QuickStep in 2019.
A 'light' race programme designed to 'ease' him into the top level of the sport was laid out, but the Belgian has already taken it by storm. His solo victory at the Clásica San Sebastián made him the youngest winner of a UCI WorldTour race, and he followed it up by becoming the elite European time trial champion.
Evenepoel is among the favourites for Wednesday’s elite men’s time trial, but he’s also now widely seen as an outsider for the road race title. In what is surely the strongest team in the race, Belgium have two more obvious favourites in Philippe Gilbert and Greg Van Avermaet, but Evenepoel could provide another option.
As his coach, Koen Pelgrim, said recently: "Give him 100 meters and you have to ride seriously behind him. If it has been a difficult race and the collaboration is not 100 per cent, then you never know."
If he were to win, Evenepoel would be the youngest elite men’s road race world champion in history.
"It will be the longest race I’ve ever done, but then we said that before San Sebastián, too, and I won," Evenepol said recently. "You never know – the World Championships is always a special day. It’s not always logical." (PF)
Matteo Trentin (Italy)
The history of Italy at the Worlds it littered with star names – Binda, Coppi, Gimondi, Moser, Cipollini, Bettini. The country's 19 wins have been achieved by a series of legendary figures.
This year though, as has been the case for the past several, the national squad is relatively low-key – especially compared to some of the other teams heading to Yorkshire.
Versatile sprinter Matteo Trentin leads the way for them this year. A perennial Classics contender, and two-time Paris-Tours winner, the Trentino is at his best when the races are long. It was in evidence last summer too, when he won the European Championships road race in Glasgow.
This season saw him take his third Tour de France stage win, triumphing from the break on the 200km stage 17. More recently he finished on the podium five times in eight days at the recent Tour of Britain, taking a win and the points jersey along the way.
With a support squad as versatile as the leader – Gianni Moscon, Davide Formolo and Flanders winner Alberto Bettiol will join Trentin in Yorkshire – they certainly look prepared to cope with most eventualities.
That maxim can be applied to Trentin too – he's a rider who turns up and gets results. After taking fourth in Bergen two years ago, will the unassuming Italian turn up and get the biggest result of his career in Harrogate? (DO)
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