World championships road race: the top 10 contenders

Picking the winner of the world championships is always a lottery, but one that seems to follow a couple of simple rules. The man in form never wins, while Oscar Freire or the Italians seemingly always do. Ahead of Sunday’s road race, Cyclingnews picks out the top ten contenders for those mythical rainbow stripes and assesses their chances.

Philippe Gilbert (Belgium)

Current form: The Omega Pharma-Lotto man is the overwhelming favourite for the rainbow jersey and not without good reason. At the recent Vuelta a España, he took two stage wins built around his ability to accelerate on climbs in the final kilometre. The first of these wins, at Malaga on stage 3, was the athletically more impressive feat, as he left the overall contenders for dead on a stiff climb to the line, but his win in Toledo in the final week is arguably of more relevance to his Worlds challenge. On a long false flat, Gilbert took up the sprint from all of 550 metres from the line. Tyler Farrar was sitting in his wheel all the way, and never once looked like coming past. Two weeks ahead of the big day, the Belgian was untouchable. Last season, Gilbert hit his best form after the Worlds. The question this time around is, has he peaked too soon?

Worlds record: Gilbert’s early rainbow experiences were tempered by the presence of Tom Boonen in the Belgian line-up as the 2005 world champion naturally commanded leadership of the squad. In the past three seasons, the Walloon has had his chances, however, and has yet to do better than 8th (2007 and 2009). But after a stunning last twelve months, the 2010 Gilbert is a visibly more confident and audacious rider.

Team: Belgium has sent stronger teams to world championships in the past but that may well play to Gilbert’s advantage in Geelong. With no Boonen and no Stijn Devolder, the team is built solely around delivering him to the final lap.

Course: If his second stage win at the Vuelta is anything to go by, the Geelong circuit’s uphill finish will suit Gilbert to a tee. Provided, that is, that enough of the sprinters are burnt off beforehand.

Filippo Pozzato (Italy)

Current form: Improving. Just two wins this season for the Italian but one of those came in Australia in the Herald Sun World Cycling Classic Ballarat on Sunday, so he clearly remembered to pack his legs for the long trip Down Under. The win will be a significant morale boost for Pozzato at a crucial juncture: while he was busy building form at the Vuelta, Gilbert was giving an exhibition of his talents, burning Pozzato in the finale in Toledo. Pozzato will be gambling that his form has been growing in the past two weeks while Gilbert’s has been tapering off.

Worlds record: Pozzato has a lengthy and frustrating history at the world championships. As a junior in Valkenberg in 1998, he was over-powered in the sprint by Ireland’s Mark Scanlon and his opportunities to make amends in the professional ranks have been limited given the depth of talent in Italy. A distant 21st last year, he was a key man in his national manager Paolo Bettini’s wins in 2006 and 2007, and experienced the other side of the coin in 2005, when he was left frustrated by his efforts in support of Alessandro Petacchi in Madrid.

Team: In theory, as sole leader of the Italian squad, Pozzato has some of the strongest support on offer in the race. In practice, things may be a little different. For one thing, there is the suspicion that Paolo Bettini has loaded the team with his friends rather than the men who are most in form. There is also the Vincenzo Nibali factor. While the Vuelta winner has sworn fealty to Pozzato, the circumstances of the race could easily see their roles reversed.

Course: In spite of his disappointment in Toledo at the Vuelta, it’s not by chance that Bettini left Alessandro Ballan and Daniele Bennati at home. The Geelong circuit seems ideally suited to a rider of Pozzato’s class. It’s up to him to hold his nerve.

Oscar Freire (Spain)

Current form: As ever, Freire’s form is a complete unknown and, as ever, this fact is completely irrelevant. The Spaniard has shown time and again that he is simply not governed by the normal rules of getting in a base of racing miles and building form. After a strong spring, where he took victory in Milan-San Remo and two stages in the Tour of the Basque Country, Freire has gone to ground. After a quiet Tour, he underwent surgery on his sinuses and came back to ride a nondescript Vuelta. But then, in 1999 and 2001, he struggled with injury all season before delivering world title-winning rides. Freire rolling up in Spanish colours with a rainbow jersey on the line is cycling’s equivalent of Clark Kent nipping off to make a quick phone call.

Worlds record: Only legendary riders Alfredo Binda (Italy), Rik Van Steenbergen (Belgium) and Eddy Merckx (Belgium) have as many road race titles as Oscar Freire (three). The Spaniard won in Verona in 1999 and 2004 and in Lisbon in 2001. For good measure, he added a bronze medal in Plouay in 2000. In short, Freire has been the standard for the Worlds for the last decade: if nobody else does something out of the ordinary, then Freire wins.

Team: It is testimony both to Freire’s charisma and ability that in a national team packed with potential winners, he can rely on 100% support. If he misfires, then Spain have Olympic champion Samuel Sanchez and Luis Leon Sanchez waiting in the wings.

Course: Long? Check. Enough climbs to eliminate the pure sprinters? Check (we think). Slightly uphill sprint? Check. A perfect course for Freire, provided he has the legs and the Spanish team can keep a tight rein on Gilbert et al.

Cadel Evans (Australia)

Current form: Unknown. Evans struggled heroically through the Tour de France after falling and breaking his elbow on stage 8. He more than honoured his rainbow jersey with that courageous ride, but he may ultimately have compromised his chances of retaining it. The Fleche Wallone winner recently returned to racing and appears suitably inspired by the prospect of taking on the world on home roads. Whether the Geelong circuit suits Evans’ characteristics is another matter, of course, but even if he doesn’t challenge, he will still have a major part to play in the Australian challenge. With so many potential leaders in the line-up, Evans’ rainbow stripes will carry a lot of weight.

Worlds record: In the absence of Tom Boonen and Alessandro Ballan, Evans joins Freire as one of only two former champions on the start-line in Melbourne. Victorious in Mendrisio a year ago, Evans was also 5th behind Bettini on Stuttgart’s uphill sprint in 2007. Liberated by his fine season in the rainbow jersey, the Australian is far more confident in such situations three years on.

Team: Evans’ level of support from his Australian teammates in Mendrisio was the subject of wild speculation twelve months ago but the man from Katherine has always been capable of fighting his own battles. The question here is not so much who will support him as who are the alternatives to lead the home challenge. Evans has given his blessing to Matthew Goss (HTC-Columbia), while Simon Gerrans (Sky) fancies his chances on the circuit. Alan Davis (Astana) and Stuart O’Grady (Saxo Bank) bring a wealth of experience to the team.

Course: Of all the men on our list, Evans appears to be the man least suited to taking victory on the Geelong circuit, but racing on home roads, he will be determined to be a factor.

Thor Hushovd (Norway)

Current form: A stage winner in week one of the Vuelta, the big Norwegian has been quietly building form ahead of the Worlds. A training crash in May compromised his sprinting at the Tour de France, but he still delivered a stage win over the cobbles to Arenberg. His top-end speed appears to have picked up in the intervening period and nothing would assert his authority at the revamped Garmin-Cervélo team better than a rainbow jersey on his shoulders.

Worlds record: World U23 time trial champion in 1998, Hushovd has never made an impact on the elite men’s road race. The relative weakness of his Norwegian team, the fact that he generally builds his seasons around the classics and the Tour de France, and the general unsuitability of recent Worlds courses have all conspired against him.

Team: Norway will only have a three-man line-up on Sunday but two potential world champions. While Alexander Kristoff (BMC) will provide support, Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky) will fancy his chances if the race comes down to a sprint. The Norwegians’ plan of campaign is to let Hushovd and Boasson Hagen decide who is the stronger on the road.

Course: Conscious that he is not quick enough to beat Mark Cavendish in a flat sprint finish, Hushovd will delight in the slight incline to the line, having won such a sprint in Barcelona at the 2009 Tour de France. His green jersey campaigns have also shown that he can deal with repeated climbing, although if a Gilbert or a Samuel Sanchez breaks up the race on the hills, Hushovd will struggle to follow.

Fabian Cancellara (Switzerland)

Current form: Patchy. Cancellara went to the Vuelta to build form for the Worlds but suffered a major shock to the system when he was soundly beaten in the final time trial. He abandoned the race on the final Friday and even considered opting out of travelling to Australia altogether such were his concerns. In the meantime, he has confirmed his departure from Saxo Bank at the end of the season and finished a decent 4th at the Worlds warm-up race last Sunday. His main aim will be Thursday’s time trial and if he can hold off Richie Porte and Tony Martin, he will go into Sunday’s race with the pressure off and the freedom to choose his moment carefully.

Worlds record: With three world time trial championships to his credit (plus another two junior titles), Cancellara has plenty of rainbow jersey experience but has had little joy in the road race. Last year in Mendrisio, he was on form and the overwhelming favourite on home roads but showed his hand far too early and too often. While he is not as strong this time around, he should have processed the lessons of that bitter 5th-place finish.

Team: Cancellara will not face any leadership contests on the Swiss line-up and may also benefit from what appears to be surprisingly strong team. Oliver Zaugg (Liquigas-Doimo) was very prominent in support of Vincenzo Nibali at the Vuelta, while Michael Albasini (HTC-Columbia) showed his form at the Tour of Britain.

Course: On paper, the course seems well-suited to Cancellara, provided that he has the form. The climbs are touted to be tough enough to hamper the sprinters but not steep enough to make Cancellara suffer unduly. In any case, as he showed at the 2008 Milan-San Remo, there are few better at powering away at the red kite in a race as long as this.

Mark Cavendish (Great Britain)

Current form: Good. Cavendish won three stages and the points classification at the Vuelta although he wasn’t quite at the imperious levels he showed in the second half of the Tour de France. However, after a difficult start, Cavendish has roared back into form in the second half of the season. If the race does indeed come down to a mass sprint, he would have to be the favourite, defeat to Tyler Farrar in the Vuelta’s final stage notwithstanding.

Worlds record: Cavendish has two world titles on the track but his experience on the road is limited to an appearance at the Stuttgart Worlds in 2007. That said, Mario Cipollini couldn’t count on a wealth of Worlds experience before taking the rainbow jersey in Zolder. Sprinters have to rely on the rare opportunities that come their way in this race, and Cavendish will be hoping one arrives this year.

Team: Intriguing. David Millar is a strong rouleur and Jeremy Hunt an experienced lead-out man, but unfortunately for Cavendish, he doesn’t have another six riders to help him out earlier in the race. There are, however, plenty of HTC-Columbia men in the field and it will be fascinating to see if there is any conflict between trade and national team duties on the day.

Course: For the past couple of years, Cavendish had been widely viewed as the favourite for the rainbow jersey in Australia, but ever since the Italian team went to visit the course in July, those opinions have been revised. Paolo Bettini said he couldn’t see Cavendish lasting on such a circuit and after seeing it for himself last weekend, the Manx man is claiming to agree.

Tyler Farrar (USA)

Current form: Tyler Farrar, sprinter for Garmin-Transitions, has been in fine fettle since his Tour de France was curtailed by a wrist injury. He took victory in the Vattenfall Cyclassics in August and had two morale-boosting wins over Mark Cavendish at the Vuelta a España. If the race does come down to a mass finish after all, the American could well have his say.

Worlds record: Like Cavendish, Farrar doesn’t have a huge pedigree at the Worlds road race but will be looking at this year’s course and Copenhagen in 2011 as golden opportunities to add a rainbow jersey to his palmares.

Team: Farrar will have the support of a number of his Garmin-Transitions teammates in the nine-man American line-up. David Zabriskie, Christian Vande Velde, Danny Pate and Tom Peterson are all present as is the exciting talent of Tejay Van Garderen (HTC-Columbia).

Course: Farrar has yet to issue any public pronouncement on the suitability of the course but did admit before travelling to the antipodes that he will be happy to work for the team if it transpires that the circuit is not conducive to a sprint finish.

André Greipel (Germany)

Current form: Three stage wins at the Tour of Britain saw Greipel match his soon-to-be-ex-teammate Cavendish’s haul at the Vuelta, although the quality of sprint opposition was significantly higher in Spain. Having missed out on both the Tour de France and the Vuelta due to his incompatibility with Cavendish, it is possible that Greipel could pay for the lack of a major stage race as part of his Worlds preparation. He struggled against Tyler Farrar in the sprint at the Vattenfalls Cyclassics immediately after the Tour.

Worlds record: Like Cavendish and Farrar, Greipel has emerged as a top-level sprinter in recent seasons and hasn’t had a Worlds course suited to him before now. He was on the German team in both 2008 and 2009, but failed to finish on each occasion.

Team: The Ullrich-Zabel era, when Germany was perennially one of the strongest line-ups at the Worlds are now a distant memory but there is still some real quality in the 2010 team. Tony Martin, Marcel Sieberg and Bert Grabsch are all present from the HTC-Columbia train, while Danilo Hondo (Lampre) is an expert lead-out man.

Course: What we wrote for Farrar, Cavendish and – to a lesser extent, Freire and Hushovd – is also valid here. If a team takes up the racing early on and makes things hard, Greipel won’t feature. If the peloton simply watch one another for 260km, he’ll finally have his match with Mark Cavendish.

Alexandr Kolobnev (Russia)

Current form: Russian champion this summer and second at Liege-Bastogne-Liege in April, Kolobnev has been present throughout the season. He was most recently seen building form at the Vuelta a España, where he infiltrated some dangerous-looking breaks, including one over some rugged terrain with Luis Leon Sanchez (Caisse d’Epargne) on the day Igor Anton crashed out. While he didn’t get a stage win at the Vuelta, the Katusha man was motoring well every time he went up the road.

Worlds record: One of the more consistent performers at the Worlds in recent years, Kolobnev is rather like Oscar Freire, minus the rainbow stripes on his sleeves. He took silver behind Paolo Bettini in Stuttgart in 2007 and again behind Cadel Evans in Mendrisio last year. In between, he took 4th in the road race at the Beijing Olympics. A solid performer in the classics, he appears to keep his best for Russian colours, as he also finished 10th at the 2004 Olympics and 7th in the 2005 Worlds.

Team: Kolobnev will benefit as sole leader of the Russian team and can rely on some solid support from Vladimir Karpets, Pavel Brutt, Vladimir Gusev and Mikhail Ignatiev. It may not be the most glamorous team on the start-line in Melbourne, but few will carry as many riders who seem so suited to a strongman’s course.

Course: A punchy rider with a decent finish, Kolobnev seems capable of producing on any kind of Worlds circuit. The 2007 course in Stuttgart had an uphill drag to the line and he put up the stoutest resistance to Bettini’s change of pace there. If the race breaks up in the final lap and Kolobnev is still in contention, he’ll have his say.

The best of the rest

Our top 10 takes in a rider from each of what we think to be the best teams in the race, in quality if not in quantity. It’s a sign of how far French and Dutch cycling’s stars have fallen, at least in terms of the Worlds, that it’s hard to see either country taking home a rainbow jersey this time around. Lars Boom and Niki Terpstra will lead the Dutch challenge but it would be a major surprise if either were to take the win.

For the French, Sylvain Chavanel and Romain Feillu should be solid performers, but while they are well capable of obtaining decent placings, it’s hard to envisage either touching down in Charles de Gaulle in rainbow bands.

Instead, the men to upset the apple cart could well come from some of the teams with smaller selections at the Worlds. Peter Sagan was bubbling under at the Herald Sun World Cycling Classic Ballarat and can count on Martin and Peter Velits for support in a very strong and on-form Slovakian team. Others who expect to figure prominently include Matti Breschel (Denmark), Fränk Schleck (Luxembourg) and Nicolas Roche (Ireland), who will be hoping to emulate his father Stephen’s 1987 world title win.

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