Worlds: Are Belgium a team in transition or on the cusp of greatness?

Although Belgium head into Sunday’s Elite men’s road race at the World Championships without a clear team leader, few would doubt the collective strength in depth to their nine-man roster.

With two former world champions in Tom Boonen and Philippe Gilbert, the in-form Greg Van Avermaet, and Sep Vanmarcke and Jan Bakelants waiting in the wings, the team possess a garrison of weapons for the tactical assault on Ponferrada.

Yet back in Belgium expectations are relatively modest. The press all saw Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez put on a show at the Vuelta, while Simon Gerrans, John Degenkolb and Michael Matthews have all shown form and success in recent weeks. After last year’s performance that was arguably too tough for the team, the Belgians are to play the underdogs.

"There's a changing of the guard because it's the first time that Gilbert and Boonen aren't the main men in the team," says Belgian writer Marc Ghyselinck.

"Boonen hasn't been convincing all year and Gilbert had a strong spring but hasn't shown his best form since then. So you have on the one hand Van Avermaet and Bakelants and on the other you've got Boonen on Gilbert. The problem is that the last two haven't been that convincing. You can't rule out Gilbert because this course is perhaps a bit like Amstel or Liege."

Van Avermaet's recent form - two back-to-back minor wins since the Canadian WorldTour races - certainly improves his stock but perhaps the biggest factor that will decide leadership for Belgium will be the tactics of the Spanish and Italians.

Why choose one leader at the start of the race when the Spanish, so eager to avenge last year's mistakes, and the Italians, also looking to impose themselves at an early stage, are willing to control the race? There are of course different ways in which such 'control' can be asserted.

The first, and most likely is that both teams will try to infiltrate the early break, increasing the pace in the peloton before a final sort out on the final lap three where Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez, Fabio Aru and Vincenzo Nibali will hope to be present.

The second scenario could see the Italians and Spanish sit deeper at the start of the race, allowing a break to go clear before saving more of their second string riders to counter the likes of Jan Bakelants and possibly Van Avermaet as they look to anticipate the moves in the closing laps.

Each of these scenarios has one constant: the Belgians don't have to work. They can rely on other teams to stretch the peloton and drop the true sprinters because with Boonen in their back-pocket they have the option of waiting for the sprint. Ben Hermans, Jelle Vanendert Johan Vansummeren and Tim Wellens can always be deployed if the other sprinters' teams need cover.

"For us, everything depends on how hard the course really is. There's over 4000m of climbing so it will be a very selective race," Serge Pauwels, who rode for Belgium, last year, told Cyclingnews. "What that means is that the best riders will make their own selection, so in way the Belgians don't have to choose who to ride for."

There were few qualms from the Belgian media when the full nine man line up was announced. A few commentators questioned whether Meersman should have been selected but overall, the squad was well received.

"There's a strong heartbeat to the team," Het Nieuwsblad's Hugo Coorevits told Cyclingnews. "If you look at the composition there are four guys who can be there. We don't have a favourite like Cancellara, Gerrans or Valverde but we have two former champions: one who can attack and another who can win in a sprint. Then we have Van Avermaet who is in good condition and Vanmarcke."

"But as we know with the Worlds everything depends on how they race. This is a race that's somewhere between an Ardennes and a Flemish race but this isn't up to the Belgians to control events. That's an advantage because it's Spain and maybe Italy who will control."

"If our guys are wise enough they can decide when it's down to two or three of them. It's a long race and you want those options. And they'll ride together. You've got Vansummeren, Gilbert and Boonen and that generation know each other and then the younger guys who have come up in the next wave will work together."

Which of the Belgian generations come out on top will be a fascinating sub-plot to this year's World Championships in Ponferrada.

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