Not a lot seems to be going right for Julian Alaphilippe (QuickStep-AlphaVinyl) in recent months, from a long injury lay off to COVID-19 on his return, but Cadel Evans knows all too well that a season that fails to go to plan doesn’t necessarily mean that all important race day at Road World Championships will follow the same path.
Evans won the prized rainbow jersey in 2009 after earlier in the season his hopes of finally turning two years of second places into yellow at the Tour de France ended with a 30th place and then a potential Vuelta a España victory slipped away with a botched neutral service wheel change. It perhaps shouldn't come as a surprise then that when the 2011 Tour de France winner was asked for his thoughts on who could prove a threat at the World Championships when the event returns to his home nation for the first time in 12 years this September, there wasn’t for a second any discounting riders that hadn't had the results falling in their favour recently.
Alaphilippe is well and truly on Evan's radar for a third World Championship title in a row in Australia. Even though the elite men's 266.9km race from Helensburgh to Wollongong delivers an estimated 3,945 metres of elevation gain, he believes the style of course could help shift the advantage away from the Grand Tour GC riders – particularly those who has already extended themselves in the hunt for yellow at the Tour de France – and toward those who excel in one-day events.
“Of course when [Tadej]Pogačar is on his good days, it doesn't matter what sort of race it is he can win it, but I just think the course and the unpredictability of the climb and the finishing circuits and the corners is going to suit a one day specialist,” Evans said in a media conference held by organisers of the World Championships in Wollongong. “And that's where I point more towards Julian Alaphilippe, that style of rider.”
Alaphilippe, took a solo victory at Road Worlds in Imola in 2020 after attacking on the final climb of the race with 12km to go and then went onto keep his grip on the rainbow jersey in Flanders, this time with his race winning attack coming 20km out from the line. The Road World Championships in Wollongong again provide a course which looks sure to thin the field and bring the fight for the rainbow jersey down to a select group or well-timed attack.
However, as much as the course may play to Alaphilippe's strengths, the two-time world champion's season has been anything but smooth sailing. The French rider broke his scapula, two ribs and suffered a punctured lung in a crash at Liège-Bastogne-Liège meaning he was off the bike for nearly a month and on his return race at Tour de Wallonie he then tested positive to COVID-19 after stage 2 so had to leave, but not without first making an impression on stage 1.
“He's been out for injury all year and he comes back and he wins his first race,” said Evans. “I think he's going to be fresh, ready and hungry."
He’s not the only rider who'll be looking to turn a rough season around.
Australian sprinter Caleb Ewan’s (Lotto Soudal) impressive boost to his staying power on the shorter climbs in recent seasons has made it hard to discount him as a possible contender if selected for the climb-heavy course, but he has failed to deliver in his key targets of the year after poorly timed illness, crashes and misfortune.
“If Caleb's having a good day, if he's going well, he'll be able to make it,” said Evans. “He's just had real bad luck.”
“Like my 2009 Worlds, that would completely make amends for an otherwise, by Caleb's standard, bad season," Evans said, referring to the prospect of a top result at Worlds. "But ... if Caleb can't make the final, Michael Matthews, this course is made for him.
“Let's remember that Michael Matthews knows how to race at home. He won the under 23 World Championships in Geelong. And I think he's going to be eyeing this Wollongong course with a lot of enthusiasm.”
What’s more, while it wasn’t a Tour de France that turned out well for Ewan – although he did put plenty of climbing miles into the legs by making it through to the end – fellow Australian Matthews broke through on stage 14 to take his first Grand Tour victory since 2017. That was also the year he last stood on the podium at World Championships, with a third place to add to his silver of 2015 and the U23 title, which he secured in Geelong in 2010.
Evans also pointed to another former winner, Danish rider Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo) as among another group of potential contenders.
"We look at the race profile, the hills and think of those as selections, but if we go back to the Yorkshire World Championships, it was the corners, that made the selection and from speaking to the riders who raced in Belgium last year, it was the same thing," said Evans. "So let's not discount some of the classic specialists as well, even though it is quite hilly."
The Road World Championships runs from September 18 to 25, starting with the elite women's and men's time trials and concluding with the elite men's road race.
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