Freire: Degenkolb, Matthews and Gerrans the favourites at Worlds

Former three-time World Champion Oscar Freire of Spain believes that Sunday's road race course at the World Championships will favour "sprinters who can climb well, like John Degenkolb, Michael Matthews and Simon Gerrans."

"Then there are riders who are going to try to jump clear in the final ascent, like Philippe Gilbert and Fabian Cancellara," said Freire, a World Champion in 1999, 2001 and 2004 and now present as a spectator at his home Worlds in Ponferrada.

"And if there's a break then suddenly there's all kinds of riders who could be up there who aren't obviously amongst the [pre-race] favourites."

Traditionally the men's under-23 race is widely regarded as a test ground for how the elite road race will play out. As Freire sees it, the chances of a late breakaway making it to the finish ahead of the pack - as happened in Friday's under-23 race - are minimal.

In his opinion, the difficulty for Gilbert and Cancellara - and where Freire believes that the men's under-23 race cannot be taken as an example for their senior counterparts - is "that they are instantly recognisable."

"When an U23 rider goes up the road, nobody knows who they are, you don't know if he's a good wheel to follow. But when it's Gilbert, people don't let him get a metre off the front. So they have a harder time of it."

Freire argues, therefore, that the chances of a late break succeeding in getting away are minimal. "I think we'll end up seeing a bunch sprint, of maybe 40 or 50 riders. Maybe less, but a lot will depend on the rain, because it's perfectly possible - if it does rain - that there could be a crash or a split on the final descent."

Freire is unsure about Valverde's chances of taking a home win - which would be Spain's first since Freire won in Verona in 2004.

"For sure he'll be up there. But other riders like Degenkolb, [Nacer] Bouhanni, Gerrans - one of those - will be with him. I don't think he can make the gap in the last climb without one of those getting on his wheel." After that, though, a sprint at the end of a 250-kilometre race can be very unpredictable - and Valverde could have a chance there.

According to Freire, the weather, particularly with the circuit's two fast, twisting downhills, will be a big factor in how the race develops.

"If it rains, it'll make a big difference. If you're a contender, you'll have to be really close to the front, because even if you don't take risks on the descent, then somebody else ahead of you can fall off and take you with them. If it rains, that last descent, above all, will be decisive."

Valverde chuckled when asked if the circuit would have suited him. "It would have been one of the best for me."

"It's tough enough to eliminate a lot of the sprinters from the running. But it's not so hard to allow a rider like Valverde, or Purito or Nibali" - as happened in Firenze last year "to turn it into their Worlds."

Freire says that he is uncertain about the real chances of one rider regularly named as a favourite, Norway's Alexandre Kristoff, given the Ponferrada course has 4,200 metres of vertical climbing. That is a lot more than in Milan-San Remo, which the Katusha pro won this spring.

"Above all, " Freire says, "it's a Worlds course for riders who are good on climbs, but who are fast finishers, too."

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