The previous winner of three World Championships titles, Oscar Freire, believes that Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) could end up with a record-breaking fourth straight title next year in Innsbruck, Austria, despite the toughness of the route.
Together with Alfredo Binda (Italy), Rik Van Steenbergen (Belgium), Eddy Merckx (Belgium), and Sagan (Slovakia), Freire is one of just five riders to have won the Worlds title three times, in 1999, 2001 and 2004. However, the Slovakian is the only one to have taken the rainbow jersey in three consecutive years.
"There's a lot of talk about the difficulty of the route in Austria, but I'm not sure if it matters that much," Freire told Cyclingnews.
"I can remember in Portugal [in 2001], the circuit was incredibly difficult but we all took it so easy in the first part of the course. So even though they'd wanted to make it tough, they couldn't. It all came down to a bunch sprint.
"Sagan is winning a lot right now, and if he's in good shape, the route doesn't really matter. He won the Worlds in 2015 because he was able to dominate the entire race, in the second he was a bit luckier, but he found the right spot to move through a bunch in a very difficult sprint. And this year he did it perfectly, by calculating his strength right down to the last metre. But if the finish line had been 50 metres sooner or later, he wouldn't have won.
"You have to be there when it counts, but right now he's getting lucky too. You could say the wind is blowing in his favour.
"How old is he now? 27? I'd won three Worlds by the time I was 27, too, and then I never took another one."
The difference in total climbing between the courses in Norway and Austria is - apparently - not that huge. In Bergen this year, according to Spanish newspaper AS, there were 3,600 metres of vertical climbing, whereas in Innsbruck there are set to be 4,670.
However, Freire warned that the one big factor that cannot be fought against in a World Championships, no matter how hard the course, is its unpredictability. That will, he said, be even more the case on a course like in Austria, where there will likely be more than the usual suspects taking part given the extra hilliness.
"It's all very relative, you can't foresee it all. It's like every year they have Peter down as the favourite of Milano-Sanremo, and he still hasn't done it," said Freire.
"Anything can happen in the Worlds. Next year, a course as hard as that might even suit [Chris] Froome."
At the same time, Freire felt that Sagan has one rarely commented advantage, that he is a stand-out figure in an era when there are comparatively few giants of the sport in the different fields.
"Sagan's winning a lot more, but not because he's improved - he's always been really, really good. But in Bergen, although there were a lot of good riders, there was no Tom Boonen, no [Paolo] Bettini, no [Johan] Museeuw or [Michele] Bartoli."
Nor is it just in the Classics, according to Freire. "A guy like [Bauke] Mollema, whom I raced against and who was my teammate - I never thought he could be up there in the Tour de France.
"[Philippe] Gilbert has had a bad patch, but this season he's made a comeback.
"But if you look at this year's Worlds classification, many of the top riders of four or five years ago, they were already up there fighting for the win back then.
"They were already very good, but now they're the best. What we've got a lack of is standout stars."
Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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