Belgium arrive with arguably the strongest and deepest squad at this World Championships but both Philippe Gilbert and Greg van Avermaet are aware that everything, from tactics to communication and of course form, will have to run like clockwork if they are to claim the rainbow jersey.
At the team’s pre-race press conference on the outskirts of York, the pair held court in front of a gaggle of homegrown journalists, with Gilbert maintaining that the team’s best tactic might be to replicate Deceuninck-QuickStep’s appreciation for long race attacks.
"Coming to the final it's going to be more about the riders and their legs. That's what's going to decide things," Gilbert said when Cyclingnews asked about Belgium's approach to the near 300km race.
"That's when you can talk about tactics because then it's just a case of being honest with each other. We have a strong team so just have to be in a situation where we never have to ride. I think that's always the tactic that we use with Deceuninck QuickStep and it's the best tactic because we almost always win. I think it's a good example."
Gilbert's comments are an echo of what Van Avermaet told Cyclingnews recently in Québec: "We have to do it kind of in the QuickStep way." Replicating Gilbert's trade team tactics conjures up images of this year’s Paris-Roubaix and a flurry of other dominant rides from QuickStep and their raft of winners this season.
There are four riders from the Belgian WorldTour team within the Worlds squad, while they are complemented by Van Avermaet (CCC), Oliver Naesen (AG2R La Mondiale), Dylan Teuns (Bahrain-Merida), and dark-horse Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal). On paper, it is a team just, even perhaps more powerful, than anything Patrick Lefevere could assemble.
With great power, comes great responsibility, however, and the Belgian squad will be expected to make the race on Sunday. There are of course different ways of doing this and rather than massing on the front of the peloton for close to seven hours, Gilbert and company will have to be selective in their approach.
"We're not the only favourites. Other countries have ambition and have expectations so they'll have to ride as well," he said, hinting towards the likes of France and the Netherlands, who also arrive with five-star favourites.
"We'll take our responsibility," Van Avermaet agreed."We're a big nation and we're always first in the UCI rankings so we're aware that we can't just sit back but we'll work at the right times. There are some other teams with bigger favourites than us, who also have to work."
Tactics this weekend will be hugely affected by the weather. With heavy rain expected, the parcours will turn into a slick rollercoaster with every corner of the Harrogate circuit providing both an opportunity and a risk. This is a minefield of a course, where concentration will be just as important as brute strength. Even the usually calm opening 180km, tackled before the peloton even reach the circuit, could be crucial and the Belgian playbook will be littered with offensive and defensive notes.
"Even saving energy on a parcours like this is still going to cost you," said Van Avermaet.
"They're such small and technical roads and you always need to be aware. If a crash happens and you're in position 40 then your race can be over. So, even staying out of trouble costs you some energy and then it starts again when you come to the opening lap. You're going to take that 180km in your legs. It's not nothing."
Gilbert, who first raced the elite Worlds in Hamilton in 2003, pointed to the unique nature of the Harrogate course. His teammate Teuns had earlier likened it to Amstel Gold Race, but even the vastly experience Gilbert was stumped when asked to compare it to other events.
"It's hard to compare it with something else. The asphalt is different here. Even that makes it unique," Gilbert told Cyclingnews after the main huddle of Belgian press had left.
"Experience is important, but legs are key because it's just such a hard course. I think first of all you need to be strong and then you can use your head and your team in the finale. It's not easy and it's going to be a hard race to read because there's not just one standout section. The race can develop at any time. It could be after the finish line, where it's up and down, it could be in the corners or after the climbs. There are so many opportunities to move."
With so many pinch points and pitfalls, one would expect experience to be crucial. Mathieu van der Poel, however, bucks that trend. At 24, and despite limited WorldTour racing knowledge, he arrives in Yorkshire as the man to beat.
“When he goes everyone will notice and there will be a lot of reaction,” said Van Avermaet, who is fully expecting the Dutchman to play a key role in the outcome of the race.
“That’s normal for a big favourite but you don’t need to overdo things. I’ll just focus on myself. The key thing is to do that if you want to win the race. If I’m not 100 per cent I probably won’t win the race so everything has to go right.
“I always thought that it was really important to have experience and time [to develop]. For me that was a big thing and I needed to make those steps each year to grow but some don’t need as much time. The young riders are strong, and they don’t need that much time to make the right decisions. Van der Poel is fast in every situation and he wins fast.”
While the Dutch have one main card to play the Belgian have two aces in Gilbert and Van Avermaet and two further jokers in Teuns and Wellens. If it rains expect the latter to compete in the finale. Communication and collaboration will be vital within the Belgian court, even with both Gilbert and Van Avermaet lining up recent wins under their belts.
“I was really happy about it,” Van Avermaet said about his win at the Grand Prix Cycliste de Montréal earlier this month.
“I was always there with top tens and podiums but not a big win. It was a relief for me to do a big race. It was a big race against strong riders, so to get that first spot was important. We have a lot of options to play and we’ll be quite honest. I hope to be good but we’ll see how many cards we can play, and hopefully, we have his card also.
Gilbert’s two wins at the Vuelta a España raised his level of optimism and the 2012 Worlds winner is confident concerning his chances come Sunday.
“I’m really good. I finished the Vuelta well. I wasn’t sick and I kept training. I came here on time so I could see the course. That was important. I know where and how I’m going and that’s going to make a difference.