The Netherlands' Mathieu van der Poel expects to be among the best riders fighting for the rainbow jersey in the elite men's road race at the UCI Road World Championships on Sunday. And while the 24-year-old knows that he has a chance to win the world title, he pointed to Belgium's Philippe Gilbert as being the rider to beat in Yorkshire.
"I'm among the favourites, but to point to me as the biggest favourite is maybe a little bit too much," Van der Poel told a small group of reporters on Friday in Harrogate. "I think I'm among the few guys who can definitely win the race. I don't consider my self the strongest one. There are a lot of strong riders."
Van der Poel will lead the Dutch team of eight that also boasts Sebastian Langeveld, Bauke Mollema, Niki Terpstra, Mike Teunissen, Dylan van Baarle, Jos van Emden and Pieter Weening. He showed little concern when asked if he believed he has a team that could support in the 285km race from Leeds to Harrogate.
"I've been isolated at the Classics races already," he said. "Of course, it's better to have a teammate but, at the end of the day, when the big names really put in an effort, everyone is almost alone in the group. That was also the case in the Classics. It will be up to me to try to have the legs to follow the big guns if they go."
The riders in contention for the rainbow title include defending champion Alejandro Valverde (Spain), Julian Alaphilippe (France), Slovakia's Peter Sagan, Australian Michael Matthews and Matteo Trentin (Italy), along with Remco Evenepoel, Greg Van Avermaet and Philippe Gilbert (all Belgium). Van der Poel said that he believes there are more contenders in the mix, but that they'll vary based on the weather conditions.
'There are always riders who can perform better in rainy conditions'
"I don't really like calling names because, in my opinion, there are a lot of riders who can win the race, especially with the weather conditions that they're predicting," he said. "There are always riders who can perform better in rainy conditions than others. It's difficult to name them, but I don't think a pure sprinter will survive to the finish line. It will be more of a Classics-type rider, and maybe a climber can survive here as well."
Van der Poel said that he thought the Belgians have the strongest team on the start list. He pointed to Gilbert as being the biggest threat for the win on the team, given his success at the Vuelta a España, where he won two stages.
"Gilbert is good in these weather conditions, too, and I think he showed with his form at the Vuelta that he's in top shape. He's one of the riders who is really strong in long races, and the course suits him well."
There's rain in the forecast for Sunday's race, which Van der Poel believes will cause a lot of splits in the peloton. He's predicting a nervous race and a race of attrition whereby only the strongest will survive to the finish.
"It's not so nice to ride that distance in the rainy and windy conditions," he said. "It's hard to ride in those conditions, and the weather they're predicting doesn't look good. I also think that on the big loop it will be a nervous and difficult race."
Course recce on Saturday
Van der Poel has not previewed the course, but plans to test out the final circuits on Saturday in Harrogate. He said he likes that the roads are always twisting and turning with a lot of fast downhills and corners, which will be difficult, and repeated that he didn't think that a pure sprinter could come to the finish in the front group.
"It's not going to be a sprint on Sunday – it's too hard," he said. "There are too many riders who don't want a sprint, and there will be a lot of attacks on the local laps.
"It's always possible that the favourites look at each other and then an outsider gets away. I think we [Dutch team] have riders who can be in a group as well. I think it will be a nice race to watch – but maybe not so much for the riders. It's going to be hard."