Who will lead Australia at the elite men's road race at the World Championships in Imola, Italy, on Sunday is, according to one source, 'the million-dollar question' as Michael Matthews and Richie Porte both ready themselves for title assaults.
Cycling Australia this week directed said question to retired Classics specialist Mathew Hayman, who on Sunday will call the shots as sports director of the national team for the first time in the absence of head coach Brad McGee.
"Brad didn't travel over. It's a bit of a strange year for everybody. The Worlds were announced pretty late and they needed somebody to fill in, and I was asked in the middle of the Tour, which didn't give me a lot of time to prepare but we've got a great team and, so far, it's been a great opportunity," Hayman told Cyclingnews from Imola on Friday.
Hayman said that depending on how the 258.2km race pans out, which features 5,000m of climbing, both Matthews and Porte can be there in the final. The peloton will complete nine laps of a 28.8km circuit that includes two main ascents – the Mazzolano and the Cima Gallisterna.
"The roads are quite narrow for the whole way around, barring the circuit at the end," Hayman said.
"There are the main climbs, but I'd say that outside of those main climbs, yeah, the race just keeps rolling and twisting and turning. It's an interesting course, and I really do think it falls between something for a very good Classics rider and a climber, just with the accumulated metres of climbing. I think we've got both those bases covered actually."
Matthews won the Bretagne Classic-Ouest-France, his first race back when the WorldTour season resumed in August, and has been preparing for the Giro d'Italia, which starts next weekend. Meanwhile, Porte is coming off the back of a career-best third place at the Tour de France.
"Michael has a pedigree in world championships,” Hayman continued. "He's been second, he's been third and he's been fourth, and he's a very, very accomplished one-day rider. He's talented and can climb on his day. It's going to be hard – there is a lot of climbing – but often in a World Championship circuit race like this, that factor, that there is so much climbing, can deaden the race for a while, and if he can get to a point when it's almost too late, then I think he's got a chance.
"And then we've got Richie, who is, as far as I know, only the second Australian to stand on the podium in Paris, and has come off an amazing Tour de France and is in the form of his life.
"He seems very keen to be part of this Australian team and give it his best on Sunday, and we can use that asset."
Australia made two late changes to its eight-man squad, announcing on Tuesday that Lucas Hamilton and Jack Haig had withdrawn and would be replaced by Chris Hamilton and Nicholas Schultz. In a statement, Cycling Australia didn't provide a reason for the substitution.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the national team has had to approach the World Championships a little on the fly. The titles were moved from Switzerland to Italy and only confirmed on September 2 during what is a revised and condensed season following an almost five-month competition suspension due to the global coronavirus crisis.
With the exception of Luke Durbridge, who arrived in Imola last weekend to prepare for Friday's elite men's individual time trial, the road team touched down on Thursday.
The squad did a two-lap recon of the course in windy conditions on Friday as Hayman worked on race strategy.
"I've started to plan the race strategy, but I still need to talk with the boys. They've only just seen the course today, and I need to make sure my expectation aligns with their ability, so we'll go over that," he said. "I think it only confirms what we spoke about: there are two leaders and we've got to get them as close to the finish as possible. And how we do that are the details."
Australia has made headlines in recent years because of spats over leadership, which have transpired on the road, but Hayman said camaraderie was good ahead of the championships, which have been somewhat jammed in between the Tour de France and the Giro d'Italia.
"We touched on this being a bit of a different year and a bit of a special year, and I would have liked to have had the guys a little bit longer, just to build that a little bit more," he said.
"I think that's something that can make or break a national team – whether the guys do come in and feel comfortable with each other and are willing to work. It's always special to put on a national jersey, but then you have to be able to give up opportunities for a teammate who is normally on another trade team.
"Richie just had a baby, and the other guys are about to leave for the Giro in a couple of days. We were wary of putting too much pressure on them, so we've had a little bit less time to build that camaraderie. But I can only really vouch for myself, and I always really looked forward to the Worlds," Hayman said. "Maybe it was also because it was the end of the season, but it was always a great way to catch up.
"Spending so many years in Europe, you're very much Australian, but often on different teams, and I think everybody really enjoys coming back and representing the country. There are always some good stories to come out of a World Championships."
Australia squad for the World Championships elite men's road race: Simon Clarke (EF Pro Cycling), Luke Durbridge (Mitchelton-Scott), Chris Hamilton (Sunweb), Jai Hindley (Sunweb), Damien Howson (Mitchelton-Scott), Michael Matthews (Sunweb), Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo), Nick Schultz (Mitchelton-Scott)
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