With Monday's announcement of Australia's final selections for the UCI Road World Championships later this month, the nation's Professional Men's Road Coordinator Matt White said that there are "a few sleeping giants" among the team of nine selected for the elite road race while the course itself could prove considerably harder than first thought.
Headlined by 2011 Milan-San Remo winner Matt Goss, the Australian team for Copenhagen also includes Stuart O'Grady, Baden Cooke, Simon Gerrans, Mathew Hayman, Michael Rogers, Simon Clarke, Chris Sutton and Heinrich Haussler. Much has been made of the battle to make the final selection with Leigh Howard, Michael Matthews, Robbie McEwen and Rory Sutherland missing out while Adam Hansen and Mark Renshaw were named as reserves. Why Renshaw missed out puzzled many, but White was adamant that it was a decision based on the course.
White is firm of the belief that the team will be in with a shot regardless of whether the road race finale comes down to a bunch sprint, or a closely-fought battle between a handful of riders following a breakaway.
"With what's happened with [Matt] Gossy's preparation, that's one card we can certainly play and we're not really going to know his form until race day because he's had a little bit different preparation to what we originally planned," White told Cyclingnews. "But we've also got a lot of guys who are going well at the moment and that are very capable of mixing it up in breakaways throughout the race."
Gerrans, whom White believes is in "the form of his life," Clarke, Haussler and Hayman appear to be the men most likely to appear in a breakaway whether it be in the standard early escape or in the aggressive final 50 kilometres.
Then there is veteran Stuart O'Grady who has just finished his second Grand Tour of the year, the Vuelta a España, and was in fine form – "He's one of those guys that you wouldn't want to take to the line on the course like that," warned White.
Getting the mix of youth and experience right
While it was difficult to rule out riders for selection, White explained that age was certainly not on some of the contender's side.
"At the end of the day for the world championships and for a country like Australia, we're there to get a result," he said. "And as much as you'd like to take a lot of young guys for experience, the world championships is not work experience. For the smaller countries, ones that don't have genuine winners, you can blood guys at a world championship."
Last year's under 23 road world champion Michael Mathews is one such rider, but possibly more so was Leigh Howard who has just completed his first Grand Tour – something White explained was part of the problem. With no experience in a three-week race of that calibre, it was too hard to gauge how Howard would be able to perform with 13 days of recovery.
On the complete opposite of the scale is Michael Rogers who has spent much of the season out while he battled glandular fever for the third time. Over the three months leading into the world championships, the 31-year-old will have ridden just the Tour du Poitou-Charentes, GP Ouest-France and Tour of Britain. However, Rogers himself is happy with the way his body is reacting to his return to racing.
"I'm of the opinion that if you're mentally ready to go for the Worlds and if you've done a good preparation I think sometimes - and I'm not talking about winning the worlds but for some of those team roles - if you're hungry and you're fresh I think that can be better than hopefully bouncing out of the Tour of Spain," said White.
"Mick's the consummate professional and credit to him – not many guys could come off three months of not racing and then come back at that level straight away. His value in experience and under pressure goes a long way in a group of nine."
The Copenhagen course and the competition
There may be more than a few names being tossed around as potential victors on September 25, but one thing is certain – it will be one of the peloton's more powerful fast men that succeed with the finish line at the top of a 500 metre incline.
White rates the course as being somewhere in between Zolder in 2002 - where he was a member of the Australian team and Robbie McEwen delivered what was then the nation's best result at a world's with second – and the tough Madrid course of 2005.
"On a course like that there's only so many times that you can commit to a chase as a team of nine and if you're caught out with a breakaway of five or six guys in that last 20-30 kilometres then you've got to sacrifice a couple of guys and something's going to suffer, whether it's your lead-out or you run out of troops," he said. "You've got to have a group of guys that can really race that distance and be aggressive after that 200 kilometres."
Given Goss's unexpected preparation, the Australians will now head in as underdogs – something which will suit the men in the green and gold bands just fine. What makes weighing up the competition particularly difficult is what White sees as there being "no real favourite" to win the race.
"People will say Gilbert's the favourite and going off the season that he's had this year, I think he rightly deserves being categorised in that way," said White. "For me, [Peter] Sagan is a very big dark horse but I think without a very strong Italian favourite, without a very, very strong Spanish favourite, without a strong Dutch or German favourite, I really think the course has a lot of potential to be a lot harder than people expect."
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