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World Championships: Matthews the main man for Australia

Since Cadel Evans' gold medal at the 2009 UCI Road World Championships Australia has won a bronze, three silver medals and finished inside the top-ten on the other two occasions. The last two of the silver medals came under the stewardship of Brad McGee, who replaced Matt White as the national coach in 2013, and the former first Australian to wear the leader's jersey at all three grand tours is aiming for a third medal in Doha this Sunday with his team.

Michael Matthews will spearhead the nine-man squad 13-months on from his silver medal at the 2015 Worlds in Richmond with Orica-BikeExchange teammate Caleb Ewan a fast finishing 'plan b'. On that Spring afternoon in Virginia, Matthews told Cyclingnews that he and Simon Gerrans were "sprinting against each other", adding "I think maybe we need a change of strategy". On Sunday, there will be no Gerrans in the lineup, himself a silver medallist at the Worlds from 2014, with the team to ride in support of the 26-year-old Matthews as McGee told Cyclingnews from Doha.

"I think we have to give credit where it's due there, and the experience and performance level that Michael brings into this race is very well noted and largely the team is built around Michael," McGee said of the team selection.

"We are ready for any outcome of this race and again, we're dropping all assumptions and just being ready for any possible outcome on the road. In general, we are here to support Michael Matthews who is a proven contender and I was really pleased to see his TTT which shows everything is on track there for him."

On paper the parcours looks better suited to Ewan, whose inclusion McGee describes as a "huge bonus", but Matthews' palmares tips the scales in his favour as he explained.

"Caleb is here is particular reasons, there is big future for Caleb and it's a big opportunity with the parcours the way it is and suiting his style of racing. His youth and level of experience, to have him at a world championships is going to be a huge bonus," said McGee.

Having won stages of the Giro d'Italia and Vuelta a Espana, Matthews broke through for a debut Tour de France win in July ahead of current World Champion Peter Sagan. The stage 13 success is Matthews' last win but since that July afternoon he has finished no worse than fifth in his four one-day races and McGee believes despite the parcours not necessarily being suited to his strengthens, 'anything is possible.'

"Moral and condition is as we can expect for Michael who is a big race rider who has really stepped up in recent days and weeks, which was noticeable from all around. With that, we can expect him to be all guns firing on Sunday," he said. "I'd like to take note of his development and just in general, how a mature and professional bike rider he is. He's come on strong and with that I think we can expect a continued level of performance to rise, he's already done some amazing things, but my feeling is it's just the beginning for Michael. On paper, it's not the best world championship with the race parcours and conditions but with a rider of that level, anything is possible so we'll give him full support where possible.

"He's quite malleable in that department and just loves to win," McGee added of Matthews ability to set and deliver on specific goals. "Let's face it, he just loves to win," he said. "He's be doing the specific work needed to transition as much as he can for this parcours. I think we'll need Mother Nature to blow the wind in our direction and come around for his full favour. That's an uncontrollable but we'll just be ready for whatever the conditions present themselves on Sunday."

McGee points to a host of potential winners in Sunday's race, namechecking the likes of German Marcel Kittel, French duo Nacer Bouhanni and Arnaud Demare, and Colombian Fernando Gaviria but arguably there is one rider in particular keeping the national coaches up late this week.

"The danger with Sagan is that he's so dynamic and I don't think even Peter knows what is able and about to do which makes him so devastating," said McGee of the one man who beat Matthews at last year's Worlds.

There has been one forced change to the Australian team that was announced last month with Adam Hansen to be replaced by ONE Pro Cycling's Steele von Hoff. The inclusion of Hoff ensures nine-riders will line up in the green and gold in pursuit of the rainbow jersey and also allows Rohan Dennis to focus solely on Wednesday's time trial to bolster McGee's dual hopes of winning gold.

"We've known Steele for a long time, he's a talented rider and he's already on a mission to get ready for Abu Dhabi which follows the Worlds so all these things come together real nice. It's one less headache," McGee explained.

The weather

The weather conditions in Doha have become a key talking point of this Worlds with the women's time trial event the first major test for both riders and the UCI. The governing body announced that in the case of 'extreme weather' the men's road race could be cut to just 100km. A diplomatic McGee declined to enter into the matter, instead stating "I do 100% support health and well-being of our athletes. What I will be asking is when that decision is likely to be made so we can plan around."

Rather than discuss hypotheticals, McGee spoke of the role that Paolo Menaspà and Katie Slattery have played in preparing the team for the race and as a result, he is confident that whatever the weather and race length is on the day, his riders will be ready to perform to the best of their ability.

"We've done out research and had some great input some sport science doctors, notably Paolo Menaspà who has done a lot of work with Australian teams. Katie Slattery from the New South Wales Institute of Sport, which is my neck of the woods, she has great insight as well," he said. "There is not so much data out there on how to prepare for a long hot road race. Obviously, with triathlon there is some stuff there on shorter events so we had to put a bit of a thinking group around it really and come up with some strategies.

"We did some physical adaptation but at the end of the day it's having that exposure that gets your head space ready for it and it takes some time. It's definitely something we pay attention to and I believe we've done as a good a job as possible so far," he said.

Just as the Doha Words are proving to be one of the more difficult in recent memory to prepare for, it is the second time in less than six months that McGee and the Australian team will be faced with the unknown following on from the Rio Olympic Games. 

"I think everything who was involved in that Rio campaign comes out with a bit more dynamic flexibility in their approach to road racing," said McGee. "It threw everything at us. In my short few years here in the national head coach role it has been a growing experience but Rio was a real eye opener and we're definitely using the experiences required to prepare for this one. We are really dropping all assumptions and just being ready for as many possible outcomes as possible."

Dennis and Durbridge lead the line against the clock

At the U23 level, Australia is the most successful nation since its introduction to the Worlds in 1996 with 13 medals. It's a different story in the elite ranks though as Michael Rogers remains the only Australian to have medalled with his three straight rainbow jerseys of 2003-05. Dennis will be aiming to add his name to that exclusive list on Wednesday as he told Cyclingnews and McGee is confident the 26-year-old can deliver and banish the demons of Rio.

"We have seen a massive shift in Rohan probably since Rio itself. The outcome there, obviously suffering a major mechanical with 10km to go in an Olympic Games. The whole story could have disrupted not only the rest of the season, but potentially his career, but he hasn't even stopped for a second to complain and play the ‘poor me game'. He's flipped it on its head and been super positive, displaying a high level of maturity, professionalism and obviously he's lead in races show he's form is hot. With that, I expect Rohan to be able to win any time trial he puts his mind to and comes into fit and healthy from now on.

"That said, things don't always go the way you expect but what I am saying is that he is a realistic chance of winning time trials for a long time into the future with the position he is in now with himself, with his team BMC, who offer great support … He has some momentum, he's built that himself, and we're just there to support."

Twelfth on his elite Worlds debut in 2013, Dennis improved to fifth in 2014 and looked to improve again in 2015 until an untimely puncture. The BMC rider will be hoping that he can enjoy an interrupted ride on Wednesday in similarly hot conditions to July last year when he won the opening stage of the Tour de France.

"Something like Ponferrada would have been great, but still a flat time trial is something I'm quite suited to, and I can still win on Wednesday," said Dennis of his chances in Wednesday's 40km race.

Durbridge, a U23 time trial gold medallist from the 2011 Words and silver medallist from 2010, will also be racing against the clock and McGee is quietly confident in the chances of the Orica-BikeExchange rider.

"We have been monitoring him on in, he's been keen to be here for the TT all season. Obviously, there is selection criteria and standard of performance that we need to uphold out of respect for the World Championships themselves and also the athlete. We don't just hand out the Australian jersey," McGee said. "Durbo's proved himself to be prepared the right way, he's worked really well with his coach Ben Day and kept us informed of his level which was really confirmed with his high level of performance in the TTT. I spoke with Matt White following the race and he was really impressed with the level of Durbo's performance."

Without placing any expectations on the 25-year-old, McGee is looking forward to seeing the ride the three-time national TT champion puts in Wednesday.

"Well done Durbo, he's put himself back into that high level of time trialling ability, I am not sure if he will go all the way on Wednesday but what are executed by is that he's positioned himself back into the high echelon of time trialists ability in the world and we are not forgetting that he was right up there in Copenhagen a few year's ago in the U23," he said. "That is the Durbo we want to see on Wednesday for at least three-quarters of the race, if he can hold onto the watts right onto the end then why not a tidy top-ten or even better in the overall."

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