The UCI Road World Championships are back in Valkenburg in the Ardennes, home of the Amstel Gold race, for a fifth time. Procycling previews the contenders and the courses.
One year after Copenhagen drew level with Valkenburg as the most popular location for the World championships, the Dutch town is set to move back to the top of the Worlds list by hosting its fifth World championship. First picked to host the Worlds in 1938, Valkenburg and the surrounding province of Limburg subsequently hosted the championships in 1948, 1979 and 1998.
It is not difficult to see the attraction of the area for the UCI. Limburg is a region steeped in cycling history, bike lanes abound, and the road and time trial courses feature many of the hills made famous by the Amstel Gold race. Add in a population who love their cycling and are likely to turn out in their hundreds of thousands and everything points towards a very memorable week in Holland’s southern border region.
The week of racing begins on the first Sunday with the intriguing reintroduction of the team time trial event for trade teams, which was last seen at the Worlds in 1994. the UCI attempted to give this discipline a boost by including a stand-alone TTT at Eindhoven in the first years of the ProTour. The event was not popular among the trade teams obliged to take part and it only lasted for three seasons.
However, it is more likely to succeed within the Worlds programme because the Championships are guaranteed to have a high focus, which should provide trade teams with a real incentive to perform at their best. The top-20 women’s teams start proceedings, teams of six racing over a 34.2km course starting in Sittard that finishes a kilometre beyond the Cauberg rather than at the top of it as is the case with Amstel Gold. Up to 50 teams could take part in the men’s event that afternoon, which also starts in Sittard and covers 53.2 very rolling kilometres. in both cases, times will be taken when the fourth rider crosses the line.
Based on results in the team time trial at Sittard during August’s Eneco Tour, Orica-GreenEdge, Omega Pharma - Quickstep, Katusha and Rabobank will be among the favourites, although that test only covered 18.9km. Sky, BMC and Garmin - Sharp are also likely to field strong line-ups.
The men’s elite time trial takes place on the Wednesday. Starting in Heerlen, which hosted the 1967 Worlds, it covers 45.7km and features three main climbs, the toughest of which is the first in Simpelveld.
Although much tougher than last year’s title course in Copenhagen, a fit Tony Martin will still start as favourite. He’s shown before, most notably when winning the final time trial at the 2011 Tour de France in Grenoble, that hilly courses don’t cause him undue difficulties. Among the outsiders to watch for are France’s Sylvain Chavanel and Holland’s Lieuwe Westra, who should both thrive on this parcours.
Taking place the day before the men’s event, the Women’s time trial comes into Valkenburg from Eijsden, to the south-west, covering 24.3km. the defending champion, Judith Arndt, will be aiming to end her highly-decorated career with a second world title. Britain’s Emma Pooley, third last year and champion in 2010, will relish this rolling course and is likely to be among the german’s principal rivals.
All of the road races take place on a 16.1km course that’s designed around the Cauberg and Bemelerberg climbs. the women’s event could well see a repeat of the Olympic road race, pitching the Dutch against the British over the 129km distance. Holland’s Olympic champion Marianne Vos is sure to start as the favourite given her recent great form but Britain’s Lizzie Armitstead, Nicole Cooke and Pooley will much prefer the look of this circuit to last year’s flat parcours in Denmark.
The championships conclude with the blue riband men’s elite road race event. Unlike the other road races in the week, which all take part on the 16.5km circuit, the men’s event starts in Maastricht and winds for 100km around Limburg before entering the circuit. once on it, the riders will complete 10 laps of the circuit, giving a total distance of 265km.
Past history in Valkenburg suggests that a proven one-day specialist will prevail. Marcel Kint, Briek Schotte and Jan Raas certainly fall into this category, while 1998 champion Oscar Camenzind went on to win both Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Giro di Lombardia after taking the world title.
The italian coach and two-time world champion, Paolo Bettini, made his Worlds debut in that race won by the Swiss. When he looked over the course back at the start of the year, Bettini’s conclusion was that the Valkenburg race, "will be another Amstel Gold race. those first 100 kilometres are more or less on the same roads as the Amstel Gold." He added, though, that the location of the finish provides a significant point of difference between Amstel and the Worlds. At the conclusion of Amstel, the riders give their all on the final ascent of the Cauberg knowing the finish is at the
top, whereas the rainbow jersey will be decided 1.7km beyond the Cauberg.
Back in 1998 the finish was in the same place but it made little difference to Camenzind, who already had a good gap going onto the climb and maintained most of his advantage going up and over it. However, a look back at the 1992 Tour stage into Valkenburg underlines what a difference those extra 1,700 metres can make. of the four riders clear that day, Irishman Stephen Roche was the strongest on the climb but it was France’s Gilles Delion who took the stage after sitting on as the quartet went up and over the Cauberg.
Three-time world champion Óscar Freire believes that the flat run into the line should suit him as he once again attempts to secure a record-breaking fourth title. However, Freire may have a bigger problem asserting himself within what will be an extremely strong Spanish line-up. Alberto Contador has made the Worlds one of his late-season targets after returning from his doping suspension. He reacquainted himself with the Cauberg on stage 3 of the Eneco Tour. Although he’s only ridden Amstel once and didn’t finish on that occasion, Contador believes parts of the Cauberg are steep enough for him to have a chance. if that is the case, Joaquim Rodríguez, Alejandro Valverde and perhaps even a fit-again Samuel Sánchez are sure to be thinking the same thing.
French national coach Laurent Jalabert picked out Freire and Valverde as two of the riders to watch but believes that Chavanel and Thomas Voeckler will also be in contention. Based on Voeckler’s performances at the Tour, Jalabert’s confidence looks well placed. The Europcar team leader didn’t reach his peak this year until halfway through July and should have more to give. Victories in the GP de Plouay and GP de Québec underline that Voeckler is well suited to late-season hilly classics.
Jalabert also has Philippe Gilbert and Edvald Boasson Hagen on his shortlist of potential winners. twice a winner of Amstel, Gilbert hasn’t had the best of seasons but has always made it clear that his prime objective is the rainbow jersey. Unlike the Spanish, who have a lot of captains, Belgium will throw most of their weight behind the BMC star, who performed well at the Olympics and has been in far better shape than he was back in April when attempting to defend his Amstel crown.
Boasson Hagen is one of a number of riders from smaller nations who will be aiming to stay on terms with the major national teams until the final moments of the race. Slovakia’s Peter Sagan is certainly another in this category.
The home nation’s Worlds drought stretches back as far as France’s at the tour. it’s now 27 years since Joop Zoetemelk took the rainbow jersey at Giavera di Montello in Italy. The man responsible for putting an end to that run lies is the Amstel race director, Leo Van Vliet, who is also the Dutch team coach. Van Vliet is likely to build his team around the five riders he selected for the London Olympic road race - Lars Boom, Niki Terpstra, Sebastian Langeveld, Lieuwe Westra and Robert Gesink. He seems certain to add Bauke Mollema and Rob Ruijgh, who couldn’t be racing any closer to home and will be particularly motivated.
Van Vliet has had several gatherings over the course of this season with the riders on the long list for his team, believing that what has been a rather disparate Dutch squad in the past needed to be pulled together, especially this year. Van Vliet, who rode for raas in 1979 and remembers the rapturous reception for that success, believes an elite group will contest the finish but adds that recent editions of Amstel Gold point towards quite an open race. "I’ve been impressed by how many riders are left in contention in the finale nowadays," he told Procycling. "more riders are coping with the challenge of the Limburg hills, so the very top riders often wait until the very end of the race to attack. it is likely that the Worlds will be decided in a similar way."
The Route - road race course
Procycling tips: If he finds his form then Philippe Gilbert will go well, Alejandro Valverde is well suited and Peter Sagan was born for this.
Procycling tips: This race could be the best chance for a home winner. Look out for Moreno Hofland and Wouter Wippert.
Procycling tips: Britain’s Emma Pooley is sure to attack on the Cauberg but the extra 1.7km to the line makes Marianne Vos favourite.
The Route - time trial course
In the absence of Wiggins and Froome, this is likely to be a win for Tony Martin. Taylor Phinney and Luis León Sánchez will scrap over the remaining medals.
The hilly course will suit Emma Pooley well. Also look for Olympic TT bronze medallist Olga Zabelinskaya and Linda Villumsen who was a close 4th in London and also 3rd at this year’s La Flèche Wallonne Féminine.
Our clear pick here is Luxembourger Bobby Jungels, twice a silver medallist in the European U23 TT champs and he won’t turn 20 until five days after this event, when he should be in the road race.
Peter Cossins has written about professional cycling since 1993 and is a contributing editor to Procycling. He is the author of The Monuments: The Grit and the Glory of Cycling's Greatest One-Day Races (Bloomsbury, March 2014) and has translated Christophe Bassons' autobiography, A Clean Break (Bloomsbury, July 2014).
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