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UCI Road World Championships 2020 - Preview

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The turnaround from the Tour de France and Giro Rosa to the Imola World Championships (September 24-27) is quick, but it would have been even quicker had the UCI been able to press ahead with its original intention to host a full programme of events in Aigle and Martigny this week.

The men’s individual time trial, remember, was due to take place on the same day as the final stage of the rescheduled Tour, but the Swiss Federal Council’s restrictions on public gatherings forced the cancellation of the Aigle-Martigny Worlds, while the wider coronavirus pandemic ultimately led to a reconfiguration of the race programme.

By the time the UCI pitched for a new host in late August, the governing body had already confirmed that there would be no rainbow jerseys assigned in the junior and under-23 ranks in 2020, while the mixed team time trial title has also fallen by the wayside. A scaled-back series for elite riders only was announced, and Imola rapidly conjured up a bid to see off the challenge of La Planche des Belles Filles and bring the Worlds back to Italy for the first time in seven years.

The speed at which bids were put together and considered only confirms the UCI’s desperation for the World Championships to go ahead in these most straitened circumstances. When the governing body enacted severe cost-cutting measures in April due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it highlighted its desire to maintain the revenue-generating events that are held under its auspices, most notably the Road World Championships.

The wheels of sports diplomacy have rarely moved as rapidly as they did during the re-assignation of the World Championships last month. After all, another Italian city, Vicenza, spent years promoting its candidacy to host the 2020 Worlds but lost out to Aigle-Martigny due to a shortfall in funding. By contrast, Imola’s successful bid was fashioned on the hoof, with the four days of racing set to come with a significant cut to the UCI’s usual asking price for the Worlds.

There is, however, no reduction in the sporting demands of the revamped Worlds. The mountainous Aigle-Martigny circuit had been trumpeted as one of the most onerous in living memory and the UCI insisted that the replacement would be of similar difficulty. The Imola course offers a different kind of challenge to Switzerland – steep, punchy hills rather than long climbs – but the statistics are equally daunting. The women’s road race packs 2,800m of climbing into 143km. The men’s event features 5,000m of total climbing across its 258.2km.

Every World Championships has a pre-race favourite, but few riders have been quite as heavily touted in recent years as Wout van Aert (Belgium), winner of Milan-San Remo and Strade Bianche in August and a remarkable all-terrain performer at the Tour de France. Perhaps not since Miguel Indurain in 1995 has one man been so highly fancied for both the road race and time trial.

In the women’s events, all eyes will again be on the Dutch team, who have produced the last three road world champions. Annemiek van Vleuten (Netherlands) is a doubt after breaking her wrist at the Giro Rosa, but with overall winner Anna van der Breggen and Marianne Vos on board, the Dutch have no shortage of options.

The programme and the route

The pared-back schedule sees just four races in four days, with the elite women’s time trial opening proceedings on Thursday before the elite men tackle the same 31.7km course the next day. The time trials are on a flat and fast parcours, with just 200 metres of total altitude gain and the winning average speed should be in excess of 50kph.

The road race course, by contrast, is a brute. The 28.8km circuit starts and finishes on the Enzo e Dino Ferrari automobile circuit, and it features two major difficulties – the climbs of Mazzolano (2.8km at an average gradient of 5.9 per cent, with maximum gradients of 13 per cent) and the Cima Gallisterna (2.7km at 6.4 per cent, with stretches at 14 per cent). The steep, 1.3km mid-section of the Cima Gallisterna has an average gradient of 10.9 per cent, while the summit comes 12km from the finish line.

“It’s not a route for climbers like in Martigny, it’s more suited to puncheurs who can climb,” French national coach Thomas Voeckler told L’Équipe last week, while his Italian counterpart Davide Cassani warned that there was precious little respite on the circuit. “Riders will need to cope with repeated efforts, there will not be much recovery between the two difficulties, and the second will be followed by three kilometres of descent on a winding road,” he said.

The elite women’s road race takes place on Saturday, with the elite men’s road race, as per tradition, bringing the curtain down on the Worlds on Sunday. Last year’s Yorkshire Worlds were rendered all the more difficult by weather conditions that turned from autumnal to wintry as the week progressed. The temperatures will be milder in Emilia-Romagna, but the forecast suggests rain for the men’s time trial and the weekend road races. It won’t make them any easier.

Imola last hosted the World Championships in 1968, when Keetie van Oosten-Hage won the women’s race and local favourite Vittorio Adorni soloed to victory in the men’s event, winning by 9:50, the largest margin in history. He had set off alone with 90km remaining and the efforts of a squadra azzurra that included Felice Gimondi, Vito Taccone and Michele Dancelli snuffed out a group of chasers that included the pre-race favourite, Adorni’s Faema teammate Eddy Merckx.

The circuit this week isn’t the same as in 1968 – the first 6km of this year’s course correspond with the final 6km from 52 years ago – but all events will start and finish on the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari. It will be the first time since Ponferrada in 2014 that the elite men’s road race will take place entirely on a circuit. A return to tradition in a year of improvisation.

The contenders

Wout van Aert’s recent sequence of success makes him the overwhelming favourite on a men’s road race parcours that seems tailored to his talents. Then again, on this form, the Belgian would probably be fancied on just about any route. The favourite’s tag is an unwieldy one at the Worlds, however, and the history of the event is littered with heavily marked men who missed out on the rainbow jersey. Van Aert’s Belgian teammate Greg Van Avermaet could stand to benefit if his teammate’s freedom is restricted.

A year ago, Julian Alaphilippe (France) was the man favoured in Yorkshire, but after a season of prodigious feats, fatigue had begun to tell by late September. This time out, despite a stage win and a stint in yellow at the Tour, he arrives at the Worlds rather less fancied, and perhaps all the more dangerous.

Fellow stage winners Michal Kwiatkowski (Poland), Marc Hirschi (Switzerland) and Alexey Lutsenko (Kazakhstan) also caught the eye at the Tour, while 2018 champion Alejandro Valverde (Spain) showed signs of improvement as the race progressed, as did Max Schachmann (Germany), who fractured a collarbone at Il Lombardia. A fit Dan Martin (Ireland) would be a contender on this course but it is still unclear how well he has recovered from breaking his sacrum before the Tour.

Tour winner Tadej Pogacar has confirmed his participation in the road race, while runner-up Primoz Roglic is also on the Slovenian team’s long list. For some, the Tour will have been the ideal preparation for the Worlds, but for others, this might be a race too far after the hardships of La Grande Boucle. Tom Dumoulin (Netherlands) was uncertain about his participation in Imola on Sunday, but he seems more likely to compete than not, as do Rigoberto Urán (Colombia), George Bennett (New Zealand) and Richie Porte (Australia).

The home challenge will be led by Vincenzo Nibali and Diego Ulissi, while Tom Pidcock lines out for the British team alongside Geraint Thomas. While the Tour has dominated thoughts in recent weeks, some contenders have been building their form elsewhere. Nobody – not even Van Aert – will want to come to the finish with Michael Matthews (Australia), while Jakob Fuglsang (Denmark) certainly has the aptitude for this tough parcours.

There are also some notable absentees. After a trying Tour de France, Peter Sagan (Slovakia) will miss the Worlds to rest ahead of the Giro, while Mathieu van der Poel (Netherlands) and reigning champion Mads Pedersen (Denmark) have also opted out, citing the demanding nature of the parcours.

In the elite men’s time trial, meanwhile, the contenders can be divided between those coming directly from the Tour – notably, Remo Cavagna (France), Kasper Asgreen (Denmark), Van Aert and Dumoulin – and those who have built specifically for this event, such as Victor Campenaerts (Beligum). Filippo Ganna (Italy) showed his hand with victory in the Tirreno-Adriatico time trial, European champion Stefan Küng (Switzerland) withdrew from the Tour to prepare for the Worlds, while reigning Rohan Dennis (Australia) will be eager to defend his title after just three outings in the rainbow skinsuit in 2020.

In the women’s road race, Annemiek van Vleuten’s injury means that the favourite’s participation is uncertain, but the Dutch squad still includes former world champions Marianne Vos, Chantal Van den Broek-Blaak and Anna van der Breggen. Vos notched up a hat-trick of Giro Rosa stage wins, while Van der Breggen took overall honours.

Katarzyna Niewiadoma (Poland) impressed in taking second overall at the Giro Rosa, while home challenger Elisa Longo Borghini (Italy) took third overall and claimed stage victory on the penultimate day. Others to showcase their pre-Worlds form at the Giro Rosa included Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio (South Africa) and Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig (Denmark).

Lizzie Deignan (Great Britain) scored fine victories at La Course and the GP Plouay in late August and went close at the Giro Rosa, where her teammate Lizzy Banks picked up a stage win. Mavi Garcia (Spain) was a battling second to Van Vleuten at Strade Bianche, where Leah Thomas (USA) also performed strongly. Thomas is joined in the American team here by Coryn Rivera and Chloé Dygert. Lisa Brennauer leads Germany’s challenge, while the Australian line-up includes Brodie Chapman and Lucie Kennedy.

In the women’s individual time trial, Dygert’s dearth of racing in 2020 will do little to diminish her status as favourite in the 31km test. It remains to be seen if Van Vleuten can line out, but the presence of Van der Breggen and Ellen van Dijk means that the defending champion can still expect a redoubtable Dutch challenge.

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