After years of planning the UCI Road World Championships have finally arrived on Australian shores and the local team goes into the event as one of the favourites. They won't have it all their own way however, with some of the finest riders making the trip 'Down Under' for a shot at rainbow glory.
The offerings for both time trials and road races are intriguing, with surprisingly tough courses and quality fields in both the men's and women's categories. Cyclingnews takes a look at what to expect in Geelong from September 29 to October 3.
The obvious candidate for another gold in the elite men's time trial is Fabian Cancellara. The Suisse has enjoyed another stellar season in 2010 with a Paris-Roubaix title to go with the Tour of Flanders crown he took in the same week for an incredible Spring performance.
There's one main climb to the top of Scenic Rd that he'll have to contend with, although topping out at just 120m it shouldn't trouble him too much. His biggest rival is likely to come in the form of young German Tony Martin, who has also enjoyed a solid 2010 and said after the Eneco Tour last month: "The world time trial championships are my big objective for the end of the season even if I know that [Fabian] Cancellara is almost unbeatable. But if I'm having a good day, and he a less good [day], why not dream of a world title?"
Cancellara will also ride the road race for Switzerland and is a strong contender despite all the talk of punchy climbers ruling the day. Remember 'the decisive move' late in last year's elite men's road race in Mendrisio? It was the man they call Spartacus making the play. A big double in Australia is well within his reach.
The elite women's time trial world title has been dominated by the American women in recent years, with Kristin Armstrong taking gold last year and in Salzburg, Austria, in 2006, while fellow American Amber Neben sealed the deal in Varese, Italy in 2008. Both women finished in the top four in Stuttgart, Germany, in 2007.
Armstrong has since retired and at 36 Neben is now in the twilight of her career, so the field is very open in Geelong. Local lass Vicki Whitelaw could be a chance, although fellow Australian Ruth Corset, who recently took out the time trial at the Tour Cycliste Féminin International de l'Ardèche, won't be doing the race against the clock.
It also leaves the door open for Germany's Charlotte Becker, who will ride the road race and time trial and was selected over 2007 world champion in the event, Hanka Kupfernagel. She has enjoyed a solid season for the Cervélo TestTeam and could well be a dark horse for a medal in Australia.
In the women's field, it could come down to a battle of four squads: Australia, Italy, Holland and Germany. The local ladies have some form riders, with former triathlete Carla Ryan recently winning the final stage of the Tour Cycliste Féminin International de l'Ardèche in convincing fashion.
She has spent the past few years developing as a racer and has excelled as part of the Cervélo TestTeam women's outfit this year; in Geelong she will be part of a strong team that includes the aforementioned Whitelaw, Corset, Oceania road race champion Bridie O'Donnell and Tiffany Cromwell.
The Germans possess an intimidating lineup that includes no less than three HTC-Columbia riders and three Cervélo squad members. With the evergreen Judith Arndt and Ina-Yoko Teutenberg spearheading the attack, Becker, Sarah Düster, Claudia Häusler, Luise Keller and Trixi Worrack will provide excellent support.
They'll also be up against Marianne Vos and the Dutch women, including Annemiek Van Vleuten, who won the Route de France earlier this year in what has been a breakout season for her. The women's event promises to be one of the most intriguing in years, with no clear favourite and plenty of in-form riders up to the challenge.
The elite men will undertake a windswept run south from Melbourne to the port city of Geelong for the opening 83 km of their race. Cycling Australia's high performance manager Shayne Bannan believes that "the first 83km may or may not play a significant role in the actual race - if it is windy, drizzly conditions then it could be similar to the first 100km of a Dutch or Belgian Classic.
"The total ascending of the course is 3,076m - in comparison with other courses, if we look at Mendrisio last year, it had a total climbing meterage of 4,655m. There's about 1,400m difference if you're looking at rating the course. This course is probably a little more difficult than Madrid, so it's around a Stuttgart or Salzburg-type of course.
"The difference - and this is where it could play a significant role in how the course is raced - is that the climbing is in the last 180km as opposed to 3,076m being spread over the 260km distance. Therefore, the type of rider we were looking for is someone who would be quite successful in the Ardennes Classics."
Consequently, Phillipe Gilbert has been labelled the man to watch, given his stage-winning form at the Vuelta a España, the recent withdrawal of Spanish rider Joaquin Rodriguez and the Belgian's propensity to perform well in April's energy-sapping Classics in southern Belgium and Holland.
It also explains why the home nation's selectors chose reigning world champion Cadel Evans and Simon Gerrans to lead the squad, with Allan Davis and Matt Goss waiting in the wings should a bunch sprint be the eventuality at the end of 260km.
But of that possibility, Italian national team manager Paolo Bettini said earlier this year: "I don't think it is a good fit for sprinters. It could be that a sprinter would win, but it will be a sprinter that has a lot of resistance in the harder parts of the course.
"It is a course, especially for the winner, that requires a lot of stress." He should know - he won two consecutive world titles on courses that were similar to what's on offer in Geelong.
That said, the man who finished fourth behind Bettini in 2007, Fränk Schleck, must surely go into the race as an outside chance for the win although his younger brother Andy, runner up in this year's Tour de France, has opted out of riding the world championships.
And whilst Andy was sent home from Vuelta for his late-night drinking trip with another Worlds rider, Stuart O'Grady, Fränk should be bringing strong form into the world titles as he's developing optimal conditioning during the three weeks of the year's final grand tour.
He'll have Italian Filippo Pozzato and Russia's Alexandr Kolobnev to contend with, the latter a narrow runner up to Bettini in 2007 and always a chance on a hilly circuit suited to powerful rather than pure climbers. Pozzato is very motivated for the challenge in Australia and recently said on his Cyclingnews blog that he'd love to swap his normal Katusha jersey for one bearing rainbow stripes. He rode the course with Bettini and Giovanni Visconti in July and has a little insider's knowledge already.
Of the sprinters, Oscar Freire is potentially the best-equipped to deal with the climbing on offer. "Definitely he [Freire] is a person we need to be careful of," said Bettini. The veteran Spaniard is the back-up plan should the likes of Rodriguez falter or be discounted due to a bunch kick prevailing.
There's also the aforementioned Davis for the home team, in addition to Great Britain's Mark Cavendish, who will be out to prove the doubters wrong and show that he can handle the tough Geelong circuit en route to a possible Worlds win.
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