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PEZ Previews: Sunday, The Big Day

We’re still well in the midst of World Championships week, but if I mention the Big Day, there’s only one day I could be talking about: Sunday. All of the other races are important, but nothing holds a candle to the main event on Sunday. PEZ takes a look at the names and teams to watch and makes a game effort at picking the podium. Read on!

We still have two great races to go before Sunday’s big meal, but after yesterday’s time trial concluded, I have to admit my attention started focusing a few days on down the line. I like to start my previews with my favorite, and I don’t think there’s too far to look when searching for my favorite on Sunday – Fabian Cancellara.

Cancellara is obviously going very, very well. On the time trial bike, he’s unstoppable; on a road bike, he looks to be going at least comparable to what we saw at a few significant instances in the past year or so: let’s say the Tour de Suisse or the Olympic Road Race. Cancellara can go uphill mighty quickly when he’s on and when he wants to and needs to. Cancellara is a poster child for that oft-used sports phrase: Big time players make big time plays. At home and with utter confidence in his abilities, I think Cancellara is going to give the two odds-on favorites something to think about.

One of the biggest issues in picking a favorite for this race is finishing speed and/or ability to get away, Cancellara has both. He’s not your typical quick finisher by any means, but at the end of an insanely hard and long day in the saddle, he has a knack for moving very quickly in the direction of the finish line…and that’s only applicable if he’s not away solo already (which, if he wins on Sunday, he most likely will be).

Moving on from the Swiss homeboy favorite, I’m going to take dead aim at the two dominant countries in the world of cycling today: Spain and Italy. Both squads are truly All-Star teams. Many countries are happy if they have one rider in with a chance on Sunday, both Spain and Italy have at least 4 riders in with legitimate chances come the final hour. The two countries’ dominance will demand much responsibility come Sunday. All eyes will turn to Spain and Italy to take the reins of the race and dictate the proceedings. Italy has been more than happy to take on the burden in recent years, and they’ve done it to great effect, taking the last three editions.

I could just list favorites willy nilly, but I think the team element, especially for Spain and Italy is of vital importance. Obviously, headlining the Spanish National squad is Alejandro Valverde. Valverde is fresh off his inaugural Grand Tour victory, he’s flying high, and most of all, he’s allowed to race. Valverde has been on the podium on more than one occasion, and he’s a fair bet in the finale.

Many will put Cunego as #1, but if it comes down to an all-star sprint with the best of the best coming to the line, I think it will be hard to beat the fast finishing Valverde. If my ‘underdog’ Cancellara can’t pull it off solo (Cancellara an underdog? Ha), I think the Green Bullet will be stepping up to the top step of the podium…to the distinct horror of the UCI.

Along with Valverde, there’s another rider who has a habit of getting things just right on the right day: Sammy Sanchez. Sammy hasn’t gotten it right too many times, but he does have that win in Beijing to his credit. It came at the end of a fantastic Spanish team effort, it came when Sanchez’ mercurial form was right on point. We can be assured of a solid Spanish effort, and there’s no doubting Sammy’s form following his 2nd at the Vuelta. Yet another arrow in the quiver for Spain.

Speaking of riders who get it right on the right day, no one in recent history has done it better than one, Oscar Freire. Oscarito has three World Championship titles to his credit, and he’s looking to add one more to his collection before calling it a career. Freire has been relatively quiet of late, but he has been solid. It’s not too often that Freire is bowling you over with his amazing form though.

Oscar Freire took his first World title in Verona exactly ten years ago: 1999.

He always seems to keep it at a low boil, and then somehow, the boil rolls, then explodes on a very particular late September, early October day. When it comes to sprinting at the end of very hard races, namely World Championship races, there’s not a soul on the planet that’s faster. Not even you, Alejandro Valverde.

And finally, the Wild Card: Joaquim Rodriguez. Rodriguez will most likely not get a chance to play his own hand, but he has every bit of the talent and abilities to win the race. I think taking the podium at Liege-Bastogne-Liege is a pretty fair indicator that someone has hard Classic credentials. Don’t you?

Italy has had a tremendous run of it over the past few years, but as with all streaks, they’re bound to come to an end. I think the Spaniards have a solid shot at upsetting the Italian boat.

Then again, look at the favorites from…

It almost seems wrong to give them nine riders. Franco Ballerini’s Nine will be searching for their fourth win in a row, and they’ll be headlined by none other than Damiano Cunego.

Damiano Cunego looks to be headed down a path remarkably similar to Paolo Bettini. Cunego is a man for the one day races. He can climb with anyone in a one day race, and he most certainly can sprint with the best. He’s flying after two stages at the Vuelta, and he has the support of the Italian team.

Stefano Garzelli wasn’t snubbed this year. He’ll be a vital component of the Italian squad, and could very well win a small group sprint if the opportunity presented itself.

The only problem is that he’s the big favorite. Along with Alejandro Valverde, his leash will be about two and a half centimeters long – if he’s going to win, he’ll either need to break the backs of his opponents and ride away (unlikely), or take a small group sprint (more more likely). The only problem for Cunego is that his sprint isn’t quite what say, Valverde or Freire’s is. It’s great, it wins lots of bike races, but…

That ‘but’ is a very important ‘but’.

Never fear, Damiano! There are other possibilities within your own team. I’m surprised that there hasn’t been more talk of him, but I think Filippo Pozzato is a damn fine pick for Sunday. Pippo has the big race credentials, he can get over most any climb you throw his way (whether it be cobbled or otherwise), and he sure as hell can sprint.

I’d hazard a guess that he’s one of the few riders that Tom Boonen would be nervous about in a finale. And for good reason. I don’t think Pippo will necessarily win, but I do see this race as a stepping stone for Pozzato in his journey upward into the heights of a rider able to be competitive from January to October.

Cunego and Pozzato by themselves are a huge pair. What happens when you toss in the likes of Ivan Basso, Giovanni Visconti, and the outgoing World Champion, Alessandro Ballan? Yep, that’s pretty solid. Basso will certainly not win this race in a sprint, but he’ll most likely be a huge asset to the team, and could be a potent weapon himself in the right condition. Visconti, on the other hand, is fire hot in a sprint. He has hit a purple streak over the second half of the season, and Paolo Bettini’s protege looks to be

Is it bad that I still haven’t really mentioned Alessandro Ballan? I can’t help it. He has had a dismal season in the Arc en Ciel – not that it was his fault. Sickness laid waste to the better half of the season and left him playing catch up over the Summer. He’s going well now, but a second victory by Ballan would be surprising.

Whew, now that we have the two juggernauts done, we can move into the smaller pics. Can you call Philippe Gilbert a smaller pick?

I don’t know about you, but two names come very much to mind on this course from Belgium: Philippe Gilbert and Nick Nuyens. Gilbert has had a solid season, numerous podiums in big races, but hasn’t pulled in those grand, swashbuckling wins. Methinks there are many of those to come, but Sunday’s race could be just the opportunity for Gilbert.

The same can be said for Nick Nuyens. It’s apparent that he has the potential to win big races, it just doesn’t seem to be happening at this point. Rabobank has a habit of doing that to non-Dutch riders sometimes. Nuyens, even in spite himself, manage to win what must be his favorite race, the GP Wallonie: a hard, one day semi-classic. Will we get a surprise performance from Nuyens?

Of course, I would be utterly remiss not to mention Tom Boonen’s name in this preview. Many will think that this course is too much for Tommeke, but I don’t think he races Worlds for his health. He reconnoitered the route back in the Spring and made the decision to race because he thought he’d be competitive. Boonen was in a solid spot last year in Varese. There’s no reason to think Boonen can’t endure a tough race and be a factor in the finale. I mean, if Pippo and Cancellara can do it – why not Boonen?

Australia’s nine is a damn fine one. It will be headed up by the likes of Simon Gerrans, Cadel Evans, and Allan Davis. All three should enjoy the difficult course around Mendrisio, with Gerrans and Davis being solid bets in a sprint. Evans will need some good fortune or a massive effort to get in a small enough group to give him a chance at winning (most likely, that will be a group of just one).

Simon Gerrans: a damn fine pick for the podium.

Cadel Evans is in fine form. He had a shot at the Vuelta overall if not for the infamous wheel change debacle. He has a bone to pick with this season, and he’s close to home. Watch out for Evans.

The Other Countries
Now comes the fun part: the numerous other riders from the non-dominant teams. I see four teams as wholly capable of dictating the race on Sunday: Spain, Italy, Belgium, and Australia. After that, I think most of the countries will be looking to the Big Four for inspiration.

That doesn’t mean the World Champion won’t come from a less powerful team.

The Dutch squad will be solid, but they won’t be race deciders. If Robert Gesink has recovered from his Vuelta injuries, he will be a factor at some point. Maybe he can get away with Ivan Basso and Cadel Evans. That might be one of the more thrilling sprint combinations I could think of.

This sure is becoming an unwieldy, epic preview, isn’t it? For the sake of diminishing attention spans, we’ll move to pictorial with brief commentary to round out the rest of this, sound good? Great.

He shouldn’t be this far down the article. Edvald Boasson Hagen can be seen as a real favorite for Sunday. He can climb, he can sprint, the only question is how he’ll go in the final hour.

Another name that shouldn’t be this far down the list: Andy Schleck. What was I supposed to do, sandwich him between Spain and Italy? If this were a bit earlier in the year, I’d say Schleck would be a big favorite, but I don’t get the impression he’s operating on all cylinders anymore. It has been a long, great year for Andy Schleck. Worlds might be a bit too much to wish for. I suspect he’ll get it one day though.

Alexander Kolobnev has had a relatively quiet season, but he’s a rider made for Worlds – strong, climbs well, sprints well. He has made the podium at both the Olympics and Worlds. Looks like a good dark horse to me.

Alexander Vinokourov will not win. I think he could definitely animate the proceedings. This being Vino though, even if you hate him now, he has a scary penchant of riding away to victory after attacking when everyone thought they were going to fall off their bikes. That could have been related to his special blood, or I could let myself be naive again and just think that he’s just that tough.

I have to say it, Matti Breschel, is an awesome bike racer. I think he has what it takes to win the Worlds at some point. It might not be this year or next, but he’s the complete package. Look for him to be Top 5, mixing it up for the win.

My Picks
I’ve said that a lot of people have good chances, or will be there in the finale, but I haven’t actually made any picks. Here goes: I’m taking Fabian Cancellara in a small move over the top of the final climb.

1. Fabian Cancellara
2. Alejandro Valverde
3. Damiano Cunego

Valverde will lead the frustrated chasers home after a concerted effort by either Italy or Spain failed to make a dent in Fabian Cancellara’s nuclear powered final few kilometers.

Don’t Take My Word For It
The guys at Unibet.com get paid to do this stuff, so I figure their odds are a good place to get an idea of the contenders:

Cunego 5.50
Valverde 7.50
Cancellara 8.00
Hagen 10.00
Gilbert 11.00
Sammy 12.00
Andy 18.00
Ballan 20.00
Pippo 22.00
Freire 22.00
Kolobnev 25.00
Evans 25.00
Rodriguez 28.00
Boonen 28.00
Ivanov 30.00
Gerrans 30.00
Vino 35.00
Breschel 35.00
Wegmann 35.00
Kirchen 40.00
Garzelli 45.00
Chavanel 45.00
Nuyens 45.00
Hushovd 50.00
Basso 50.00
Kroon 65.00
Gesink 65.00
Millar 175.00

Questions? Comments? Happy? Sad? Send me an email.

There’s always the trusty JeredGruber.com if you ever get really bored.

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