Worlds’14: Men’s Pro Road Race Preview
Race Preview: The biggest one-day race of the year is Sunday in Ponferrada, and the winner will wear the Rainbow jersey for a year and put his name in the record books for eternity. Ed Hood gives us the pre-Worlds primer on the history, the course, and the contenders on his way to Spain.
There are some, including PEZ’s very own cycling sage, Viktor, who say that to have a world champion based on a one day race ‘isn’t correct,’ (as they say in Europe) and that the champion should be able to demonstrate his worth in a series of races over differing parcours.
It’s a proposition we’ve heard before – but the appeal of being, ‘King on the day’ endures and on Sunday, riders from 45 nations will line up in Ponferrada, Northern Spain to compete for the maillot arc-en-ciel, the ‘rainbow jersey’ and the right to be the most identifiable rider in the peloton for an entire year.
The concept was launched in 1927 at the Nurburgring motor racing circuit in Germany when Italian Campionissimo Alfredo Binda became the first professional champion of the world.
This Sunday’s edition will be number 81 and Binda’s name still figures as one of only four men to win the race on three occasions along with those of Belgians Rik Van Steenbergen and Eddy Merckx not to mention Spain’s own Oscar Freire. If we’re being churlish we could say that Merckx actually only ranks fourth to the other three; all having won a Worlds bronze to go with their gold medals – but let’s not go down that road.
Mention of Belgium reminds us that by nation they are the number one with 26 wins, 11 second places and 11 third spots, ahead of Italy on 19/20/16 and France 8/11/15. In all, riders from 14 nations have won the Worlds, including Ireland, Latvia and Norway – but never from big cycling nations Denmark, Russia or Poland.
Sticking with the stats, Spanish race favourite Alejandro Valverde is the ‘record man’ in terms of appearances on the podium with five – twice second and three times third. And the odds are against Portugal’s Rui Costa to defend his title, only five men have done that in nearly 90 years, with Italians Paolo Bettini and Gianni Bugno doing so in recent years.
The youngest ever champion was Belgian Karl Kaers at 20 years-of-age in 1934. But the late, great ‘Jempi’ Monsere won at just 21 in 1970 on a flat circuit in Leicester, England. Tragically, the charismatic and brilliant Monsere was to die with the rainbow jersey on his back less than a year later when in collision with a rogue car during a spring race in Belgium.
The oldest champion was Dutchman Joop Zoetemelk in 1985; he eased off the front as the favourites looked at each other and held out to become world champion at 38 years-of-age. And Italy’s Mario Cipollini was 35 when he triumphed at Zolder in 2002 for Italy.
The youngest rider in the 2014 race will be Cannondale’s former junior and reigning U23 champion, Matej Mohoric of Slovenia at 19 – based on ‘Joopie’ he could have another 20 attempts to win.
‘Father’ of the race will be Danish Tinkoff tough guy, Nicki Sorensen at 39 years-of-age. The parcours for this year drop the ‘dog leg’ ride to the circuit which has featured since Geelong in 2010 and we go back to old – and best – format of straight laps around a circuit.
On paper the profile doesn’t look too spiky but there’s a total of 4,200 metres of climbing which puts it on a par with a mountain stage in a Grand Tour.
Italian coach and ex-pro Davide Cassani has ridden the circuit and confirms what most pundits say in that it’s going to be just too difficult for the sprinters to hang in there but not so hard as to be for the ‘pure’ climbers. Whilst Cassani reckons that the two main descents on the circuit will facilitate recovery, by the end the sprinters will be ‘worn done’ – as we say in Scotland – and the final ascents of the circuit’s two climbs will see the real fast men back in the pits.
Consensus is that it’s for the ‘puncheurs’ – the strong, explosive riders who aren’t ultimately fast but who can breast the ‘medium’ climbs with the best – but there are maybe one or two sprinters who’d argue that point . . .
Which leads us to the 64,000 pesetas – sorry, Euros – question; ‘who’s gonna win?’
We must accord respect to the reigning champion, Rui Costa (Portugal & Lampre) who will not wish to let his rainbow bands slide without a fight. He started the season well and won his third straight Tour de Suisse – no mean feat and confirmation of his climbing prowess – but a bought of pneumonia ended his Tour de France and compromised his season.
However, a second spot in the recent GP Cycliste de Montreal tells us he’ll be one of the last men standing on Sunday.
Italian, Sonny Colbrelli may not be World Tour, he rides for Pro Continental squad Bardiani, but wins in the GP Prato and Memorial Pantani indicate that his progress up through the pro hierarchy is reaching a peak – don’t forget that he was top six in the Primavera. With Tour winner Nibali’s form perhaps in question, Colbrelli may well be Italy’s man?
Belgium has a strong squad with past champions Philippe Gilbert and Tom Boonen (respectively BMC and QuickStep) both ‘going well’ but that won’t be good enough on Sunday when they’ll be required to sparkle. Gilbert’s BMC team mate, Greg Van Avermaet has in the past few days won the GP Wallonie and GP Impanis and was second in Flanders – so he can handle the long hard grind, he’ll be there.
Viktor fancies another Belgian, 2013 Tour yellow jersey and Boonen teammate at QuickStep, Jan Bakelants. When it comes down to animal cunning, those Belgians are hard to beat and their squad could just be the one to win – providing they remember that the ‘bad guys’ wear a different jersey colour from their own and the petty politics and jealousies get left aside.
It’s nice to be able to talk about ‘French favourites,’ the perennial ‘Chava,’ Sylvain Chavanel (IAM) will be in the mix as a ‘puncher’ but it’s the nations sprinter; Nacer Bouhanni who could be of more interest. Bouhanni heads for Cofidis in 2015 after having said the wrong things about F des J main man, Marc Madiot in an interview. Hence the combative and rapid ex-boxer hasn’t raced since the Vuelta – Madiot refusing to select him for races, to chastise him. Bouhanni rode an excellent Giro and Vuelta with multiple stage wins in both – but it was the stages he didn’t win that raised eyebrows, top ten, right there with the hilltop finish specialists on more than one occasion. And he goes even faster when he gets mad . . .
Slovak, Peter Sagan (Cannondale) is a man we’ve come to expect so much of – but this year hasn’t been a diamond, despite his winning the green points jersey at le Tour. Perhaps too much mental energy went into the contract negotiations, which make him one of the highest paid riders in the world for season 2015. Or maybe it’s the worry of letting next year’s boss, Oleg Tinkov down? On form, this course was made for him, by late afternoon Sunday we’ll know if it’s all been a bluff and 2014 was all about Ponferrada?
A man who’s made no secret of his desire to win is Switzerland’s Fabian Cancellara (Trek). He was strong with a capital ‘S’ in the spring and was patently using the Vuelta for training; bestial in the TTT Worlds he can win solo or from a small group on raw strength.
Giant’s German, John Degenkolb was imperious in the Vuelta, taking out four stages but an infection from a crash in the Spanish war saw him hospitalized upon his return to the Fatherland. Will the enforced rest help or hinder? We’ll know on Sunday.
And whilst Thor Hushovd has recently ‘thrown a bag over it’ the man to take his mantle as Norway’s main man, Katusha’s Alex Kristoff has to be considered. Tough, fast and capable of getting over the climbs – he didn’t win Milan-Sanremo by accident and will be there on Sunday, especially if it rains, as is forecast.
Australia and in particular, GreenEDGE field a strong squad with two men who could be on the podium on Sunday; Michael Matthews, like Bouhanni, won Giro and Vuelta stages – and he can stay with and out sprint the best when Sir Isaac Newton’s famous discovery is causing problems for the other flyers. Whether he has the grinta for the last lap’s demonic purge we’ve yet to discover.
But the Antipodes heaviest weapon is that small but perfectly formed man, Simon Gerrans. An excellent early season, including a Liege-Bastogne-Liege win was followed by a disastrous Tour de France when Mark Cavendish and the Australian both found out how hard English tarmac is.
But Gerrans was in imperious form for the Montreal and Quebec World Tour races – winning both with what looked like ease. Some say he’s showing his hand too early – but when the late moves go on Sunday you can either follow or you can’t. Gerrans will be there and Belgium and QuickStep’s Serge Pauwels, who was in Canada, tells us that he’ll be surprised if anyone can beat Gerrans.
Last and by no means least, home favourite and skilled Worlds practitioner, Alejandro Valverde. Fourth in le Tour, the ‘Telephone Squad’ man looked shattered by the end but the next weekend he won in San Sebastian. He was excellent in the Vuelta and again made the podium – he can climb, sprint and is as sly a fox as you’ll find on the Iberian Peninsula. It could just be his year.
For us it’s between him and Gerrans.
PEZ will be roadside for the duration; San Miguel is our recommended TV race watching brew – but if you start to flag with all that sofa stress then try a large splash of Veterano brandy in your coffee, that should do the trick.
• See Steephill.tv for the live coverage near you.
It was November 2005 when Ed Hood first penned a piece for PEZ, on US legend Mike Neel. Since then he’s covered all of the Grand Tours and Monuments for PEZ and has an article count in excess of 1,100 in the archive. He was a Scottish champion cyclist himself – many years and kilograms ago – and still owns a Klein Attitude, Dura Ace carbon Giant and a Fixie. He and fellow Scot and PEZ contributor Martin Williamson run the Scottish site www.veloveritas.co.uk where more of his musings on our sport can be found.