Sagan goes for historic hat-trick
Peter Sagan inevitably finds himself at the centre of attention in pretty much every race he takes part in, but the hype ahead of his appearance at the Worlds this weekend is even more intensified given the piece of history that is within his grasp.
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Were he to be victorious on Sunday, Sagan would become the fifth man in history (after Alfredo Binda, Rik Van Steenbergen, Eddy Merckx and Oscar Freire) to win three road World titles, and, in what would be an even more astonishing feat, the first ever to win three in a row.
His second season in the rainbow jersey hasn’t quite hit the heights that it did wearing it in his first season as world champion, with various factors going against him in the biggest races. He was narrowly edged out of a Milan-San Remo victory, crashed at a decisive point of the Tour of Flanders, and was kicked off the Tour de France having only had time to collect one stage win.
But in all of those cases his condition seemed as good as ever – if he gets his tactics right, and fortune smiles on him, we could be set for 12 more months with Sagan as world champion.
Sagan’s nemeses plot against him
The presence of Peter Sagan is enough to intimidate most riders – they refuse to work with him in breaks, anxiously chase down any of his attacks, and sometimes focus so much on neutralising his threat to the detriment of their own chances.
However, there are two riders who have over the years taken him on head-to-head and often come out on top, both of whom head to Bergen as among the favourites to prevent him winning a third title – Michal Kwiatkowski and Greg van Avermaet.
Kwiatkowski might not possess a sprint as naturally quick as Sagan’s, but he has a history of outsmarting the Slovak when the two reach the finishing stretch of big races together, having caught him off guard to win Strade Bianche in 2014 and E3 Harelbeke in 2016, and cannily sitting on his wheel at Milan-San Remo this year before pipping him to the line.
Van Avermaet also has a proven record of defeating Sagan in key races targeted by both, such as in the four cobbled Classics he swept up during the spring, and is supported by a very strong Belgian team (which includes the likes of Philippe Gilbert, Tim Wellens and Jasper Stuyven) that are capable of piling pressure on the defending champion.
Whether from an attack or even in a sprint, both riders are capable of defeating the favourite and winning the title for themselves.
The Netherlands’ formidable women’s team
Back when Marianne Vos was the supreme dominant force in women’s cycling, there was a clear hierarchy in the Dutch team come the World Championships that positioned her as the squad’s clear leader and everyone else in supporting roles.
The set-up was extraordinarily successful, with Vos amassing three gold medals and five silver medals between 2006-2013 in the elite road race.
Now, the Dutch team looks as strong as they’ve ever been, but to the extent that it is not obvious which rider should lead the line.
Anna van der Breggen is perhaps the best candidate, given her status as WorldTour and Olympic champion, but Annemiek Van Vleuten has been sensational in the past few months, and even Vos herself is on resurgent form having won the European Championships.
When you consider that the likes Lucinda Brand, Chantal Blaak and Ellen Van Dijk would command leadership roles if they were representing almost any other country, it will be fascinating to see how the Dutch team manages to balance all these stars – if coherent they’ll be near impossible to stop, but internal rivalry could lead instead to an almighty civil war.
Sprinters who can climb
Looking at the route, the formula for winning might be to protect a sprinter who can get over the climb and cope with the long distance (277km for the men, 152km for the women), and hoping they can deliver in a finish from a reduced bunch.
That looks likely to be the strategy in the women’s race of many of the nations plotting to stop the Dutch, including Belgium (through the on-form Jolien d’Hoore), USA (early season breakthrough Coryn Rivera), Italy (two-time former winner Giorgia Bronzini) and – now Chloe Hosking has been selected – Australia. Some riders competing for smaller nations, like Lotta Lepisto (Finland) and Christine Majerus (Luxembourg), will also fancy their chances in a sprint.
In the men’s race, Australia might possess the perfect rider for the route in Michael Matthews, while Colombia have assembled a star-studded line-up of what is arguably the nation’s nine best riders, who could possibly be all riding in support of sprinter Fernando Gaviria.
Host nation Norway have in Edvald Boasson Hagen and Alexander Kristoff two riders who could win from a reduced bunch finish, while traditional superpower Italy appear to be anticipating such a scenario by selecting Elia Viviani and Vuelta star Matteo Trentin.
Some, such as the women’s Polish team through Katarzyna Niewiadoma and the men’s French team through Julian Alaphilippe, will be more eager to attack, but, with so many teams invested in sprinters, it may be difficult for breaks to get away.
Lizzie Deignan battling against the odds
Usually Lizzie Deignan enters the Worlds road race as one of the major favourites, her attacking style always posing a severe threat to her rivals. Recent form had suggested that would again be the case this year, following second place at La Course and victory at GP Plouay – a race she last won in the build up to her world title in 2015.
However, the difference between now and then is that Deignan no longer has an appendix, following a bout of appendicitis that forced her to abandon Boels Rental Ladies Tour. The effects of the surgery will of course cast substantial doubts over her fitness heading into such a hotly contested event.
If she were to miss the race, it could be up to Hannah Barnes to lead the team, after she impressed so much earlier in the season, most notably at June’s Women’s Tour.
Whereas the women’s team might miss its major star, the British men’s team is missing all of theirs, with Chris Froome, Mark Cavendish, Geraint Thomas and the Yates brothers all absent.
Instead, Ben Swift looks set to enjoy protected status, while the likes of Ian Stannard and Peter Kennaugh may enjoy more freedom than normal.
There’s only one climb on the road race route devised by the organisers, but it looks tough enough to produce the kind of arduous, attritional, competitive racing associated with the World Championships.
Otherwise known as Mount Ulriken, it lasts 1.5km and averages 6.4 per cent, with the steeper slopes concentrated towards the beginning.
Crucially, though, it is situated 10km from the finish line, which could give ample time for any chasers to catch reel in the riders who will inevitably attack on the final lap.
The men will tackle the climb eleven times, and the women eight times.