World Champs men’s road race: The Big Preview

Where and when
When: 10.00-17.00 Sunday, September 23, 2012 (UK time)
Where: Maastricht to Valkenburg, Limburg, The Netherlands.
Coverage: Live TV coverage on British Eurosport from 09.15, highlights at 23.15. (UK time)

The main event of the World Championships will as ever be the men’s road race. After last year’s flatter parcours, big climbs are back on the agenda in Valkenburg, meaning we can expect a more fractured race.

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The route heavily resembles the Amstel Gold classic, initially passing through several hills in the Limburg region before reaching Valkenburg for a 16.5 kilometre circuit. The peloton will tackle this circuit, which features the 900 metre Bemelberg accent as well as the famous Cauberg, a total of ten times in what will be a brutal test of attrition.

The last few laps ought to play host to relentless attacking as climbers will attempt to drop sprinters and opportunists seek to force a selection.

What shape the race will take is likely to rest on how the peloton deals with Peter Sagan. The 22-year-old was in a league of his own on uphill finishes at the Tour, so if he is in the lead group at the foot of the Cauberg, a climb perfectly suited to his attributes and situated just a few kilometres from the finish, it’s difficult to see him missing out.

As a result, other teams will be keen to get riders in breaks, and unlike last year’s edition where the race’s leading sprinter Mark Cavendish had a very strong squad to control the situation, Sagan has to rely on a weak Slovakian team that will need help from other nations.

What we’re left with, then, is an unpredictable race that could turn out to be anything from a sprint finish, a successful selection of elite riders or an early break of outsiders that the peloton fails to reel in. Either way, we’re in for an exciting Sunday in Valkenburg!

Ones to Watch

Philippe Gilbert, 30, Belgium

Last winter, Philippe Gilbert looked nailed on to win the hilly Valkenburg Worlds on the back of a season of unprecedented success in the classics. But this year his unbeatable status has been diminished, the Walloon looking a shadow of his former self and without a win in the opening eight months of the season.

Gilbert finally claimed that elusive victory in an uphill finish on stage nine of the Vuelta, then triumphed again in similar circumstances in stage 19. This return to form comes at an ideal time for Gilbert, for whom the World Championships is one of the major races missing on his palmarès.

With his aggressive style you can expect him to take the race to his opponents, and as a double champion of Amstel Gold will be the man most likely to cross the line first.

Peter Sagan, 22, Slovakia

Slovakian Sagan is currently in the process of upgrading from cycling’s next big thing to cycling’s current big thing, following his remarkable achievements at the Tour where he won three stages and the green jersey.

For all his successes he is in fact yet to take a classic, just falling short in Milan-San-Remo, Gent-Wevelgem, the Tour of Flanders and Amstel Gold. But this can hardly be considered a criticism for someone only 22!

He does however find himself with one major problem: his team. Although he’ll have Peter and Martin Velits to offer him assistance, the Slovakian line-up is lacking the caliber of riders that Sagan will need to protect himself from attacks. That said, his talent is such that he may be able to fend for himself and make it to the foot of the Cauberg in the leading group, from where he would be very difficult to beat.

Simon Gerrans, 32, Australia

Gerrans is exactly the kind of rider who could flourish in the tactical minefield that is the world championships.

His canny riding saw him claim his biggest win to date this spring in Milan-San-Remo, where he played Vincenzo Nibali and Fabian Cancellara like fiddles down the Poggio and on the Via Roma, and, on the basis of his current form, could follow in Cadel Evans’ footsteps to become the second man from the southern hemisphere to be crowned world champion.

John Degenkolb, 23, Germany

Degenkolb, already a silver and bronze medalist at under 23 level, announced himself as one of the world’s leading sprinters at the Vuelta five stage wins, and will now lead the German team as a genuine candidate.

Significantly, his talents expand way beyond just sprinting; at the Vuelta he proved he can get over hills, and a fifth in Milan-San-Remo proves he can maintain his strength well over 250 kilometres. As one of a select few who can match Sagan in the sprint, the German youngster cannot be written off.

Vincenzo Nibali, 27, Italy

Italian Nibali is having a season of near misses; he lost out on wins in the closing stages in both Milan-San-Remo and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and had no answer to Sky’s formidable Wiggins-Froome duo at the Tour.

As an ambitious, attacking rider we can expect the Italian leader to put in strong attacks, and the hilly profile offers several chances to do so. His rivals can ill afford to let ‘The shark’ escape up the road.

Edvald Boasson Hagen, 25, Norway

Before Peter Sagan’s extraordinary arrival, Boasson Hagen was the peloton’s main emerging talent, and indeed the Norwegian was in Sagan’s shadow at the Tour as he twice finished just behind him in hilltop finales.

A recent win at the GP Ouest-France suggests Boasson Hagen has the form to upstage the Slovakian, and he possesses the right combination of climbing legs and quick sprint to win in Valkenburg.

Tom Boonen, 31, Belgium

At the spring classics earlier this season Boonen was virtually invincible, and following a quieter summer his next major goal is the worlds.

Gilbert would appear to be Belgium’s main card so Boonen will not be the team’s protected rider, but in the event that no breaks succeed the 2005 champion will be a threat.

Joaquin Rodriguez, 33, Spain

In a team full of talent, Rodriguez could well be Spain’s best hope of success.

With fellow climbers Alberto Contador, Samuel Sanchez and Daniel Moreno lining up too, the Spaniards ought to animate the race with frequent attacks, but Rodriguez has proven himself to be the superior uphill sprinter. He may however find the Cauberg not steep enough for his liking, and that his legs are tired from the Vuelta.

Oscar Freire, 36, Spain

Aside from all their climbers, Spain as always have the Oscar Freire card to play. The veteran has for years been trying to add to his three world titles, and should not be written off.

His ride in this year’s Amstel Gold, where he attacked with seven kilometers to go and very nearly held on until the finish, suggests he will be in the mix.

Thomas Voeckler, 33, France

In a race that may suit ambitious long breaks, there’s a chance that the charismatic Voeckler will pull off a surprise victory akin to his impressive win at Brabantse Pijl this year, where he pulled off a successful 50 kilometre solo break.

Lining up with the full roster of nine riders for the first time in four years France are reemerging as a force in world cycling, but to win Voeckler will have to hope for tactical lapses from the major favourites, and for sprinters to be well out of sight.

British Interest
Mark Cavendish will be lining up to nominally defend his world title, however the course that contains far too many hill for the Manxman to likely be a factor.

With his explosive climbing style, Chris Froome is on paper the team’s most ideally suited rider for the race, however he looked exhausted at the end of the recent Vuelta a Espana and also has the time trial to prepare for.

Bradley Wiggins is announced as starting, but given a stomach bug and the fact he appears to be winding down his season, is unlikely to be involved at the head of the action. Ian Stannard has done an excellent job as domestique for Team Sky all season and could produce a strong ride if given the opportunity, but doesn’t quite posses the class to compete with the very best.

Great Britain’s most intriguing prospect is Jonathan Tiernan-Locke. Locke won the Tour of Britain this week with a series of commanding displays in the hills on the kind of terrain that will feature in Valkenbug. The Worlds, however, is a huge step up for 27-year-old, who rides for a second tier UCI Continental team and as such lacks experience in such long courses and against the best riders in the peloton. It will be interesting to see how well the Endura rider manages to cope.

Related links

Road World Championships 2012: Coverage index

Rider profiles: index