The Main Event
The first few days of World Champs week have lived up to the hype; Tony Martin delivered back-to-back legendary performances in the team and individual time trials to kick things off in grand style. Now, the thrilling conclusion draws near.
For many of the biggest names in the sport, the post-Tour months have been all about tuning up. Whether in Spain or North America, in the final Grand Tour of the year or flying around urban circuits, riders have had an eye on Sunday’s main event. Every conversation predicting the Vuelta had to be framed in the context of preparation for Florence. The WorldTour’s stop visit to Canada garnered plenty of discussion about which one-day stars were in form for the real showdown at the World Champs.
The time for for tuning up is over. The rainbow jersey is up for grabs this weekend, and the competition is the most open in years. The nature of the course is such that nobody really knows for sure how the race will play out. The Florentine circuit race is an unmistakably up-and-down affair that will put the peloton through a seemingly never-ending series of climbs; but it will be repeated ascending of the same difficult but not overwhelming summits, without any one great climb that we can look to as the inevitable selection point. And the end of the run is flat, meaning that late breakers will not have an easy time staying away, and the winner will have to be rider with a very fast finish. Will the climbers be able to force the heavier riders out of the race? Will an attack go clear? And will a number of riders who might be favorites with the support of their trade teams have sufficient team backing with their national squads instead, especially against powerhouses like Spain and Italy?
The Road Ahead
One thing everyone can agree on about this profile: it’s grueling. This race will be won by a true hardman. 272.2 km of ascending and descending, and the favorites will face all the adversity that comes with every other rider on the road dreaming of this one day being his big day for a legendary winning move. The first half is not particularly challenging, a 100 kilometer prelude with a pair of climbs (Montecarlo and San Baronto) to put a bit of fatigue in the legs before the riders begin their ten laps around the Florence circuit. Every trip around town will include a climb up the Fiesole (4.4 km at 5.2%) and the short but steep Via Salviata (0.6 km at 10.2%), summited with 5 kilometers to go. There is also a bump in the road 3.5 kilometers from the end of the loop of less than a kilometer, but it’s got a section at 10%. Going up and down so many times adds up to quite a quantity of vertical meters; but it will have to be this repeated suffering that takes its toll, as a single climb up the Fiesole wouldn’t be particularly selective. More importantly, the top of the Fiesole is more than 10 km from the end, and the short Via Salviati and shorter mini-ramp a few km later are the only real lumps in an otherwise downhill or flat run-in. In other words, it will be a big challenge to attack on the climbs with so much space for the peloton to catch back up. With a flat finish, the winner will likely need a sprint.
And, of course, the weather will play it’s part. Riders who came to this event hoping for a nice weekend under the Tuscan sun will get a rude awakening: the forecast calls for some heavy rain. Anyone who gets away on a climb will have to stay away on a wet descent. With the pace as high as it will inevitably be, this one won’t be for the faint of heart.
So who will emerge from this slogfeset with the gold medal and the rainbow jersey? I won’t say it’s anyone’s game, but I do think the number of legitimate contenders is quite high. There are a few names, however, that I’m confident will be in the mix.
Chief among them for me has to be Peter Sagan. He really needs no introduction, especially if you’ve ever read a VeloHuman preview, so I’ll get to the specifics that make him tops. He won a difficult Gent-Wevelgem and came in second in the grueling Milano-San Remo and Tour of Flanders this year, but he also found himself on the podium in Amstel Gold last year, and atop it in the Grand Prix Cycliste de Montreal a few weeks ago. He has won back-to-back green jerseys in the Tour de France (which now weights flat stages more heavily than climbing stages), but he also won Stage 3 of the Tour de Suisse, cresting an Alpine summit with a who’s who of climber talent at his side. And if the conditions get bad on Sunday? I think the former junior cyclocross world championship silver medalist will be able to handle himself. He can sprint with the best, he can climb with the best, he can go long, and he can handle the bike with some serious dexterity, which is exactly the kind of versatility necessary to win this open race. He also willed Slovakia into six positions on the startlist basically on his own WorldTour points alone; it’s not nine, which is what his main rivals will have, but he will have help. The hardest test for the young superstar will be the length of the course, which will push him to his limit.
Oddsmakers see another very versatile star as the favorite, Switzerland’s Fabian Cancellara. If the World Championship ITT is any indication (and I think it probably is) Cancellara is one of the top 3 soloists in the world right now (and as a four time winner of that competition, I don’t think that was ever in doubt). He’s a masterful descender with a strong sprint. Rainy conditions won’t trouble the Paris-Roubaix winner. For Cancellara, as for the other hard-chargers, the question is the same: will they be able to survive the hills and constant uphill attacks? If Cancellara is there, surely he will be a favorite, but will the rider who has been a constant sight in many of the same races in which he’s starred be there as well? I’m not sure Cancellara will be able to be out-drag-race Sagan or the other two sprinting talents I think have a chance to make it (see blow), but after so many miles of racing, anything could happen, and Spartacus is one of the toughest riders in the sport. He also has a strong team behind him, with big names like Michael Albasini and rising star Mathias Frank.
A third versatile rider famous for his one day kicks is the man who currently wears the rainbow jersey: Philippe Gilbert. It’s been a very hard year for the Belgian star, who was held winless until the Vuelta a España, but he followed the same script last year on his way to the World Championship, and he sure looked fine there. Moreover, his constant misses shouldn’t be taken as signs of a total lack of form: he top 10ed in Amstel and Liege Bastogne Liege, came in second at Brabantse Pijl to Sagan, and notched second places in stages all over, from Paris-Nice to the Eneco Tour (which, in my opinion, he might have won or at least podiumed in had he not crashed out) to the Vuelta, where he lost out in a photo finish a few days before finally nabbing that elusive victory. Said win in the Vuelta was masterful, and it showed that he can sprint with the best riders out there: despite his disappointments, he looks to be very much on form right now. His career shows ample evidence of his ability to hang on over the tough climbs, and the Via Salviata looks to be exactly the sort of ascent the Boar of the Ardennes might jump out for glory on; however, I think this year’s Gilbert might be even more dangerous in a reduced sprint after a long day. He looked like he’d lost a bit of a step in the steep uphill finish game in the Ardennes this year, but his recent results show a formidable kick in a flat finish. I think he’s a great bet for a repeat of last year’s late season glory, one way or another.
The other elite-finisher-who-can-climb I’ll mention is Norway’s Edvald Boasson Hagen, 2nd in last year’s championship race. He won a stage at the Dauphine in June and cleaned up the less-competitive Glava Tour of Norway, but his Grand Tour experiences this year were defined by near misses: three 2nd places but no wins and only a broken shoulder (in France) to show for his efforts. Still, he’s one of the best climbing sprinters in the game, with endurance and the light frame to nab victories and podium finishes in a wide variety of one day events. His team support will be limited, and he’ll be pushed to the edge by the difficulty of the race, but if he’s there, he’s got the engine.
The peloton will be full of riders trying to use the ascents to drop these four and their ilk (though really, if it’s a bigger group at the finish, it’s these riders pretty well ahead of everyone else in that ilk my mind, which is why I only give their four names before getting into the climbier types). Spain, Great Britain, Italy, Australia, Colombia, the Netherlands, and France all have stacked squads to try to force this result. The Spanish Armada will sure look imposing out on the course: Alejandro Valverde looks like their best option for a select group at the finish, but Daniel Moreno has been absolutely on fire in 2013 (winning La Fleche Wallone as well as two stages of the Vuelta, where he was also a top 10 finisher), showing an elite kick. Depending on which rider is still there and whom this team decides to support, if a small bunch makes it a drag race to the finish, these two have the form and the ability to be in the mix, and it’s hard to see a scenario where at least one of them isn’t in the top 10, or even on the podium. Joaquim Rodriguez is surely eying a late climb to make a move, and former Olympic Gold medalist Samuel Sanchez could also play a part. Luis Leon Sanchez will enjoy the circuit’s similarity to the Clasica San Sebastian. And then there is Alberto Contador, who could try to go for a long one, knowing that he won’t be able to outsprint his rivals at the line.
If he does, Tour de France winner Chris Froome would love a partner: he’s focused on this race ever since his dominant win in Paris, but he knows he’ll have to use his elite TTing and climbing abilities to get away from the pack if he wants a shot at the rainbow. He’ll have quite a team to back him: Wiggins, Cavendish, Geraint Thomas, and Ian Stannard will work hard to keep him out of the wind until he decides to make his move. I don’t know if the course or the elements favor him, and he doesn’t have the one-day race resume that the other contenders have, but he showed in July that he’s one of the best cyclists on the planet.
A Grand Tour star who will love the forecast is home favorite Vincenzo Nibali. Like Froome and Contador, Nibali knows he’ll need to drop Valverde and Co. if he wants to win, but he’s a strong descender and doesn’t mind a little rain, and he’ll be riding in front of a home crowd. He may have been disappointed with his second place at the Vuelta, but 1st and 2nd in two Grand Tours in the same year is a pretty phenomenal feat, and Nibali has the all-rounder package to contend. He also has a team stacked with alternative options: Filippo Pozzato’s GP Ouest France win and GP Montreal top 10 mark a resurgence for him, and if he does reach the finish with the leaders, he’ll be able to duke it out with any of the remaining sprinters. Diego Ulissi was champing at the bit in the Vuelta and took a stirring victory in the Tour de Pologne in late July. Rinaldo Nocentini will appreciate the Ardennes-style climbs, Giovanni Visconti and Luca Paolini both showed incredible power with hilly stage wins in the Giro, Michele Scarponi can climb with the best, and even Ivan Santaromita was mixing it up on numerous Vuelta stages.
Colombia’s stable of climbers will look to join forces with these European stars to animate things on the ascents. Henao and Betancur (who was the talk of the town a few weeks back before he showed up the Vuelta and bombed) will probably be riding in support of Tour phenom Nairo Quintana and Giro surprise star Rigoberto Uran, who is probably the team’s best bet given his explosive talent. He enjoyed his autumn visit to Italy last year (where he won Gran Piemonte and took 3rd in Lombardy) and he’s likely to make a dent again this year. Quintana will need to get away on the climbs, as he is not known for his drag-racing ability, but he was riding aggressively in the Tour of Britain and will have plenty of company trying to get away.
Australia’s Cadel Evans has a surprising sprint and a strong team; it’s been all about form for him this year, and it’s not clear what kind of form he’s on right now (he was in the top 20 in both Canadian races but didn’t factor for the win), but a few years back he won the Amstel Gold Race and top 5ed at LBL that weekend. And the year before? He won the World Championship Road Race. The former rainbow wearer can’t be counted out. His teammate Richie Porte will look to outclimb the bunch, so don’t be surprised to see a repeat of the Tour de France, with Froome, Porte, Contador, and Quintana out ahead alone.
France and the Netherlands both have a number of quick-finishing climber types who have strong single-day resumes. France’s Tommy Voeckler leads a squad filled with mountain-stage-winning types who will be very aggressive: Christophe Riblon, Arthur Vichot (French champ this year and 2nd in Quebec), Warren Barguil (Vuelta star), Romain Bardet and Anthony Roux are all explosive and capable on the climbs. Pinot is probably the best pure climber on the squad. There are so strong riders on the team that at least one is likely to be in the mix at the end, and the way Vichot and Barguil have been riding, I have my eye on them most of all. The Dutch squad will wait to see which of their stars, Mollema or Gesink, is in the best shape at the end of the day: recent Vuelta stage winner and former points classification winner Bauke Mollema is sneaky fast at the line, and Robert Gesink just won the Grand Prix Cycliste Quebec by outsprinting none other than Peter Sagan after a long day in the saddle. Tom Jelte Slagter can finish hard, too, and the endurance-filled talent behind them (Dumoulin especially, as well as Langeveld, Kelderman, and Weening) will give Dutch fans confidence. It’s very hard to say whether the team backs Mollema or Gesink if they’re both there in a group finish, but I imagine one of the two will be in the top 10.
Michal Kwiatkowski has been somewhat M.I.A. in WorldTour leaderboards since the Tour, but the parcours is perfect for him. His form is an unknown, but he did crash while in Canada, making it difficult to declare him unfit; if he’s on his game, he’ll be hard to beat at the line, and he shouldn’t struggle with the climbs. He also has a surprisingly large team behind him that includes strong climbers like Rafal Majka, Pryzslaw Niemiec and Bartosz Huzarski. I’m hard-pressed to tab him for the top 10 based on his slew of DNFs and anonymous finishes these past few months, but I can also see him winning the race.
Obviously I can’t give a full rundown of every national squad, but there are a few non-Sagan and Gilbert (tragically, Belgium only has 7 riders here) contenders on the less-staffed teams who merit mention as either potential uphill attackers or versatile fast finishers. Gilbert’s teammates Jan Bakelants and Greg Van Avermaet are both quick to the line, should they still be around if their leader go missing in the finale. I suppose after routinely leaving him out of my Vuelta stage previews until the final week, Chris Horner deserves a mention; he’s certainly one of the best climbers in the world right now. Tejay van Garderen is another strong climber with a lot of soloing talent for a long breakaway. Andrew Talansky seems to be a support rider after a long season, and Taylor Phinney might not like all the climbing, but it’s a strong team. Zdenek Stybar is another late season star on a smaller squad: he showed in the Eneco Tour and Vuelta that he’s got an all-rounder package to rival the best of the best, with the ability to go for a long one, to make it up the punchy climbs, and to win a sprint to the line. As a former world CX champ, he won’t be bothered by the rain, either.
Finally, two of my top 10 favorites come from teams with just four and three riders, respectively: Ireland’s Dan Martin, Portugal’s Rui Costa. Martin had a boatload of early season success, winning the Volta a Catalunya and then one of the sport’s biggest events, Liege-Bastogne-Liege. He was looking good at the Tour de France before he got sick, and he was looking good at the Vuelta before he crashed out; in a way, maybe the lack of high mountain mileage will be good for him. His one-day climber’s resume (in addition to LBL, he was 4th, and milliseconds away from 3rd, at La Fleche Wallonne this year, top 10 in both last year, and a podium finisher in Lombardy in 2011) shows the explosive talent that could vaunt him over a late climb or prove useful in a reduced drag race. He has a small team, but Nicolas Roche is one of the best climbers in the business and a very capable teammate, and Martin showed in the spring how effectively he feeds off teammates in a one-day showdown.
Rui Costa has an even smaller squad of backers, but he is such a constant fixture in late season circuit races that I see him as a top challenger here. He’s been a winner in Montreal and on the podium in Quebec and Ouest France. He is known as a climber, but he’s got a strong soloing ability and has shown time and time again a very impressive ability to charge for the line. His aggressive riding netted him a pair of wins in the Tour de France this year on the heels of a Tour de Suisse win. Like Kwiatkowski, Moreno, Marin, and Valverde, if the climbing stars distance the Boasson Hagens and Cancellaras but reel in any late moves from Froome and Contador, Costa will be a favorite to outsprint the GC types. But even if Sagan is still there, I can see Costa on the podium, and he’s got the soloing skills to jump into a move if he sees it going places, too.
Other smaller team potential contenders include tough sprinters like John Degenkolb and Thor Hushovd (obviously big favorites if they make it to the finish, but that’s probably too much to ask), Lars Petter Nordhaug, Daryl Impey, Alexandr Kolobnev, Jakob Fuglsang, Matti Breschel, Maxim Iglinksiy, and Tanel Kangert.
After weeks of preparation, the riders finally get there shot at the rainbow on Sunday, and with the parcours and the quality of the field, you can guarantee a ferocious battle for the victory.
Alejandro Valverde, Philippe Gilbert
Fabian Cancellara, Rui Costa, Vincenzo Nibali, Daniel Martin, Daniel Moreno, Joaquim Rodriguez, Robert Gesink
Photos by Bruce Stokes and Michiel Jelijs.