The Ponferrada World Championships will come to a close with the Men’s Elite Road Race. Cycling’s biggest stars have been training and riding in tuneup races for some time now, but the weekend of the main event has arrived. With the rainbow jersey on the line and a parcours that should make for a wide open race, it looks set to be quite a showdown.
The Road Race takes place on an 18.2 kilometer circuit in and around Ponferrada, Spain. The peloton will complete 14 laps of the circuit, making for a total race distance of 254.8 kilometers.
Each lap involves a pair of climbs and also pair of tricky descents that, especially as the day nears its conclusion, are likely to see plenty of action from the more aggressive riders in the pack. First in the circuit is the Confederación climb, 5.2 kilometers at an average of 3.3%. Despite the low gradient, the ascent starts out with a few stretches that hit 8%. After the riders crest the climb, they will take on a very sharp descent. Then comes the Mirador climb, 1.1 kilometers at 5.5% but with two stretches (at the beginning of the climb and again near the top) of around 10%. Another descent follows, and the road doesn’t flatten out until there are less than 2 kilometers remaining before the finish line. The last few kilometers involve a few twists and turns, including a sharp right hander in the final 1000 meters.
There is a chance of rain in the forecast. If the conditions are poor, the technical downhills will get a lot more hectic, and what is already going to be a long day in the saddle will get a lot more uncomfortable.
A moderately challenging profile will become much more difficult as 14 laps are completed, but this is still a parcours that will appeal to those riders with a powerful kick. The Ponferrada circuit, much like a number of circuit races on the WorldTour calendar that have preceded it, has challenges to guarantee action before the finish while still allowing for a sprint as a likely outcome: the inclines never reach extreme gradients and the last kilometer is quite flat. Still, a lumpy journey of over 250 kilometers will greatly whittle down the pack, and a perfectly timed and determined escape attempt will have a chance at staying clear, and even if this does come down to a sprint, it will be a select group battling it out for the victory. As such, winning the rainbow jersey in 2014 will require decent climbing legs and the toughness to stay sharp after a long day in the saddle, and either the kick to outsprint the (likely somewhat reduced) peloton at the line, the power to get clear of the pack before the finish, or a blend of both, to stay with any late attackers and then outmatch them in a high-speed finale.
No other rider in attendance combines current form, a well-tailored skillset, and a powerful team quite as well as Simon Gerrans. He proved that he is in top shape by sweeping the Canadian GPs (his second victory, in Montreal, was particularly dominant), and with Milano-Sanremo and Liege-Bastogne-Liege on his career palmares, he is a proven contender in sprint finishes that follow difficult days in the saddle in even the biggest races. The climbs shouldn’t be a problem for the Australian, who also has the power to glue himself to any aggressive wheels should any late attacks look particularly dangerous. Holding out for the sprint has been his strategy in these sorts of races lately, but he is also an accomplished attacker himself. In any scenario, he is a threat, and he leads a very powerful squad. Teammate Michael Matthews is a deadly alternative, even faster in a sprint and also capable of handling a few climbs. Matthews, still just 24, does not have the same resume for the very long days (though he has thrived on the hillier profiles in his career, none of his big wins have come after this much distance) but he has shown remarkable versatility and shouldn’t be counted out given the likelihood of a sprint. With Cadel Evans, Rohan Dennis, Adam Hansen, and Heinrich Haussler also in attendance, the Australian squad is loaded for this World Championship Road Race.
As a reduced sprint does seem to be the most probable outcome, Peter Sagan is among the top favorites as well; no rider is as fast to the line after a hilly day as the 24-year-old Slovakian. When the Ponferrada Worlds circuit was revealed, Sagan was the first name that came to mind for many observers. However, form is a major question mark for the talented young rider, who has done little to prove himself in shape since his Tour de France. He has expressed his own doubts about his form in the media recently as well. It is that uncertainty that keeps him from being the top favorite. If he manages to marshal his ability by the time this race kicks off, however, or if this is all nothing more than a clever strategy to deflect attention from himself, Sagan will be very difficult to beat. It will be hard for anyone else who sprints as well as Peter Sagan to stick with the pack all the way through the 254.8 hilly kilometers to the line. He’s also a master escape artist, should the opportunity present itself to get away from the bunch. He leads a small team of only three riders, but this profile, which is less friendly to attackers than last year’s, somewhat downplays the importance of squadmates who might help chase down late moves.
Spain’s Alejandro Valverde will need for this to be a selective race if he wants a chance at taking the rainbow jersey, but several climber-oriented teams are here to help with that ambition. Valverde has a terrific kick and he should be in the mix if this comes down to a reduced sprint. In front of a Spanish crowd and aware that this may be his last chance at the World Championship, he’ll be highly motivated to perform. Daniel Moreno is another fast finisher for the home country, while Joaquim Rodriguez and Luis Leon Sanchez present yet more options to make this an aggressive event.
Poland’s Michal Kwiatkowski was among the Top 5 in all three of this year’s Ardennes Classics, showing his immense strength in the group finishes that come after long, bumpy days, but he’s also an elite solo artist and strong descender who could try to get away from the lead group in the final few kilometers if still contains a few of the purer sprinter types. An excellent Tour of Britain showed that he’s back on good form after a rough patch in the middle of the year. Strong seasons from a number of Polish riders guaranteed a large team for Poland in this race (which isn’t always the case), and that will boost Kwiatkowski’s chances.
Among the likeliest late escapees is Fabian Cancellara, who eschewed the Worlds ITT this year to focus solely on this opportunity to take the rainbow jersey. No rider on this startlist can get clear of a charging peloton quite like Spartacus, and a constantly improving finishing kick makes him all the more dangerous should he reach the line in a small group; he showed it when he won the 2014 Ronde in a high-speed four-man showdown. He was even 2nd in a bunch sprint finish in Milano-Sanremo this year, ahead of the likes of Mark Cavendish. After 250 kilometers, many riders will start to lose steam, but Cancellara is not as easily weakened by distance. That puts him among the very strongest favorites here, and while his best chance at winning seems to be an attempt at a late move, he’s a contender in any scenario. His descending abilities make him even more dangerous. Though only consisting of two other riders, his team has firepower: Michael Albasini has the climbing legs to make it over these inclines and a particularly impressive burst of speed at the end of a hilly parcours, making a very strong second.
Belgium has several cards to play for this circuit, and at least one of the squad’s many options should be in the mix for the podium. Greg Van Avermaet will almost certainly attempt to get clear alone or with a small group as the day nears its close, and with recent showings of good form, he is among the top favorites for victory at Worlds. He has had found it difficult so far in his career to turn near victories into actual wins on the biggest stages, but he has finished in the Top 7 in each his last four starts (with two victories), and should come into this race feeling confident. Former World Champions Philippe Gilbert and Tom Boonen haven’t shown quite the same strength recently as Van Avermaet, but both are specialists in selective one-day races. Sep Vanmarcke, though not as speedy at the line, is another strong rider after a tough day, and Jan Bakelants, Jelle Vanendert, and Tim Wellens are even further options.
Defending champion Rui Costa has a difficult task ahead of him. As an uphill specialist, Costa is not as well-suited to this parcours, which doesn’t have the gradients he’d prefer. Still, he’s a strong attacker with underrated punch, and he has a knack for being in the mix on a wide variety of profiles.
A repeat win won’t be easy, but Costa clearly has the form (he was runner-up in the GP Montreal) and plenty of motivation to prove that he has what it takes to continually contend for the rainbow jersey. Expect a strong performance from him.
France has a few strong options that seem to be flying a bit under the radar at the moment. Tony Gallopin has the skillset to thrive on the Ponferrada circuit: he is a quality sprinter (he charged to 3rd in the bunch finish in Montreal) and a particularly dangerous attacker on the hilly profiles. He took his two biggest career wins (San Sebastián in 2013 and a stage in the Tour de France) by soloing out of a small group and staying clear to the line. His versatility will allow him to be in the mix in several different race scenarios. Sylvain Chavanel is another rider who could feature in several different ways; he won in Plouay last month after escaping from a pack of sprinting hopefuls, and that may be exactly what’s on his mind here. Romain Bardet could also get involved, having shown some surprising ability in one-day races this year (in Liege-Bastogne-Liege and in Montreal). Nacer Bouhanni makes the start as well, hoping for a bigger bunch gallop. This circuit will greatly test his climbing legs, and he does not have much of a resume in races this long, but he showed improved uphill ability in the recent Vuelta, and it has increased his confidence in his ability to be involved in this sort of race. It would be a surprise if he held on all the way to the finish, but he’s among the fastest sprinters in this race, making him a favorite if he can hang on.
Perhaps a bit more likely to hang on for a potential sprint is Germany’s John Degenkolb, who has landed his biggest results by surviving difficult days to thrive in reduced sprints. His victories in Paris-Tours, the Vattenfall Cyclassics, and Gent-Wevelgem and most of his nine career Vuelta stage wins, as well as his runner-up performance in this year’s Paris-Roubaix, have come that way. His finishing kick has been stronger this year than it has ever been before, though he may have given up just a little bit of his uphill ability getting there; more worrisome for his chances, however, is his recent bout with illness. Degenkolb was recently hospitalized while fighting an infection that he picked up in the Vuelta, and that trip certainly wasn’t a welcome addition to his training schedule. If the form is there, he could contend for the victory, but it’s hard to say how strong he is right now. Andre Greipel makes the start as well, though he’s a long shot to make it to the finish; Simon Geschke, a specialist on the hilly days, may be a better bet to survive. Tony Martin is another elite rider who can’t be counted out when a profile offers opportunities for solo moves.
Alexander Kristoff will share John Degenkolb’s ambition of surviving the tough day for a sprint finish. He wasn’t much of a factor in Quebec or Montreal recently, but the Ponferrada circuit should be a bit less climber-oriented, and Kristoff also thrives on the very long days in the saddle, and the Worlds parcours always is a long one. He won’t have an easy time of holding out for a bunch finish, but it’s hard to imagine anyone beating him if he’s there. Edvald Boasson Hagen and Lars Petter Nordhaug are both strong alternatives on this profile.
Tom Dumoulin was a top performer in Canada, 2nd in Quebec and 6th in Montreal. He has carried top-notch form into Ponferrada, and it helped him reach the podium in the ITT championship, where he was not far behind Tony Martin and Bradley Wiggins. Dumoulin would prefer a course more favorable to attackers, but he is an excellent solo artist who will have a better chance than most at pulling off a late strike, and he has an ever-improving finishing sprint to help him outgun a select group should it come to that.
Teammate Tom-Jelte Slagter is well-suited to this parcours, and will be another strong option. Garmin was riding for Ramunas Navardauskas in Canada, but Slagter was 11th in Quebec and 12th in Montreal, suggesting that the form is there right now. With versatile Bauke Mollema, Wout Poels, Wilco Kelderman, and Pieter Weening all making the start as well, the Dutch squad may not have any one rider among the top few favorites for the race, but there is a lot of firepower here for a strong outside bid at the rainbow stripes.
The aforementioned Ramunas Navardauskas makes for a quality dark horse contender in this race, with just the right blend of climbing legs, attacking ability, and finishing kick to be dangerous on this profile. Ireland’s Dan Martin leads a small but capable squad, and the winner of last year’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege has both the form (which he proved with his first Grand Tour Top 10 in the Vuelta) and the skillset to make a challenge here. The Italian squad seems to be rallying behind Tour de France winner Vincenzo Nibali, who will hope to make an escape on the late climbs and then hold out on the last descent and final flat stretch; it may seem strange to mention the Italian team this late in the preview, but it’s hard to see their climber-centric squad selection as anything other than odd on this parcours. Daniele Bennati and Sonny Colbrelli could feature in a reduced sprint, while Alessandro De Marchi and Giovanni Visconti will be alternative options for a solo move. Unsurprisingly, Colombia also has a squad that will push for a very selective race, though it’s hard to name any one rider as their best hope; when at their best, Julian Arredondo, Carlos Betancur, and Rigoberto Uran all have the skillsets for this parcours, but none of them came out of the Vuelta on a particularly positive note. Zdenek Stybar of the Czech Republic, Denmark’s Matti Breschel, South Africa’s Daryl Impey, Russia’s Alexandr Kolobnev and Great Britain’s Ben Swift and Geraint Thomas are others on the list of potential protagonists on this parcours.
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Winner: Simon Gerrans
Podium: Peter Sagan, Fabian Cancellara
Other Top Contenders: Alejandro Valverde, Michal Kwiatkowski, Greg Van Avermaet, Tony Gallopin, John Degenkolb, Alexander Kristoff, Rui Costa
Be sure to follow @VeloHuman on Twitter for live analysis of the battle for the rainbow jersey! And stay tuned for post-race analysis and, of course, the preview of the season’s final Monument Classic, Il Lombardia.
Photos by Sean Rowe and Dane Cash.