World Championships 2015: Road Race Preview

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The Richmond World Championships week concludes with the elite men’s road race, which will decide who earns the right to rainbow stripes for the next 12 months. It’s been a long stretch of post-Tour of tune-up races, but it’s time for the international peloton to put it on the line in the fight for cycling’s biggest one-day prize.

The Route

The men’s elite road race runs 261.4 kilometers in total. Starting just outside town at the University of Richmond, the peloton will roll into a road circuit of 16.2km, completing a slightly reduced lap on the way to the first passing of the line then, and then riding 15 more to the race finish.

Road-Circuit-Elevation-Map

The circuit starts out fast, with mostly flat or downhill roads, but things get both lumpy and technical in the final few kilometers. There are three climbs to speak of that will likely spur plenty of action late in the race, with plenty of twists and turns thrown in along the way to give the attackers a hand in escape attempts. First up is the cobbled Libby Hill climb, 200 meters at about 8%. Then comes a short flat stretch and a fast descent into the foot of the very steep 23rd street climb, also on cobblestones, 100 meters at over 10%. After one last downhill run comes the Governor’s Street climb, 300 meters at about 7%. The climb evens out about 700 meters from the finish, though the rest of the way angles just slightly upward.

The Contenders

There is a wide variety of opinions on how this race will play out (a topic covered at length in the Recon Ride podcast p/b VeloNews, which is absolutely worth checking out). A glance at the cumulative vertical meters wouldn’t suggest that this profile is particularly difficult, but the climbs come in fast succession, the first two are cobbled, and things are technical enough that riders will be on edge all day. Throw in a high chance of a rain and what appears to be a less challenging course could get very messy.

It’s hard to say whether the race will come down to a sprint or to a late escape. The severity of the weather could make the difference. In any case, the flatter finish will make sprinting legs a major asset for the rainbow jersey hopefuls. There are several riders in Richmond who combine impressive top-end speed with respectable climbing legs and classics-style grit, and it is those riders who stand out as the top favorites for what has to be described as a wide open worlds road race.

Alexander Kristoff is certainly among the top names in the race. If Kristoff can bring the form he showed in the Tour of Flanders into this race, he’ll be deadly: he didn’t wait around for large group sprint in that race, instead attacking late on with Niki Terpstra and holding out for the win. If he can win on the more challenging parcours of De Ronde, he should be able to handle Richmond if the form is there, latching onto a small group if need be. Recent showings in the Arctic Race of Norway, the Vattenfall Cyclassics, the GP Ouest-France, and the GP Québec suggest that he’s in great shape. His Norwegian squad brings only six riders, but there are enough sprinters in the race to probably keep things under control, so I don’t really see the six-man squad at much of a disadvantage. Speaking of Norwegian teammates, Edvald Boasson Hagen will be an excellent second card to play for the squad, on blazing form right now and on a course that suits hits talents.

John Degenkolb beat Kristoff in Milano-Sanremo this year, and worked his own late-escape-magic to take the victory in Paris-Roubaix. Again, if the form is there, Degenkolb should thrive, though he hasn’t had quite a successful Worlds buildup as Kristoff. He also hasn’t had quite as much success on cobbled climbs over the years, so it’s hard to say how he’ll feel about Libby Hill. In any case, he’s a huge threat to win if he’s in shape, and a powerhouse German squad is ready to set him up for the victory. André Greipel is on the squad as well, and will be an obvious favorite if he can survive the tough day.

Peter Sagan has just the perfect skillset for this course: he’s an excellent bike handler, he loves the short climbs, and he can be in the mix with the best in a sprint. I will be very surprised if he’s not on the podium at the end of the day. A moto crash at the Vuelta interrupted his buildup campaign but he should still be in good shape to fight for the win. The biggest challenge will be the distance, as his Grand Tour stage-winning sprinting legs have often lost a bit of luster at the end of long Classics.

Michael Matthews is the other sprinting talent who stands out as a top favorite. On the one hand, I like his climbing legs and love his form right now after an impressive showing in Québec. I also think Australia will ride well in support of him. On the other hand, Matthews’s talents have not yet translated into all that much one-day success compared to his top rivals here, and a long and potentially hectic Worlds course will be a tough place for him to make the leap to the next level. Still, he’s a big threat, and his top-end speed may be underrated by some. Teammate Simon Gerrans is an unknown for Australia: the course suits him, but form is a total question mark after several crashes this season. Obviously keep an eye on the two-time Monument winner.

The Belgian squad starts the two riders I see as most likely to win the race with a late solo move, as well as a few other contenders. Greg Van Avermaet is my top pick on the team. This is a good route for him, with steep cobbled sections to escape the pack and twists and turns to stay clear. If he comes to the line in a small group, Van Avermaet packs a strong sprint. I expect to see him near the top of the leaderboard after 261.4km. Philippe Gilbert could also get involved. The climbs might not be as long as he’d prefer but he’s looked good this year and his strong team should be able to set him up nicely for an attack. Sep Vanmarcke and Tom Boonen are other good options.

Speaking of Classics riders, Zdenek Stybar should thrive here—he’s in shape, he loves cobbled climbs, and he’s not being talked about as much as the fast finishers. The former cyclocross world champion will shine if the rain makes things messy.

France has Arnaud Démare and Nacer Bouhanni for a potential sprint, but I like the chances of both Julian Alaphilippe and Tony Gallopin even better. Gallopin thrives in selective finishes, and Alaphilippe was active in the Canadian GPs.

Defending world champion Michal Kwiatkowski will have his work cut out for him trying to hold onto the rainbow jersey, but he’s an excellent bike handler and descender who will love the technical finale. He also showed good form in the Canadian GPs even if the results didn’t show much. It would be a mistake to underestimate him. Also likely to be overlooked a bit given the course, 2013 world champ Rui Costa could be involved as well after a strong showing in Montréal.

Niki Terpstra is my top outsider pick for the Worlds Road Race. He looked very strong in the Vuelta, he’s made great strides climbing on the cobbles, and he’s even got speed for a sprint. The Dutch team is strong and it’s been flying under the radar. Tom Dumoulin and Lars Boom are other riders to watch.

Spain may be nominally riding for Alejandro Valverde, and he certainly has a chance with the late climbs, but I’m eying Juan José Lobato as well. His season quieted down after a great start but he looked good in the Tour of Britain and is very fast when in form.

Matti Breschel always seems to show up for Worlds and this course suits him. Italy does not have a team that is particularly suited to the course, but with a huge collection of talents on the squad maybe something will work out. I especially like Matteo Trentin, but there is plenty of firepower on the Italian team. Taylor Phinney will fly the flag for the home nation. This course suits him very well, but it’s impossible to say how his form will hold up over the course of 261.4km in his first big one-day race back from injury. Still, his time trial performance hinted that he’s in good shape. Tyler Farrar is the sprint option for Team U.S.A. Ben Swift, Ramunas Navardauskas, Michael Albasini, and Sam Bennett are on the very long list of outsiders who could surprise the big favorites in Richmond.

VeloHuman Top 10 Race Favorites

Winner: Alexander Kristoff
Podium: Peter Sagan, John Degenkolb
Other Top Contenders: Greg Van Avermaet, Michael Matthews, Philippe Gilbert, Zdenek Stybar, Niki Terpstra, Juan José Lobato, Julian Alaphilippe.

VH will be in Richmond to provide plenty of Worlds analysis, so stay tuned for coverage throughout the week, and be sure to follow @VeloHuman on Twitter for more.

Photo by Sean Rowe (CC).

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