After several worlds road races made for the puncheurs, climbers, and classics specialists, the 2016 world championship should come down to a bunch sprint. The Doha parcours does not much in the way of challenging topography, but if you’re a fan of mass gallops, this is a rainbow jersey battle you won’t want to miss.
Barring a race shortening for extreme heat, the men’s peloton will ride 257.5 kilometers Sunday in Qatar. The first 150 kilometers of the race will take the riders through the desert before they enter a twisting circuit on the manmade Pearl island in Doha. Though there are no climbs to speak of along the route, seven laps of 15.2km with plenty of hairpins and corners could certainly see some hectic racing.
The final 2km of the circuit are not without handling challenges, meaning that the expected sprint will require finesse in addition to speed—there is a right hairpin leading into the final kilometer, which then swings gently to the right on the run-in to the line. Positioning will be key in the waning moments of the race.
I see four riders as being the most worthy of favorite status in Doha: the top three fastest sprinters of the last few years – Mark Cavendish, André Greipel, and Marcel Kittel – and the reigning world champ, Peter Sagan.
To me, Cavendish seems best-positioned for the rainbow jersey given the excellent season he’s had and a course that puts handling and acceleration at a premium. The way he dominated the Tour’s sprints, it’s hard not to like his chances in Qatar.
German teammates Greipel and Kittel are worth watching too, of course, though each comes with question marks. Greipel can disappear in tricky finishes and hasn’t had quite the season in 2016 that he had in 2015, while Kittel, despite his incredible speed in peak form, just hasn’t looked at his best this year. Both are dangerous regardless, as is German John Degenkolb.
Sagan is the wildcard. He’s not quite as speedy in a pure sprint after a shorter Grand Tour stage, but anything goes after 250km and in a hectic finale. I expect Sagan to perform very well given his knack for placing highly in this sort of race, even if the win seems like a lot to ask.
Beyond those big names are several second-tier speedsters hoping to steal the show. Fernando Gaviria of Colombia and France’s Nacer Bouhanni are the two biggest names for me. Both showed by reaching the final kilometer of Milano-Sanremo this year that they can handle distance (though Gaviria crashed out of that race) and both have terrific acceleration. At the end of a long season, things could get unpredictable, and they seem most likely to take advantage if the likes of Cav and Greipel miss a beat. Arnaud Démare and Bryan Coquard are great alternatives for France should Bouhanni find himself lacking on the day.
Alexander Kristoff has not had a perfect year but few riders have his power in a fast finish after a long day. Giacomo Nizzolo and Elia Viviani give Italy a nice combination. Caleb Ewan and Michael Matthews are a terrific dynamic duo for Australia. Dylan Groenewegen and Danny van Poppel look strong for the Netherlands, while Belgium has Tom Boonen and Jens Debuscherre for a sprint.
Meanwhile, Greg Van Avermaet will be looking to surprise the sprinters with a late attack. Also watch out for the likes of Niki Terpstra, Zdenek Stybar, Edvald Boasson Hagen, and Magnus Cort Nielsen if an opportunity for an escape arises late in the afternoon.
VeloHuman Top 10 Race Favorites
Winner: Mark Cavendish
Podium: André Greipel, Peter Sagan
Other Top Contenders: Fernando Gaviria, Marcel Kittel, Nacer Bouhanni, Caleb Ewan, Alexander Kristoff, Michael Matthews, Arnaud Démare