This year’s World Championships in Limburg, The Netherlands will conclude on Sunday with the men’s road race. The traditional blue ribbon event will determine who will wear the coveted rainbow jersey for the next twelve months.
Unlike last year’s race, this circuit will do the sprinters no favours, with seven categorized climbs leading into Valkenburg before the riders tackle the daunting Cauberg ten times before the finish. The race kicks off in Maastricht, and for most of the first 80km of racing, the terrain is relatively flat with only four low gradient climbs. The first big test for the riders will be the Rugweg climb, which is a lengthy 3.1km at a steady 3.2% gradient. From there the riders do not get much respite as they then hit the slopes of the Eperheide which reaches an average gradient of 4.5%. Before leading into Valkenburg the riders will ride over one more climb, the steep Hoogcruts. When they reach the top, they will then have a chance to ease off the pace as they coast through Margraten and onto the Valkenburg circuit. This circuit has two climbs, the first being a steady ascent on the Bemelen, and then the well-documented Cauberg. The riders will complete this circuit ten times before finishing.
With the amount the amount of climbs on the course, it is no surprise big name sprinters Andre Griepel and Matt Goss are not competing in this year’s event.
Simon Gerrans (Australia)
Gerrans may fly under the radar when it comes to being a genuine contender, but his form of late has given many Australians the belief that he can by standing on the podium come Sunday evening. So far this year he has won the prestigious Milan-San Remo, The Tour Down Under and more recently the Grand Prix de Quebec. A big plus for Gerrans is that this course’s finish is not too dissimilar to the two recent Grand Prix’s in Canada, in which he looked very strong on the final climbs before the finish on both occasions. He will also have Richie Porte and Simon Clarke protecting him on the climbs before he makes his challenge on the either of the final two climbs of the Cauberg. A real dark horse.
Thomas Voeckler (France)
The little Frenchman will always be considered a major challenger on courses such as this, and with no other French riders looking threatening, I suspect it will be all eggs in one basket for the team. Voeckler needs to time his attack a bit earlier than other Classics riders, as he does not have the genuine attacking speed of someone like Gilbert or Sagan, but he has the ability to maintain a strong pace for an extended period. I think he will make his move two laps from the finish, a little earlier than his rivals, but he will need to execute it at the right point on the Cauberg, unless a repeat of the Grand Prix de Montreal will occur, in which he was caught before the final ascent.
The Belgian team is riddled with talent, and the hardest decision for them will be deciding who to race for. We all know how successful Tom Boonen has been recently, but I feel the circuit is too much for his legs to handle, meaning the teams leadership will be between two other classics specialists in Philippe Gilbert and Greg van Avermaet. Both have recently put in strong showings at the Vuelta (Gilbert’s stage win) and the Grand Prix Quebec &Montreal respectively. I suspect the team will do as much as possible to put Tom Boonen in a sprinting position, but if the race is separating, Philippe Gilbert will be given the all clear to attack.
Despite having a strong team on paper, the British team will have to deal with many of their riders being either fatigued or lacking serious form. Chris Froome withdrew from the ITT to focus on the RR, but I think his season finished many weeks ago. Brad Wiggins withdrew halfway through the Tour of Britain, but if he can find his form he may make a challenge, although I suspect the lack of big time racing since le Tour will work against him. Mark Cavendish and his lead out man Luke Rowe will find the course too difficult to mount any challenge, and will finish a long way back. The only Brit I see being able to make a fist of it is Endura rider Jonothan Tiernan-Locke. Although he may not be a household name, he just won the Tour of Britain which resulted in him signing a contract with Sky Pro-Cycling. The nature of his win came with strong and powerful breaks on several climbs combined with several quick descents. Those viewers who watched the Tour of Britain will understand why he is not to be discounted.
No country in recent memory has put out a team as strong as the one Spain has for these championships. Firstly, we have Alberto Contador. Not much needs to be said about the 2012 Vuelta winner, he has all the goods necessary to win this race, and he can do it from a long way out as was shown by his tour clinching attack on the 17th Vuelta stage. Next is Alejandro Valverde, who is in the same position as Contador, and in my opinion poses the biggest threat out of the Spaniards. He, along with Joaquim Rodriguez, showed on the Vuelta that the pair can race at incredible speeds up climbs, which is where I think this team has an advantage over the rest of the field. Finally, Samuel Sanchez may still be on the return from a serious injury, but his strong showings at the Tour of Britain, and his genuine climbing and descending ability makes him one who should never be discounted. I’m sure the team will have a rider for every situation, but I think it may be Valverde or Contador that gets the nod to be the team’s main man, with Rodriguez and Sanchez taking them up the climbs. They also have Castroviejo and Moreno to work for them as well. Doesn’t sound fair does it? The only major disadvantage for this team is whether they have the explosive power to take them to the finish after the Cauberg. Samuel Sanchez has this power, but I’m not sure of Contador or Valverde would be able to keep pace with someone like Gilbert or Boasson Hagen on the flatter parts of the circuit.
Peter Sagan (Slovakia)
We all know what he can do, he can sprint, he can climb, he can time-trial, but we don’t know how well he can work without a strong team. This course is perfect for a rider like Sagan, his brute force on the flats and his ability to climb strongly will work in his favour, but he will need the Velits brothers to do a large amount of work for him in the early stages of the race. Despite not winning any major races of late, Sagan has put in strong showings at the GP de Plouay and the GP de Quebec & Montreal, but on all occasions fell agonisingly short due to fatigue. I’m not sure if he is in the best form for this race, but you can never count him out, his natural talent and strength cannot be overlooked.
Of the rest of the field there are still many genuine contenders to be considered. Obviously Edvald Boasson Hagen is always going to be a threat in one day races, and his win in the GP Plouay and his strong finish at the GP de Montreal has indicated he is in form. The Norwegian has the ability to climb, but it is his explosive speed from long range is what gives him an edge over his competitors. He will have to attach himself to other teams during the race, as he only has two other riders working for him.
The Dutch have sent a strong team to the Championships, with all signs pointing to Robert Gesink being their main man. He may not have the climbing calibre of the Spanish team, but his workers such as Terpstra and Mollema will save him a lot of energy during the early climbs. Being in front of their home crowd, the Dutch are not to be discounted.
Two final riders who I think may have an outside chance at a podium finish are Portugal’s Rui Costa and Italy’s Vicenzo Nibali. Unfortunately for Costa, he will have to rely on Sergio Paulinho and the work of other teams to put him in a position to attack. He put in strong showings in Canada, and is another rider who is flying under the radar. Nibali on the other hand a full complement of riders at his disposal, and will use them to save his energy for an attack that may come earlier than most others
As my analysis has indicated, there are countless riders who have an opportunity to claim the gold medal. The race will be decided on the final climb of the Cauberg, and I suspect there will be only a small group remaining to challenge from there. If this group remains together, look for Peter Sagan or Boasson Hagen to win in the sprint. But I think a small break of three to five riders going over the top of the Cauberg is a more likely result to the race and therefore my predictions are based on that assumption.
1- Philippe Gilbert (Belgium)
2- Peter Sagan (Slovakia)
3- Simon Gerrans (Australia)
Podium Challengers: Jonothan Tiernan-Locke (UK), Thomas Voeckler (France), Alberto Contador (Spain), Alejandro Valverde (Spain), Edvald Boasson Hagen (Norway).