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Will Cavendish take a second title in the flattest World Championships since 2002?

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15.10.2016 @ 19:05 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

Cycling may have its five historic monuments but no one-day race carries more prestige than the World championships road race. No other international cycling race earns you the right to wear a distinctive jersey throughout an entire season and it's the only race that attracts equal interest from classics riders, stage race specialists, sprinters and climbers. For one day, cycling returns to its past as riders no longer represent their trade teams but form unusual and often difficult alliances with their compatriots to represent their home country.  The world championships road race is a truly unique event!

 

Most sports organize World Championships to determine their strongest athlete and in most cases, the event is the pinnacle of the sport. While the latter may not be entirely true in the case of cycling where the Tour de France has publicity and recognition that makes it overshadow every other race, the World Championships road race plays a unique role on the cycling calendar.

 

While the first track world championships were held back in 1893 - when the UCI wasn't even founded - the first honour of being the world's best road racer was awarded in 1927 when Alfredo Binda was the best in an Italian 1-2-3 on Nürburgring. At a time when many of the current cycling races had already established themselves and had a long history, the event immediately gained huge prestige as it is reflected by what is simply a formidable winners list.

 

With the event awarding the honour of being the best in the world, it's no surprise that the event has been dominated by the two strongest countries in the history of cycling. Belgium tops the list with its 26 titles followed by Italy with 19 while France is a distant 3rd with its 8 wins. Due to the varying nature of the courses and the tactical aspects of road racing, it is no mean feat to be a repeat winner of the title and only four very distinguished cyclists have accomplished the feat of triumphing three times: Alfredo Binda, Rik Van Steenbergen, Eddy Merckx and the more recent Oscar Freire.

 

One element of its prestige is of course the universal honour of being the world champion. What makes it even more special is the symbol of that status: the rainbow jersey. Cycling is famously known for its distinctive jerseys but they are usually only attached to specific events. Only one international race may earn you the right to wear a jersey throughout an entire year and that makes the win that more coveted. At every race, the world is reminded of the win and the status and while it may not always be a tactical advantage to stand out in the peloton, the importance from a publicity viewpoint cannot be underestimated.

 

Another aspect turns the world championships into a unique event. While most one-day races have a more or less fixed route with little room for variation, the Worlds are of a different nature. Held on different courses from year to year, the aim is to provide different types of riders with the opportunity to become world champions at some point during their career. The World Championships road race has no fixed format: one year it may be a paradise for the sprinters while the next may be one for the climbers or classics specialists

 

In that sense, it is different from many other sports in which the venue has little influence on the outcome. Road cycling is one of the most versatile sports and that makes it much harder to talk about the sport's best athlete. While the rainbow jersey is never worn by the strongest rider in every kind of road cycling, most of the best riders in a generation usually get the opportunity to wear it at some point in his career. No one can expect to be a contender every year: just recall how reigning champion Mark Cavendish played a loyal domestique role on the hilly course in Limburg in 2012. As it is always the case in road racing, luck plays a certain role but there is not too much randomness involved when it comes to the World Championships. It is certainly no coincidence that most of the strongest riders in the cycling history have worn the rainbow jersey at some point in their career.

 

In modern day sports, money plays a crucial role and cycling is no exception. Usually, the riders represent their trade teams but for one day they return to the past as they represent their country at the World Championships. While it takes the role of national pride to a whole new level, it creates difficulties for the national coaches who suddenly have to unite rivals in fighting for a common goal. The history is loaded with examples where those missions have failed and where national teams have been divided into different camps that reflect their trade teams and personal relationships. In modern day cycling, former Italian national coach Franco Ballerini was famously known for his ability to unite what had usually been a very disharmonious Italian team.

 

Like most other sports, cycling is usually a rather hierarchical sport with the best teams usually competing against each other but at the World Championships, the smaller nations get their chance to get some time in the spotlight. Lesser-known riders that are usually far from the glory of the WorldTour events race against the world's biggest starts in an event that really matters. At the same time, it is the only event where different teams are not on equal terms when they take to the start line. The level of tactics is further increased by the fact that some nations have far more riders than others and it is usually a significant disadvantage for even the strongest rider to come from a small nation.

 

Unlike the biggest classics, the World Championships road race is a circuit race. Several repetitions often make the very long race one of attrition and a gradual elimination and the familiarity with the course makes the tactics different from most other one-day races. Earlier it was mostly held entirely on a circuit that was to be repeated several times but in 2010, a new trend was started when the riders covered a long stretch in the beginning of the race before getting to the actual circuit. That idea was repeated in 2011, 2012 and 2013 but in 2014 and 2015 the race was back to its traditional format of being held entirely on a circuit. This year the race will again have an opening section before the riders reach the main circuit.

 

Last year the race was held in the American city of Richmond where a lumpy course with short, cobbled climbs turned it into an event for classics riders and strong sprinters. On the final lap, Peter Sagan, Greg Van Avermaet and Edvald Boasson Hagen rode away and after dropping his two companions, Sagan soloed to a hugely popular first title. His two chasers were caught by a reduced bunch that sprinted for second place and it was Michael Matthews who took silver by beating Ramunas Navarduaskas and Alexander Kristoff. Sagan will be back to defend his title as he spearheads the small Slovakian team while Matthews will try to go one better as the leader of the Australians. Navardauskas will also try to take a second medal as he lines up as one of three Lithuanian riders.

 

The course

World Championships road races are always mostly circuit races. This means that there is never room for any big mountains and so the pure climbers have very little chance to shine. On the other hand, organizers are usually keen not to design completely flat courses. Hence, the race usually suits the classics specialists with a fast sprint. One year it may be a harder affair that suits the Ardennes riders while other editions lean more towards the heavier guys that excel in the cobbled classics.

 

However, the 2016 race is different. For the first time ever, the World Championships will be held in the Middle East as Qatar plays host to the battle for the rainbow jersey. The country is one of the flattest in the world and this has turned it into one of the events with least elevation gain ever. The choice of Qatar has host country has been heavily debated – lack of respect for human rights, the weather and an absence of spectators have all been brought up – and many have had a critical approach to the course too. At one point, rumours surfaced that the organizers would create some kind of artificial climb but those plans were never realized. Instead, the course will be a completely flat affair.

 

The lack of climbs does not mean that it will necessarily be an easy race. Qatar may be a relatively new country in the cycling world but it has already established itself as an important one. Since 2002, it has played host to the Tour of Qatar which is arguably the most important preparation race for the spring classics. High-speed racing in windy conditions in the desert has turned it into the perfect place to get ready for the northern races on the cobbles. The race is a very special one as most of the stages are pretty straightforward bunch sprint. Every year, however, the race is blown to pieces at least once and the time gaps in the final GC are usually huge.

 

It’s exactly what racing in Qatar is all about: rather dull sprint races or extremely exciting battles with riders all over the road. Ever since it was announced that the Worlds will be held in Qatar, the race has been tipped to finish in a predictable bunch sprint or turn out to a real war of attrition. As it is always the case in the Arab country, this has turned the weather into the key factor.

 

However, the Worlds road race will be different from a stage in the Tour of Qatar. It is much longer but the key factor is the fact that the final 100km are held on a circuit in Doha. In the February stage race, only the final stage – which always finishes in a bunch sprint – has a similar format. The other stages are held almost entirely in the desert. With the wind playing a less prominent role in the sheltered city, this increases the likelihood of a bunch sprint.

 

In an attempt to try to bring the wind into play, the organizers have returned to the format that was used between 2010 and 2013. Instead of taking place entirely on the circuit, the race will have an opening section that precedes the laps in the city centre. Hence, the race can be split into two parts. At 257.3Km, it will have the usual length of a Worlds road race but it will be shorter than the 2013 mammoth affair of more than 270km.

 

The riders will take the start in the Aspire Zone in the centre of the capital of Doha and from there they will head to the Education City where the real start will be given. The first few kilometres will take place in the shelter of the buildings on the northern outskirts of the city and then the riders will head into the desert. The first part of the race will be held on a north-south road close to the coast. There are barely any turns on the exposed road which the riders will follow until they get to the 70km mark. From here, they will turn around and head back towards Doha along a similar road a bit closer to the coast. It is equally straight and barely includes any chance of direction. Along the way, the riders will pass through Al Khor which most cycling fans will know from the Tour of Qatar.

 

After 116.1km of racing, the riders will pass the Lusail Sports Complex where the team and individual time trials started and from there they will continue back to Doha. After passing the Golf Club and the Univeristy, the riders will reach the circuit at the 136.9km mark.

 

The final 120.4km will be held on the 15.2km circuit on the manmade island of The Pearl. The riders will almost do a full lap before they get to the finish for the first time. The final 106.4km consist of seven laps of the circuit. It is completely flat and doesn’t include any straight roads. However, there aren’t any sharp turns either. Instead, the circuit consists of a sweeping, turning and curvy road with numerous roundabout and several U-turns. The lack of straight roads mean that it is difficult to look too far ahead and it will make sure that the peloton is always strung out.

 

In the finale, there is a U-turn with 3300m to go and a left-hand turn at the 3km to go mark. There’s a left-hand turn in a roundabout with 1500m to go and then the final U-turn comes at the flamme rouge. From there, the flat road bends very slightly to the right.

 

The circuit was used for the second stage of this year’s Tour of Qatar. That stage came down to the expected bunch sprint which was won by Alexander Kristoff in a photo finish where he narrowly edged out Mark Cavendish. A few modifications have been made since then and the circuit is now less technical.

 

 

 

 

The weather

As said, the weather is always the key factor in Qatar. Ever since the course was announced, the wind has been the main topic of discussion as this is what can prevent a bunch sprint. This is not unusual as it is always the key point at the Tour of Qatar too. Since the start of the Championships, however, the heat has had much more attention as the conditions have been brutal. This is completely different compared to the Tour of Qatar which is held at a time when the temperatures are ideal for racing.

 

The riders have been studying the weather forecasts for weeks but now we are finally at a point where the predictions can be expected to be pretty accurate. Sunday is forecasted to be another very hot day with bright sunshine but with a maximum temperature of 36 degrees, it will be slightly colder than it was for the time trials.

 

However, what really attracts the attention is the wind. After a few days with easterly and westerly winds, the direction which change for Sunday. The riders will have a moderate wind, first from a northwesterly direction and then from the north. This means that they will mainly have a headwind on the way to the turning point and a tailwind on the way back. On the circuit, it will mainly be a crosswind. In the final five kilometres, it will mainly be a cross-headwind until the riders get to the 2km to go mark. From here, it will be a crosswind.

 

The favourites

The fact that the course for the World Championships varies from year to year means that it is usually discussed and scrutinized a lot in the final 12 months before the event. While the national coaches check it out, lots of riders are usually busy proclaiming that this year’s route is tailor-made for them. The classics all have a pretty fixed format but for the World Championships, you may see sprinters, classics riders and climbers all claiming that they can prevail.

 

This year it has been different. The flat course means that the climbers have been ruled out and instead it has been the big goal for the sprinters. While the grand tour riders and stage race specialists had their eyes on the Olympics, the fastmen immediately set their sights on the rainbow jersey. In that sense, the two big one-day races have offered opportunities for all kinds of riders but we have not had the usual mind games about which riders are suited to the World. This year it has been apparent right from the start that it’s a race for the fastmen.

 

Ever since the course was announced, it has been evident that the race has two possible scenarios. Either it will be a rather straightforward bunch sprint – albeit after almost 260km which always makes things more complicated – or it will become a dramatic race of attrition in the crosswinds. While every country have tried to be prepared for the former scenario by selecting their fastest riders, many countries have also based part of their line-up of a harder race. Knowing that only a select few can realistically hope for glory in a big bunch kick, a few countries know that their best chances comes in a very hard race. Countries like Belgium and the Netherlands which are famously known for their windy conditions, have done nothing to hide that their main goal is to blow the race to pieces and the line-ups clearly reflect that. In general, the field is made up of a combination of sprinters and powerful guys who know how to ride hard on flat roads. As opposed to this, there are barely any climbers in the race at all.

 

A Worlds road race usually follows a predetermined formula. An early break with riders from smaller nations dominate the first part of the race which mainly serves the purpose of accumulating fatigue. This year it’s going to be different. The only real chance to create a selection comes in the desert section and this means that the race will start for real much earlier than usual. We may get an early break in the early part on the outskirts of Doha but as soon as we get into the desert, the tension will rise. The fight for position will be intense and this should make it a very fast race.

 

Belgium will be the key country. For months, they have made it clear that they don’t want to wait for a sprint. They have Tom Boonen as their leader for a bunch kick scenario but the Belgian is unlikely to win an easy race. The ‘King of Qatar’ who has dominated the national tour for years, is one of the best in windy conditions and is famously known for his strong sprint at the end of a hard race. The Belgians have selected a very strong classics team and they will try to blow the race to pieces.

 

However, it won’t be easy. It’s a big shame that the wind will change and will be coming from the north. This means that it will mainly be a head- or a tailwind. On the way out, the headwind will probably make it a bit more conservative and then the Belgians will have their best chances on the way back where the tailwind will make it very fast.

 

It’s hard to say whether it will be enough to split the field. The roads in Qatar have much less shelter than anywhere else in the world and you need much less wind than usual to create echelons. However, the direction still has to be right and as it will be close to a direct tailwind, the Belgians have a tough ask.

 

In any case, the team will definitely maintain the pressure. They need to make the race fast, stressful and hard as an easy race will favour the pure sprinters. They need to make everybody tired and even though we doubt that the race will split dramatically, it should still be a very quick affair.

 

The heat will be a key factor as it will make the race much harder than it looks on paper. 250km in these temperatures can kill everybody and we could see some very spectacular breakdowns. Everybody has tried to prepare in the best possible way but ultimately they don’t know what’s going to happen. This makes the outcome a lot more uncertain.

 

The circuit has now been tested on a couple of occasions and it seems that it is possible to control things. In the U23 race, the Norwegian team showed how to keep everything together. The junior race was a lot less controllable and showed that things can split up. However, the elite race is always different and it is always the event where it’s hardest to make a real selection.

 

For teams that want to blow the race apart, the problem is that almost everybody wants to sprint. Germany, Great Britain, Norway and France have all come with dedicated sprint teams and they will all be trying to bring everything back together. Three of those teams have a full contingent on nine riders and that’s a massive amount of firepower on such a flat course. Furthermore, there will be plenty of domestiques to try to bring things back together even if it splits in the desert.

 

With so many organized sprint teams, it would require quite harsh circumstances to really split the field for good and the conditions don’t seem to be right to do so. Hence, we expect a bunch sprint in the end. There will be plenty of attacks on the circuit but we doubt that anyone will be able to hold off a dedicated field.

 

The main question is how many riders will have survived. The heat, the distance and what will be a hard start mean that we won’t have a full bunch sprint. Some sprinters will have been left behind or taken out by the heat and this makes it a different sprint from a traditional bunch kick in a grand tour. Furthermore, the lead-outs are not the usual ones and this will make the sprint much more hectic and less controllable. The final kilometres are not very technical and with a relatively long finishing straight, it’s an affair for true power sprinters.

 

On paper, the fastest three riders in the world are Mark Cavendish, André Greipel and Marcel Kittel. However, both Greipel and Kittel have had their best results in stage races and they haven’t had much success in the classics. It took a long time for Greipel to finally win a major one-day race and even though he now has Brussels Cycling Classic and Vattenfall Cyclassics on his palmares, he has never been competitive in a race like Milan-Sanremo. Kittel has had an even harder time and even though he has been up there in the Vattenfall Cyclassics, he is much less test in sprints at the end of long races.

 

Things are different for Mark Cavendish. The Brit has won Milan-Sanremo and the World Championships and has proved that he is one of the select few who can maintain his top speed at the end of a long, grueling day. This will give him an edge compared to his two biggest rivals. Furthermore, he is backed by a formidable team of classics riders. The Brits are clearly among the best for a race like this and they have just one goal: to win the race with Cavendish.

 

The problem is that Cavendish has had a disastrous build-up. It was always going to be complicated to go for the Tour, the omnium in Rio and the Worlds but things have only been made more difficult by a bout of illness. After Rio, he immediately turned his attention to the road. He worked for the team at the Tour of Britain and seemed to be on track when he climbed very well at the Giro della Toscana. Unfortunately, he fell ill during GP Beghelli and he spent six days off the bike. He had to make late cancellations of his participation in the Sparkassen Münsterland Giro and Paris-Bourges and only made his return to racing in Paris-Tours. Due to a lack of wind, that race turned out to be very easy and so we can’t base too much on the fact that Cavendish was still there for the sprint. In fact, he did a pretty bad finale and could only manage sixth.

 

Nonetheless, Cavendish was able to handle the 250km distance and that’s a good omen for Qatar. He has had another week to improve his form and like no other, he knows how to get ready for a big event. This year he has been back to his best sprinting level and his four stage wins in the Tour showed that he has regained his former consistency.

 

That is exactly what makes Cavendish our favourite to win the race. The bunch sprint will be very hard to control. Germany don’t have the team to do a real lead-out so Kittel and/ or Greipel won’t have much support. Great Britain have a very strong team and even though it may not be the best train, riders like Adam Blythe, Ben Swift, Dan McLay and Scott Thwaites have the speed to do a solid lead-out. In a sprint, that could very well be uncontrollable, it will be a matter of picking the right wheel more than relying on a big train. In the Tour, Cavendish showed that he masters that discipline better than anybody else. Furthermore, he is a proven contender at the end of such a long race. He may not have had the perfect preparation and he may not be excellent in the heat but in a race that doesn’t seem to be that difficult, Cavendish is our favourite.

 

The German is the most interesting. As soon as it became clear that this was a sprint race, the discussion started about the leadership of the squad. For André Greipel and Marcel Kittel, the race presents what could be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to become world champion and they have been involved in a big fight for the captaincy role. Greipel has ultimately come out on top as he has been formally nominated as the leader but that doesn’t mean that Kittel will lead him out. The Etixx-QuickStep star has been named as a joker and openly admits that he is here to win. He plays down the formal hierarchy and Greipel has said that he doesn’t expect Kittel to lead him out as the Etixx rider has his own ambitions.

 

This makes it a complex situation and things will be made more complicated by the fact that Germany only have a six-rider team. Furthermore, Greipel has lost his trusted lead-out man Marcel Sieberg and this means that they don’t really have a train. We expect John Degenkolb to work loyally for Greipel but Nils Politt, Tony Martin and Jasha Sütterlin will all have to do a lot of work early in the race to keep things under control

 

Nonetheless, both Greipel and Kittel are big favourites. As said, Greipel has never had much one-day success and it is a bit remarkable that Milan-Sanremo has always been too tough for him. He is an excellent climber – better than Cavendish – but when it comes to the long races, he seems to have certain difficulties. With maturity, however, his engine seems to have become bigger and many will remember what an excellent race he did at the Tour of Flanders in 2015. He ultimately finished the race in 15th and in general his aggressive riding in the classics shows how strong he is.

 

Greipel’s excellent performance in the final stage of the Eneco Tour shows that his form is great. However, he has not done a lot of sprinting recently. He mostly worked for Debusschere in the Tour of Britain and he only did one good sprint at the Eneco Tour. He opted for safety in the wet conditions in the Münsterland Giro so no one really knows how much speed he has.

 

We expect Greipel to be strong but the big problem for him is the lack of team support. He has never been a rider for the hectic fight for position and with no real lead-out train, he will have to fend for himself. The power sprint suits him down to the ground but unlike Cavendish, he doesn’t have the nose to pick his way in a hectic finish. Greipel has the speed to win but he may never get the chance to show it.

 

We won’t be surprised if Marcel Kittel does his own sprint. In fact, we would have gone for the Etixx-QuickStep rider if we had been in charge of the German team. On several occasions, he has proved to be faster than his compatriot and in this kind of power sprint, no one can match his speed.

 

Of course Kittel is much less strong than Greipel and Cavendish and he has never proved himself in such a long race. Furthermore, his illness at the Eneco Tour has set him back. However, everyone who watched the team time trial must have been very impressed by his strength and in fact Kittel seems to be in the form of his life. He never got the chance to really sprint at the Eneco Tour but when he has this kind of form, he is the fastest rider in the world.

 

Kittel’s problem is of course the distance but he has proved to be stronger than most think. His performance on the wall in the queen stage at the Dubai Tour was impressive and he has done well on Flemish hellingen too. He doesn’t seem to cope that well with the heat but on the other hand it didn’t affect him much in the TTT. Finally, he is better suited to the fight for position than Greipel and he has a better nose for the right wheel. With a team at his side, Greipel has a better chance but we won’t be surprised if Kittel comes out on top by doing his own sprint.

 

A sprint after 250km is much different than a grand tour sprint and this automatically makes Alexander Kristoff a very strong contender. The Norwegian is the king of the sprints at the end of hard races. In 2014, he won the sprint for the minor places in all the monuments he did and at the World Championships and he won the Vattenfall Cyclassics and in 2015 he won Milan-Sanremo and the GP Plouay. While everybody else loses power, Kristoff just seems to become stronger and stronger.

 

The distance, the heat and the Belgians’ desire to make it hard are all in favour of Kristoff but the question is whether the race will be hard enough. He doesn’t have the speed to match the really fast guys and in general he has not been sprinting at his best in 2016. He was off the pace in the Tour and in the Eneco Tour he lacked the speed to match the best.

 

There is little doubt that Kristoff is in excellent form which he showed with his dominant performance at the Tour des Fjords. He is great in the crosswinds and would love the race to become brutally hard. He is fully supported by the Norwegians, is great in the fight for position and has Edvald Boasson Hagen for the lead-out. Kristoff is maybe the most likely medallist of the race but he may not be fast enough if the race becomes easy.

 

France have selected both Nacer Bouhanni and Arnaud Demare and both have been given three teammates to lead them out. Demare has openly admitted that they are likely to do separate sprints if they are both there in the finale. While the FDJ rider is unlikely to be fast enough to win, Bouhanni stands out as one of the biggest favourites. The Cofidis rider has proved to be in great form, most recently with his win at the Tour de Vendee where he was in a class of his own in the uphill sprint. After his hotel altercation before the Tour de France, he had a hard time when he returned to racing in August but slowly he has built his form and now he seems to be close to his peak. Already at the EuroEyes Cyclassics, he was sprinting very well and now he seems to have added the strength that will make him competitive over longer distances and in harder races. In the Eneco Tour, he was sprinting solidly and even though he failed to win a stage, he and Peter Sagan were the only riders to consistently be up there in the bunch sprints.

 

Bouhanni is more than a pure sprinter and suited to hard races. His classics palmares are meagre but that is more due to a lack of one-day racing during the years at FDJ. This year it was only a mechanical that prevented him from sprinting for the win at Milan-Sanremo (he still finished fourth) and in 2014 he was up there in the World Championships. The long distance won’t be a major problem for Bouhanni.

 

Importantly, Bouhanni is backed by one of the strongest teams and he has a great lead-out. The combination Soupe-Laporte-Bouhanni has not always done everything perfectly this year but in Vendeee they really nailed the lead-out. The trio seem to be on great form and was also on track for a great result in Paris-Bourges until an incident in the final turn took Bouhanni out of contention. They also looked strong in Paris-Tours but they hit out a bit too early. In a race where most of the riders don’t have much experience in working together, their familiarity could be crucial and if they can do one of their best lead-out, Bouhanni will be very difficult to beat.

 

The big joker is Fernando Gaviria. Colombia has never had a world champion and it would seem logical that they would have to wait for really hard course to play their card. Ironically, their first winner could come in the flattest race ever as Gaviria has proved that he can be a real dark horse.

 

Gaviria may be a neo-pro but he has showed that he has the endurance to be up there at the end of the very long races. If he hadn’t crashed on the finishing straight, he may even have won his first Milan-Sanremo. One week ago, he won Paris-Tours in his first attempt so no one can deny that he has the engine to handle the distance. His speed is impressive and he has shown that he has the kick to beat even the fastest of the fastest.

 

Two factors speak against a win for Gaviria. First of all, the lack of team support will be crucial. Colombia is a powerhouse in cycling but not really for this kind of race. He is likely to be pretty isolated in the finale as fellow sprinters Edwin Avila and Carlos Alzate are unlikely to cope with the distance. An in-form Rigoberto Uran will be crucial but even though he is fast, he can’t match the many sprinters in this race.

 

Secondly, Gaviria has a tendency to waste his energy enormously. This year he has lost several races by riding way too aggressively. That will be costly in a 250km race where he doesn’t have a team to help him save energy. Much will depend on his ability to save himself sufficiently for the sprint and get into the right position without a lead but there is no doubt that he has the ability to win.

 

Defending champion Peter Sagan can’t be ruled out and he would love to become the sixth rider in the history to defend his title. However, the course is far from ideal for him as the race could very well be too easy. His best chance comes if Belgium manage to split the race but with only two riders at his side, he can’t really do much to assist them.

Usually, Sagan is not fast enough to win a power sprint like this but don’t be surprised if he wins again. The long distance will tire out the real sprinters more and the chaotic nature of the sprint will turn him into a real contender. When it comes to positioning, no one can match Sagan and in general he excels in chaos. Sagan is the big winner if it turns out that no one can control the finale. Most recently, he won a pure bunch spriat the Eneco Tour where almost all the big sprinters were in attendance. In that race, he showed that he knows how to pick his way through the chaos like no other. Furthermore, his sprinting has been better than ever in 2016 and he has proved that he is no longer far behind the fastest riders. A Worlds sprint could become anarchy and this could make it great day for Sagan.

 

Italy have a very interesting team as they probably have the best lead-out. Fabio Sabatini, Matteo Trentin, Daniele Bennati and Jacopo Guarnieri all belong to the best lead-out riders in the world and unlike many other countries, they really have a train. If a single nation is going to dominate the finale, it is very likely to be the Italian team.

 

The big question is whether they will do the sprint for Elia Viviani or Giacomo Nizzolo. Both are very fast but they have different characteristics. Viviani is definitely the fastest and the only of the pair to have proved that he can beat the likes of Cavendish, Greipel and Kittel. However, Nizzolo is a much stronger rider with a much better classics pedigree and with podium places in Hamburg and Plouay, aggressive riding on the cobbles and an impressive win in a hard edition of the Italian Championships, he has proved that he can handle a long, hard race.

 

While Nizzolo is the most likely medallist, Viviani is their best option if they want to win the race. We doubt that Nizzolo has the speed to beat the really fast guys but Viviani definitely has. The question is whether he is still fast enough after 250km in the heat. Furthermore, his build-up hasn’t been ideal as he was on the track in Rio and had to skip his most important preparation race, the Eneco Tour, due to illness. However, he was up there at the end of Paris-Tours where he only missed out on a result because Sky mistimed the lead-out. This indicates that he is well-prepared. With the best lead-out, Viviani can win the race if it doesn’t become too hard.

 

As said, Nizzolo is not as fast as the top sprinters but his many near-misses in the Giro shows that he is not far off the mark. During the last 24 months, he has become a lot stronger and now he seems to be one of the strongest sprinters. His win at the Gran Piemonte shows that his form is excellent so he should be there even if the race becomes hard. He would have loved a more technical finale but if he can take advantage of his excellent train, it is not impossible for him to win.

 

We are very curious to see how Dylan Groenewegen will do. The Dutchman is the sprint revelation of the year. He may have won a few races in 2015 but few would have expected him to become such a dominant sprinter in his first year at the WorldTour level. To make things even better, it is evident that the Tour de France has made him a lot stronger and the Tour of Britain showed that he can now survive in pretty hard races.

 

However, Groenewegen is still untested in the very long races and this will be the main obstacle. His excellent win in the first stage of the Eneco Tour where he beat all the top sprinters showed that he has the speed to win the race, and he has the engine to survive even if the race becomes hard. What’s questionable is whether he still has it at the end of 250km. The Dutch team has a solid lead-out though so if he is still fresh, the likes of Koen De Kort, Danny Van Poppel and Tom Leezer should provide him with the support that makes him competitive.

 

Tom Boonen leads the Belgian team which will try to blow the race to pieces. If they fail, we doubt that Boonen has the speed to win but if the race becomes tough, he will have a chance. Not many riders are as fast as Boonen at then of 250 hard kilometres and this year he has returned to his best when it comes to sprinting. His win at the RideLondon Classic was dominant and it was impressive to see him beat Demare and Bouhanni in the hard uphill sprint at the Brussels Cycling Classic.

 

However, we have been very disappointed with Boonen’s form. He rode pretty poorly in both Tour de l’Eurometrople and Binche-Chimay-Binche and it seems that his crash in the Eneco Tour has had a bigger impact than expected. On the other hand, Boonen has an excellent train and with the likes of Jens Keukeleire, Jurgen Roelandts and Jens Debusschere, they may actually be able to challenge Italy. That could make all the difference and if he can do a sprint like he did in London or Brussels, Boonen may end his Worlds career with a second title.

 

Australia have both Michael Matthews and Caleb Ewan. Usually, Ewan is clearly the fastest but this is his first Worlds at elite level. Hence, the team have made it clear that it is all for Matthews. This will make it more likely that they will get a medal but very unlikely that they will get the jersey. After all, Matthews is not a pure sprinter and he has never really been competitive in power sprints like these.

 

Nonetheless, we won’t rule him out completely. If the race becomes hard, he has a chance as he is much stronger than most. His podium places in Milan-Sanremo and Amstel Gold Race proves that he can handle the distance. Furthermore, Australia have one of the best lead-out and especially Mark Renshaw’s experience will be crucial. If the race becomes selective, Matthews has a chance to improve on last year’s silver medal.

 

Finally, we will point to Arnaud Demare. As said, we doubt that he has the speed to beat the fastest riders but we won’t rule him out if the race becomes harder. Like so often before, he seems to have hit peak condition in October. He took a very impressive win at Binche-Chimay-Binche where he showed that he is more than a sprinter and he won the sprint behind the dominant Gaviria in Paris-Tours. As said, he and Bouhanni are likely to do separate sprint and recently his train with Bonnet, Offredo and Sarreau have proved that they are now able to challenge the best teams. Unfortunately, Sarreau may not be there at the end of 250km and so he may miss the really fast rider to keep him in position. That’s a big problem as he has always struggled in the intense fights in the finales which is why he often misses out on the top 10. However, his win in Milan-Sanremo shows that he can win the very long races and if he can overcome his positioning problems, he definitely has the form to deliver a surprise.

 

***** Mark Cavendish

**** André Greipel, Marcel Kittel

*** Alexander Kristoff, Nacer Bouhanni, Fernando Gaviria, Peter Sagan

** Elia Viviani, Giacomo Nizzolo, Dylan Groenewegen, Tom Boonen, Michael Matthews, Arnaud Demare

* Sam Bennett, Jempy Drucker, Maximilano Richeze, John Degenkolb, Danny Van Poppel, Caleb Ewan, Alexander Porsev, Juan Jose Lobato, Matteo Trentin, Sonny Colbrelli, Ben Swift, Magnus Cort

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