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Will Rohan Dennis claim a maiden title on the flat course in Doha?

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11.10.2016 @ 19:05 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

Fabian Cancellara will be the notable absentee but the rest of the world’s greatest time triallists will all be on the start line of the most important time trial of the year. For everyone who specializes in the unique discipline, the World Championships is a real highlight that gives them a shot at one of the most coveted jerseys in cycling. Tony Martin is gunning for a record-breaking fourth consecutive win, Tom Dumoulin hopes to bounce back from his Rio disappointment, Rohan Dennis plans to benefit from his great form by taking the TT win and Vasil Kiryienka hopes to end a difficult year with the victory that matters the most in what should be a hotly contested race on the flat roads in Qatar.

 

Time trialing has always been a natural part of cycling and is the sport in its purest format. Road races are often complicated affairs where team tactics, drafting and gambling are almost as important as pure strength. In a time trial there's nowhere to hide. Finding the fastest rider on a given course comes down to power, an ability to concentrate and ride to the maximum for an extended period of time and the right gauge of one's effort.

 

Time trials have always played a crucial role in stage races and the world has had its highly prestigious one-day TTs, with the Grand Prix des Nations being the most notable example. With this long history, it's a mystery that individual time trialing wasn't included in the world championships until 1994 when Chris Boardman won the first rainbow stripes in Catania. Since then it has been an important part of the global event and has only gained added prestige as time has gone by.

 

While all riders dream of participating in the road race at some point of their career, the time trial remains an exclusive event for the riders that specialize in the discipline. There's room for the lesser-known riders from some of the smaller cycling nations but otherwise it's a race for people that really love the pure and punishing discipline.

 

The winner's list tells the story about an event that has attracted the finest time triallists in the world. Boardman, Miguel Indurain, Alex Zülle, Laurent Jalabert, Abraham Olano, Jan Ullrich (twice), Serhiy Honchar, Santiago Botero, Michael Rogers (three times), Fabian Cancellara (four times), Bert Grabsch, Tony Martin (three times), Bradley Wiggins and Vasil Kiryienka are the only riders to have worn the coveted rainbow jersey and there's no room for any kind of lucky, unexpected winner on this highly prestigious list.

 

It remains a clear intention for the organizers that the title belongs to one of the great specialists. While there have been hilly courses in the past - just recall the difficult 2012 route in Limburg that included the famous Cauberg - the course designers have always stayed away from any kind of excessive climbing.

 

In 2014, the organizers played with the idea of changing the script by hosting a very hard time trial that would have opened the race to a completely new group of riders and closed it for many of the pure specialists. The race was set to finish at the top of a difficult climb, making it a mix of a usual and a mountain time trial. For logistical reasons, however, the idea was abandoned and instead the organizers designed a course that was a lot more traditional and nothing will change for this year’s race in Qatar. However, things will be different in 2017 when the Norwegian city of Bergen will offer a fantastic finale on a brutal climb.

 

A World Championships time trial is completely different from the usual TTs that the riders do in stage races. Due to its distance, it is not comparable to the ones that feature in the weeklong or shorter stage races throughout the year. Only the grand tours have time trials of a similar length but in those races, they usually come after more than a week of hard racing, meaning that recovery plays a massive role. The World Championships offer the riders a unique chance to do a long TT without having to worry about the accumulated fatigue of stage racing.

 

This usually changes the outcome compared to the usual time trials. The long distance closes the door for some riders who are better suited to the shorter courses. For years, a rider like Adriano Malori was always close to the best in the short, flat time trials but when the races became too long, he had a hard time keeping up with the very best. Furthermore, the grand tour time trials are usually dominated by GC riders who have a better recovery than most specialists. In this race, everyone is fresh and this means that the stage race specialists have a harder time living up to their usual strong performances.

 

Finally, the race comes at the end of a very long season which means that fatigue and freshness play a key role. While many riders have prepared specifically for the event and made it a very big goal, everyone can feel the effects of a long season. This adds an extra element of unpredictability to the race.

 

Last year everybody expected a huge battle between Tony Martin, Rohan Dennis and Tom Dumoulin but the three main favourites all delivered disappointing performances – for Dennis, it was partly due to bad luck. That opened the door for Vasil Kiryienka to do the ride of his life. Having been one of the most consistent Worlds contenders since 2012, the Belarusian posted excellent times from start to finish to beat Adriano Malori by 9 seconds while Jerome Coppel was 26 seconds behind in third. After a disappointing year, Kiryienka will be back to defend his title but there will be no Malori or Coppel. The Italian is still in a comeback phase following his horrific crash in San Luis and has even been set back by a broken collarbone while the Frenchman ended his career at the Tour de l’Ain in August.

 

The course

As said, the World Championships time trial usually takes place on a relatively flat course but this year it has been taken to a whole new level. The barely a single metre of elevation gain, the course in Qatar is one of the flattest ever.

 

The 2012 course was a very difficult one with several climbs and descents that broke the riders' monotony. The organizers decided to send the riders up many of the climbs that characterize the Limburg province and as it was the case in the road races and the team time trials, the top of the famous Cauberg was located just 1km from the finish line. The 2013 course was almost completely flat and at 57.9km, it was unusually long. Together with the 2011 route in Copenhagen, it stands out as the one most suited to specialists in recent years. In 2014, there was a bit more climbing on the menu but it was again a race dominated by the specialists and last year the course was again almost completely flat.

 

This year’s course is flatter than ever and even easier than the races in Florence and Copenhagen. Furthermore, the race is unusually short as it covers just 40km which is even shorter than the race in Ponferrada. It also follows the recent tradition of not following the road race circuit. In past years, the time trial was almost always held on the main circuit of the race but since the race in Copenhagen, the time trials have had their own courses. The final part of the race still takes place on the circuit but the riders won’t do laps here as they have done so often in the past.

 

The course is exactly the same as the one that was used for the team time trial. The completely flat race starts at the Lusail Sports Complex north of Doha which has often been used for the time trials and team time trials at the Tour of Qatar. The first few kilometres consist of a technically complicated trip around the complex where the riders will tackle numerous roundabouts, 90-degree turns and three U-turns. This opening section is very similar to the individual time trial that has featured in the Tour of Qatar in the last two years.

 

After 13.6km of racing, the first intermediate time check will be taken just as the riders leave the complex. From here, they will follow the long, flat, completely straight road to Doha. There will be a single roundabout at the entrance of the city but otherwise, it’s a very straightforward section that ends when the second time check is taken at the Qatar University after 26.4km of racing.

 

Having reached the city, the roads get a bit more technical on the twisting, curvy roads and it only gets more evident when the riders hit the circuit that will be used for the road races. The final 7.3km will take place here and consist of another relatively technical part. The riders will had wound the Pearl Island on a road that doesn’t have any sharp turns but no straight sections either. The riders will even do two U-turns. However, the challenge will only come from the twisty nature of the road as the terrain will be completely flat.

 

The time trial specialists couldn't have asked for a better course and this is a race that will be decided by power and speed more than technical prowess and climbing skills. The opening and final parts are a bit technical but with the middle section being made up of a long, straight road, it will be a test of power and high speed. This is a day for the big engines on what will be the flattest course in the history of the race.

 

 

 

 

The weather

The big topic of discussion regarding these World Championships has been the weather. The wind can split the road races to pieces but in recent days, the heat has got most of the attention. All riders have had different strategies to try to cope with the brutal temperatures and we have seen some rather dramatic incidents in the first few days of racing.

 

The conditions won’t change for Wednesday’s race as it will be a day with beautiful sunshine and a brutal maximum temperature of 39 degree. It will also be the windiest day yet, with a moderate wind blowing from a northwesterly direction. This means that the riders will have a cross-tailwind almost all the time. The wind will pick up slightly which may favour the late starters.

 

The favourites

Last year the time trial was regarded as the ultimate battle between the three of the four riders that have established themselves as the three greatest specialists: Tony Martin, Rohan Dennis and Tom Dumoulin. Among the four titans, only Fabian Cancellara was absent and the flat course in Richmond offered the perfect chance to find out who had the best engine. However, they all performed rather poorly and it was Vasil Kiryienka who came away with the win. The Belarusian was a solid medal candidate but few would have expected him to win in a discipline where big surprises are relatively rare.

 

This year the three titans will get a chance to take revenge. Again Cancellara is the only of the four big specialists to be absent and again Dennis, Martin and Dumoulin are the three big favourites. Like last year, they will face a very flat course and so it will again be the ultimate chance to find out who’s the greatest specialist in a battle on pure speed and power.

 

Compared to last year’s race, the course in Qatar is even flatter and there is no doubt that this is a day for the specialists. However, the team time trial showed that the technical sections are very important too and especially the opening section will be a test of more diverse skills than just the ability to push a big gear. The power will come into play in the middle part and then the riders will again face some technical challenges in the end.

 

A very important aspect is the shorter distance. Usually, a Worlds time trial takes close to an hour but on this course where the riders will even have a cross-tailwind, it will take much shorter time. It will be a 45-minute affair and this makes a difference compared to the grueling races that we have seen in the past. Many riders specialize in shorter time trials and they will welcome this change. Taylor Phinney who has suffered massively in the long TTs since his comeback from injury, is one of the riders to have publicly welcomed the shorter distance.

 

Last year we had a big surprise with Kiryienka’s win but this year we again find it hard to imagine that the winner will not be one of our three big favourites. On paper, the trio are the best riders for this kind of effort. Last year Kiryienka proved that he could match them but the Belarusian has had  a terrible year when it comes to time trialling. Last year his win came on the back of his best TT year yet and unless he can suddenly turn things completely around, it will be very hard for him to match the three biggest engines.

 

Martin, Dennis and Dumoulin have clashed twice in September, with Martin winning the Eneco Tour TT and Dennis taking a dominant victory at the Eneco Tour. However, those two TTs were much shorter and can’t really be compared to what the riders will face in Qatar. Furthermore, the brutal heat is a factor that will play a big role and will add more complexity to the picture.

 

Martin and Dumoulin are the only riders from the trio to have medaled at the Worlds but this year we will put our money on Rohan Dennis. The Australian has had a difficult year which was fully devoted to the TT in Rio. He was marred by health issues in the spring but luckily he still managed to reach peak condition for the race in Brazil. He was on track for a medal but a late mechanical denied him the third spot on the podium.

 

Dennis had actually planned to skip the Worlds but after the disappointment in Rio, he decided to give the rainbow jersey a shot. Since the race in Brazil, he has been absolutely flying. He lost some weight for the Tour of Britain where only a stupid mistake in stage 2 prevented him from taking the overall win. Later he crushed the opposition in the Eneco Tour TT and he would definitely have won the race if he hadn’t crashed out of the queen stage on the final day.

 

Dennis claims that his form is even better than it was in Rio which is a bit of a surprise for himself. When asked about his chances after the disappointing defeat in the TT, he confidently said: “Did you watch the Eneco Tour? I am in great form.” This speaks volumes about where he is mentally and physically and of the three big favourites, he seems to be the in-form rider.

 

The flat course suits Dennis pretty well as he has proved that he has the power to win the really flats TTs. The big question mark is the distance. He has clearly had his best results in the short TTs and he still needs to prove that he can win a TT over a longer distance. However, his race in Rio shows that he has improved massively in the long time trials and he now seems to be competitive over the longest distances. Furthermore, this time trial is shorter than usual and this will be an advantage for Dennis. Overall, the combination of terrain, distance and form suggests that Dennis is going to claim a maiden title.

 

Surprisingly, Tom Dumoulin hasn’t got much attention for this time trial. His year may have started badly with several disappointments in the time trials but during the summer he showed that he is maybe the best time triallist in the world over long distances. He was in a class of his own in the first Tour de France TT and he even finished second behind Froome in the mountain time trial. Despite his very difficult preparation for Rio, he still managed to finish second behind the superior Fabian Cancellara which was pretty impressive as he was riding with a broken wrist.

 

However, there are several question marks regarding Dumoulin for this race. First of all his form is a bit uncertain. Of the three big favourites, he has had the hardest season as he has been doing the Giro, Tour and Olympics. At the Eneco Tour, he did a very bad time trial and admitted that he was feeling tired. Secondly, he prefers hillier courses and even though he should find the technical sections to his liking, the flat terrain in Qatar is not ideal for him.

 

However, Dumoulin’s form is not too bad. He finished third overall at the Tour of Britain where he was also third in the time trial and even though his TT was bad, his performance in the Eneco Tour bodes well. He was one of the strongest in the queen stage and he did reasonably well at Il Lombardia on a course that did him little favours with the kind of training he has done.

 

Giant-Alpecin didn’t do the best TTT but that was only because they lost two riders early. Actually, Dumoulin must have been pretty strong as they still did reasonably well despite the lack of manpower. Furthermore, Dumoulin seems to be quietly confident and as he has had a very successful season, he is under much less pressure than usual. He feels free to try to achieve the best possible result and he is always one of the best in a long time trial. The course may not be ideal but his win in the TT at last year’s Vuelta shows his high level in this terrain. In our eyes, Dumoulin is the biggest rival for Dennis.

 

If you just look at the results of the last two years, you must be tempted to rule Tony Martin out. The triple world champion has been far from his best and it seems that Father Age has caught up with him. His last two big time trials in Rio and Richmond were real disasters and he didn’t even manage to finish in top 10 at the Olympics which was his big goal for the year.

 

However, there are two very important factors that make another Martin win very realistic. First of all, he has changed his position on the bike. He made his first change in 2015 where he adopted a more aerodynamic position and so skipped the one that he had used for his three Worlds titles. Interestingly, his declining level coincides with the change. He returned to his previous position in the Tour of Britain and he returned to the top step of the podium immediately. He may have failed in the Eneco Tour but it seems that the bike position plays a key role for Martin.

 

Secondly, Martin seems to be in great form. Etixx-QuikStep’s win in the team time trial is a clear indication of his condition. As usual, he was the big engine in the team and he was praised massively by his teammates after the win. The results must have boosted his confidence massively.

 

Finally, the course suits Martin really well. In the past, he was unbeatable on a flat power course as he proved when he made Wiggins and Cancellara look like juniors at the Worlds in Florence. He is extremely powerful on a long, straight section and he is technically good too. He would obviously have preferred a longer distance but the race is still long enough to suit him well. It is definitely not impossible that Martin will equal Cancellara’s record here.

 

Vasil Kiryienka goes into the race as the defending champion but honestly, we don’t have too many expectations. He has had a terrible year in the rainbow jersey and has been far from the top results. He has been climbing really well but in the TTs, nothing have worked and it all culminated with his very bad ride in Rio.

 

However, we won’t rule another Kiryienka medal out completely. After all, he is a bit of a Worlds specialist and he has been in the top 4 every year since 2012. Furthermore, there are a few indications that he is returning to his best. At the Eneco Tour, he turned up too late for the start and so only started 15 seconds ahead of Rohan Dennis. However, he almost matched the Australian which was quite impressive as Dennis took a dominant win.

 

Secondly, Sky did a very good team time trial even though Danny Van Poppel was sick. In reality, they were one man down right from the start and they were still very close to a medal. As he was the big engine in the team, Kiryienka must have been very strong.

 

The course is not too bad for Kiryienka even though he would have preferred it to be less technical and the distance to be longer. Furthermore, it is the first time since 2012 that he hasn’t done the Vuelta which seems to be the optimal preparation for a diesel engine like him. At the end of a bad year, it seems unlikely that he will get another medal but you never know with Kiryienka at the World Championships.

 

Jonathan Castroviejo was very strong in 2013 but in 2014 he suddenly lost the edge in the TTs. That returned towards the end of the year and in 2015 he took a massive step up. He did some excellent time trials on almost every kind of course and he memorably missed out on a Worlds medal by seconds. This year he had similar bad luck at the Olympics as he was just seconds shy of the bronze medal at the Olympics.

 

Castroviejo crashed hard in Algarve and only returned to racing in June. He is a lot fresher than many other riders and he confirmed his form with his second place in the Vuelta time trial. Later he went on to win the TT at the European Championships and since then he has prepared for this race. He was a bit uncertain about whether he could hold his form but he was pleasantly surprised after the TTT where Movistar did pretty well to come back from an early mechanical for Castroviejo. However, the flat course is far from ideal for him – in fact he has described it as “anti-Castroviejo” – and the tailwind means that he won’t get much of an advantage from his extremely aerodynamic position. However, his past results prove that he is also one of the best on this kind of course so we won’t be surprised if he gets a medal.

 

For years, Maciej Bodnar was a solid time triallist but he almost always finished just outside the top 10. However, everything changed when he joined Tinkoff and took a massive step up. In the last two years, he has consistently been among the best in the time trials and he is knocking on the door for a big breakthrough at the Worlds. He could hardly have designed a better course. He prefers the flat terrain and he is technically very strong. It is no coincidence that his two biggest TT wins have come in the flat, technical De Panne TT. This time trial very closely resembles the one at last year’s Vuelta as it is flat, technical and around 40km long. In that TT, Bodnar was second behind Dumoulin. His form seems to be pretty good. Bodnar could very well be the surprise of this race.

 

Alex Dowsett was once destined to become one of the best time triallists. He famously beat Bradley Wiggins at the 2013 Giro but since then he has been very inconsistent. He has never reached the lofty height that his early results suggested but he has occasionally showed impressive class. That was the case when he crushed the opposition in a very similar TT at the Tour de Pologne. Unfortunately, his TTs since then have been pretty poor so there are no guarantees. However, the flat course suits him well so if he is one a good day, he can deliver a very good ride.

 

Victor Campenaerts has improved his level massively since he joined LottoNL-Jumbo during the winter. He was fourth in the Vuelta TT and took the silver medal behind Castroviejo at the European Championships. He is the current Belgian champion and won that title on a similarly flat course. In fact, he seems to be at his best in relatively long flat time trials and so this course suits him pretty well. He looked strong in the team time trial and if he can deliver a performance like the one he made at the European Championships, he should do well here.

 

We are very curious to see what Jos Van Emden can do. The Dutchman is one of the very best in the world when it comes to short, flat time trials. He has just had a career-best result of fifth in the Eneco Tour where he also finished second behind Dennis in the time trial and he seems to be in the form of his life. The flat course is tailor-made for him as he has immense power. However, he has never been able to match the best in the long time trials and he still needs to prove that he can be competitive in this kind of TT.

 

Taylor Phinney was once destined to become world champion but things have changed after he broke his leg and almost had to end his career after a bad crash at Nationals in 2014. The American may still not be at his former level after his bad injury but in the TTTs and the short time trials, he is getting close. He did good time trial in the Tour of Britain – if he hadn’t crashed he would have been very close to the best – and in the Eneco Tour and he should find the flat course to his liking. The big challenge will be the distance as he has still not proved to be competitive in the long time trials. However, the power course suits him down to the ground and with more racing, he should gradually get closer to the level that saw him finish second at Worlds in 2012.

 

Like his compatriot Campenaerts, Yves Lampaert has improved a lot since he joined the WorldTour. Especially in 2016, he has taken a massive step up, most notably with his excellent third place in the Vuelta time trial. He was a close second behind Campenaerts in the Belgian Championships which were held on a pretty similar course. Unfortunately, he didn’t back up those results at the European Championships and he still hasn’t achieved a major result in a big international championships TT. However, his form is good as he played a big role in the TTT win and his performance at the Vuelta shows that he has the potential.

 

Primoz Roglic is the big TT revelation of 2016. Despite being known as a pure climber, he suddenly emerged as a time trial specialist at the Giro where he won the long TT and finished a close second behind Dumoulin in the opening stage and since then he has confirmed his potential in Poland, at the Olympics at the European Championships and at the Eneco Tour. He seems to finish in the top 10 every time and he does well over all distances and on every course. However, his rides at the European Championships and the Olympics indicate that he still needs to improve a bit to be a real medal contender in the big championships.

 

Stephen Cummings deserves a mention. The Brit has had a fantastic season with stage wins in every WorldTour stage race he has done. Recently, he won the Tour of Britain overall and even though he has since had a crash in Italy, his form should be pretty good. In the past, he has done some excellent time trials on short, flat courses and he should find this power route to his liking. However, he hasn’t really achieved any top results in the long TTs so it remains to be seen whether he can realistically challenge the best over a 40km distance.

 

Finally, we will point to Jasha Sütterlin as a joker. The German was a great time triallist as a U23 rider where he almost beat all the WorldTour riders at the Bayern Rundfahrt. However, his first years at the pro level were hard and he seemed to have lost the edge. Now he has suddenly turned things around and he claimed a hugely surprising third place in the Eneco Tour TT and then rode a very impressive queen stage. He looked very strong in the team time trial and seems to be in the form of his life. At the U23 level, he did well over these distances so if he has really returned to his former level, he could deliver a solid surprise here.

 

***** Rohan Dennis

**** Tom Dumoulin, Tony Martin

*** Vasil Kiryienka, Jonathan Castroviejo, Maciej Bodnar

** Alex Dowsett, Victor Campenaerts, Jos Van Emden, Taylor Phinney, Yves Lampaert, Primoz Roglic, Stephen Cummings

* Nelson Oliveira, Jasha Sütterlin, Stefan Küng, Bob Jungels, Manuel Quinziato, Johan Le Bon, Anton Vorobyev, Marcin Bialoblocki

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