Preview: Men’s World Championship Road Race 2016

Peter Sagan swaggers over the line in Richmond, in 2015. Photo via cyclingweekly.co.uk

Here it is then, amongst the last races of the year, and a major season target for many. Last year’s road race, in Richmond, Virginia, brought with it short cobbled climbs, steep ramps fit for attacking, and a fast run in to the finish of a tight, city-centre circuit. Peter Sagan rose to the occasion and made good use of the mini-climbs, powering away from strong rivals — including Greg Van Avermaet and Rigoberto Uran — at just the right time to stay away for a solo victory. It was one of our favourite races of last year. However, whilst there’s a chance for another win by Sagan this year, we’d bet against it being as exciting.

As we’ve seen this week and in the elite women’s road race, the course in Doha is flat and uncomplicated, save for a bizarre set of twists and turns along the sea front which promise either a slow pace or a set of crashes. The landscape is largely uninspiring, too. The men’s race is 122km longer than the women’s, and the bulk of those extra kilometres will take the riders out into the desert on exposed roads. As is the case for the Tour of Qatar in February, the wind could therefore be a big factor in the first 130km of the race. The current forecast is for a 24mph northwesterly on Sunday. This means that the riders will be heading into a headwind until they turn back towards Doha at the 70km point, so logic dictates a tailwind will ease their way slightly back to the Qatari capital. This lessens the likelihood that we’ll see crosswinds on the exposed desert section of the race, so there will be little advantage for any breakaway or canny classics riders. The final 120km will be covered over seven laps of the 15.2km Pearl circuit. This circuit was used for the second stage of this year’s Tour of Qatar, and on that occasion Alexander Kristoff won by a tire width ahead of Mark Cavendish in a photo finish.

This one is definitely going to be an endurance event for the audience as much as anything else. The parcours indicate that a sprint is the most likely outcome here, and the calibre of the superstar riders who fancy a shot at the rainbow jersey tends to signal that the majority of the teams will want it to end in a sprint. It’s also worth noting that this might be the only race this whole season that brings together every single one of the best sprinters in the sport, so at least it will be exciting  in the final few minutes. Here’s a quick run through of the key contenders. It’s also worth noting that the course is unlikely to be shortened, despite signs that the temperatures will be in excess of 32 degrees celsius, during a race that may last over six hours.

Last year’s winner Peter Sagan will once more be looking for a good result, and he’s had a (typically) great season in the lead up to the Worlds. The Slovak team isn’t the strongest in the race, so he’ll have to find his own position behind a strong set of wheels in the finale — very much business as usual. What is unusual, though, is that Sagan might not be amongst even the best three sprinters in this race, and he’ll have to fight even to find the podium. That’s because all three of André GreipelMarcel Kittel, and Mark Cavendish will be in attendance. Cav’s year has been sensational, with those four stage wins in the Tour de France and silver in the Omnium in Rio. But even he found himself swamped at times, with both Kittel and Greipel taking stages (Greipel, indeed, crossed the line first on the Champs Elysées).

What needs to be remembered, though, is that this is the World Championships, which means that Kittel and Greipel will be on the same team. The German squad also features John Degenkolb, but it’s likely that he will be satisfied to play the role of super-leadout man to either Kittel or Greipel. It remains to be seen, though, whether they will both be allowed a chance at the podium, or if a well-drilled train will lead out one or the other. If we had to pick, we’d go with Greipel, as Kittel will have had to recover from the team time trial event last Sunday.

Some big names already, but we’re not even half done. Let’s assume that was the top tier of sprint powerhouses, but not far below is a second assortment of strong riders. Colombia’s Fernando Gaviria has yet to show consistency in his sprint finishes, but when he gets it right he can easily pull past the more seasoned riders, and he definitely has a chance at something good here. Gaviria sprung a brilliant surprise at last week’s Paris-Tours, launching his sprint from 700 metres out and making it stick. He won’t be alowed to pull that one again here and will be closely watched by the other teams! Australia have Michael Matthews, who is again a rider only let down by some inconsistency, and Caleb Ewan, who has been on extraordinary form all year and would arguably suit the criterium-style finishing circuit more than his senior countryman. But as we saw last year the Aussie team isn’t great at having dual leaders! Norway’s Alexander Kristoff will also be in the mix, though it’s not quite been the season he’d have wanted, with some mixed results on display. However, it’s worth noting that Kristoff won the Doha-Doha stage of the Tour of Qatar very early on in this season, and it’s entirely possible that lightning could strike in the same place twice.

Throwing his fists just behind Kristoff and Matthews will be Nacer Bouhanni for France. However, France also have Arnaud Démare, who has been on outstanding form of late, and who has proven himself a little less reckless than his compatriot. It’s likely that Bouhanni will be asked to work for Démare, but what might be less likely is whether he will do so. Ben Swift is in the mix as a back up for Cavendish, but is more likely to act as strong leadout for the Manxman.

*Pauses to catch breath*  Okay, that’s the top selections dealt with. But there are yet more sprinters in with a chance! Don’t forget how well Dylan Groenewegen rode in the Tour de France this year, before taking a stage in the Tour of Britain — he might represent the best chance for the Netherlands here. Italy have a great duo in the guise of Giacomo Nizzolo and Elia Viviani — expect the former to ride for the latter, with Sonny Colbrelli bringing in support. There’s also a chance that Sam Bennett might step up for Ireland and leave a mark on this race, though he’ll have a hard time coming around so many talented sprinters.

There are more, but we’re going to step back from the pure sprinters now to mention just a few more riders. We cannot not mention Greg Van Avermaet. Swamped in the finale last year, but always in the mix till the end, GVA will be targeting this one even if it doesn’t entirely suit him. He’s had an unbelievable year, with a spell in the yellow jersey in the Tour (which he defended by attacking the peloton), and the overall win in Tirreno-Adriatico and gold in the Olympic road race. We don’t think he’ll win this, but we expect him to throw his full weight into the race. We also want to mention another Belgian rider, Tom Boonen. It’s probably fair to say that we’ve all been waiting for a big Boonen comeback, and that it hasn’t really materialised. Certainly, his biggest result this year was coming 2nd in Paris-Roubaix, and achievement that was overshadowed by the disbelief on the face of the winner, Matthew Hayman. It’s now been over a decade since Boonen won the rainbow jersey, and his chances are running out — indeed, this might be it. It’s a flat course, a long course, and one for survivors — if the man from Belgian can stand the desert heat, then there might just be one last shot remaining for that comeback.

Picks:

We’ll go with Greipel for the win here, given his recent form as well as what is, on paper, a super strong supporting team. It’s truly difficult to pick a runner up or an outsider here, but we’ll nevertheless be looking to a highly motivated Peter Sagan to try to hold to his rainbow jersey, with Mark Cavendish rounding out the podium. Taken as a whole, it’s unlikely to be a race to remember, but it may well be a sprint finish that we’ll still be talking about this time next year.

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