Saturday, September 26, 2009

Worlds Road Race Preview

Worlds Road Race

The Start List for Sunday’s Elite Men World Championship Road Race has been finalized, so it’s time for Pavé’s Race Preview. Let’s start at the bottom and work our way up to #1, shall we?

Finland (#201)
The last rider registered is #201, Jussi Veikkanen. He’s Finland’s lone representative and offers a terrific place to begin our run-down. Clearly a dark horse candidate, several constellations would need to align for him to take the win—but stranger things have happened.

Ireland (#’s 195-193)
Ireland brings three riders: Philip Deignan, Daniel Martin, and Nicolas Roche. Like their homeland, Ireland’s team this year is small, but not to be overlooked. Deignan just won a stage of the Vuelta, Martin is one of the sport’s future stars to watch, and Roche showed in the Tour that he too has big days ahead. Watch for them to play a supporting, but aggressive role in Sunday’s race.

Sweden (#’s 181-179)
Rider #181 is Thomas Lokvist. We haven’t heard much from him since his win in L’Eroica earlier this year, but he’s certainly someone to note—especially with Kessiakoff (#179) and Ljungqvist (#180) riding with him.

Canada (#’s 178-176)
Oh, Canada! You’ve got a team with depth similar to Ireland’s. Ryder Hesjedal’s (#177) confidence has skyrocketed since his terrific two days in the Vuelta. With Svein Tuft (#178) and Michael Barry (#176) riding support, he’s just the type to pull a big surprise—especially from an mid-race breakaway.

Slovakia (#’s 172-170)
Two of Slovakia’s three entrants share a last name—Martin and Peter Velits (#’s 171 and 172). Race favorites? Perhaps not. Riders who could animate and maybe finish near the front? Absolutely. Don’t forget, Peter won the U23 title in 2007.

Kazakhstan (#’s 138-133)
Cue the Darth Vader March. Kazakhstan takes the line with both Andrey Kashechkin (#137) and Alexandre Vinokourov (#138). They say they can’t stand one another, but I wonder if that will change should one of them be in a position to take the win. Vinokourov looked better than decent in Thursday’s ITT. Should one of these men grab the Rainbow Jersey, I’m pretty certain Pat McQuaid will spontaneously combust.

Slovenia (#117-112)
Another rider looking fast Thursday was Slovenia’s Janez Brajkovic (#114). He’s a talented rider, capable of making it over the hills with the best. Vuelta stage winner Borut Borzic (#113) rides as well; should a large group hit the line he could pull-off the shock of the year.

Switzerland (#’s 111-106)
The home squad looks set to do everything in its power to set-up Fabian Cancellara (#108) for the double. While at first this might seem absurd, think about Spartacus’ Tour de Suisse win this year. Think about his road stage win in the Tour. Think about his bronze medal in the Olympic Road Race last year. When he’s on-form and motivated—which he certainly is—he’s almost unstoppable. And don’t forget Michael Albasini (#106). He’ll probably go on the offensive to take the heat-off Cancellara during the race’s early to mid stages, but if given the green light, he could play spoiler.

Denmark (#’s 105-100)
Denmark’s squad seems a bit depleted this year, with only six riders taking the start. Jakob Fulsgang (#102) is a young climber more than capable of making an even bigger name for himself here. Matti Breschel (#101)—should the race come to a small group sprint—could certainly place well.

Czech Republic (#’s 99-97)
More than anyone else, Roman Kreuziger (#98) will be checking the weather report Saturday night—and praying. It might rain, and for a rider who’s narrowly missed big wins on wet days (San Sebastian and the Vuelta), he can’t help but hope the third time will be a charm. On paper—and I know I’ve said this before—I think he’s a favorite to take the win. The question remains though whether his head has what it takes to get him where he needs to be for victory.

France (#’s 96-91)
The boys from France only get six spots this year, but they have a team that could easily get the job done. Thomas Voeckler, Pierrick Fedrigo, and Sylvain Chavanel (#’s 96, 93, and 92, respectively) are all talented one-day riders. They’ll need to attack, attack, and attack some more if they hope to win. If they can stay fresh in the first half, and let the fireworks fly in the last 50km, they could bring home France’s first rainbow jersey since Laurent Brochard in 1997.

The Netherlands (#’s 90-85)
The Dutch are another squad bumped from 9 to 6 riders, but from top to bottom they have perhaps the deepest team in the race. Koos Moerenhout (#90) plays the role of the wily veteran, a road captain capable of reading the race as it happens. Sebastien Langeveld (#91) offers pure power—he can sit on the front all day and drive the field if need be. As for the rest, Karsten Kroon, Johnny Hoogerland, Robert Gesink, and Lars Boom (#’s 85 through 88) need to just sit tight and take turns going with the attacks in the race’s latter phases. Should one of these men come-up with the goods, it would be a terrific end to a season that—on the whole—fell short of national expectations.

Great Britain (#’s 84-76)
It’s a long shot, but David Millar (#81) and Roger Hammond (#79) will be carrying the hopes for the Union Jack’s success in Mendrisio, as we begin a group of teams with which the right to start 9 riders has to be called into question. Mark Cavendish—the rider who garnered the bulk of GB’s world points—chose to stay home, leaving the squad without an undisputed leader for Sunday. But don’t count Millar and Hammond out; they’re savvy riders, both capable of getting themselves in the right place at the right time to pull-off the upset.

USA (#’s 75-68)
Like Great Britain, the USA is another team that might have to face questions as to whether or not it deserves 9 riders in the race. Tom Danielson (#70) set fire to the first half of the Vuelta, then wilted when his bowels couldn’t hold-up their end of the bargain. Tyler Farrar (#72) won a stage in that race, but it was about 2 or 3 short of what we expected. Both are looking for big rides, but one has to think their best days are past them. For me, I’m excited to see what Thomas Peterson (#75) can do. He’s young, skilled in the hills, and rides with panache. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him in the lead group come Sunday, possibly being the road race’s version of Tom Zirbel.

Norway (#’s 67-59)
A few weeks ago I would have been inclined to bash Norway for having 9 riders in the race. Looking at their starters though, I’d be eating my words. Thor Hushovd, Edvald Boassen Hagen, and Kurt Asle Arvesen (#’s 62, 60, and 59) form quite a formidable core. Boassen Hagen is the clear favorite here, but the rest could certainly take the win if things fall their way. In a large group, Hushovd will be tough to beat if the course proves easier than expected. From an early break, Arvesen could easily crash the party.

Luxembourg (#’s 58-55)
At least Andy Schleck (#58) is racing. It’s disappointing to see a team that earned 9 riders show-up with 4. Andy left the Vuelta with stomach cramps—maybe the time off was enough to get him the form he needs here. Kim Kirchen (#57) would love to end a disappointing season with the Rainbow Jersey. With only two teammates, they’ll need all the help they can get.

Belgium (#’s 54-46)
I still can’t figure-out why Stijn Devolder was left off the Belgian team. (Well, I think I do know actually.) Nevertheless, Belgium comes to the race with its best chance to win since Tom Boonen in 2005. By the way: do you know who won Worlds the last time it was held in Switzerland? Johan Museeuw. Don’t get your hopes up though, Tommeke fans; the favorite this time is Philipe Gilbert (#50). He’s been on a quite a tear lately, coming out of the Vuelta with the form of his life. If his team can avoid infighting (wouldn’t that be ironic, Stijn?), Gilbert could easily make Wallonia and the rest of Belgium proud. A strong group backs him including: Boonen (#46), Nick Nuyens (#52), and Greg Van Avermaet (#53). Of these, Nuyens might offer the biggest threat to Gilbert’s leadership, particularly if he gets himself in a break where a choice needs to be made between working and sitting-on. Boonen and Van Avermaet will be hoping for a sprint. If all goes as planned, it could be a terrific day for Belgium.

Russia (#’s 45-37)
Russia takes the line with a solid team that—if it’s smart—will be putting all of its eggs in Sergei Ivanov’s (#39) basket. Ivanov’s a wily veteran who knows how to win important events. For example, who would have thought he would win his second Amstel this year over such strong competition? He’s been relatively quiet in his build-up, but if he’s indeed in good form, he has to be considered a candidate for the title.

Germany (#’s 36-28)
On paper, Germany comes to the race with a team of sprinters including Gerald Ciolek (#28) and Andre Greipel (#30). While a bunch kick seems doubtful, a German win’s certainly not impossible. Both of these men have shown an ability to survive after other fast men have been dropped. If a group comes to the line and Greipel’s in it, look for him to easily continue the domination he started in the Vuelta. Otherwise, Germany places its hopes in Tony Martin (#33), the bronze medalist in Thursday’s ITT. Will he ride for the others, or will he be given the green light to try for himself?

Australia (#’s 27-19)
Of all the 9-man teams, Australia has clearly one of the strongest—a solid mix of hard-working domestiques, veteran leadership, and 3 riders capable of winning in a variety of ways. Simon Gerrans, Cadel Evans, and Allan Davis (#’s 22, 21, and 20) need to be taken very seriously. Gerrans has shown himself to be one of the best one-day riders in the world over the past year, taking stages in all three Grand Tours. Davis is no slouch either; he’s been winning since January! As for Cadel, well, it hasn’t been the greatest season for him. When he wants to be, he’s a powerful rider more than capable of winning on a course such as this. If he can keep his head straight—and his tires inflated—he could easily outmatch the other favorites. Look for them to hold the Cadel card up their sleeve, saving him for the final move while Gerrans plays the role of top-lieutenant and Davis sits-in for a possible sprint.

Spain (#’s 18-10)
Spain’s depth may prove to be its own worst enemy. With both Alejandro Valverde (#18) and Samuel Sanchez (#17) in the fold, there could be a case of two many cooks in the lead pot. At some point, one man might have to defer to the other—a tough decision as both have the talent and the form needed to take the win. Will Sanchez repay Valverde for his patience in Beijing? Or will he try and avenge his loss in this Vuelta by adding the Rainbow Jersey to his Olympic gold medal? Oscar Freire (#12) rides his penultimate Worlds, hoping to spend his final season in rainbows. Like the Aussies’ Davis, he’ll need a field sprint or a large group to get to the line together, but even then he might have to defer to Valverde. Aside from these three, look for Carlos Barredo (#10) to play a roll in a breakaway at some point, possibly gunning for the win should he find himself in the position. Overall though, Spain has—along with Italy and maybe Australia and Belgium—one of the strongest teams in the race. Anything less than victory would be a disappointment.

Italy (#’s 9-1)
And last but certainly not least, we have Italy. Between the two of them, Spain and Italy have won 8 out of the last 10 world road titles—with Italy taking the last 3. They bring a team to Mendrisio ready for number 4. The defending champion, Alessandro Ballan, starts with dossard #1. However, while he’s in good shape, his Lampre teammate, Damiano Cunego, is everyone’s top-favorite following his 2 Vuelta stage wins. Clearly Cunego is the man to watch—which just might play into Ballan’s favor, allowing him to sneak away for a repeat win. And don’t forget Ivan Basso and Filippo Pozatto (#’s 2 and 7), they’ve won some big races too, and could easily take the race if the opportunity arrives. The same could be said for Stefano Garzelli and Luca Paolini (#’s 5 and 7). And don’t forget Michele Scarponi (#8)—he won 2 stages in this year’s Giro as well the overall at Tirreno-Adriatico. Then there’s Giovanni Visconti (#9), who’s been winning build-up races in Italy all fall. In fact, the only rider for Italy who we might logically say doesn’t take the line with a legitimate chance to win is Marzio Bruseghin. But even he’s a rider that—

Well, you know what I mean.

So in closing, here’s our Stone Rankings for the race:

5-Stone Favorites:
Damiano Cunego
Philippe Gilbert
Alejandro Valverde
Samuel Sanchez
Edvald Boassen Hagen

4-Stone Favorites:
Fabian Cancellara
Roman Kreuziger
Cadel Evans
Alessandro Ballan

3-Stone Favorites:
Allan Davis
Andre Greipel
Thor Hushovd
Nick Nuyens
Andy Schleck
Lars Boom
Filippo Pozatto
Ivan Basso

2-Star Favorites:
Sylvain Chavanel
Robert Gesink
Janez Brajkovic
Alexandre Vinokourov
Tyler Farrar
Giovanni Visconti

And last but not least, here’s Pavé's picks for the podium (no alliteration intended):

Rainbow Jersey: Philippe Gilbert
Silver Medal: Damiano Cunego
Bronze Medal: Edvald Boassen Hagen

Enjoy the race! And as always, share your comments below.

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