This week, the World Championships come to Spain for the first time since the 1997 San Sebastian race, and the country’s epedemic of cycling fever will be prolonged for another week, with symptoms still widespread from an exciting Vuelta a Espana. Although widely considered to be the easiest course since the Zolder race four years ago, some have likened it to the Athens road race course in last year’s Olympics.
The consensus is that a sizeable group sprint will be unavoidable, but the constant drags on each lap will take their toll and could put paid to some sprinters’ hopes, as could late attacks or a pileup, even in the hastily-rectified last hundred metres. Nonetheless, the UCI’s “U-turn U-turn” should ensure a much safer race; the riders’ safety should rightfully come first.
So many teams appear focused on setting up a bunch gallop, but do not discount the host of illustrious names, the vast majority not considered to have the sprinting ability required, lining up to poach rainbow with astute attacks; the top squads will still have to be careful to ensure things stay together.
There has also been a highly controversial revamp of the selection process, resulting in cycling lightweights being given several places on the start line in Madrid, such as Iran (six starters), Burkina Faso (three) and a Rujano-less Venezuala (three); it’s expected that these countries will be lucky to amass one classified finisher between them.
While this move by the sport’s governing body has angered several of the more established nations, there logically should be less control of the race, as the maximum number of starters for the best countries is now nine, rather than twelve as in previous years. Although the effects of these changes may not be seen this year, as a bunch sprint is in several squads’ best interests, it could prove beneficial in the years to come.
Alessandro Petacchi (Italy) - Mario Cipollini’s fall from prominence after his Zolder road race win coincided with Petacchi’s speedy rise to power as the best sprinter in the world, let alone Italy. Recognising his talents, the Italian squad has brought several of his Fassa Bortolo teammates Bernucci, Tosatto and Velo have all made the squad, as key carriages in his leadout train.
Petacchi celebrates another victory.
Experienced campaigners Giovanni Lombardi and Davide Bramati could also prove influential. The “Azzuri” can still count on versatile Pippo Pozzato in the unlikely event of a successful escape occurring. Having fine-tuned preparation in the Vuelta with several stage wins in the bunch sprints including in Madrid itself, on part of the World Championship course, Alessandro Petacchi is undoubtedly the big favourite.
Robbie McEwen (Australia) - In the last ten years particularly, the Antipodeans have really shone in cycling, as scores have made the long trek to Europe and eked out a living there. The team is really spoilt for choice in terms of sprinters, but the general consensus is that “Napoleon” McEwen, endowed with great speed, agility, supreme bike handling skills and a gung-ho attitude, would be the best man to take on Petacchi – and he has been tipped as the Italian’s main challenger.
In winning both Paris-Brussels and GP Fourmies recently, it’s become evident that form or condition are not problems. Also in the Australian team are Baden Cooke are Allan Davis, though cohesion will be needed to make it a clean sweep of Australian elite men titles.
Tom Boonen (Belgium) - Boonen’s precocious talent has really shown itself this year, with wins in Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders alongside countless other victories, including two stages at the Tour de France and his home tour. As the golden boy of Belgium’s cycling – and its apparent revival - winning rainbow here would be the coup de grace of a fantastic year. Although looking a bit slovenly at the Vuelta, Boonen has been building up to this and will be hoping the Belgian team, which includes Quick Step teammates Nuyens and Cretskens, can set him up sufficiently for the finish.
Erik Zabel (Germany) - You’d have to say that it’s Zabel’s last chance to win the rainbow jersey; effectively the last one missing from his collection. A pillar of longevity, what the T-Mobile man (not much longer though, as discord at not being selected in the Ullrich-orientated Tour team contributed heavily in the five time green jersey’s decision to move to Domina Vacanze for 2006) has lost in speed, he has gained in cunning and guile.
"Olaf! Don't pretend to ignore me, you KNOW you want to do an Elvis duet with me!"
Photo by Mani Wollner. Click for larger image.
The ageing German always seems to rise to the challenge when it matters. Considering the year he’s endured, with a host of second place finishes, Zabel, a servant to professional cycling, scrapping for victories from February to October, would be a very popular winner. Moreover, it would be some parting shot to T-Mobile!
Alejandro Valverde (Spain) - Take your pick. Honestly, half the Spanish teams consists of riders good in the hills who can polish things off with competent sprints. Valverde is the dark horse, the man with unknown form after missing the Vuelta. Spain’s brightest hope has recently alleged that his form is as it was near Tour time. He’s been training frantically in the hope of being ready, but lack of race condition should put paid to his hopes.
Undoubtedly, Spain would like to keep the rainbow jersey for a third year running, though it would take a race of attrition for their swarm of hardened sprinters to really have a shot. Still, with Hamilton rainbow jersey winner Igor Astarloa, Miguel Angel Perdiguero, Juan Antonio Flecha and Constantino Zaballa all in the squad, they aren’t spoilt for choice.
Max van Heeswijk (The Netherlands) - The Discovery Channel sprinter is the great Dutch hope this year; efforts will be directed at putting the thirty-year old in prime position for the finish. His uphill sprint win on stage seven of the Vuelta, albeit without Petacchi to face, was very encouraging, considering the similarities to the slightly-uphill Madrid finish. At this year’s Worlds, it will be twenty years since the Netherlands last won the rainbow jersey, through an evergreen Joop Zoetemelk. Though erratic, if van Heeswijk is on a great day, he could just pull it off.
Thor Hushovd (Norway) - So, the UCI are off the Norwegian Cycling Federation’s Christmas card list. Thanks to the new startlist procedures, the mighty Thor is in quite a quandary: at Madrid, he will have no teammates, something the bigwigs must rectify, pronto. I wouldn’t imagine that Sweden, Finland or Denmark will be stooping to help their Scandinavian brethren either. Undoubtedly, Hushovd has the quality, speed and power to sustain a long sprint, but he will have no team protection on the long course and will have to be very focused to jump onto a leadout train to launch his sprint from. Over 273km, it also seems like a lot of work for one man to do.
Fred Rodriguez (United States of America) - Colombian-born Rodriguez has had a solid year at Davitamon-Lotto, as understudy to Robbie McEwen, which partly explains why he has only won once, a stage of the GP Costa Azul in Portugal. We were treated to shows of acceleration in several Tour stages as Rodriguez led out his captain adeptly. A strong American team, including rejuvenated Bobby Julich and retiring John Lieswyn, will also be at his every whim. We all know who the last American world champion was, don’t we? It’s a hard act to follow…
Jean-Patrick Nazon (France) - Although probably the best sprinter in the French lineup, Nazon has been woefully inconsistent this year. However, there have been good signs recently, with third places at Paris-Brussels and GP Fourmies showing Nazon’s preparation is on track. The last French world champion (and the last one from a Spanish-held road race), Laurent Brochard, is also in attendance.
The French have endured a poor season as the other countries have made their inroads and are now bettering them on the continent; victory looks unlikely here, but Nazon can mix it with the best, as we’ve seen on occasions the Tour de France.
Attackers - Who could stick it from a breakaway? It would take a mean feat of tactical nous and hard work, but several teams have kept ‘Plan B’ riders in case of a well-timed attack. Peter van Petegem, Philippe Gilbert (Belgium), Laurent Brochard (France), Alexandre Vinokourov (Kazakhstan) and Juan Antonio Flecha (Spain) are among those highly anticipated to try to win the rainbow stripes from a small group or even solo.
There are so many other sprinters and attackers who could do well – Hunter, Hammond, Forster, Eisel, Kirchen, to name just five. An open race could easily produce a totally unexpected champion. Though the removal of the U-turn at the finish will ensure less fitful nights for sprinters and leadout men, it still will be very hard to pick the right wheels and make the right split-second decisions. The riders make the race as much as the parcours does, so here’s hoping for a thrilling race. I’m not holding out for a Burkina Fasan victory, though…