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Chasing The Rainbow

By Peter Grace

Once a year the trade teams of cycling take a back seat so that the best riders in the world can compete for their countries to determine the world champions of the road.  It is a fascinating event, as much for the pre-race politics as for the racing, the type of which is more or less unique in modern cycling, but where do the World Road Championships really stand in the grand arena of pro cycling?

Undoubtedly there are anomalies in the format of the World Championships, perhaps most obviously that unlike in other sports such as athletics, many of the best cyclists in the world are not present.  The timing of October, very firmly at the end of the season, may make for a fitting finale, but in practical terms are far from ideal when the likes of Armstrong and Ullrich peak in July and then wind down afterwards.  Next summer’s Olympic Games in Athens are, at three weeks after the end of the Tour, far better scheduled to attract the top names.  For these reasons, the men’s World Championship draws its field mainly from the one-day specialists who aim to be in form all year round, and the riders coming off the Vuelta, plus riders like Cedric Vasseur who often come good towards the end of the season in fairly small stage races.

The other problem with the World Championships that affects some countries more than others is selection, the classic example of course being Italy’s famous ‘Squadra’.  In terms of records cycling is an individual sport.  Italy are not the current world champions, but Mario Cipo llini is the World Champion.  Lance Armstrong, not US Postal, is a five-time winner of the Tour de France.  Yet the nature of the sport being fought in a team environment is a limiting factor on the public being able to see all of the available contenders for the world crown.  It is difficult to fault Franco Ballerini’s selection process because he has arguably achieved a greater balance to the team without Michele Bartoli or David Rebellin than would be the case with those two included.  Having du al leadership only creates more political problems to a team, especially when those two are Bettini and Bartoli.  That said, however, it is a great shame that we don’t get to see riders who are capable of winning the event not being allowed to participate.

It is rare that a sporting system is oversimplified.  Messrs Duckworth and Lewis have everyone confused when a cricket match is interrupted by rain (and on one side of the Atlantic cricket itself is confusing enough), football (or soccer, forgive me for my Englishness) seems to have at least one crackpot new law introduced by the governing bodies each season, and any number of sports now involve teams playing for eight months of the year just to qualify for play-offs that last just one month and determine the winners.  Yet the system that the UCI use for determining the number of riders a country may select is without question oversimplified to the extent that it is in many ways unfair.  To those unfamiliar with the system the top ten nations in the rankings as of 15th August get 12 riders in the road race, the next five countries get 8 riders and the next five get 4 riders.  After that countries ranked from 21 to 30 get 2 riders, whilst remaining places are available for countries outside the top 30 but with riders in the top 500 of the individual rankings.

This system gives an appropriate number for the total field, but using the most recent country rankings as an example, there are noticeable anomalies.  Italy are currently the number one ranked nation with 14,447 points, whilst Denmark, in tenth place have just 3,724 points.  Both would be allowed twelve riders in the World Championships if these were the rankings of 15th August (and indeed both countries have not moved in position since then).  Compare that difference in points with the countries in 15th and 16th in the rankings.  Austria have 2,492 points, Columbia have 2,357 points.  Austria would get 8 riders, Columbia just four (in fact on 15th August, Austria were ranked 12th whilst Columbia were 15th and are therefore also allowed 8 riders – an indication of the volatility involved in the rankings system).  In order to have a fairer balance to the number of riders from each country that participate in the World Championships, some account needs to be given in future to the actual points of each nation, rather than just their ranking.

Enough on the problems of the World Championships though, the event is still a great festival of cycling, bringing together most of the best road cyclists in the world, male and female, juniors and elite, and I said at the start the other area of fascination besides the politics is of course the racing.  This year’s mens road race, even with the absence of key riders, should be one of the best in recent times thanks to the course, which with two hills on each lap, will involve over 4,000 vertical metres of climbing.  Bettini is rightly the favourite, and I expect him to come out on top, but it will be interesting to see how the race develops.  The likely scenario is that the squadra will try to wear down the field gradually until the last two or three laps, when the real action should kick off, with a number of attempts at breakaways in between.  Expect the main challenges to come from Freire, Valverde, Hincapie and Boogerd, whilst Popovych and Bruylandts are strong dark horses.  Depending on his recovery from the time trial, which he should win, David Millar could also be in with a shout if he can last the distance.  On the women’s side, look no further than the recently crowned World Cup winner Nicole Cooke for the road race.

As for concluding on the status of the event, the nature of the season in cycling, with three grand tours and a season-long World Cup, means that the World Championships cannot hold the same prestige as they do in other sports such as athletics or swimming, and the anomalies of the event have been set out.  Despite this, they remain one of the most eagerly anticipated events on the calendar, and provide a different style of racing to that seen throughout the rest of the season.  Whilst being a World Champion does not necessarily mean a rider is considered a great, for many a cyclist the title has put a fine finishing gloss to their palmares, and the pride granted by wearing the rainbow jersey for a season is perhaps unequalled by any other sport.  Bring on Hamilton!




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