On Sunday, the 24th, the UCI Road World Championships will reach their epilogue in Bergen, Norway, when the men’s elite road race will be contested by a peloton of almost 200 athletes. The 267.5km race course includes an initial 39.5km through the nearby fjords before the cyclists reach the scenic Norwegian city, where they’ll tackle a challenging finishing loop of 19.1km a total of 12 times.
This Classics-like, urban circuit contains three ascents, which are bound to disentangle drivers and passengers inside the bunch as the fatigue sets in, and the last promises to feature prominently in the race’s decision. The climb up Mount Ulriken (Salmon Hill) averages 6.4% over just 1.5km, but it is expected to be furiously attacked, especially over the initial 500 metres at 7.8%, after which the slope sweetens a bit. However, from the top, it’s a twisting 1km descent and a flat 9km run in to the finish line, and that means there’s a 50%-50% chance that a peloton or a strong team effort chases down a small breakaway to set up a final bunch sprint, or, in alternative, a group of escapees makes it to the end.
Moreover, thickening the plot, Bergen’s recognizably instable weather may show up to accentuate the drama, and insert further unpredictability on a bumpy race where the tactical nous will certainly come to the fore. As a consequence, the list of contenders for the rainbow jersey is long and diverse, and that’s precisely the aspect this article hopes to cast a light on.
Surveying the startlist for the event, a few names jump out right away, but we aimed to go deeper than just ordering a limited number of candidates to victory and, instead, opted to divide the contestants in five tiers. At the top of the pyramid, we’ll have our five and four “stars” candidates, the men that dominate the betting odds entering the competition, and we’ll slowly extend the scope until the unveil of the group of “one star” dark horses at the base. Or you can just consider the rest of the field as the bottom level, since we would be truly shocked if anyone not mentioned claims victory at the race’s end or rises to the podium.
✮✮✮✮✮ (5 stars)
Peter Sagan (Slovakia)
The two-time defending Champion is the odds-on favourite again and, as such, deserves a class of his own.
Nevertheless, if the Slovak wants to make history by becoming the first to collect three rainbow jerseys in a row, and join Alfredo Binda, Rik Van Steenbergen, Eddy Merckx and Oscar Freire on the selected group of three-time World Champions, he’ll have to be smart and don’t fall prey to the distractions rival nations will throw at him.
While Slovakia will bring a six-men unit this time, it’s doubtful Sagan will have help when the final and potentially decisive climb arrives, so he might as well just go on the offense, like he did in Richmond 2015, or pick his poison careful when the group breaks apart. On good form over the last few weeks, responding to the ejection from the Tour de France with stage victories at the Tour of Poland and BinckBank Tour before a perfect last rehersal at the GP de Québec, Sagan’s preparation has been hampered by an illness yet he’s expected to be fully fit for battle.
✮✮✮✮ (4 stars)
Matteo Trentin (Italy), Michal Kwiatkowski (Poland), Greg Van Avermaet (Belgium), Michael Matthews (Australia)
The Olympic Champion Greg van Avermaet may have been pipped by Sagan in Québec just two weeks ago, but he’s had success in direct confrontations with the Slovak before and will certainly tap on those memories when time arrives. Outstanding last spring, when he bagged the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, E3 Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgen and the Paris-Roubaix, the Belgium has no wins to his name since June and has looked a few notches below his best, yet the backing of an impressive team and a stellar résumé in one-day races over the last two years ensure he’s a major candidate.
Michal Kwiatkowski, the 2014 World Champion following a surprising attack at the foot of the last climb in Ponferrada, is as versatile as they come and a legitimate danger in whatever scenario plays out for his ability to raid uphill, downhill or on flat terrain. Brilliant throughout the season, from the triumphs at the Strade Bianchi and Milan-San Remo in March, to the podiums at the Ardennes classics or his shifts leading the pack up the mountains of the Tour de France, the Pole is another opponent that owns real estate inside Sagan’s head due to their shared history (2016 Harelbeke; 2017 Milan-San Remo).
A runner-up two years ago, Michael Matthews’ candidacy receives a boost for no longer having to share leadership duties with Simon Gerrans, which proved problematic in years past. Furthermore, the Aussie made great strides this season after a move to Team Sunweb, conquering the green jersey at the Tour de France, a tremendous confidence builder, and placing fourth at the Liège-Bastogne-Liège to showcase just how much he’s improved in steep, short climbs. The 26-year-old may not in Sagan’s or Kwiatkowski’s level if asked to react quickly to attacks uphill, but he should be able to hang around to capitalize on a chaotic finish.
The central character on the World Tour over the last month, Matteo Trentin arrives in Norway on a roll after pilling up wins in several terrains. For long overshadowed at Quick-Step Floors and asked to labour for others to shine, this might be the opportunity of a lifetime for the 28-year-old. While Italy isn’t short on options, and hence unlikely to present a united front behind Trentin, he’s earned the right to not defer to others and, in a final sprint, few may be able to outpace him. Conspiring against the Italian’s chances, though, is the fact that he’s never had these many eyeballs pointed at him whilst facing such an illustrious field of rivals, and the lack of a previous impact victory, or even podium appearance, at a major one-day race resembling the mix of distance and hilly difficulties he’ll encounter in Bergen.
✮✮✮ (3 stars)
Fernando Gavíria (Colombia), Julian Alaphilippe (France), Alexander Kristoff (Norway), Edvald Boasson Hagen (Norway), Philippe Gilbert (Belgium)
Coming in fresher than any of his rivals after a three month convalescence from a knee injury, Julian Alaphilippe’s lean shoulders will be asked to sustain the hopes of a cycling nation who’s about to reach two decades without an elite men’s road title. Leaving the best French sprinters (Bouhanni, Démare, Coquard) at home was an irrefutable sign of confidence on the 25-year-old, but we can’t help to think it may be too early. Alaphilippe is hugely talented, can climb and sprint, and is a good bet to win this race in the future, yet his performance at the Vuelta doesn’t exactly instil the trust that he can beat the likes of Matthews, Sagan or Kwiatkowski in Bergen.
Colombia’s Fernando Gavíria is, arguably, the fastest man in the peloton that will line up Sunday morning and, therefore, the man to beat in a bunch finale, however we’re not sure he has what it will take to cling to the front if the race is seriously attacked late, no matter the strength of the Colombian roster around him. Truth be told, his teammates are mostly climbers, not often urged to power in frantic pursuit of a breakaway, thus someone would need to give a helping hand others would be foolish to offer. Additionally, Gavíria didn’t exactly light up the recent Tour of Britain, and hasn’t raced a lot since May, when he dominated the sprints at the Giro.
The 23-year-old’s physical condition is another question mark going in and, since there will be years to come when the route will suit him better, don’t deposit too many chips on his number. Still, we can’t rule him out either.
Much like his compatriot and rival Greg van Avermaet, Philippe Gilbert’s peak condition was observed earlier in the season. Victorious at the Tour de Flanders and Amstel Gold Race in April, when he looked rejuvenated following his departure from BMC, the former World Champion (2012) faded as the season went on to pass incognito through the recent Tour of Britain. Nevertheless, Gilbert is savvy and experienced, perfectly aware of what’s necessary to navigate a race like this, and a four-time Monument winner. You simply can’t discount him, much less when he’ll enjoy the freedom to go on his own.
Crowned European Champion just a month ago, Alexander Kristoff would have been hailed as an all-out favourite on home soil if not for a 2017 season that has unfolded several rungs below his standards. Wins have been hard to come by for the 30-year-old, especially at the World Tour level (just two), and a plethora of podiums and top ten finishes don’t conceal the fact that he’s been on the losing end of many clashes with the main opponents he’ll face in Bergen. Heck, in his current form, we’re not even sure he would crack a 40-men leading group at the top of Salmon Hill on the last lap… Kristoff may transcend himself at the sight of a throng of Norwegian fans and flags, but we won’t count on it, not even if the race is decided on a mass sprint.
On the contrary, the other Norwegian hope, Edvald Boasson Hagen, should be monitored closely by the other favourites. The 30-year-old impressed at the Tour of Britain earlier this month, and the familiar surroundings may be exactly what he needs to finally get over the hump and secure a major triumph for his career. After all, this season, Boasson Hagen has already snatched victories on the overall classifications of the Tour de Fjords and Tour of Norway, and understanding how to thrive at home is always important, regardless of the disparity between those races and the Worlds. In addition, let’s hope taking part in last Wednesday’s individual time trial didn’t emptied his tank.
✮✮ (2 stars)
Elia Viviani (Italy), Diego Ulissi (Italy), Sonny Colbrelli (Italy), Oliver Naesen (Belgium), Tim Wellens (Belgium), Tony Gallopin (France), Michael Albasini (Switzerland), Rui Costa (Portugal), Daniel Martin (Ireland)
This “two stars” echelon is a heterogeneous group that agglutinates backup options and leaders from smaller nations, with the Italian trio, in particular, sticking out as wildcards to keep an eye on.
Sprinter Elia Viviani racked up two important World Tour wins recently (Bretagne Classic and Hamburg Cyclassics) and held his own at the Milan-San Remo earlier this season, yet help may be hard to come by if he struggles on one of the ascents. Moreover, in a crowded finish, compatriot Sonny Colbrelli, who has toppled Viviani twice in the last weeks, could overrule his challenge, while Diego Ulissi is an adaptable option Italy will save in the back pocket to play judiciously. A two-time World Champion in the junior ranks, the 28-year-old, who won the GP de Montreal two weeks ago, is a respectable finisher in small groups, however you won’t find many relevant appearances in races with this mileage on his career to date.
Belgium’s Tim Wellens is aggressive, fearless, unpredictable and a lock to emerge on a breakaway sometime during the race, but equally unlikely to be given much leeway by the peloton or conserve enough energy to follow the best when the race breaks loose. Moreover, he offers few guarantees in terms of final acceleration, which limits his upside. Oliver Naesen, the well-rounded Belgian Champion, is another rider capable of agitating the race, but he’ll probably be asked to save his energy for the benefit of others.
Meanwhile, Tony Gallopin is a decent backup option for France in case something happens to Alaphilippe, and he proved it by being right in the thick of action on the Canadian World Tour events, Tour of Wallonie and Clásica San Sebastian since the end of July. Flying under the radar can only improve his odds of a good result in Bergen.
Rui Costa, the surprising 2013 World Champion, has been snakebitten, falling on the wrong side of many close calls this season – including three second places at the Giro –, yet his luck shouldn’t turn in Bergen. A smart rider who relies on instinct to sniff the right break, he can finish but will have a hard time trying to discard or outsprint any of the main contenders. As for Ireland’s Daniel Martin, a proven hilly classics expert, it’s expected he will play a key role in blasting the race open on the final ascent, but that won’t make for the missing rolling skills to sustain, by himself, a small advantage in the final 9kms.
Always a force to be reckoned with at the Ardennes Classics, especially the Flèche Wallone, 36-year-old Swiss Michael Albasini has never triumphed at a meaningful one-day race, become a National Champion or finished better than 17th (2012) at the Worlds. It’s implausible it will happen this time.
✮ (1 star)
Ben Swift (Great Britain), Adam Blythe (Great Britan), José Joaquim Rojas (Spain), Nikias Arndt (Germany), Dylan Theuns (Belgium), Jasper Stuvyen (Belgium), Lars Boom (Netherlands), Danny van Poppel (Netherlands), Jean-Pierre Drucker (Luxembourg), Daryl Impey (South Africa), Sergio Henao (Colombia), Rigoberto Urán (Colombia), Magnus Cort Nielsen (Denmark), Petr Vakoc (Czech Republic)
It’s symptomatic that, in the absence of Alejandro Valverde, the first and only Spaniard barely slides into the last tier. And even that may be too kind for José Joaquim Rojas, a low-end sprinter with ten career victories and a single World Tour success recorded over the last five seasons.
Since Mark Cavendish was left at home for lack of form, Ben Swift and Adam Blythe carry Great Britain’s dim ambitions. The former claimed two podiums at the Milan-San Remo (2014, 2015), but has mostly been inconspicuous this season, while the latter outpaced Cavendish on the National Championships yet doesn’t have a lot of experience at this level of competition.
Belgium’s Dylan Theuns would be higher up the list had this race been held one month earlier, however the form that resulted in his breakthrough performances in July and early August seemed to vanish in Canada. Meanwhile, his teammate Jasper Stuyven is a decent sprinter sadly stuck on a team with too many (better) options.
The vigorous Lars Boom popped on the radar after winning the Tour of Britain, yet his only real chance would be an implausible solo break. Still, there other ways he could impact the race, especially if a thick group makes it past the final slope. Boom could then maintain the pace in the front of the pack or shield a guy like Danny van Poppel, the Netherlands’ late call up.
Nikias Arndt is, probably, Germany’s best option after John Degenkolb pulled out, but, unless truly exceptional circumstances arise, we’re simply talking about a potential top ten position. The same logic would apply to fellow fast man such as Magnus Cort Nielsen, Daryl Impey and Jean-Pierre Drucker.
Sergio Henao’s explosiveness and Rigoberto Urán’s rolling power could end up being essential for Colombia, especially if Gavíria falters and they need to hatch a plan B, while Petr Vakoc is a burgeoning puncher, boasts good finishing speed and is surrounded by an interesting Czech ensemble (Roman Kreuziger, Zdenek Stybar, Jan Bárta).