A week ago we looked at the form - and plans - of the main contenders for the Worlds road race title who were finalizing their prep at the Vuelta a España. The conclusion? Philippe Gilbert and Fabian Cancellara look good right now. Very good. But half the bigger names did not opt for a trip around spain and instead shipped themselves across the Atlantic to participate in the GP Cycliste de Québec and GP Cycliste de Montréal, choosing the explosive one-day racing over the longer grind of dragging oneself over umpteen climbs day after day.
Now that those races are over, we have a better picture of how everyone looks going into Worlds, and the information is in part surprising. Who knew that we would be talking about Robert Gesink as a potential podium threat? I wasn't expecting it, but it's hard to argue with the evidence...
So what happened? Well, people raced bikes, and Robert Gesink and Peter Sagan won, but not in the ways you would expect. Gesink won Québec in a sprint (yes, seriously), beating eight other riders in an uphill dash after a long-range attack by Niki Terpstra was nullified in the final two kilometers by an attack by Peter Sagan and Greg Van Avermaet. The final 400m of the race are not easy, but neither are they too steep with their gradient of 4%. From the time Gesink opened up his sprint it seemed someone must overtake him, perhaps thanking him for the wonderful leadout afterwards. But as French national champion Arthur Vichot moved onto his wheel, the big names sat behind. Sagan looked ready to pounce but inexplicably sat back in the saddle, done in by his earlier efforts. Van Avermaet made up ground in the final 100m to finish third but could not come to terms with either rider. And Vichot, with the best seat in the house, could never jump out of Gesink's draft.
These sprints, leg sapping runs of power on a gradient just steep enough to take timing and cunning out of forefront of the equation, can be quite telling. Gesink may have caught the others in his group by surprise, but his victory likely resulted from having more left in reserve, having better form, than his rivals. It was an ominous sign, as was the fact that Terpstra launched himself again and still managed fifth.
Two days later, Peter Sagan countered an attack by Ryder Hesjedal on the short and steep Côte de la Polytechnique climb with 5.5 kilometers remaining and soloed to the finish, crossing the line four seconds ahead of Simone Ponzi and Ryder Hesjedal after extending his lead to 10 seconds at one point. It was not the kind of victory we are accustomed to seeing from the prolific winner but its nature reminded us that Sagan is far more versitle - and dangerous - than a hearty sprinter who can get over bigger hills than the other fast men. Behind the podium, seeming perennial top five finisher Van Avermaet won a select sprint for fourth.
Had Sagan decided to wait until the final kilometer and relied on his impressive sprint both days, we might consider him an outsider for the Worlds road race. After all, the Spanish national team coach thinks the race will come down to a group of four riders cagily trying to outwit and out kick each other in the final kilometers. Though Sagan could potentially survive a race of such attrition, merely surviving and sprinting in Canada would not have convinced us that he was a genuine contender quite as much as Fabian Cancellara, Philippe Gilbert, Alejandro Valverde, and Robert Gesink. But by going on the attack both days, Sagan seems to be signaling that he means to be taken seriously, reminding us that he can win in a variety of ways as he did before in Ghent-Wevelgem this year. His attack in Québec may have cost him dearly in the final sprint, and perhaps he was not as sharp as he hoped that day, but taking the initiative again two days later in Montréal showed us his form is coming along quite nicely after a nice block of altitude training and racing in Colorado.
But now, teams will be ever more focused on dispatching the fast finishing Slovak come Sunday. To do so will require a team effort spread over multiple laps rather than the efforts of individual riders, a series of body blows rather than a single headshot. Whose teams are well poised to bring the race to the field, and how will they do it? That will be addressed later this week!
Before we leave, it is worth summarizing a few of the conclusions from the weekend and the Tour of Alberta some riders participated in beforehand. First, Van Avermaet is a credible threat to win on his own, which will make it veeeery interesting to see how Belgium deploys him and Philippe Gilbert on the hilly road race. He joins Sagan, Gesink, Cancellara, Gilbert, and Valverde as my A-list favorites. As for the rest? Cadel Evans reminded us in Alberta he is cunning and capable enough to win a sprint out of a small group of riders, but he did not factor in either day of racing in Québec province so his tools may find little to be employed on. But Niki Terpstra? I might put him down as a black horse, and a definite bet for "most likely to do something silly difficult" on Sunday.