Beyond the conventional wisdom that the men's World Championship is Paolo Bettini's to lose, the race is a pretty massive toss-up among a few dozen guys who may or may not find the course to their liking and feel good that day. So instead of spending several hours pretending to have some insight into each individual rider, I'd like to instead use the next 45 minutes and pretend to have insight into the teams instead. Here are ten teams, other than Italy, that could make the difference Sunday.
Allan Davis is the finisher who probably won't make it to the finish. Simon Gerrans and Adam Hansen are two strongmen who should be watched in the later phases of the race, or maybe even in a dangerous earlier break. But the guy with the chance to win is an on-form, rested Michael Rogers. No, I really don't think he'll win, but he's on the list of guys to watch.
Um... loaded team? Flying under the radar a bit? I can't say I've read every ounce of scuttlebutt, but it seems like Boonen gets most of the mention, despite the fact that it's not a great course for him. It's a better course for Philippe Gilbert, but by my count he has 86 race days in his legs, and winning a hard race like this seems incomprehensible. Then there's Jurgen Van Goolen, a solid climber, and Nick Nuyens, the classics stud, and Greg Van Avermaet, in case of a sprint that somehow doesn't include Boonen. So who do I like? Stijn Devolder. Just a little more versatile than Boonen, possibly enough to deal with the two moderate climbs each lap. Just a little better rested, after skipping the Vuelta. And on form, after finishing 6th in today's time trial.
Loaded, as always, and yet it almost always winds up being about Erik Zabel. This should be no exception. Greipel, Ciolek, Burghardt... not exactly climbers. Wegmann, maybe. Schumacher, not on form. Gerdemann would've been solid, but he's out. That leaves Zabel, like it always does, and he's almost always there. It'd be one hell of a story...
Probably the best, deepest roster of guys I don't see coming anywhere near a win. Gesink is the big name, but he has little classics pedigree, and it's not a pure climbers' course. Langeveld, Tankink, De Jongh, Kroon... all able bodies on their day. Nothing's adding up here though.
Spain are a massive favorite, slotting just behind Italy, to the point where they should be expected to shoulder a chunk of the workload. They also arguably have a better-established hierarchy than Italy. While the Italians are lining up behind Bettini, the chance of egos getting in the way can never be dismissed. You could say the same about Spain, but I wouldn't, for two reasons. One, they were a well-oiled machine of stars carrying each other at the Olympics. Watching Sastre pull for Samu, or Valverde celebrate when Sanchez won, was moving. Two, all of the top riders -- Valverde, Sanchez, Contador, Freire -- are so glutted on success that, well, the vibe in the room should be pretty free of tension. Finally, Valverde is such a perfect guy for this course that nobody in their right mind (or Samu) would like their own chances better. Valverde is my pick to win.
Matti Breschel is a reasonably hot sprinter right now, FWIW. Chris Anker Sorensen is an intriguing guy, a good all-rounder without too many race days in him at the moment. Denmark is basically CSC-lite, which isn't great but you ignore them at your peril.
[Aside: which trade team has the largest contingent? CSC are staffing Denmark, Holland, Russia, and Luxembourg, with scratches from Switzerland, Spain and Australia. Who's next, Columbia?]
No, I'm not trying to inject Borut Bozic into the debate; I'm acknowledging Jani Brajkovic's excellent chrono today. He was great at the D-Tour. He might be on fire right now. I don't imagine him sauntering away from this field, or outsprinting Valverde or the Italians. But I'd bet you'll see him a fair amount in the finale.
I'm not actually a huge fan, but if Vlad Efimkin is back on form, they might have a chance. Karpets can't be forgotten entirely, Kolobnev, Trofimov, Petrov... all pretty solid, particularly Kolobnev, the reigning silver medalist. He's following a similar program to last year, and before the Vuelta he was second in San Sebastian.
No team sporting Levi Leipheimer should be overlooked. Tyler Farrar and Lucas Euser should be interesting to watch. Dave Zabriskie is capable of offering some help.
Lovkvist and Larsson will inject some pace into the race. Lovkvist is well-suited to the terrain, and is coming off an excellent Deutschland Tour. Larsson looks less like a contender than a solid helper. Not a deep team, but as CSC and High Road guys, they'll be surrounded with friends.