In a little over a weeks time trade jerseys will be left packed inside suitcases as those riders deemed worthy enough to represent their team at the World Championships congregate in Firenze, Italy. In a little over two weeks time, the world will have a new road race champion to bear the arc en ciel across their chest for the next year. Though Worlds may not best Roubaix for spectacle, it compensates with significance well worn into our collective conscience. If many of us are honest, we will confess that we have thought wistfully of worlds as we have watched all the racing transpiring after the end of the Tour de France. The Vuelta is without question grand, but it is often seen through rainbow tinted lenses. The World Tour races this weekend in Quebec and Montreal are fine feathers in one's cap, but even before the finish line is crossed we will be extrapolating to a race two weeks away.
A jaunt around Spain has often been seen as the ideal training for the World Championships and year after year most of the major protagonists show up for ten, fourteen, or even twenty one days of racing kilometers. With two weeks between the end of the Vuelta and the road race, there is enough time to recover and fatigue to rebound into form and little can simulate the demands of racing quite like... the demands of racing. And so we look at the Vuelta with one eye on the battles within the race and one eye on the battles yet to come. Every year we ask the same question - what can performance in the Vuelta tell us about who may win Worlds?
This year's circuit in Firenze is one of the harder ones in recent memory. Over the span of 16.6 kilometers it crosses two major climbs. The Fiesole comes first, , starting a mere 1.7 kilometers into the circuit and summiting some 4.4 kilometers later after rising 226 meters at an average gradient of 5.2%. This serves to whittle down the field, lap after lap sending those riders without climbing legs out the back. The Fiesole alone accounts for more than 3,600 meters of climbing over the race. But despite the importance of the Fiesole, the real race shaping moments are likely to come on the Via Salviati, a sharp climb only 600 meters long but with a maximum gradient of 16% that summits five kilometers from the finish line.
With the course a blend of Liége - Bastogne - Liége and Amstel Gold, it is impossible to look past the Vuelta and not have your eyes linger on a number of favorites. Vincenzo Nibali, Philippe Gilbert, Fabian Cancellara, Alejandro Valverde, Daniel Martin, Samuel Sanchez, and Edvald Boasson Hagen all pose credible threats... on paper at least. But who among them looks like they might have the form?
We could start with those we know little about. This is, essentially, Dan Martin, who had to leave the Vuelta following a crash in the first week. With a surprisingly fast sprint lurking in those skinny climber legs of his, he could easily surprise everyone and take home a medal by winning out of a small group either contesting the win or behind a solo rider. But Martin will be held back by his lack of racing hours after a break in the middle part of the season. The Vuelta was a target in itself as it is for Nibali, but also a valuable training opportunity before Worlds.
There are others we have seen plenty of over the past two and a half weeks, especially with Nibali and Valverde fighting for the overall classification. One must wonder if the organizers of Worlds designed the course specifically for Nibali or whether its hills are simply an attempt to provide a memorable spectacle of racing. But Nibali's chances seem to be going downhill as the Vuelta drags on. He leads, but that lead has been shrinking in the last two days in the mountains as Chris Horner has pried loose twenty seconds here and there on steeper slopes. It is not just Horner doing the damage either, as Joaquim Rodriguez and Valverde have both at times distanced Nibali. The signs all point towards form trending downwards. Valverde, on the other hand, seems to be steady as he sits in third only 1:09 behind Nibali. More importantly, Nibali must attack and get away solo to win Worlds while Valverde has a strong sprint to rely on - one that garnered him a bronze medal in the 2006 worlds which, if you will remember, ended in a large bunch sprint won by Paolo Bettini. In other words, Valverde could do quite well in several weeks... but he could lose out to those who approached the Vuelta more opportunistically.
The standard protocol for using the Vuelta as preparation for Worlds is to race 10-14 days and then make a planned abandon, late enough for ample training but early enough to recover and do specific training for the demands of the Worlds circuit. If one stays in for the remainder, they do what Edvald Boasson Hagen did today - begin to take it as easy as one can in the mountains and finish just within the time cut. But while Boasson Hagen may be staying in the race under team orders that hope he can garner a stage victory on Sunday, two of his biggest rivals have already departed. Both Philippe Gilbert and Fabian Cancellara have left the race, and both after making strong impressions. Gilbert improbably out-sprinted Boasson Hagen on Stage 12 on an uphill drag. It is worth pointing out this was the first win the normally prolific Gilbert has managed this year after failing to appear convincing for the majority of the season. Last year, he displayed a similar pattern - staying winless all season until the Vuelta... and then he not so much won Worlds as he did profoundly embarrass everyone else.
But Gilbert may not have things so easy this year with Cancellara explicitly targeting the road race after growing bored of stocking his mantle with trophies from winning the Worlds time trial. Cancellara has come close before on hilly circuits, most memorably blowing up the race completely in Mendriso in 2009 and getting "merely" fifth more from his own hubris than lack of strength. Though he has no stage win to his name, Cancellara has been close on a few occasions - most memorably when he opened up a sprint 400 meters from the line on Stage 6 and still managed third. On the hillier days, he has not been fighting for victory, instead shepherding Chris Horner around. But if one has been paying close attention, Cancellara's fine climbing form at the moment - especially for a rider as powerfully built as him - has been evident. It seems he is exactly where he wants to be after exiting the race following yesterday's stage, and that is a scary scary thought for everyone else heading to Firenze.
So who is going to win Worlds? If we knew, it wouldn't be fun, now would it? And with a number of the favorites not slated to show their form until Friday afternoon and again on Sunday, making a call is even more difficult. But if I were a betting man? I think I might start putting money on Gilbert with a hedge bet on Cancellara. My heart says Cancellara can win, but my gut says his racing will not quite match the course and Gilbert, the Ardennes machine, will have the goods to out-sprint him if need be.