Spanish star Alejandro Valverde is in the midst of a truly remarkable career -- grand tour podiums (and a single win), victories in countless single day races or stages, four years as the #1 rider in the world and eight years spent exclusively in the top four, minus a brief vacation (cough). He's done it all. At the world championships, he's got two silver medals and three bronzes. And everybody knows that he plans to add the missing piece on Sunday.
The plot couldn't be more obvious: Valverde, with a fast sprint at the end of a day of climbing, will race to keep it all together, as long as he doesn't perceive the presence of anyone more dangerous in the last 50 meters than himself. His armada of support includes Joaquim Rodriguez -- another rider with a hole in his resume -- taking fliers and tracking attacks. He has good workers in Jose Herrada and Jonathan Castroviejo, seasoned lieutenants in Dani Navarro and Dani Moreno, even a spare sprinter in Lulu Sanchez. They will fight all day to keep the race together until the final lap, where Valverde will match accelerations, possibly launched by J-Rod to draw out a selection, and then wind up the final sprint.
The question is, can the world stop it?
Working together? Sure. The Belgians could go early and force a break that puts Spain under pressure. When their lieutenants tire out, Italy and the Netherlands and Colombia and a loaded French team can start taking shots. Aru, Barguil, Mollema and so on. If Nibali doesn't try something somewhere, it'll be a first. Gerrans will draw a marker from the Spanish squad for the last four laps of the race. You can't be too careful with that guy these days. Froome will go hard on the last lap, if not sooner, trying something daring and relying on his fabled concentration. Gilbert, Sagan and Cancellara will lurk as quietly as they can, which is to say not very. You can start to see how working together against Spain is probably a lot harder than it sounds.
Personally, while I regard Valverde as the marginal favorite after an incredible season, my money is on the field. I just don't see a ton of selection happening on this course. Yes, it's up and down all day, but like so many Worlds, it's not really set up to just eliminate guys. It's set up to make it both interesting and winnable by all the big names. Pointing to the one or two most obvious guys isn't saying much.
So yeah, Valverde is Protected Rider #1, but watch out for a clever Rui Costa, for a powerful Froome, for a resilient Sagan, a courageous Nibali, a pitch-perfect Cancellara or a streaking Gerrans. Watch for storylines early, but with the expectation that they will fizzle in a fantastic last lap. Watch the strongest teams -- Spain, but don't overlook any of the usual suspects -- hammer back attacks they don't like. Watch for the elite lieutenants, like Geraint Thomas, Giovanni Visconti, Tony Gallopin, Tom Dumoulin, taking fliers that put their rivals in an instant dilemma. Expect a cagey, drawn-out chess match that nobody can accurately predict. This is the World Championships at its best, open to all, as long as they're the strongest.