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Men’s Road Race: The Predictable Unpredictable

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The “what” is easy... “who” is hard

UCI Road World Championships - Day Six Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

What we know about Doha — is about what we thought we would know. The races have tended to end in bunch sprints. The weather is an abomination. The course is dull as dishwater. If there are any climbers in attendance... well, that’s their own damn fault.

So do we know who will win on Sunday? Hrrmmm.... maybe not so much.

The UCI World Championships roll on in Qatar, and at this point everyone is confirming that it’s hot. Riders have been carried away afterwards for dehydration and heat exhaustion treatment, but not in any life-threatening way and not in the numbers we might have feared. The heat will be a limiting factor, but safety will be on everyone’s mind and when it’s all said and done, hopefully our biggest complaint will be that the race course was boring as shit (which it is).

The junior women’s race ended in a sprint, won by Italy’s Elisa Balsamo:

For the junior men, Jakob Egholm of Denmark usurped the bunch sprint:

In the men’s U23 race, Norway’s Kristoffer Halvorsen took the bunch gallop:

Tomorrow the elite women go, but already we have some pretty conclusive evidence about how this course plays. If anything, the elite men tend to be better at holding a race together than their younger counterparts, assuming there are enough teams motivated to force a sprint, and of course there are. That leaves two possible outcomes: a sprint, or not a sprint.

Since we are pretty sure which one will happen, let’s spend a moment on the alternative rather than dismissing it out of hand. The non-sprint scenario consists of something we see a lot in the grand tours: riders launching heroic attacks either from long distance, and holding on, or from shorter range while the sprint teams are eyeing each other. The long range attacks are foredoomed nowadays, pelotons are too savvy to let them off the leash unless they choose to. Shorter ones take advantage of indecision, chaos, hesitation... and crashes. The crashes are always possible, but the indecision, not so much.

In the past two decades we have had three definite sprint courses — Zolder, Madrid and Copenhangen — plus six more venues where a sprint was possible, in Geelong, Verona (twice), Lisbon, Plouay, Richmond and San Sebastian. In the latter category the sprint turned out to be just as likely as not to materialize... but in the former category everyone knew it was coming, and come it did. Nothing, not one scintilla of evidence, places Doha in the “maybe” category; it’s as sprint-friendly a course as we have possibly ever had in modern times. Zolder had some rolling features IIRC. Madrid is in Spain, so there you go. And even Copenhagen made things more interesting than expected before yielding the expected. Nothing besides human cunning and guile would lead one to believe that we will get an upset here. But if we do, it will have something to do with Peter Sagan.

Checking out the Sprinters

Peter Sagan, Slovakia

The Rap: Defending world champion, good at long, hard days, and as cunning as the day is long. Sagan won’t be anyone’s choice in a massive bunch sprint, but if the field gets shrunk down some to where he can move around and pick a wheel to his liking, his aggressive instincts and confidence are enough to make up for a fairly trivial gap in top speed.

Team Effect: Bubkis... but he doesn’t really need one anyway.

Fernando Gaviria, Colombia

The Rap: I feel like as a society we are stuck on the idea of Gaviria as a rube who can’t pay attention at the end of long races, otherwise he’d have won Milano-Sanremo, right? Listen, nobody feels that more than me (well, apart from Gaviria and his team and anyone with a personal connection to either of them). I have him in both the big FSA Directeur Sportif and my Editors’ League team. Those 350 points would have been oh, so delicious. But the fact remains that Gaviria is wicked fast, and just polished off the sprint in a very long race, Paris-Tours, which I had previously touted as a nice Worlds preview. He’s been trading blows with Timothy Dupont and Giacomo Nizzolo, however, so we can’t say for sure that whatever gear he is in now is big enough to top the world’s fastest men.

Team Effect: Hm, I can’t say I know anything about this group except for Rigo Uran, of course. My guess is that they’ve dug up all their non-climbers, all four of them, to help out Gaviria. Uran is the wildcard/veteran, in case of late break opportunities maybe? Or just a calming presence from his trade team (formerly), who might know what to do in organizing a sprint.

Mark Cavendish, Great Britain

The Rap: Top shelf favorite, maybe the favorite, though some murmuring of ill health cropped up just in the last two weeks, so if the Manxman is below his best, then you can forget about him. Cavendish won in Copenhagen five years ago, but has seen his career curtail a bit since then. I say a bit deliberately, because when he’s on, like he was just a few scant months back in the Tour de France, he’s still capable of beating everyone on Earth. What he’s lost in consistency and overall dominance is not enough to remove him from the top shelf.

Team Effect: Nobody has more help, do they? Cavendish has so much help that Team GB may not even need him in the end. Should he go missing in one of the tricky 180 turns or roundabouts, they’ll just move Adam Blythe or Ben Swift or Daniel McLay into the finisher’s role. More likely the Brits will have a nice crisp leadout for Cav, and it’ll be up to several others to disrupt it or beat them outright.

Arnaud Demare and Nacer Bouhanni, France

The Rap: Not sure you can discuss one without the other. This isn’t like some alpine adventure where you can watch your two stars climb for a couple hours and make an informed judgment about who looks stronger. If the situation resolves itself before the finale, it’ll be through weakness or a crash. If not, well... I guess France will have two sprinters. Both have some minor wins on their recent record, but Demare was second at Paris-Tours while Bouhanni was seventh. Too bad Bouhanni, born to Algerian parents, isn’t actually Algerian, like having raced there a lot, that would be a big advantage.

Team Effect: Pretty deep squad of useful guys. If only they knew whom to lead out...

Tom Boonen, Belgium

The Rap: For just this once, I don’t feel like I have all that much to say about the guy. No way he wins if several of the other guys on this list are right there with him. But I guess you never know.

Team Effect: Belgium are always on the verge of complete turmoil. This year shouldn’t be any different, particularly with Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet around. To do what, exactly?

Michael Mathews, Australia

The Rap: Trendy pick maybe? He won a Tour stage this year and a contract for next season with Sunweb-Giant where he’ll take over the sprinting duties from John Degenkolb. And hey, he’s Australian, so he probably doesn’t wilt in the hot sun. But I don’t see a ton of results that make me believe he can line up right in amongst the world’s fastest men and win. He can come close, and with a little luck... you never know.

Team Effect: A very strong team with huge engines like Luke Durbridge, plus ace leadout Mark Renshaw, alternates like Heinrich Haussler and Caleb Ewan, and just a lot of quality. If Mathews does pull it off, he should have some rounds to buy.

Alexander Kristoff, Norway

The Rap: The 2015 Ronde van Vlaanderen winner obviously doubled down on his classics chances, to the detriment of some sprint form, as he’s rarely won outside his home country. And if there’s a country that looks less like Norway than Qatar, I haven’t been there. But Kristoff is a big among the bigs, so you can count on him to be utterly unafraid of this finale and give it a great shot. At his 2015 best I’d say he takes it.

Team Effect: Not the most experienced team, but Edvald Boasson Hagen should be there for him in the final km. Of course Eddy Boss just blew up in the ITT, so I’m not sure he’s on his best form. Or maybe he doesn’t like the heat. Anyway, Kristoff will have help, but not as much as his top rivals.

Andre Greipel, Germany

The Rap: The Gorilla looks like a guy you wouldn’t want to bet against on this day. But you should anyway. Greipel’s best work in the Worlds was in 2011, where he took bronze. While he’s a super cool dude who’s impossible to dislike, his record in the extra-long events simply isn’t there. So why would things be different now that he’s 34?

Team Effect: Very weird. You probably couldn’t ask for a better teammate than Tony Martin, regardless of what he left on the road the other day. But then your other top mates are John Degenkolb, wrapping up a nightmare season, and Marcel Kittel, who almost certainly considers himself the man to beat Sunday, when not contemplating the nuances of asthma. In short, Team Deutschland is a mess.

Dylan Groenewegen, Netherlands

The Rap: Best of the young dark horses, Groenewegen has beaten pretty much everyone on this list at one point, but not enough to make him a clear favorite in a calm, orderly race. Enter roundabouts, crosswinds and extreme heat, and put Groenewegen in a field of, say, ten guys in front and... ?

Team Effect: My pick for strongest team on the lot. From power riders like Dumoulin, van Baarle and Terpstra to table setters like De Kort, Leezer, van Poppel and Langeveld, and you have a really wonderful mix of skills for a strong team. Dutch teams are famous for squandering their natural gifts all season long, except at Worlds. Well, at least in the sub-elite categories. Anyway, once Mathieu van der Poel commits full time to road racing, all their problems will be solved.

*****

I could add Italy (Nizzolo or Viviani) and Ireland (Bennett) to the list, but you get the point. Interesting to see Spain with almost nobody to like here. I guess they can use a year off from crowding the favorites list. The Danes shouldn’t be forgotten but I don’t really see Magnus Cort Nielsen or maybe Soren Kragh Andersen quite on this level. If I missed anyone, feel free to speak up in comments.