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Men’s Elite RR: Enigma Shrouded in Mystery

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KT/Tim de Waele

Sometimes it seems like the uniting principle by which the UCI lives is undermining betting markets. As you may know, all season long the three Editors have had a running betting thing going, using actual markets but fake money. I have lost most of mine, Conor has some of his, and Andrew, our resident sharpie, is making out OK. What I have left, I have put all on Michael Matthews to be the next World Champion of cycling.

The reality, though, is that I have no idea whether he will win, or who else might win, or how it will go. This is, once again, a course where you can talk yourself into it being too hard for a sprinter to win, or that the final climb tops out too far from the line for the breakaway to stay clear. The strongest will be in the best position... but if you know who has the best legs right now, I’m all ears.

What we can say...

  • Belgium is in the running for strongest team in terms of overall quality. Van Avermaet is maybe the nominal leader but their opponents will have plenty of poison to pick from Gilbert, Benoot, Stuyven, Naesen and Wellens, with Keukeleire ready to poach a sprint. The only caution is that it’s almost impossible to imagine Belgium having a single plan. They could go several different ways, and justify racing for any of several riders, which is an invitation to chaos and muddled decisionmaking.
  • Australia, by contrast, won’t suffer from such tenuous thinking; it should be all-in to get Matthews to the line, where he’s almost certain to be the favorite in a sprint, considering the difficulty of the course which should peel off all but the strongest of the fastmen. Haussler and Hayman might be threatening in a break, but barring the unusual, they should be the team most likely to pull back late breaks.
  • Peter Sagan, Michal Kwiatkowski, Zdenek Stybar and Rui Costa are the riders most worth keeping watch of notwithstanding their lack of encouraging team support. That’s a lot of rainbows in one place, even if Stybs’ come from the wrong discipline. Nobody will underestimate any of them, and in my opinion Kwiatkowski is the most dangerous of the lot.
  • Italy and Norway are two more squads who won’t be too highly rated but are maybe better than people think. The hosts have been the focus of their team split between Boasson Hagen and Kristoff, but still, that’s two riders who, at their best, would be serious threats to win. Boasson Hagen has looked pretty fast in sprints all year, while Kristoff has had a poor season but is still enough of a sprinter to finish off the race in a bunch gallop. Italy look to me like a collection of fast finishers who can really climb (Ulissi, Colbrelli) or who can hang around if things don’t really break up (Viviani, Trentin). Moscon is the warhorse, Bennati the coach on the road. Every rider on that roster is solid.
  • The Netherlands and Colombia look more like two teams with lots of firepower and no way to deploy it. Yes, Colombia will be in great shape if they can bring Fernando Gaviria to the line, but barring that, they have a bunch of climbing aces who won’t win unless the pack falls completely asleep on them. The Dutch might see Wout Poels or Niki Terpstra pull a stunner, but otherwise it’s down to Tom Dumoulin, and I’ve already named about a dozen guys who Doom will never beat in a sprint.
  • France, Spain, Germany and Great Britain have nobody that gets me excited. Maybe there is an inverse relationship between cycling and soccer quality at the national level?

If you think I missed anyone, I’m all ears. Kiel Reijnen? Michael Valgren? Petr Vakoc? Dan Martin? Fake Sweden (Ukraine)? Just spitballing now.

The dry weather forecast for Sunday is maybe the biggest news of late, furthering the purposes of the sprinters or small-bunch fastmen. A rainy, miserable day would probably have drained enough people’s resources to cause the race to break up for good. Now that seems unlikely.

I’m sticking with my Matthews prediction, which is based on the threshold question being answered “yes, the race will come back together.” Australia can protect Matthews, they can lead him out, and he can finish it off. As a fan, my dream scenario is a breakaway of Sagan, Van Avermaet and Kwiatkowski, plus maybe an Italian for good measure, which would put the breaks on the chase (apart from an isolated Australian team) and lead to a fascinating finish. That’s two scenarios in play. Of, like, 30.

Who ya got?