We enjoyed Ponferrada. We loved Richmond. We tolerated Qatar. We pined for Bergen. This time, it’s different. Welcome, one and all, to climbers’ Worlds. As an aficionado of the mountains for as long as I’ve been watching this sport, I have been waiting for this. It’s been a couple of years since Innsbruck was confirmed as the host of the upcoming championships, but from the very start the promise was of enough altitude metres to make Tenzing Norgay sit up and take notice. It has not disappointed. For the record, the exact number of altitude metres is 4,670. Which is the rough equivalent of climbing Alpe d’Huez five times. Wow, Conor, what a relatable and clever comparison.
It’s not just the road race that’s exciting me, however. We’ve already had the team time-trials, two acceptably good warm-ups, and now we’re heading into the races that, y’know, people actually care about. Shawn and Jens have your essential previews. I have to say I disagree with Shawn on the mens’ TT result. Dumoulin is going to be raring to go for this and Dennis has never performed to his potential on this stage. The Dutchman is more suited to this course than perhaps any rider or any course, while Dennis will not be quite so adept on the fairly significant climb. Speaking of which, all time-trials should contain climbs of at least this difficulty. It improves them immensely, while Tony Martin complaining about them is always a laugh.
As for the womens’ race...I unfortunately don’t consider myself qualified to comment. Notwithstanding the fact that I’m probably not qualified to comment on the mens’ race either, I think that you can take Jens’ word for what’s going to happen. I’m ashamed about my lack of knowledge of womens’ cycling and I really should make more of an effort to engage with and learn about it. I, however, have a penchant for ignoring things I really should do. This brings me neatly onto my next point about Worlds though, which is that it’s an absolutely brilliant way to learn about stars you should know well or upcoming talent if you, say, haven’t done as much cycling-viewing or writing as you might have liked to over the last little while. The U23 race (and even time-trial, though it does conjure up painful memories of Ryan Mullen losing by 0.48 of a second) is always both a great place for talent-spotting and in general a great event. Today Mikkel Bjerg (19) got the right to wear a rainbow skinsuit. Had I heard of him? I probably should have, but no. Am I particularly ashamed of this? Well...I know who he is now. As an aside, he’s riding for Axeon, a project which impresses more and more by the year. I’ll put effort in to watch the junior races too, even if just to watch the beginning of Remco Evenepoel’s dominance.
It’s brilliant. A conveyor belt of great cycling, and none of it takes away from the big show. I have not decided yet who I think will spend the next year in rainbows. Ordinarily, I would be laser-focused on one name for this race, and that name is Vincenzo Nibali. I am as of yet unable to decide whether he is sandbagging, and to what extent, as if he is fully fit I think it would be harder to find a race he is better-suited to, or more motivated for. If anyone is capable of finishing this race solo, it is a peak Nibali. If anyone is likely to beat the odds, it is a peak Nibali. If that’s who we’re dealing with, that’s who will win on Sunday. His abdication of Italian team leadership is so blatant a statement that I have to feel there is some form of duplicity going on — Nibali is a guy who will cling onto a target until he has claimed it, no matter how unlikely it seems. How many times was he made fun of for those attacks in Milano-Sanremo? How many times did they fail? Nibali must know this is his best ever chance of rainbows, and will be a servant of nobody.
Who else? Valverde? It’s an uninspiring pick, more the result of a process of elimination than anything else. He’s not someone anybody wants to say will win: it’s a sort of boring, unimaginative prediction that will not sell any papers. He is, of course, the rightful bookies’ favourite. For a quick glance through the others, without turning this into a preview, Romain Bardet I feel is underrated. His descending skills have not been so useful to him for a while now, but they have not dulled. He’s got a better sprint on him than you would expect, too. Of course, it’s possible if not probable that his French team will throw their support behind Julian Alaphilippe, but I think this is a different proposition to the climbs he conquered in the Tour. So who’s going to win worlds? I can’t say that I know, yet. Welcome to climbers’ worlds. They’re unpredictable and exciting. I. Am. Loving it.