What do you get when you strip all of the nuance and character out of cycling? A time trial, of course. I’m kidding (well, maybe only half kidding). Time trials are often derided as ‘boring’ by cycling aficionados, and such a position has a point. However, time trials are also the simplest form of a cycling competition to understand. The winner is the person that pedals the fastest between point A and point B. That’s it. No need to know about strategy, drafting, team dynamics, the informal rules of the peloton, poorly paved Belgian roads, the temperament of Italian cyclists, or any of the other minutiae that dictates the outcome of road races and which make this sport both interesting and often impenetrable for neophytes.
Yet, Wednesday will be only the 25th time, since 1994, that we have a chance to see a rider get crowned the strongest cyclist in the world. Compare that to the road race championship, which began some 67 years earlier in 1927.
The early years of the time trial world championship were probably more a case of the most doped riders rather than the strongest riders, with wins by Miguel Indurain, Alex Zulle, Jan Ullrich, Abraham Olano, Serhiy Honchar, and Santiago Botero. Interestingly those early years saw many grand tour winners taking the TT championship (Indurain, Ullrich, Zulle, Olano, Jalabert). From 2003 to 2013, the TT championship was dominated by TT specialists - Michael Rogers won three times, Fabian Cancellara won four time, and Tony Martin won three times (and added a 4th in 2016). The last four years have seen a return of the grand tour winner/time trial champion model-- with both Bradley Wiggins and Tom Dumoulin taking victory. Take that with any amount of innuendo regarding the state of the sport that you deem appropriate.
The Innsbruck course is the third longest in the 25 year history of the event, covering 52.5 km. Only Richmond in 2015 and Tuscany in 2013 were longer. The course also has 654 meters of elevation gain, making it one of the hillier of the recent courses.
Really, this year’s course is like a more extreme version of last year’s course in Bergen. It’s 20 extra kilometers, with the Gnadenwald climb being similar to last year’s Mount Floyen climb, except the Austrian climb coming in the middle compared to last year’s course finishing on the ascent.
FLAVOR FLAV’S FAVORITES
Let’s take a look at the start list and give each country a ranking of possibility of taking a medal. We’ll rank the countries using using a system based upon the biggest time trial aficionado of them all…. Flavor Flav, with one Flav being the worst and five Flavs being the best.
One Flavor Flav Fave:
- Hong Kong
Most of these countries will just be happy having a rider on the biggest stage finishing 10 minutes behind the winner. A few world tour riders make the list-- Mekseb Debesay for Eritrea, Fumiyuki Beppu for Japan, and Tsgabu Grmay for Ethiopia. Hungary fields the delightfully-avian-named János Pelikán.
Two Flavor Flav Faves:
- Canada (Britton, Houle)
- Czech Republic (Barta, Cerny)
- Estonia (Kangert)
- France (Paillot, Thomas)
- Italy (De Marchi, Felline)
- Kazakhstan (Lutsenko)
- Latvia (Neilands, Skujins)
- Lithuania (Bagdonas, Konovalovas)
- New Zealand (Bevin, Bond)
- Norway (Skjerping)
- Russia (Sivakov, Vorobyev)
- Slovenia (Tratnik)
- Ukraine (Grivko)
Lots of countries in this group that have riders that may be able to sneak into the top 20 (and score in vds) but have no chance at a medal. Some of the countries are surprises to be so far down the rankings. France brings Benjamin Thomas and continental rider Yoann Paillot. Italy has the breakaway specialist Alessandro de Marchi and cat scratch fever sufferer Fabio Felline. Slovenia brings Jan Tratnik instead of Primoz Roglic because the latter hasn’t been able to train on his TT bike due to a shoulder injury.
Three Flavor Flav Faves:
- Austria (Brandle, Preidler)
- Belgium (Campenaerts, De Plus)
- Denmark (Kragh Andersen, Madsen)
- Great Britain (Dowsett, Geoghegan Hart)
- Ireland (Mullen, Roche)
- Poland (Kwiatkowski, Bodnar)
- Portugal (Oliveira, Goncalves)
- Sweden (Ludvigsson)
- United States (Rosskopf, Van Garderen)
For this group, a top 10 is a definite possibility with an outside shot at a medal. However, there’s a theme with this year’s start list, with many countries leaving their best riders at home. Great Britain will be fielding Alex Dowsett and Tao Geoghegan Hart, leaving both Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas at home. Portugal has Nelson Oliveira, who is inconsistent, but could always surprise with a result. The US brings Joey Rosskopf, who has looked very strong against the clock this year. For Ireland, Ryan Mullen was 6th in the European TT Championship. Victor Campenaerts won that race but is inconsistent and would have preferred a flat course. The course would suit Michal Kwiatkowski, but he may be keeping his petals dry until the road race.
Four Flavor Flav Faves:
- Belarus (Kiryienka)
- Germany (Martin, Schachmann)
- Luxembourg (Jungels)
- Spain (Castroviejo, Soler)
- Switzerland (Küng, Dillier)
Even though he’s 37 years old, it’s hard to count the terminator out. Vasil Kiryienka always shows up for the tt world championships. He won in 2015, came in 2nd in 2016, and came in 5th last year. In fact, since 2012, the worst he’s ever finished is in 5th place. He’s a rider that will benefit from the long course and a podium position is definitely in play.
Tony Martin is in this tier more based upon name recognition than anything he’s done lately. He’s currently tied with Cancellara for most tt championship wins with 4. This year, he didn’t look bad in the Giro, taking 2nd in the Trento time trial, behind Dennis, but ahead of Doom and Froome. His season took a hit after he crashed out of the Tour on the Roubaix cobbles. Since coming back, he’s only ridden the Tour of Britain, so his form is a bit of an unknown. Perhaps it’s time for a transfer of the Panzerwagen moniker to Maximilian Schachmann, who has been one of two breakout German riders this season (along with Pascal Ackermann). The only knock against Schachmann, if you consider it a knock, is that he is a bit of an all rounder, taking a 3rd in the European Championship TT, but also a 4th in GC in BinckBank and an 8th on the Mur de Huy.
The best move of last transfer season was Team Sky’s poaching of Jonathan Castroviejo from Movistar. And they wasted no time in employing Castroviejo in both the Tour and the Vuelta. Back to back grand tours right before the championship is probably not the best preparation, He’s already got a bronze back in 2016 and was 2nd at the European time trial championship this year. If he has the form that he had at the Tour, the climb in the middle of the course should be to his liking.
Stefan Küng is the heir apparent to the Swiss Bear, but hasn’t yet been able to fill those considerable cleats as of yet. Kung took his first top 10 in the classics this season, with a 10th at E3, and has looked pretty good against the clock-- winning the Tour de Suisse and Binckbank TTs. Of this tier of riders, he’s probably the most ill-suited to the climb.
It’s hard to bet against the Wolfgang this year, even if that Stepper is in the Luxembourg national kit. Bob Jungels was part of Quickstep’s TTT championship winning team on Sunday and as an LBL winner this year and an ostensible grand tour contender should be suited to the climbing on the course.
Five Flavor Flav Faves:
- Australia (Dennis)
- Netherlands (Dumoulin, Kelderman and Van Emden)
Realistically, this is going to come down to a fight between Tom Dumoulin and Rohan Dennis. Doom is the reigning champ, has the pedigree, and is well suited to the course, but has two hotly contested grand tours in his legs. Dennis was flying during the Vuelta, will like the course, and looks like the in form rider of the moment. While the best Dennis has ever placed in the championship was a 5th, last year he looked to be on par with Doom until a crash and a bike change saw him finishing in 8th.
This year, Doom and Dennis have gone skinsuit v. skinsuit three times with the following results:
- Abu Dhabi Stage 4 ITT: Doom 11th, Dennis 1st
- Giro Stage 1 ITT: Doom 1st, Dennis 2nd
- Giro Stage 16 ITT: Dennis 1st, Doom 3rd
Not sure how much those results tell us about who’s going to win. In Abu Dhabi, Doom had multiple bike issues, ruining his time trial and race. The first stage of the Giro was more of a prologue over 9.7 kilometers, with Doom besting Dennis by 2 seconds. Over 32 kilometers in Stage 16 of the Giro, Dennis beat Doom by 22 seconds. However, Dennis was presumably fresher than Doom who was fighting for pink. Going back head-to-head over the course of their careers, both riders are virtually even with each other.
If I have to pick a winner, I’ll go with Dennis. Dumoulin has two second place finishes in the Giro and the Tour. There has to be some trade off with his TT skills to be able to finish on the podium in back-to-back grand tours. Dennis is still in his transitioning-to-GC-contender phase. In a match up that will likely come down to seconds over 50 kilometers, I think that gives Dennis a slight advantage over Dumoulin.
Here’s the list of start times for the riders. Kelderman will be the first rider off the ramp, with Doom being the last, right after Dennis.