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A Rainbow in Höll: The Men’s World Championship Road Race Preview

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

On Sunday, the main event of the host-city-bankrupting, jingoistic-team-reshuffling, UCI- swiss-franc-earning, sartorial-crimes-against-humanity-producing World Championships will be taking place. Of course, I’m writing about the festival at the Museum of Tyrolean Farmhouses. At the same time as that main event, the UCI will also be holding the 85th running of the Men’s Road Race Championship. While I’m probably more qualified to write about those farmhouses and stand a better chance at picking the winner of the most-Tyrolean-barn contest, this is a preview of the road race.

National team jerseys may have gotten a little out-of-hand this year

THE COURSE

It’s been a while since we’ve had a World Championship road race for the climbers, which would appear to be the case for this year’s course in Innsbruck, Austria. In fact, according to a press release from the UCI, this year’s course will include 4,670 meters of climbing over 258.5 kilometers, making it tenth on the all time list of courses with the most climbing and the most elevation gain in a course since Lugano in 1996. However, to put a wet blanket on the hopes of all those skinny climbers out there, there are lies, damned lies, and UCI press releases, and the World Championship course in Ponferrada in 2014 had 4,284 meters of climbing, and noted climber Alexander Kristoff was only 7 seconds in arrears to the winner, Michal Kwiatkowski. I’m not saying that a climber won’t win this race— but really this race is more in the wheelhouse of the Ardennes specialists rather than the grand tour mountain goats.

While the riders will take on the Igls climb 7 times in a circuit, that climb— which is about 8 kilometers with an average gradient between 5 and 6% is unlikely to decide this race. Instead, the final climb of Gramartboden, which is 2.8 kilometers at an average gradient of 11.5%, will sort out the winner. The summit of the Grammar Bot (frankly, a much scarier name for the climb than Höttinger Höll. If any rider describes the climb as literal hell, the Grammar Bot will send them to literal hell) comes with only about 8.5 kilometers remaining, including 6.5 kilometers of downhill and 2 flattish kilometers to the finish. While the downhill back to Innsbruck is not overly-steep, it is winding and could allow a good descender the ability to hold a gap.

Enjoy the profile porn:

Final 31 km:

Igls climb (7x):

Grammar Bot climb (1x final ascent with top coming 8.5 km before finish):

Map and the Gnadenwald profile:

Here’s Nibs and company testing out the Grammar Bot (goddammit, Grammar Bot, I know it’s supposed to be ‘Here are,’ but it just sounds so much more conversational this way):

Innsbruck 2018 Con Vincenzo Nibali, Franco Pellizotti e Alessandro Demarchi sul percorso del Mondiale. Ultima salita? Eccola

Posted by Davide Cassani on Monday, March 26, 2018

Comparatively, the Igls climb is on a nice, wide road:

The biggest questions are whether the Grammar Bot wall being so close to the finish will cause conservative racing and whether the Igls climb offers enough of a launch pad to attack and deplete the field. Perhaps some insight can be gained from this year’s Tour of the Alps, which used the Igls climb (much more impressively named “Olympiastrasse”) on stage 5, which was won solo by neo pro Mark Padun. On that day, the GC contenders all attacked on the final ascent of Igls, but at least for Pinot, Lopez, Froome, and Pozzovivo, all came back together on the descent and flat finish. Of course, the dynamics of the race were very different and there was no Grammar Bot. However, after 200+ kilometers the Igls climb should be able to provide fertile ground for attacking.

National Team Rankings

When it comes to the road race world championship, teams don’t really matter. Just look at the current three-peat world champion, who has won those rainbow jerseys with many less riders than the other nations and whose cast of characters include his brother and other DNF fodder. Before Sagan’s dominance, Michal Kwiatkowski and Rui Costa won, on Polish and Portuguese teams that looked outmatched by the bigger teams.

In fact, often times the strength of teams has often led to infighting and failure-- Edvald Boasson Hagen leading out and then not getting out of the way of Kristoff in Doha is only the most recent example. Rui Costa probably owes his championship to a bickering Valverde and Purito more than to his legs.

Despite team strength often being a non (or negative) indicator of success, it’s just plain fun to look at the reshuffling of the teams into national groups and pontificate about the strength of such forced coupling. So, let’s rank ‘em and let the Grammar Bot sort ‘em out:

10. Denmark

Leader: Jakob Fuglsang

Wild card: Michael Valgren

Support: Kasper Asgreen, Matti Breschel, Niklas Eg, Jesper Hansen, Emil Vinjebo, Mads Wurtz Schmidt

Biggest omission: Christopher Juul-Jensen

The Danes have Fuglsang if the course is as selective as predicted and Valgren to play as a wild card, with climbing support from Eg and Hansen. The Danes also bring Breschel, who apparently has a lifetime world championship entry pass, and some good support riders for a flat WC course in Asgreen and Wurtz Schmidt and promising continental rider Vinjebo. It’s not that the Danes know something about the course that we don’t, but rather Denmark suffering from Climber-Deficiency Syndrome. While Mads Pedersen or Magnus Cort may have been better picks that Breschel, Wurtz Schmidt, or Vinjebo, I’m not sure that any of the riders would play much of a factor after the first 40 kilometers. Juul-Jensen would have at least provided a little more climbing support.

How they can win: Unless Bjarne Riis unretires and transcends his human form to become a sentient, non-corporeal, super-powered red blood cell, it’s unlikely. Valgren could try an early attack and hope the bunch ignores him, but the course looks too hard for him. Fuglsang did take silver at the Rio Olympics, but it’s hard to find a scenario in which he could beat the best over a short steep climb. Waiting with the bunch and hoping for chaos to unfold, like in the Olympics, is his best bet.

9. Poland

Leader: Michal Kwiatkowski

Wild card: Rafal Majka

Support: Maciej Bodnar, Michal Golas, Lukasz Owsian, Maciej Paterski

Biggest omission: None

As a former world champion, monument winner, and Sky-bot extraordinaire, Poland has one of the favorites in this race in Kwiatkowski. The question is whether he was getting tired toward the end of the Vuelta or saving energy for a WC course that suits him. Majka provides Poland with another decent card to play, and even as he’s disappointed in the grand tours as of late, he has a cache of suppressed one day talent, as evidenced by his bronze at the Olympic road race. Poland is the only team with less than 8 riders on this list, but there’s really no one else Poland could bring who would be much use to support their leaders.

How they can win: Kwiatkowski did not look tired during the time trial, taking a 4th over many TT specialists. He has the added advantage over the rest of the field of being the fastest in a sprint among the climbier types (not many can say they have out-sprinted Sagan). If he can sit in and stay with the best over the Grammar Bot, he’s got a great chance at victory. Majka, who is apparently transitioning from GC contender to breakaway specialist, should try a longer range break.

8. Great Britain

Leaders: Adam Yates and Simon Yates

Support: Hugh Carthy, Tao Geoghegan Hart, Peter Kennaugh, James Knox, Ian Stannard, Connor Swift

Biggest omissions: Geraint Thomas and Chris Froome

Great Britain brings the yin yang leadership of the right and the wrong Yates with Simon and Adam. Which one is supposed to be the better one day racer, again? Adam is the fresher pick, while Simon is the righter pick. The collection of support riders for the yin yang twins can appropriately be described as ‘fine.’ Stannard will be useful for 40 kilometers, while Carthy, Hart and Kennaugh may be able to offer some support on the climby circuit. It’s hard to envision any still being around near the tail end of the 250 kilometers, though. Notably, the two other British 2018 grand tour winners are absent. Being Froome-less is not much of a loss, but the old Thomas that we all used to know and adored would have had a shot at victory.

How they can win: By finally unleashing the hidden clone army of Yateses and having an all-right-Yates team, of course. Otherwise, they should use the wrong Yates to cover attacks, allowing the right Yates to conserve energy and rip a rainbow-colored one off on the Grammar Bot. No one would dare follow that.

7. Slovenia

Leaders: Matej Mohoric and Primoz Roglic

Wild card: Simon Spilak

Support: Grega Bole, Domen Novak, Luka Pibernik, Jan Polanc, Jan Tratnik

Biggest omission: None

While we all love a good ski jumper redemption story, Roglic, who can climb and TT with the best, has never really showed much acumen for the one day races. Slovenia’s best bet is probably for their late blooming former junior world champ, Mohoric, to make a well-timed attack toward the end of the race like he did at Industry & Artichokes at the beginning of the year. If he gets a gap onto the final descent, no one will be able to catch him. For Spilak, Austria is close enough to Switzerland that he may be able to call upon his Swiss superpowers for this race. For a small country, Slovenia has decent support in Jan Polanc and Jan Tratnik.

How they can win: Petition the UCI to finish on one of the many Austrian ski jumps that litter the area. Supposedly, the team is all in for Roglic. Hopefully that means that Mohoric’s role is to try one of his late race escapes while Roglic distracts the other riders by yelling, “Did you know I was a ski jumper?”

Nordic Combined - Winter Olympics Day 13 Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

6. Colombia

Wild cards: Rigoberto Uran, Nairo Quintana, Miguel Angel Lopez, Sergio Henao

Support: Winner Anacona, Rodrigo Contreras, Sebastian Henao, Daniel Felipe Martinez

Biggest omission: Carlos Betancur

On paper, Colombia looks to be bringing one of the strongest teams. That is until you realize that they don’t really have a rider that can win this race. Their closest fit for one day riders are Uran or Henao the elder, but neither has shown much one day form this season. After his horrid run of grand tour failures, perhaps Quintana is transitioning to a one day rider-- he actually sprinted to 7th at the Memorial Marco Pantani from the lead group of 18 riders. Like Uran, MAL has won Milano-Torino and has probably had the best season of any riders on the team. Colombia also has a strong support team, with neither Egan Bernal nor Esteban Chaves being available. Speaking of missing Columbians, has anyone seen Betancur? After a strong Giro, he’s not raced again this season. There was a rumor of a mid season transfer to UAE, but nothing materialized from that. While he may be more suited for a Krispy Kreme challenge these days, there was a time when Carlos would have been one of the favorites on this course.

How they can win: They have to make the race hard well before the final climb. Use Quintana early on one of the Igls ascents to shatter the peloton. Assign another rider to each of the Igls climbs to try to do the same on each ascent. Then... wait for next year when Egan Bernal will win every race he enters.

5. Italy

Leaders: Vincenzo Nibali and Gianni Moscon

Wild Card: Domenico Pozzovivo

Support: Gianluca Brambilla, Damiano Caruso, Dario Cataldo, Alessandro De Marchi, Franco Pellizotti

Biggest omission: Giovanni Visconti

For me, it’s hard not to love Italy. At the risk of revealing my inner Moscon, they remind me so much of holidays spent with my Italian-American family and, particularly my drunk Italian-American uncles and aunts. One uncle would lock himself in his room at holidays if someone made even the smallest slight at him, or worse yet, at the New York Giants. Uncle Dave and Fabio Aru, who withdrew from his placement in the team earlier this week, would certainly get along. Everyone would give another uncle a wide berth as he would spout racist nonsense during holiday gatherings. I’m sure Uncle Robert and Gianni Moscon would have a lot to talk about. My great aunt, the matriarch of the family, had passive-aggressiveness down to an art form. Aunt Rose and Nibali, who “abdicated” his leadership and gave it to Moscon, who he beefed with at last year’s championship, could be soulmates. And like that side of my family, who can on occasion come together to work as a team in downing prodigious amounts of jug wine, if Italy can somehow find a way to mesh, they can win this race.

How they can win: Invent a cloaking device for their team cars would be the easiest way.

Does anyone actually believe Nibs anymore when he says he’s not in shape and not the leader of the team? Perhaps the Shark should change his nickname to the Possum. I guess he assumes that no one was paying attention to his late attack in Memorial Marco Pantani. Nibs does look like he may need some (non-vehicle) assistance on his attacks these days, so it would be smart to get some riders up the road that he can meet up with on the final Igls descent following his attack and then hope they can hold off the rest of the field.

4. Belgium

Leaders: Greg Van Avermaet, Tim Wellens

Wild cards: Dylan Teuns, Tiesj Benoot

Support: Laurens De Plus, Ben Hermans, Xandro Meurisse, Serge Pauwels

Biggest omission: Philippe Gilbert

Belgium has the best collection of one day riders of any team. The only question is whether this is the right one day course for any of them. Van Avermaet has proven that he can win on all sorts of terrain after his gold in the Olympics. At the time, that was called a course for the climbers. Wellens will undoubtedly try to attack at some point and, if he can time it right and/or his group hesitates, can take a victory. Teuns is ostensibly an Ardennes specialist, and was just slightly below top form at the Vuelta, with 5 top-5 stage placings and no win, so perhaps he timed his peak exactly right. Did you see Benooooot! at Eurometropole? If not, you should definitely watch the end of that race [LINK]-- he may have not won, but looks hungry to add a second career victory to his palmares. The Belgians are no slouches on team support either, with the only questionable decision being not taking the recent victor at GP d’Isbergues, Gilbert.

How they can win: Employ the patented Conor Kelly Go Mental approach, which is all but guaranteed to happen with both Wellens and Benoot in the race. And then in the ensuing chaos a winner will emerge and following this season’s narrative, the winner will most likely be from the Quickstep team, which doesn’t really help the Belgium team who somehow has only brought a single Quickstep rider.

3. Netherlands

Leader(s): Wout Poels and Tom Dumoulin

Wild card: Bauke Mollema

Support: Wilco Kelderman, Steven Kruijswijk, Sam Oomen, Antwan Tolhoek, Pieter Weening

Biggest omission: Mathieu van der Poel

The Dutchies look looked indomitable… in every elite discipline besides the men’s road race. In fact, the last WC road race they won was in 1985. Yet, on paper, the team looks ready for a win and have a number of different paths to victory. With LBL on his palmares, Poels should be the sole leader of the team. An early season injury means that he’s not had much wear and tear over the course of the season, and a second place in the Tour of Britain means he’s timing his peak in form well. Doom provides a good second option-- he should be able to stick with the best during the hilly circuits, but his tired legs probably won’t do him any favors on the last steep climb before the line. Mollema, Kelderman and Kruijswijk could all be leaders if they were born in different countries. Oomen is an up and coming Dutch star, who could always surprise. Tolhoek has also shown flashes of brilliance this season. Weening will make a learned road captain. Not much missing from this team, except for the 2024 road race champion, van der Poel.

How they can win: In a twist of irony, the Dutch have the team that can most likely be mistaken for a grand tour-smothering group of Sky bots, none of whom are actual Sky bots except for their presumptive leader— Wout Poels— who is a Sky bot extraordinaire. They should go all in for Wouter Lambertus Martinus Henricus Poels.

Vuelta al Pais Vasco 2014 - Stage Four Photo by David Ramos - Velo/Getty Images

2. Spain

Leader: Alejandro Valverde

Support: Jonathan Castroviejo, David De la Cruz, Omar Fraile, Jesus Herrada, Ion Izagirre, Enric Mas, Mikel Nieve

Biggest omission: Marc Soler

The motto of these Spanish half-musketeers is todos para uno, as the entire team is behind Balaviejo, this likely being the last opportunity for him to add a championship to his palmares. No other team has such a singular mission. The Spanish team is the opposite of Movistar (perhaps just by luck, with Landa pulling out because of his injury) which is a refreshing change. Perhaps not coincidentally, Valverde is the only current Movistar rider on the team. His support is about as strong as they come, with many current and former Sky-bots, with only the absence of Soler being somewhat surprising.

How they can win: Throw out the script. With Castroviejo on the team, you know the team will only be concerned with shepherding Valverde to the final climb and putting a wet blanket on any excitement. A few years ago, that would have worked. But I’m not so sure that the old man can handle these young whippersnappers any longer. Spain should use Valverde as a distraction and send out De la Cruz, Fraile, Mas, and Nieve, who all know how to finish a race, on the attack.

1. France

Leader: Julian Alaphilippe

Wild Cards: Romain Bardet, Thibaut Pinot, and Tony Gallopin

Support: Warren Barguil, Alexandre Geniez, Rudy Molard, Anthony Roux

Biggest omissions: Alexis Vuillermoz and Guillaume Martin

In my opinion, France are the strongest team in terms of raw talent by far. Whether they can work together is another question. Alaphilippe should be the sole leader, but it looks like he may be given duo-billing with Bardet. Ala is probably the current best in the world at steep short climbs, can descend like a daredevil, and his racing smarts has just caught up with his raw talent this year. Also, his victories in San Sebastian, Britain, and Slovenia Slovakia show that he’s been hitting top form. Bardet has many of the same attributes as Alaphilippe, despite often being pigeonholed as a GT rider, but is a better pure climber with less of an explosive jump. Ideally, he would be used to shepherd Ala through the hilly circuit. Pinot and Gallopin are decent options as well-- either to take a flyer or to help Ala on the hills. Add to that Barguil replacing Rolland, along with Geniez, Molard, and Roux as super domestiques, and you’ve got the strongest team at the Worlds. Surprisingly, the team probably could have been even stronger had Vuillermoz and Martin been included, both who have looked strong in the Cobrelli cup races and who are no slouches in hilly one day races.

How they can win: Keep Ala patient and deliver him in a good position to the final climb. Trust in his skills and form despite a goatee that screams evil villain.

Cycling - Road Time Trial - Olympics: Day 5 Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

So, that is the definitive and infallible ranking of the strongest teams. Of course, there are other strong riders without the best supporting cast around them. Australia is without Richie Porte, but has two young promising riders in Jack Haig and Robert Power. Patrick Konrad has looked spunky as of late for the home team. Michael Woods took his first WT victory during the Vuelta on the Balcon de Bizkaia and has a second place in LBL. Ecuador is probably in the best position it’s ever been in with Richard Carapaz. Roman Kreuziger is still alive, and showed signs of life in the Ardennes this year. The Germans have Emanuel Buchmann, who although impressing in the grand tours as of late, first showed his promise when he won the German national road race in 2015. Dan Martin is still on the start list, but just became the father to twin girls a week ago, so his attendance and form are still an unknown. Can we expect another MSR style sneak attack from Krists Neilands? George Bennett looked cooked at the Vuelta, but will be showing up here. Rui Costa wants to remind everyone that he’s a former world champion. 2018 LBL winner Bob Jungels definitely deserves a mention. As does Sepp Kuss, who looked like the Great American Hope at the Vuelta. And while we’re at it, let’s not forget the triple rainbow holder, Peter Sagan. On paper, the course looks too hard, but would anyone really be that surprised if he somehow found a way to win?

Despite my pre-ranking warning that the strongest team doesn’t always win, I’m picking Alaphilippe to bring a rainbow to France.