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Men’s Road Race Preview: A hardman’s rain’s a-gonna fall

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Leeds – Harrogate (285km)

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Sunday sees the fifteenth and final race of the road world championships for 2019, the men’s road race. Here’s where I have a look at the likely shape of the race and the likely favourites, before I embarrass myself by picking a winner.

The shape of the race

I’ve talked about the course before and nothing I’ve seen so far has changed by initial preview assessment: we’ll be seeing half of Liege-Bastogne-Liege followed by two thirds of the Quebec GP, raced in dreadful weather.

There’s some good things about that. First, LBL is a fun race. Second, Quebec is also a fun race, albeit with a likely outcome (a drag sprint among hardmen). Third, there’s something interesting about racing in dreadful weather, even if it doesn’t always produce the fairest of races. Fourth, of course, it is a long old day and that rewards the toughest cyclists.

There are also some bad things about that. LBL and then Quebec is another way of saying that the most interesting bits of the parcours come early – and that’s exactly what we can expect. This is a tough run in to the concluding laps, but the inherent conservatism of the men’s peloton, especially faced with a brutally long day in the saddle, will limit the size, q uality and threat of early breaks. I’m sure we’ll see some guys up the road. Probably a very long way up the road. I’m also sure that they won’t matter in the end.

Like this - but in the rain
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Other than the parcours, I mentioned the possibility of dreadful weather in September of last year, and as I write this, some 48 hours before the finale, it looks like the weather will be as bad as we feared, and possibly the worst of the week so far. The forecast for North Yorkshire currently contains a yellow (be prepared) warning for heavy rain and potential flooding. As we saw with the U-23 time trial, that can have consequences on these roads and should be taken seriously. There is also a likelihood of decent winds that’ll be in the faces of the riders early, and on their backs as they return to the circuit. The nature of a tight circuit means wind from all directions and I think there’ll be cross-winds on some of the exposed sections in the finale.

It has not been nice weather in Harrogate this week.
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Echelons? No, probably not, but there are plenty of hilltop roads without much in the way of tree cover and it’ll make life much harder for all concerned. Bad for the breaks, yes, but also cold, leg-numbing and exhausting for the peloton. I don’t think we can rule out crashes, multiple abandonments, mechanical difficulties and the poor-weather specialists coming to the fore.

Assuming the early break is caught, will there be late breaks? I think that there almost inevitably will. It might be that the weather is dreadful enough that the last 50km feel like a spring classic with selections all up and down the road, but I think it is more likely to be guys without a sprint attacking off the front of a reduced peloton. There are hills that are sufficiently challenging to provide a launchpad, but none that are long enough or tough enough to make gapping a determined chase easy. The question, therefore, is whether anyone has the technique and power to extend a lead on the technical sections following the climbs, or whether the peloton reaches a point where it is no longer determined to bring a group back.

I still think we’ll see a group sprint of hardmen sprinters after a race that splinters on the circuits and comes together late. However, the weather and the riders in the field make that seem less certain than it did before. I’d give the break a 1% chance, late attackers a 30%, a totally splintered finish a 15% chance and a reduced field gallop a 54% chance.

The Main Teams

One exciting thing about this field is that many of the best riders can win either by attacking or by sprinting. It is less easy than is usually the case to spot the tactics of the leading riders. Let’s have a quick look by team.

Slovakia ­ - By which I mean Peter Sagan. For me, Sagz remains the favourite. That shouldn’t be a remarkable thing to say about the four-time world champion, but he’s no longer the bookies’ first choice. There is one good reason for that, to which we’ll return. However, there can be little doubt that Sagan is tough enough for a long race, good enough in a sprint, and competent on short climbs. Cycling media also appears to have forgotten that he is himself an exceptional bike handler. The case against him begins with the fact that he’s only got three men in support, none of whom are superb. That will matter more in these conditions.

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There’s also the “Montreal conundrum” – Sagan appears doomed to either see a break disappear up the road or to exhaust himself chasing the break back, only to be beaten in the ensuing sprint. We can’t rule that outcome out for tomorrow.

Netherlands – Now we see the bookies’ favourite. Mathieu van der Poel has it all. He’s got a great sprint, is in devastating form (as he demonstrated in the Tour of Britain, where he also excelled in poor weather) and has a crosser’s ability to keep going in dreadful weather and handle a bike brilliantly. He’s proved this year he truly belongs among the elite on the road. Wins in races like Dwars, Amstel and Brabantse are excellent yardsticks for this race. He’s also got excellent support from the likes of van Baarle, Terpstra and Teunissen. To win here he’ll need to get his tactics right and he’ll need to be at his best on the biggest day of the season. He absolutely can win but I’m less optimistic than many, and I fear he’ll burn his matches just too soon.

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Whilst the rest of the squad are excellent, I don’t think any are here seeking individual glory.

Belgium – Now here we have a team with plenty of riders who can look for individual glory, and the range of possible winners means that they may complement each other nicely. My assumption is that Philippe Gilbert and Tim Wellens will be looking to get into late breaks with the likes of MvdP and others, whilst Greg van Avermaet will hope to sit back and take advantage of a tough sprint if the field comes together – as I mentioned with Sagan, Montreal’s finish is looming large in my head as I consider possible outcomes. All three have solid second-tier chances, and the more I study this race the more I think that the likeliest outcome would play brilliantly into GvA’s hands.

Why do I keep thinking about this finish?
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France – If you’d have asked me a year ago, I’d have been looking at Arnaud Demare as a possible darkhorse for this course, but he doesn’t make the trip. The likes of Cosnefroy and Gallopin may look to animate but this is Julian Alaphilippe’s team and he’s another who’ll be expected to light the blue touch paper on the final loops – if, that is, the weather hasn’t made the paper too damp. I think Ala will be world champion at least once in his career. I don’t think this course is quite tough enough for him. If the weather becomes truly apocalyptic and Senechal wins, that’ll be almost as wonderful for me as the cricket world cup final.

Italy – Like France and Demare, I’d have expected this to be Moscon’s team. He is a man devoid of form but makes the trip, unlike Arnaud. Not on the team is Sonny Colbrelli, which makes me think that Matteo Trentin is the favoured son. He’s on excellent form and this looks like his parcours, but he’d have to be lucky to win. A podium seems likely. After Flanders, nobody will let Alberto Bettiol disappear up the road, surely.

Denmark – The last team I’m going to cover in detail and not, I expect, one of the nations that would anticipate such high billing. However, they’ve quietly assembled a team that is extraordinarily well-suited to the parcours and conditions. Mads Pederson is in form and brings classics clout, Morkov and Valgren are lacking their best form this season but are valuable cards, Fuglsang would want it tougher but is winning for fun this season and will need to be watched on the closing laps.

Most of all, the Danes have Kasper Asgreen. If he hadn’t ridden in the TT, or if I was just a little braver, I might be tipping Asgreen to win this. He’s been so impressive this year and has maintained his form. With the quality of the Danish team he could well get an easy ride, and if the bigs are looking at each other, don’t be surprised if he steals this.

Others

Kazakhstan bring Alexy Lutsenko who has this year produced results to match his talent and efforts. He’s another form rider who I’d like more if the course was just a touch tougher. Bike handling hasn’t always been his long suit and that’s another concern.

Norway always have fun with tactics at these events, but even so, if this was three years ago I’d be writing about Alexander Kristoff as a likely winner. Ultimaltely, I think this race will be won by the man who loses the least speed from his sprint after a horrible seven hours in the saddle on bumpy roads in the rain. That used to be Kristoff, and he’ll still be in the conversation.

Australia will be relying on Michael Matthews, I think. He’s in form (this is a rare year where we can say that about plenty of riders) and should get close, and he has an excellent record in world champs. I’m not convinced that the weather will suit him and others have looked stronger this year. The team also contains some lively break riders, with the likes of Haas and Haig (the latter is looking sparky at the moment) possible animators.

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Slovenia have, as the boss has said, pulled together a seriously competitive team in the last few years. This course looks too straightforward and neither Roglic nor Pogacar seem to have carried their Vuelta form to Yorkshire. Next year.

Colombia have a team mostly aimed at the mountains, but Fernando Gaviria is set up for this sort of course. He’s another for whom form has been elusive this season and I’m looking elsewhere. The Germans are better suited to this race and John Degenkolb (who’d be a popular winner in some Café quarters) is probably their strongest card, with the finale looking too tough for Pascal Ackermann. If Degz’ form is improving he could be a long-priced surprise. Nils Pollitt is yet another potential attacker in a broken race.

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You’d expect to have more to say about Spain but this course doesn’t look suited to their riders. Defending champion Alejandro Valverde likes a tough day but the slopes won’t be steep enough for him, surely. Ivan Garcia is probably two or three years, and a warmer day, away from competing. Poland, shorn of their likely leader Kwiatkowski, Portugal, Switzerland and Russia are all teams who’ve been prominent in previous years but aren’t likely to compete here.

Who wins?

We’re looking, then, at a competitive race on a demanding course in awful weather. We can expect a strong break that doesn’t have a good chance of making it, and at a string of very powerful late breaks. If they go away and stay away, I’d expect to see van der Poel winning ahead of the likes of Alaphilippe and Gilbert. If they get brought back, I think Sagan will win – unless he has to do too much chasing on his own. Should he burn too many matches, I’ll give the win to van Avermaet. Look for Trentin and Matthews to vie for podium places, with Degenkolb, Kristoff and Asgreen lurking in the top few. Peter Sagan is your winner.

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