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Your Binary Choice World Championships Men’s Road Race Preview

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Will he or won’t he? That’s really the question

93rd UCI Road World Championships 2020 - Men Elite Road Race Photo by Alex Whitehead - Pool/Getty Images

The leaves are coming down, the mushrooms are coming up (ask me about my foraging!) and the World Championships have come to town. Well, somewhere, and in this case in what some people call Flanders, if you use the binary “I don’t hear them speaking French, do I?” definition, rather than Brabant or what have you. In any event, it’s the general area where you fly into Zaventem, get on your bike, thrown down a waffle, pedal over some punchy cobbled climbs, and stop for a delicious, delicious beer. Yep, that part of the planet. It’s coming home.

Wait, what does that phrase mean? Because it might be particularly apt in this case. The races started already with the time trials all several days or even a full week before the road race events, under the new format, and we re-crowned Filippo Ganna the King of the ITT again. But breathing down his neck was one Wout Van Aert, Belgian Cycling Action Figure, one half of just about every sentence used to describe the classics these ways, along with his Dutch foil/tormentor who we will get to later. Van Aert is a heavy favorite, even by Worlds standards, to pull on the rainbow stripes next Sunday, and for good reason. So yes, the sport of road cycling is coming to one of its most prominent spiritual homes, particularly with regard to this type of a race. And the rainbow stripes may be coming with it. Let’s delve into the details.

The Course

First off, the parcours for the Men’s road race starts in Antwerp to get the legs warmed up, heads down to Overijse and Leuven for two separate circuits taken several times each, with hills packed in closely enough to keep the suspense high. Let’s take a closer look. Map time:

World Championships Map

This is a terrible, terrible graphic, whose problems are only exacerbated by my making them into a screenshot. However, coming to our rescue is the indispensable web resource Cycling In Flanders (dot.cc), which has a spreadsheet of the climbs included in the finishing circuit. They are as follows (with links to CIF which has lovely photos and details), and divided into two clusters.

The Flandrien Circuit — these are the hardest climbs and happen once at around 80km and a second time at around 200km in. They occur near Overijse, in Brabantse Pilj country, and proceed as follows:

  • Smeysberg, 600 meters averaging 8% but topping out at 17%. This one counts double since it both opens and closes the Flandrien loop, while the rest are traversed once per circuit. It looks paved and fairly wide;
  • Moskesstraat, 500 meters about 8-9%, average and hitting its steepest bits toward the end. Oh, and COBBLED! Also winding and narrow. I so want to ride this. The name might be a reference to a mosque?
  • The S-Bend, which is a curving S figure through Overijse that then connects to the arrow-straight Taymansstraat, and goes on for a total of 1km at 4.8%, a grinding bit of pavement in downtown Overijse, which means it will be jammed with fans, or at least some slightly socially distanced facsimile thereof;
  • Bekestraat, COBBLED!!, and all of 430m at 7% on average, kicking up to 15%. It’s another narrow, lovely bit of winding road;
  • Veeweidestraat, the road of cow pastures, and who doesn’t love that? It’s 660 meters at 4.7% average, smooth, steady and wide compared to your average Flemish climb.

The Leuven Circuit — Get to know these climbs well. They happen once (plus) before the first Flandrien Circuit, then four times before the second Flandrien Circuit, then two (plus) more times to close out the race.

  • Keizersberg, the hill of the Keizer, 400 meters averaging 6.5% and winding past the Abbey’s imposing stone walls;
  • Decouxlaan, a 3% rise for 1.1km, which wouldn’t bother anyone if it weren’t a full km long;
  • De Wijnpers, whose name translates to wine press. This one is a mere 3km but averages 9% through the center of Leuven, and starts with a 90-degree turn to slow things further. The *plus designation hinted at above is because De Wijnpers gets an extra lap to start the climbing phase;
  • The Sint-Antoniusberg, for which I can’t find any details, except here is a photo of it, apparently:
CYCLING LEUVEN GP JEF SCHERENS RACE
Sint-Antoniusberg, Leuven
Photo by DAVID STOCKMAN/BELGA MAG/AFP via Getty Images

The Sint-Antoniusberg happens on each of the seven full Leuven laps, plus one extra time (with De Wijnpers) before lap 1 and another extra time to finish the race. It’s a bit of a curious omission from the list, since if you squint hard enough to read the road map, you will see that this is the final climb on the squiggly red circuit before hitting the finish line. It features three turns of perhaps more than 90 degrees, which won’t be a huge issue if the slope spreads out the riders and keeps the speeds manageable, which I think it does. Anyway, it’s a dash down the back side to the Leuven Ring Road before a world champion is crowned. The same approach to the line appears in all of the races, so we will see just how large a role the Climb of St. Anthony plays in these races before the big event Sunday.

However you want to phrase it, this is a suitably hard course for a Worlds road race, clocking in at 268km with 2,562 cumulative meters of climbing. That some of them are on cobbles adds to the suffering, as do the many little twists and turns on the course where the race slows down and speeds up again, over and over. Weather can make matters worse, as it often does in early April, although it looks like Belgium is in for a damp but mild day Sunday. Whatever, if anyone has the legs to attack, they will have a steady stream of invitations to do so.

11th Primus Classic 2021 Photo by Luc Claessen/Getty Images

The Favorites

As to who will win, here is where the choice appears to be somewhat binary: Wout or ... someone else? Below is a list of betting odds, which may not be everything but to my eye they are far from insane:

World Championships Men’s Odds

I gather the numbers all refer to x:1, so Wout is no more than a 2.65: 1 favorite to take the win. Of course, 2:1 translates to a 50% chance to win, and 2.6:1 is more like a 38% chance, which means if the race is run eight times, Wout wins three of them, and the other 200-plus riders win the other five. I guess then you could say that Wout is not favored to win; some other unnamed person chosen from the entire rest of humanity is. But if you have to name one name, his is certainly it.

Do we trust odds on a Belgian rider winning in Belgium, or anywhere else? I’d love to know just how much these numbers are driven by Belgian fans literally knocking infirm and/or elderly people out of the way in a mad rush to get a bet down on their man (hopefully not too much). But cycling betting is maybe not as sensitive as some other major sports, so maybe this is just a few oddsmaking individuals watching Sunday’s time trial and knowing enough about the guy to jot down what seems like an eminently reasonable number to hopefully not lose the house’s shirt on again.

Anyway, my point isn’t to promote gambling; it is merely to demonstrate just what a strong favorite Van Aert is coming into Sunday. He’s obviously on fine form, having just taken a silver medal against the watch. The course practically cries out to his skillset, climbing punchy hills and gearing up for any sprint that might take place — or in more classics-sense, simply being in possession of enough of a sprint to make everyone else start calculating when they should make their attack. Finally, Wout is from just up the road in Herentals, has probably ridden through Leuven on training rides close to 100,000 times, and anyway Belgium is about the size of Vermont so he could be from the farthest reaches of the country and still be from just up the road. All of Belgium will be tuning in to cheer him on. Literally.

To what extent are we able to pick winners of the Worlds’ men’s road race ahead of time? A quick run through the last five editions shows that pre-race previews had named the eventual winner in four of them, only missing on Mads Pedersen’s surprising 2019 win in Yorkshire. Personally I find a lot of “name that favorite” articles rather simplistic, rattling off names of sprinters for the sprinters’ courses. To me, a hot run of form probably says more about who will win.

Wout checks that box, but so do a few others. Michael Valgren, currently listed as having odds ranging from 13- to 26-to-1 to win, just took a pair of hard races in Italy last week, the Coppa Sabatini and the Giro della Toscana. Sonny Colbrelli and Matej Mohoric spent last week dueling over the Flemish cobbles and climbs at the BeNeLux Tour, with the Italian taking a narrow win but the Slovene grabbing the most notable stage victory in Geraardsbergen (although Colbrelli’s win in stage 6 is not a terrible indicator of potential success this weekend). Valgren, meanwhile, gave credit to his teammate Neilson Powless for his wins, which is cool for me because this weekend they won’t be teammates, and Powless, riding for my home country, was recently seen beating Mohoric for the Clasica San Sebastian title. Oh, and this past weekend you may have noticed Florian Senechal taking a win on Flemish soil in the Primus Classic, over Tosh Van Der Sande and, more notably, Jasper Stuyven, who was actually selected to ride the Worlds race. Finally, on the subject of France, Benoit Cosnefroy’s win in the grueling Ouest-France Bretagne classic was nothing to sneeze at, considering it was just three weeks ago and he dragged Julian Alaphilippe to the line before taking the win. That’s some on form shit right there.

As to the others on the official bettors’ favorites list, they come in as names that you just know people want to bet on, more than guys who might actually win you some money. Never say never when it comes to Mathieu van der Poel, but he’s had a bad back for a while, especially since his crash in the Olympics MTB race, and all he’s done since is... er, win the Ports Classic in Antwerp, and take a few other casual spins around the area. Ala, Evenepoel, Asgreen, even Mads Pedersen all just seem like guys you want on your favorites list, if you treat that list like card collecting. Which is like 95% of what we do for the Worlds race.

94th UCI Road World Championships 2021 - Men Elite ITT Photo by Kristof Ramon - Pool/Getty Images

My Pick to Win

Wout gets it. Let’s not overthink things. He’s a better sprinter than anyone else who can hold his wheel, and he’ll probably have a teammate around when things get nuts and breaks need chasing. About the only alternative is where Wout gets Lefevre’d by, oh, Evenepoel, who “helpfully” goes on attack to “relieve the pressure from his captain” and is never seen again. But I think the French, Danes, Dutch and Italians should be strong enough to minimize these chances. Oh, Evenepoel is attacking? Cool cool, here’s Magnus Cort Nielsen to “help the break stay away.” Anyway, if the race looks nutty enough, Wout can just form the attack for himself on one of the longer climbs, narrow it down to a group where nobody (including himself) has any teammates to watch out for, and he just seals the deal by himself. That’s my #1 scenario, and it probably won’t happen, but everything else is a longer shot, so I’ll just do what UNIBET tells me to do. Minus the actual money part.

Who ya got?