Blazin' Saddles: Sagan has the Worlds at his feet in Bergen
Slovakian sensation Peter Sagan was the best of both previous Worlds – but can he make it three from three in Bergen this weekend? Felix Lowe previews the eagerly anticipated men's World Championships road race.
If this week's zinger of a time trial is anything to go by, fans are in for a real treat when the men tackle the hilly 267.5km World Championships road race in Bergen this Sunday.
Towering Dutchman Tom Dumoulin was out of this Worlds when he cut through the throngs of spectators on Mount Floyen to beat Primoz Roglic and Chris Froome to the rainbow jersey on Wednesday to cap an extraordinary year for him and his Sunweb team (who, days earlier, zipped to gold in the TTT).
But now it's time for the race we've all been waiting for as Peter Sagan bids to make history in becoming the first cyclist to secure three successive tenures in the rainbow bands. So, let's take a closer look at the route and main favourites for Sunday's road race.
The course: not one for the pure sprinters
From the desert of Qatar, the armpit of the Worlds, to the mountainous, beautiful, fan-friendly streets and surrounding hills of Bergen – so far north, quite literally almost on top of the World – this is the race we've all be waiting for. A year, indeed, makes a Worlds of difference.
What were the Worlds coming to last year, many of you will have thought – and quite rightly. But we all know that money makes the Worlds go around. And so it's understandable that Bergen had to wait a year while the UCI digested all that cash and got Qatar out of its system.
To be fair, last year's men's race was actually quite exciting – with the Belgian team blowing things apart in the crosswinds, Germany frantically fighting back on, and Sagan showing that you don't need team-mates to bring home the bacon. Yet judging by the profile of this year's course – plus on evidence of this week's races – the 2017 men's road race should be a vintage edition.
Twenty-four years since He Who Shall Not Be Mentioned set the Worlds alight in Oslo, the battle for the rainbow stripes is back in Norway – and the race should be Worlds apart from last year's sandy offering in the Middle East.
With more than 3,800 vertical metres on the menu, the 267.5km course is not one for the pure sprinters – with an 8km flat run to the finish following a technical descent off the back of the final ascent of Salmon Hill.
Salmon Hill (1.5km at an average gradient of 6.4%) is hardly the Angliru but it's tackled on each of the 11 city circuits in Bergen, which follow the gently undulating opening 40km from the start in Kollsnes.
Each 19.1km loop includes 4.7km of climbing and 261 vertical metres; again, this isn't a 2,000m alpine ascent – although, it is exactly that as a whole when taken in line with the Everesting concept.
Where this differs from a Grand Tour stage is in the length: well over 250km, this is a route that will certainly sort out the rainbow wheat from the other-coloured chaff.
Hot favourite: Peter Sagan
When you're the double reigning champion and the course is ideally suited to your strengths, then it's no surprise that the Worlds are your oyster.
That said, Sagan may well have eaten a few dodgy molluscs in Canada: the 26-year-old picked up an illness after the GP de Quebec (which he won) and the GP de Montreal, and was forced out of Bora-Hansgrohe's TTT accordingly.
Skipping the time trial was just a precaution but the question remains whether Sagan will be able to carry the weight of the Worlds on his shoulders. Everyone expects him to win – or at the very least play a pivotal role – but perhaps rainbow jerseys don't come in threes.
While cycling is an individual sport contested by teams, Sagan has shown time and again that pure power in legs is often better than power in numbers. Slovenia are hardly heavyweights, but Sagan has a point to prove after his Tour de France shocker in July.
Michael Matthews in the green jerseyGetty Images
In Sagan's absence in the Tour, Michael Matthews moved up in the Worlds reckoning by winning the green jersey and notching a brace of stage wins. Matthews will be Australia's top dog and one of Sagan's key opponents alongside Poland's Michal Kwiatkowski, Belgium's Greg van Avermaet, France's Julian Alaphilippe, Italy's Matteo Trentin and Norway's Edvald Boasson Hagen.
Since winning Paris-Roubaix, Van Avermaet's season has tailed off a little but this is the kind of course that suits the Olympic champion to a tee. It just remains to be seen if too many cooks will spoil Belgian's broth (GVA is the figure-head of a team made up entirely of eight Gordon Ramseys and one sous-chef domestique in Julien Vermote).
The last man to don the rainbow stripes before Sagan, Kwiatkowski has had a stellar season for Sky and denied his rival the Milan-Sanremo crown back in March. Third in that compelling sprint was Alaphilippe, who's ridden with gusto all season but looked a trifle fatigued towards the back end of the Vuelta.
Someone who didn't look tired at all during the Vuelta was quadruple stage winner Trentin, who is in the form of his life and has the climbing and sprinting abilities to triumph in Bergen. Finally, hopes of a home win rest with Boasson Hagen, who, ostensibly dead to the Worlds for the past few years, is enjoying something of a renaissance this season with victories in the Tours of France and Britain.
Matteo Trentin, Chris Froome - Vuelta 2017 stage 21 - Getty ImagesGetty Images
He may have the Worlds by the tail on his TT bike, but the chances of Dumoulin getting the best of both Worlds on Sunday are slim, with the Dutchman likely to work for his in-form team-mates Wilco Kelderman and Wout Poels – but you never know.
Philippe Gilbert was in a Worlds of his own back in the spring, but with his team looking like an episode of MasterChef: The Professionals, the veteran could have his fingers burned in Bergen.
***** Peter Sagan,
**** Michael Matthews, Greg van Avermaet, Julian Alaphilippe, Matteo Trentin, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Michal Kwiatkowski
*** Philippe Gilbert, Rigoberto Uran, Wout Poels, Diego Ulissi
** Jan Bakelants, Dylan Teuns, Jasper Stuyven, Luis Leon Sanchez, Gorka Izaguirre, Gianni Moscon, Lilian Calmejane, Tom Dumoulin, Wilco Kelderman, Ilnur Zakarin, Warren Barguil, Bauke Mollema, Niki Terpstra, Rui Costa, Fernando Gaviria, Tim Wellens, Tiesj Benoot
* Alexander Kristoff, Stefan Denifl, Jarlinson Pantano, Andrey Amador, Michael Valgren, Peter Kennaugh, John Degenkolb, Alexey Lutsenko, Bob Jungels, Primoz Roglic, Lars Boom, Michael Albasini