Blazin' Saddles: World Championships road race preview – can Peter Sagan make it four?
With almost 5,000 vertical metres over 260 gruelling kilometres, the 2018 men's road race in Innsbruck has been labelled the hardest World Championships in living memory. Will the succession of punchy climbs prove a bridge too far for triple-defending-champion Peter Sagan or can the Slovakian showman make history on Sunday?
It's the race we've all been waiting for: a World Championships that – on paper – suits the climbers more than sprinters, with nine ascents and a final climb that peaks at a knee-wobbling 25% ahead of a fast descent to the line.
At Richmond in 2015, he soloed to glory; in Doha in 2016, he beat Mark Cavendish; in Bergen in 2017, he was invisible until out-kicking Alexander Kristoff for an unprecedented third gold medal on the bounce. The question now remaining is...
Can Peter Sagan keep the rainbow run going?
In a word (or two): probably not. It's true, the 28-year-old has been working on his climbing; he'll also have six Slovakian team-mates – compared to just the two he had in 2015. But he was far from his best in La Vuelta last month, and you get the sense that his magical run is nearing its end.
If many expected Sagan wouldn't win on a pure sprinters' course in Doha or on a hillier affair in Norway, then surely this mountain behemoth in Austria is a few vertical steps too far. Here's why.
The men's road race route
Starting in Kufstein, the 258.5km route heads up the valley towards Innsbruck via a few rolling hills before the first major test at 57km. Although only 2.6km long, the Gnadenwald has an average gradient of 10.5% and could well blow the peloton – and any breakaway – apart early on in the race.
The first of six circuits in and around Innsbruck gets going after 85km. Each lap is 23.9km long and features the 7.9km climb to Igls, which has an average gradient of 5.7% and a steepest section that hits double digits. On its own, this climb may only receive Cat.3 status in a Grand Tour. But the accumulative nature of its (re)appearance will whittle the peloton down, separating the world champion wheat from the also-ran chaff.
Then, with 225km in the legs, the riders tackle the decisive long lap, which, with an extra 7.1km to tackle, features a seventh ascent of the climb to Igls followed by the coup de theatre: the punchy 2.8km climb of the Gramartboden, otherwise known as the Höll, which averages at 11.5% and rises to a maximum gradient of 25%.
Once over the summit, the riders will then plunge back towards Innsbruck via a fast 6km descent before the final victory is played out on a 2km flat ride to the finish.
If not Sagan, then who?
The course looks tailor-made for a rider who can climb with the best, descent like a demon, and then out-sprint any remaining opponents to the line. Of all the riders on a truly stellar start list, the name of Julian Alaphilippe really jumps out.
Alaphilippe won the polka dot jersey in the Tour de France, is among the best riders in the peloton going downhill, and is a match for even the pure sprinters at the end of a long race. What's more, he's part of a super-strong French team that also includes mountain whippet Romain Bardet and the in-form Thibaut Pinot, who won two mountain stages on the Vuelta.
Another rider who ticks all the similar boxes is Slovenia's Primoz Roglic. With the likes of Jan Polanc, Matej Mohoric and Simon Spilak in support, Roglic, who came fourth in the Tour, must be up there with the favourites.
Julian Alaphilippe won stage three of the Tour of BritainPA Sport
What about the old guard?
Alejandro Valverde is the most feted rider never to have won the World Championships, with the Spaniard having finished on the podium on a record six occasions. Now 38, Valverde will never have a better occasion to don the fabled rainbow bands. But if this seems like a course custom-built for the explosive veteran, then the way he tailed off in the Pyrenees in the last two mountain stages of the Vuelta is cause for concern.
Similarly, Vincenzo Nibali should be one of the favourites – and yet his return to racing at the Vuelta after his crash in July's Tour left a lot to be desired. Was the Italian simply measuring his performances, or is he really that far from his best? We'll soon find out.
Alejandro Valverde and Vincenzo NibaliFrom Official Website
What about one of the Yates twins?
Winning the world championships would cap an extraordinary breakthrough season for Simon Yates, who came so close to winning the Giro before getting that Grand Tour duck off his back in the Vuelta. The British rider may, however, ride in support of his twin brother Adam Yates, who took a time to come to the boil in the Vuelta, but was hitting his stride in the final week.
Who else could take the spoils?
Tom Dumoulin 's principal focus will be on holding Rohan Dennis at bay to win a second world ITT crown on Wednesday. But the Dutchman has the right skill-set to be in the mix on Sunday. The same could be said of many of his Dutch team-mates, however: Bauke Mollema enjoyed an aggressive Vuelta, Steven Kruijswijk is in the form of his life, and Wout Poels is a dark horse.
If Valverde doesn't fire on all cylinders for the Spanish then there's the current man-of-the-moment in Enric Mas, whose victory in the final mountain stage of the Vuelta saw the youngster rise to second in the overall standings.
The last rider to wear the rainbow bands before Sagan's three-year reign, Michal Kwiatkowski took gold in Ponferrada over a course that included 4,284 vertical metres – not far from what's on the menu this Sunday. But the Pole faded in the Vuelta and crashed on numerous occasions; this could be too much of an ask.
The course should have Dan Martin salivating, but the Irishman – whose wife gave birth to twins last week – hasn't enjoyed the best of preparations, putting family first and dropping out of the Vuelta accordingly.
The Colombian team looks strong but Nairo Quintana is a shadow of the rider he once was and Miguel Angel Lopez had to put in a big effort to make the podium in the Vuelta. Perhaps Rigoberto Uran could pull something out of the bag – provided he doesn't cut a deal on the home straight with whoever he finds himself up against.
Then there's always the likes of Luxembourg's Bob Jungels, Italian bad boy Gianni Moscon (who has ripped up the recent Italian one-day races despite being very much under-fire) and the consistent Jakob Fuglsang of Denmark.
And what if it does come to a bunch sprint?
Well, there's always the fear that, for all the climbing on the menu, that final climb on the extra loop will mean most riders tackle the race conservatively until then – much like we see in a certain oh-so-predictable one-day race during Ardennes week.
If that's the case then – barring a walk in the park for Valverde or Alaphilippe – the gaps may be small going over the top and things could well come back together for a sprint. After all, we all thought the climbs in Rio would make the route prohibitive for the sprinters – and look what happened: Greg van Avermaet went and won the Olympic gold for Belgium.
Now, if you remember correctly, a certain Sagan decided to sit out that Olympic road race – only to see the rider he perennially kept in his pocket top the podium. Which raises the possibility that, well, perhaps Peter Sagan may win a fourth straight rainbow jersey after all.
Peter Sagan bites his gold medalGetty Images
Rider star ratings
***** Julian Alaphilippe
**** Primoz Roglic, Vincenzo Nibali
*** Alejandro Valverde, Michal Kwiatkowski, Adam Yates, Thibaut Pinot
** Simon Yates, Tom Dumoulin, Romain Bardet, Rigoberto Uran, Enric Mas
* Gianni Moscon, Dan Martin, Peter Sagan, Greg Van Avermaet, Bob Jungels
When is the race?
The men's road race is on Sunday 30th September. It starts at 08:40 UK time and is expected to finish around 15:40 UK time.
What about the women's road race?
The women's race is 156.2km long and concludes with three of the short laps and a total of 2,413 vertical metres. It takes place on Saturday 29th September from 11:10 UK time.
Favourites include the Dutch duo Anna van der Breggen and Annemiek van Vleuten, Australia's Amanda Spratt, South Africa's Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio, Poland's Katarzyna Niewiadoma, American Megan Guarnier, Spain's Eider Merino and Italy's Elisa Longo Borghini.