Some bike races are hard to win, while others are just hard to finish. It’s an old adage most associated with the epically long but quite prosaic Milan-San Remo, but rings true for some World Championship courses too.
Take the Doha Worlds. 257km in the desert – with participants in the TT earlier in the week passing out from heat exhaustion while riding. The race wasn’t that hard to ride, but it was hard to watch, with hour after hour of featureless flat. The high point from a spectator perspective being the minor tantrum thrown by John Degenkolb when other riders wouldn’t work to close a gap for him and his German teammates.
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Then there are the properly hard races. Hard like that kid in the year above you at school who threw a chair out the window of a third floor classroom. Begbie from Trainspotting hard. In fact, hard like any character played by Robbie Carlyle between 1992 and 2002. Roy Keane driving a tank while wearing a suit of armour opening beer bottles with his teeth hard.
There are the courses that present the greatest physical challenge – monstrously hilly ones cast in the same mould as Sallanches, 1980, where Bernard Hinault triumphed and only 15 of 107 crossed the line. The Sallanches course featured nearly 6,000m of climbing and is deemed the most difficult climbers’ course ever.
The 1995 Duitama championships was the Worlds’ one and only visit to Colombia, conducted at a base height of two and a half thousand metres above sea level with the main circuit climb hitting almost three thousand. Beginning a 260km ride when the oxygen in the air is already spread thin, then doing nothing but climb ramps of 10% and fly down serpentine descents, is it any wonder just 100 started and 20 survived to the end?
Andy Hampsten, he of the Gavia, was dead-last at a massive 37’55” down. The win, meanwhile, was finessed out of the pocket of Pantani by Abraham Olano and a canny Spanish team.
And then there are factors outside the control of course design. Apocalyptic weather, such as that experienced in the 1993 Oslo Worlds, can have a humongous impact on the outcome. Norway proved the perfect, grisly setting for a pugnacious young Texan to announce himself – ushering in what we now know as the Age of Armstrong.
In Chambery 1989 it hooned it down to such an extent that just 42 of 190 finished the course. An attrition rate of more than 75%. It was an American that won that time too, one with shotgun pellets still inside his body from the notorious hunting two years earlier. That’s not hard, that’s granite
The 2018 Innsbruck World Championships course is, on paper, among the hardest we’ve seen this century. The peloton will tenderise itself with seven ascents of Igls, before the final, spectacular flambéing on the Hölle. It’s this latter climb that should see the race decided. With a 28% ramp in the middle, expect comically slow-motion zig zags, gritted teeth and waifish ‘pure climbers’ to the fore.
It’s the Hölle that sits at the heart of the controversy around the women’s race, sparked by a blog from Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig about the wider phenomena of key parts of race routes being removed from the women’s versions.
I have climbed the Hölle as part of a World Championships course recon trip last year and, while I wouldn’t wish the experience on anyone, I can see Uttrup Ludwig’s point. This climb is going to blow the men’s race apart – a Stone Cold Stunner, Rock Bottom and Walls of Jericho rolled into one – and it’s hard to see how the women’s race will be richer for not having it included.
It’s so steep that I fell off my bike on the way up. I just couldn’t keep the thing moving forwards. At the top, I couldn’t breathe. When I’d regained the power of speech I muttered, That’s insane. Only 10 guys will finish the race.
The key to who wins will come in large part from how the stronger teams decide to race. The Igls climb is easy, by professional cycling’s standards at least. An average of 5.7% gradient is bordering on the benign – and this is where the majority of the elevation is accrued. The Hölle accounts for just 322 of the total 4,670m.
If Italy, Spain and the Netherlands hit the gas early – using the Igls climb to shed any hangers on from the peloton, then we’ll see a reduced fight on the Hölle and quite possibly a solo rider cross the line. A fast, hard race from the start will isolate riders from countries with weaker squads – people like Rafal Majka who, while excellent on short, steep climbs, will be lacking team support.
If, however, the stronger nations don’t put the pressure on, it’s far more likely we’ll see a handful of riders crest the Hölle together – in which case the ability to descend then sprint for the line comes into play.
The chances of a win for riders born on the British Isles seem limited. Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas are giving the Championships a miss, while Dan Martin – who is tailor-made for climbs like the Hölle, where the ability to suffer is paramount – is back home on dad duty after his wife gave birth to twins at the start of the month. The Yates twins look to be the best bet for Great Britain, although both have had tough seasons, with two Grand Tours each in the legs.
The Dutch squad, meanwhile, is absolutely brimming with firepower. Bauke Mollema, Tom Dumoulin, Wout Poels, Wilco Kelderman, Sam Oomen and Steven Kruijswijk can all climb with the best and will be supported by one of the 2018 Tour’s breakout stars, Antwan Tolhoek. As an extra feather in Kelderman’s cap, he currently holds the Strava KOM for the Hölle.
Peter Sagan has just tackled La Vuelta, where he was getting some climbing in the legs ahead of an impossible-seeming tilt at a fourth consecutive title. The thing is though, I sort of think he can do it. If nobody takes charge of the race and the peloton meanders through the first 240km, Sagan might just have enough in the legs to power over the final ski jump. From the top, it suits him to a tee – fast descent, punchy final three kilometres and a flat finish.
Others using the Vuelta as Worlds prep included Richie Porte and Vincenzo Nibali – both capable of winning a Grand Tour, but content in Spain with bizarre days out in doomed breakaways and water-carrying for Ion Izagirre. Nibali won Milan-San Remo this year with an attack over the final climb, followed by a fast descent and solo charge to the line. He did similar in the two Il Lombardias he won too – so that’ll be his modus operandi in Innsbruck, you’d imagine. Richie Porte, by comparison, has never won a professional one-day race and looked sick as a dog – when he wasn’t totally invisible – at the Vuelta.
Also in the running is Alejandro Valverde, not so much ageing like a fine wine as growing in power with every race he consumes, like a vampire feasting on souls.
The all-conquering swashbuckler, Julian Alaphilippe stands a good chance – he climbs beautifully, is in the form of his life and descends like he’s tired of living – but he might have to battle Thibaut Pinot, Romain Bardet and even Warren Barguil for leadership of the French team. Primoz Roglic is all in for the road race, despite being one of the best time-triallists in the business, but his fourth place in the Tour this year was down in large part to excellent support from his LottoNL-Jumbo team, a level of back-up he’ll struggle for on the Slovenian national team.
The Innsbruck Worlds is shaping up beautifully. A field bristling with heavy-hitters? You bet. A difficult course to finish? Definitely. After all, I couldn't. A hard race to win? I’d say it’s almost impossible.
-- by Tom Owen