It's the big one. The last big one of the season, at any rate. The World Championship road race means the opportunity to sport the iconic rainbow bands for an entire season, and a rainbow trim on every jersey worn for the rest of their career.
Wherever it takes place, the circuit setup means it is a race that tends to follow a particular formula. The excitement builds with every passage of the finish line, while riders pull out as their day's work is done.
The men's course in Wollongong comprises a 60km run-in via Mount Keira (7.5km, 5.7% average gradient) followed by 12 laps around the city. The climbing (4000m in total) is a lot, and sure to eat into the riders reserves. This more than usual could be a year that favours the bigger (stronger, faster, better) teams, with the first name on our lips likely the main beneficiary.
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20 HOURS AGO

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ - WOUT VAN AERT

Despite being our only five-star option, if we could make him a four-and-a-half star, we probably would. Not because Van Aert is less than a five-star rider - if anything, he’s a six - but because it’s been a long, hard season for him and it looks like he needs less to recharge his batteries than replace them entirely.
Nowhere did that show more than in the GP de Montreal two weeks ago. Arriving at the finish last he lacked the top end speed to push past a Tadej Pogacar on a mission. That said, more than Montreal, this is a course that suits him down to the ground and the rainbows really should be his to lose. The only real question is whether his Belgian team-mates can manage to maintain a discipline that was missing last year in Flanders.

Pogacar beats Van Aert in sprint to win GP de Montreal

⭐⭐⭐⭐ - TADEJ POGACAR, MATHIEU VAN DER POEL, JULIAN ALAPHILIPPE

Could Alaphilippe become only the second rider to win three in a row? It’s hard to imagine, but then it came as a surprise the first time he defended the rainbows. Surprise (and cunning), is the Frenchman’s trademark tool at his disposal, and when he makes the leap, there's often little anyone can do to stop him.
In a certain sense it’s more surprising that Mathieu van der Poel has yet to win a set of rainbows on the road. Yorkshire 2019 was supposed to be his year, until the lights went out. What form he brings to Wollongong is an unknown - that he won the GP de Wallonie last week is not an indicator of very much at all. MVDP has struggled since spring and he may already be looking to next year. The course may also contain a bit too much climbing for him. That said, it’s unlikely he’d have made the long trip if he didn’t think he could win it.
Pogacar, on the other hand, races for fun. Like Van Aert, there are few races he can’t contest, and he rides with the confidence of someone who knows it, but also with the lightness of one for whom it really is the taking part. The first Slovenian world champion? If he can repeat what he managed in Montreal, it could very well happen.

⭐⭐⭐ - BINIAM GIRMAY, MICHAEL MATTHEWS, FRED WRIGHT

Anyone who is good enough to beat Van der Poel in a Grand Tour sprint has to be considered a contender, but where Girmay could come undone is the weakness of his team. Still, the same could probably have been said of his unlikely victory at Gent-Wevelgem back in March. It didn’t do him any harm having to hitchhike his way into the selection and he’s sure to have plenty of unofficial allies willing to give him a tow. A friendly wind could find him up there at the end.
Michael “Bling” Matthews has previously finished third and second in World Championships, the top step has always, almost unfathomably, eluded him. Peter Sagan is basically the reason why, Matthews powers peaking at the same time as the Slovakian’s. While Sagan won’t get in his way this year, there are other riders who he will have to find a way past. Matthews may not have the sprint that he used to, but he showed at the Tour de France that the accumulation of years have gifted him a cunning that could come in more useful against the likes of Van Aert and Alaphilippe.
Speaking of a rider who won’t miss a move, wouldn’t it be something if the nearly-man of 2022, Fred Wright, busted that monkey off his back in his last race of the year? The Great Britain team is on the inexperienced side, but they are strong and can be sure to ride themselves into the ground for him. Luke Rowe might prove to be the secret weapon in Wright’s arsenal, though. He’ll hear the roar all the way from his home in Herne Hill if he can do it.

Watch the moment Girmay became first Black African to win Grand Tour stage

⭐⭐ - PETER SAGAN, STEFAN KUNG, ALBERTO BETTIOL

The year that we do not mention Peter Sagan as a World Championship contender is the one where he’s not on the startlist at all. Though his stars have unquestionably faded, there remains a twinkle in his eye that precludes ruling him out entirely. A fourth sets of stripes would see him stand alone on that number. Wouldn’t that be something?
And wouldn’t it be something to see Stefan Kung atop a World Championship podium after he’s come close to glory on so many occasions? The Swiss will feel certain that it should have been him in the time trial, and will have spent much of the week since analysing his run, poring over where he could have found the three seconds. He might find them, or their equivalent on Sunday.
Alberto Bettiol is the potential surprise package of this race. He’ll have a solid set of support staff in service, and they should be all-in for him. It’s been a quiet season for the Italian but his talent is undeniable and he would not look out of place wearing rainbows.

⭐ - REMCO EVENEPOEL, BENOIT COSNEFROY

Remco Evenepoel will be mentioned among the contenders for any race for which he pins on a number. But for the expectation that he will be riding fully in service to Van Aert, his name would have come up far sooner. We had the same assumption last year, however, and we all saw how that went. Evenepoel should - seems to - have learned his lesson since then, and has become a more mature version of himself. He shouldn’t go rogue, but he could serve as a valuable back-up for the Belgians.
Cosnefroy was not supposed to be in Australia, but the Frenchman clearly got a good last minute deal, as he hopped on a flight a couple of days ago. If Alaphilippe doesn’t have the legs for Wollongong, then it’s reasonable to expect that Benoit will. His win at the recent GP de Quebec was the highlight of his career so far, and the three riders immediately behind him there are among those already mentioned here. Cosnefroy is a rider whose time has come.
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