28/09 - Ponferrada - 14 laps of 18.2 km = 254.8 km
The fight against the clock is over. Now, it’s time for the second part of the World Championships in Ponferrada. The road races.
On the contrary to the recent World Championships courses, the riders stay on the 18.2 km long circuit around Ponferrada at all time today. There is no opening part before entering the final laps. Despite a very hilly course, the first 3 km are pretty much flat. From here on, there is no place to relax. There is short but steep uphill section around the castle. Less than a kilometer later, the riders start on the first of two longer climbs.
The 5.2 km towards the top of Confederación have an average gradient of 3.3 % with the steepest part at the beginning. The descent is very tricky and the riders can’t afford to lose focus for a second. It’s important to stay near the front over the top of the climb as the peloton will be stretched out significantly on the descent. If you are too far down, you will have to waste a lot of energy getting back to the front on the following ascent, which starts out very steep. Officially, the ascent up to Mirador is set to be 1.1 km. However, in reality the riders start climbing right after crossing the bridge and passing through the tunnel, which makes the actual length of the climb almost twice as long. The average gradient is around 5 % but there are steep parts of 10 % towards the top. Remember, you can see detailed profiles of the two climbs by mousing over the area on the profile at the top of the page.
From the top of the last climb, it’s up and down for about 1.5 km before the riders take on the now well-known steep and technical descent. After overcoming a couple of roundabouts, only the last 600 meters are straight-out and flat towards the finishing line. As you can see, the last 12 km towards the line are the same as in Wednesday’s time trial.
An important issue today will be when to eat and drink as there really aren’t any easy parts on this circuit. Even the flat parts are technical. This means the riders most likely will have to eat on the climbs. Far from ideal. We could easily see many riders abandoning this race due to a hunger flat. Another important factor will be the weather. As of Friday morning, the forecast shows rain for the final part of the race. This means the descents will be extremely dangerous. Furthermore, it’s hard to say how the body will respond going from the sunny and warm conditions to rain and much colder temperatures.
Considering everything, to me, this is one of the most open World Championships in many years. Last year, the riders climbed 3600 meters in total. Today, the number is 4284 meters. However, the climbs are not as tough as the ones in Florence. After training on the course on Thursday morning, the majority of the riders are expecting a sprint within a reduced group of about 30 riders. Michael Albasini said it best. Talking with his GreenEdge team mate Daryl Impey, the Swiss explained: “The first time I did the lap, I thought ‘Oh this is tough’ but by the third time [I finished the lap], I was thinking ‘this is going to be a sprint’.”
No matter how this race is going to progress, there can be no doubts about who the strongest team is. Australia has already won several medals in the time trials and it would be a big surprise if they didn’t put a rider on the podium again today. The top favorite is Simon Gerrans. 2014 has been the best season in his career so far and now he dreams of finishing it off in the best way possible. Asked about the course, the current Australian champion lit up in one big smile saying: “Yeah, it’s good. I really like it”. Recently, Gerrans became the first rider to win both Canadian one day races. Obviously, he’s in outstanding shape now. Not only is Gerrans good on these kinds of climbs, he’s also very fast on the line.
What makes the Australian team so strong is that they actually have two of the biggest favorites at the starting line. Like Simon Gerrans, Michael Matthews, too, has had an incredible season winning stages and wearing the leader’s jersey in both the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a España. This year, Matthews has been working hard on improving his climbing skills, which he proved already in Paris-Nice when he was the first rider to chase down Carlos Betancur on a steep climb of over 15 %. Matthews came out of the Vuelta on a very good note and now, he’s hoping to repeat his performance from Geelong in 2010, when he won the U23 World Championship. I would expect Simon Gerrans to attack on the last lap and try to get away in a small group. From here, he will most likely be the fastest rider. In case this group gets caught, Michael Matthews will be ready to sprint for the win in a reduced group. Bling may also try to join the attacks on the last lap knowing he's the fastest rider.
Another fast guy who will be happy to see this race end in a sprint is John Degenkolb. The strong German was flying in the Vuelta a España where he won four stages and the green jersey. Unfortunately, Degenkolb didn’t end the race very well. Suffering from an early crash, Degenkolb spent his post-race days in a hospital bed. If he manages to recover well from the crash and the antibiotics he was given at the hospital, John Degenkolb is a serious contender for the rainbow jersey. However, if the race gets hard early on, I think the over 4000 meters of climbing will prove to be too much for Degenkolb.
The other great nation for this race is Spain. They messed up in Florence last year. Now, they are on home soil and extra motivated to get it right. The two prime picks are Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim ‘Purito’ Rodriguez. However, don’t expect the two riders to support each other very well. Ever since their time at Caisse D’Epargne (now Movistar), Valverde and Purito have had difficulties working together on the bike. Both are born winners and anything but the top of the podium doesn’t really matter. The problem for Spain is that they don’t have a sprinter. Valverde is fast but he doesn’t stand a chance against the likes of Michael Matthews and John Degenkolb. In a small group, Valverde will be difficult to beat. Still, if Simon Gerrans is there too, it’s game over. Therefore, Valverde - and Purito - both have to solo away on the last climb. With such a technical descent, if you have just 10 seconds on the top, you will be very difficult to catch, especially if you are as strong on the downhill parts as the two Spaniards.
The technical descents is also the reasons why Fabian Cancellara deserves to be mentioned as one of the top favorites. The Swiss is one of the best descenders in the peloton. Despite having won the world championships against the clock numerous times, Cancellara didn’t take the start last Wednesday. This year, it’s all about the road race for him. Cancellara looked strong in the Vuelta but, personally, I have my doubts if he can cope with over 4000 meters of climbing. However, if he’s in the peloton on the final lap, I’m sure he will try something on the descents.
It may not be fair only to categorize Peter Sagan as an outsider this Sunday. On paper, he should be the top favorite. However, since he officially inked the deal with Tinkoff-Saxo last month, Peter Sagan hasn’t looked very motivated to race. In the Vuelta, the young Slovakian was far from his top level and quit the race after two weeks. Compared to the rest of the pre-favorites, Sagan seems to be the least prepared rider. Naturally, Tinkoff-Saxo - and Peter Sagan himself - would love to have the rainbow jersey next year. Being good uphill, great on the descents and very fast on the line, Sagan has all the right qualities to win this race. To me, he seems a bit off-shape, though. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if he crossed the line first Sunday afternoon.
Personally, I think riders like Michal Kwiatkowski and Greg Van Avermaet will play an important role this Sunday. Kwiatkowski has had another great season and proved to be in excellent shape in Tour of Britain earlier this month. The young Pole is very good on these kinds of climbs. Furthermore, he’s strong on the descents and very fast on the line within a reduced group. Poland is one of the nations with nine riders at the start and they are fully committed to work hard in order to put Kwiatkowski on the podium. Greg Van Avermaet won’t be the team captain on the Belgian team. However, he’s probably one of the strongest riders these days. Despite having Tom Boonen and Philippe Gilbert on the team, I wouldn’t be surprised if Van Avermaet finished best of the Belgians. He’s strong on the small climbs and fast on the line. He’s not fast enough to beat guys like Degenkolb or Matthews but on a good day he might make it onto the podium. The same goes for Sep Vanmarcke. In a regular bunch sprint, Vanmarcke won’t be able to beat the best riders. However, in these kinds of endurance races, the young Belgian always packs a good sprint.
With so many strong riders and such an open race, the list of candidates is extremely long. Last year’s winner Rui Costa arrives in excellent shape to lead the Portuguese team. The Netherlands have Bauke Mollema and Tom Jelte Slagter. France brings Sylvain Chavanel and Nacer Bouhanni, while Italy’s best option, despite a strong GC team, most likely is in-shape Sonny Colbrelli.
Instead of naming all strong riders in this race, I’d rather focus on my own personal outsider this year: Ben Swift. The last couple of years have not been easy for the young Brit. Despite a huge talent, Swift hasn’t been getting the expected results. This year, however, he seems stronger than ever. He has been consistent all season and seemed to finish Tour of Britain on a very good note. Ben Swift already went to check out the course in July and he was happy with what he saw. On his best days, Swift has proven to be more than capable of coping with these kinds of climbs and still be fast on the line. He did so in Vuelta al Pais Vasco when he won the mountain stage to Xemein. Great Britain sends a very strong team to support Ben Swift with the likes of Geraint Thomas, Stephen Cummings, the Yates brothers and Tour de France winner Chris Froome. On a good day, I wouldn’t be surprised if Swifty made it onto the podium.
For other good jokers look to Zdenek Stybar, Michael Albasini, Daryl Impey, Michael Valgren and Russia’s Alexandre Kolobnev who always performs well in the championships races.
For live coverage of the stage, go to steephill.tv.