Monday, September 17, 2012

2012 World Championship Road Race Preview

The coming World Championship in the Limburg, the Netherlands, has parcours similar to the classic race Amstel Gold.  As usually the case, it is an attrition-style long course. While it is true that the course contains the dreaded Cauberg climb as it nears the finish - it can be a death knell for the ambition of many pure sprinters - it is hard to predict how the race will go.

For one thing, the distance from the final climb to the finish line is changed enough that we think it will have a significant impact that rouleurs might make it to the finish. Or even rouleur-like sprinters.

Read on as we share our observations and historical lessons from the last two times the race was run here.

First, what are the important factors to consider in this race?
  1. Unlike in the Olympics, the top teams are allowed to field 9 riders for the Worlds elite men road race. 
  2. Just like the Amstel Gold race, the race route is choke full of choke points ... think narrow winding country roads where a crash can block the entire road.
  3. Therefore, just like Amstel Gold race, we think the Worlds race will be about positioning and economy. Push too hard, and the distance and repetitive climbing will sap your strength, but let up too long and you risk getting stuck behind a gap or crash. 
  4. In the last two times this finale was used in a world championship, Jan Raas (Nederland) won in 1979 from a small group sprint; Oscar Camenzind (Switzerland) won solo in 1998 after attacking 8 km away from the finish, also from a small group. 
The leading group in 1998 included Niki Aebersold (Switzerland) teammate of eventual winner, Lance Armstrong (USA), Peter van Petegem (Belgium),  Michele Bartoli (Italy), and homeboy Michael Boogerd - he suffered an unfortunate flat in the last 8km.  In the end, Camenzind had 23 seconds' worth of time gap: the two favorites Armstrong and Bartoli hesitated while Swiss teammate Abersold menaced in the back of the group. They both relied on a resurgent Boogerd who used all his energy to lead the chase after his flat. We think that this race is a lesson in team tactics and timing, as Camenzind took advantage of the weight of expectation on favorite Bartoli and homeboy Boogerd.

Similarly, Jan Raas the homeboy favorite was able to force Didi Thurau (Germany) to lead the chase of a menacing late-km attack by Frenchman André Chalmel. A former track rider and TT rider, Thurau lost his nerve and used all his energy to catch the breakaway just 200 meters from the finish. Raas visibly grinned all the way to the bank as he sprinted on Thurau's right just as Thurau swung in the same direction: Raas barged through the door that Thurau was shutting in a rather vicious manner. Giovanni Battaglin (Italy) was stuck behind Raas just as Raas squeaked by, touched wheels, and was sent sprawling. This was clearly a master tactician's victory against all odds. The final km action was so thick that it took judges some hours to resolve protest by the Italian team.

Jan Raas' victory was made on a beautiful sunny day in August while Oscar Camenzind won in the wet in September.

If one were to view this race purely from historical perspective, then surely the 2012 race will play out very tactically. Favorites will be marked and expected to sacrifice teammates to control the race. The traditional early, suicide break may not even have the legs to survive for long as the main peloton will be a nervous one. All this point to high likelihood of an attrition race where there will be a small group, perhaps as large as 10 riders, in the last 10 km. At that point all bets are off, but whichever favorites have lieutenants this far into the race is the most likely to win. Without radio, guile may triumph. With radio, reaction time is still critical.

How do all these factor to today's teams?

Clearly the home Netherlands team would love to win this one, and they might just have the numbers for it if not a clear contender. The weight of expectation is heavy, and we sadly think they are a long shot. Cavendish might like to be the designated leader for Team GB again, but his team is not likely to have Bradley Wiggins on the roster and there is too much climbing for him.

Team Italy has been unusually quiet, even though Damiano Cunego (Lampre) and Enrico Gasparotto (Astana), both former winners of Amstel Gold, might be quietly preparing for this race. Whether coach Paolo Bettini will select them as team leader is not clear yet, unlike in previous years when nomination of team leadership brings the usual drama from riders, fans, and commentators. Naturally, Vicenzo Nibali of Liquigas-Cannondale - who has shown good form all year including second place in Liége after a gutsy attack - is a likely leader. Helpfully, several directeur sportifs already offered to take up the post of team selector. Will Bettini survive to lead the team next year? As Bettini already shared his prediction, will he be right this time?

Team Spain is quietly confident as usual, what with their proven record in winning Worlds races. Three-time winner Oscar Freire is retiring and what better surprise will it be than a fourth win to set a new record? Think we're crazy? Perhaps we are. But rather ominously he finished fourth in this year's Amstel Gold after his late-gasp attack was reeled in.

Regardless, ultimately Spain has a wealth of potential winners to pick from - recent Clasica winner L-L Sanchez, Alejandro Valverde, Joachim Rodriguez, and even Alberto Contador if he can get back into shape - and unlike the Italians they are better team players.

Valverde's wily ways earned him 6th on the final stage of the Vuelta, just enough to bump luckless Rodriguez from both the Points and Combination jerseys. Plus, he has finished second in a Worlds race before, behind Tom Boonen, and third, behind Paolo Bettini. We think it's hard to bet on anybody not Spanish for this race.

Another high-profile entry is Team Belgium. After a calamitous spring and summer, last year's classics hero Philippe Gilbert appears to be on form again, with 2 stage wins in the recent Vuelta a Espana. Teammate Tom Boonen is supposed to share in the leadership, having won Paris-Brussels recently. We are surprised that Jelle Vanendert's form came and disappeared this year: after all, he was runner up in Amstel Gold.

What of the home Team Nederland? It seems that just like Rabobank and Vacansoleils, two top teams registered in the host country, they are bursting with talent yet unable to capitalize on their strength in numbers. Bauke Mollema finished in the top-ten of this year's Amstel Gold, but was rather anonymous in the race. Perhaps a better bet is Niki Terpstra of OmegaPharma-QuickStep, who seems to have more attacking strength.

There are several standout riders who are worth noting despite team disadvantage. Peter Sagan of Slovakia was the standout of this year's Tour de France, and he nearly succeeded in winning this year's Amstel Gold. He was considered a dark horse in last year's Worlds Race in Copenhagen, but didn't deliver. Similarly, Norway's Edvald Boasson-Hagen is a good bet, but his team is a bit weak. Don't forget the toughness of Norwegians, however: Thor Hushovd managed to upset the race in Melbourne only a few years ago after a very efficient and stealthy ride all the way until the finish. Speaking of Australia, how about Simon Clarke who cheekily won GP Cycliste de Québec?

Finally, with Alexandre Vinokourov's win at the Olympics road race, we would be amiss to omit Team Kazakhstan. What better way to make glorious the great nation of Kazakhstan than a glorious win in Limburg? Even with Vinokourov retiring, they still boast recent Liège winner Maxim Iglinsky.

Who do you think will win in Limburg? Share your thoughts below.

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