More than any Men’s road race in recent Worlds memory, 2018 shapes as a wonderful lottery. Not dissimilar to finding the winner of the Melbourne Cup, you can make a solid enough argument for 30+ riders. So what will happen on Sunday night? We have no idea. But here’s what our crystal ball is suggesting right now…
The 2018 UCI World Championship Men’s Road Race will take place this Sunday night, Australian time, all 258½ brutal kilometres of it. SBS will be streaming the race live from 5:30pm, while free-to-air TV coverage starts at 11:05pm on Viceland, so get the coffee (or beers) ready. The winner should be known by about 1am Monday morning.
With around 5,000m of climbing and a profile that looks more like a medieval torture device than a bike race, including seven ascents of the Gnadenwald climb, before a final 28% blast up the infamous Höll, it’s going to hurt a lot of quality riders and is no place for pure sprinters.
Is it a none-too-subtle conspiracy to prevent Peter Sagan making it four rainbow jerseys in a row? We seriously doubt it. After all Austria isn’t exactly flat, so it was always likely to be far more lumpy than any recent edition of the Worlds. Besides, surely the UCI would love to see Sagan to win again? He’s been one of the shining lights for world cycling for the past six or seven years, a pleasant distraction from the endless parade of TUE fiascos and team collapses. That said, the chances of a ‘four-Pete’ appear slim at best. However if anyone can prove the world wrong, it’s the popular and immensely talented Slovakian. While we’d love to see him triumph more than any other rider, aside from an Aussie, here’s what we think might actually happen.
Hills and thrills
Clearly, the 2018 winner will be someone who can get over a hill. But given the extreme lumpiness of the course we’re thinking the race may not pan out quite the way you’d expect. It’s a long, long day in the saddle, and with seven laps of the testing 24km ‘Olympic Circuit’ before the even more brutal finale, it’s a tricky one to manage for the big favourites (France, Spain, Colombia) who may not want to go too hard too early, or follow every attack, as there’s just too much chance for things to implode too soon. As Spain has found time and time again, the burden of favouritism can be a heavy one, and they’ll no doubt be wanting to keep as many riders fresh until the latest possible moment. This could lead to a situation where the main breakaway of the day finds itself given a very long leash to help release the pressure valve for the favourites, at least on the earlier laps of the Olympic Circuit. It makes the composition of the break critical which, in turn, will make the start a truly fascinating chess game (so be sure to be streaming it from 5:30pm). Moves will be made, and brought back. Made, and brought back again. Of course, it’s not like the latter stages of a Grand Tour where there are only a handful of genuine threats to keep an eye on. Half the field is a potential threat. Of course you can’t mark everyone for 250km, so at some stage the peloton will have to let a bunch of riders get up the road. Question is, can a few brazen opportunists with decent climbing legs find their way into the right break at the right time? If they do, it will make for a very stressful day for the top teams in the peloton. For example, in keeping all the pure climbers in check, do you let someone like Sagan get away early? Or even Van Avermaert? Probably not. But we can definitely see one of the young Aussies getting in the day’s main break. In fact, given the absence of Australia having a bona fide ‘favourite’ in 2018 with the withdrawal of Richie Porte, it may well make things a whole lot easier for someone in the green and gold to put in a super cheeky performance, maybe Rob Power, Chris Hamilton or even late call-up, Queenslander Nick Schultz. Here’s hoping anyway.
Whoever ultimately makes it up the road, if the peloton isn’t careful, they may never see them again. The composition of the break could be absolutely crucial and will shape the subsequent course of the entire race.
If things do come back together, which is still the most likely scenario of course, the big teams certainly won’t want it to happen until the final lap/s of the circuit. But if and when it does, expect fireworks with relentless attacking which will make for exciting viewing. This is when some of the less heralded but still highly credentialed climbers, people like Jack Haig, Wout Poels and Bob Jungels for example, will be thinking they need to go and go hard. The favourites will still be marking each other’s every move, and reluctant to burn up all of their remaining domestiques, which may play nicely into their hands. We might also see guys like George Bennett,Warren Barguil, Rafel Majka, Dylan Teun, Peter Kennaugh and maybe even former Strade Bianche winner Zdeněk Stybar have a crack at this stage, not to mention at least one one of the Colombians. If he hasn’t managed to get in the early break and is still in the wheels, watch for Sagan at this point too for one last roll of the rainbow dice. We know he’ll never die wondering, and to have any chance of victory – and, yes, it’s a long shot – he knows he needs to hit that final Gnadenwald climb with a good head start. Another former World Champion, Kwiatkowski, is probably in the same boat.
Whether it’s all back together or a panicked bunch is now chasing hard, the pressure will be intense by this late stage with DNFs piling up and caution getting thrown to the wind. But the added twist of the feared Höll climb with around 20km to go changes things yet again, and that’s one of the real beauties of the 2018 course. With a searching 3km at 11% and a maximum gradient pushing 28% (!), Höll could turn everything on its head, especially for any team that’s done too much work in the preceding 240km or so. Elastic bands will shred and legs will spontaneously combust on its unforgiving pitches, have no doubt, and the terrain will likely favour Ardennes-type guys who perform well on other extreme ascents like the Mur de Huy. Think Alaphilippe. Valverde. Dan Martin. All are given a good chance by the bookmakers. But will they be close enough to the front of the race?
From the top of Höll, lungs and legs will be screaming for mercy. There’s now less than 10km to the finish line, mostly downhill and all very fast. This means not dissimilar to the Poggio in Milano Sanremo – or even the top of Corkscrew down to Campbelltown for those who’ve been to the Tour Down Under – it’s vital to reach the summit either with, or in very close contact to, the race leaders. There just won’t be enough road to shut down sizeable gaps, even for someone with a massive engine like Dumoulin.
Our money is on the main break getting caught towards the start of the final lap, and the ultimate winner coming from a second, or possibly even third, later break that catches the favourites out watching each other. As for who that is? Our heart (and hip pocket) is hoping for Jack Haig. Our head says it may just be Wout Poels, super strong and – thanks to the presence of Dutch team-mate Steven Kruijswijk who can act as a loyal chaperone for Dumoulin – liberated from his normal support duties at Team Sky. If he can, it would give the Netherlands its first male road race World Champion since Joop Zoetemelk back in 1985. But in all seriousness, any of about 30 riders could win this thing. Maybe even 40.
As for the favourites? Spain has an outstanding recent history of shooting itself in the foot in this event and, at 38, we just can’t see Valverde winning. Alaphilippe is a genuine danger, as is Bardet for France, especially if he can recreate his impressive finish from Liege-Bastogne-Leige in the European Spring. Roglic may be a chance for Slovenia, although he may lack the sheer explosiveness to shed his rivals, and you can never rule out Nibali for Italy, even with only modest Vuelta form. He can descend like a stone.
Of course, if Peter Sagan can somehow conjure a rainbow-encrusted miracle, no one will be cheering at their television louder than us.
This is going to epic. Can’t wait. Who’s your pick?