Yesterday we looked at the women’s race, now let’s look on the other side of the gender-fence.
First of all, what type of race will this be? Yes, the course is flat, and the level in men’s racing is very even, at least among the top 15 countries. Sounds like a recipe for a mass sprint, doesn’t it? I’m not so sure.
The problem is, if the whole groups stays together, Mark Cavendish wins the sprint. Maybe not every time, but at least 11 times out of 10. That logically means there is one team that should want a mass sprint, and the rest of the world doesn’t. And one team, even if it has Wiggins, Millar and Thomas, cannot keep a bunch together for 266km.
Of course, there’s one mechanism that can help Cavendish. You see, one of the attributes you must possess to become a pro cyclist is a huge belief in yourself, so even those with no chance whatsoever in a mass sprint will think they have a chance in a mass sprint. Even team managers con themselves into such thoughts – witness the 10 teams waiting for the final sprint on the Champs Elysees after being royally beaten by Cav on four previous stages.
Lets assume that sanity will prevail, and that all teams but one will work to break up the group. Which riders have a nose for the right group and can win a sprint when a few of the top sprinters are missing? Hushovd and Gilbert.
Much has been made of Hushovd’s non-selection for the Vuelta. The comments that followed were quite unfair I think (if you want I can write about that some other time), but the point for this race is that IT DOES NOT MATTER. As I saw in 2009 and 2010 at the Cervelo TestTeam, if Thor puts an X on his calendar, he is ready on that date. He can prepare in the Vuelta, the Tour of Britain, at home or in your local spinning class, it does not matter. Thor will be ready, and a ready and focused Thor can win anything. If Edvald Boasson Hagen is on form too, the Norwegians will have a formidable 1-2 punch that will be tough to control if the field is thinned out sufficiently.
In a way, Gilbert is a lot like Hushovd. Both have a great focus and a great sprint especially on slightly rising roads, although Gilbert seems to have a longer jump in him and get stronger as the road gets steeper. It’s tough to say how Copenhagen would work out, the finish is definitely uphill but not quite tailor-made for Gilbert (I should say that it is made for Gilbert but it’s at an incline that other sprinters on-form can also master, if it was 3% steeper Gilbert would be in a class of his own with no competition).
In a sense this race has a few levels. When the group is complete, only Great Britain and maybe the US (for Farrar) will try to keep it together. If it breaks up in smaller bits and Gilbert and Hushovd are in front, more countries will fancy their chances in a sprint against those two, especially if the Aussies have the right people up-front. That means there is a better chance of such a group making it to the finish. If the group on the front becomes too small, too many behind have their own agenda and it will come back together.
Logically that means a first escape of non-contenders will go early, followed by a contendor group bridging up in the later stages. If that contender group has to work hard to stay ahead of for example Cavendish, Gilbert and others who fancy a sprint will need to use up their domestiques, opening up the possibilities for a small group to jump clear in the last few laps. And who knows, out of that may even come a last-lap solo effort, the tactics at Worlds usually become so complicated that riders turn into on-course spectators who forget to pedal.
That’s what makes the World Championships the best race of the season. National teams, trade team ties and the ultimate skill of “finishing everybody else’s plate before starting your own” means that even with a boring course, the race can prove anything but. Especially when the weather turns foul.