Blazin' Saddles: Gilbert & Alaphilippe the favourites but don’t rule out Valverde or Sagan
All eyes will be on Yorkshire for the conclusion of the 2019 World Championships on Sunday with the men's road race from Leeds to Harrogate. We take a closer look at the route, the riders, the teams and the main favourites in the battle for Alejandro Valverde's rainbow stripes.
Before veteran Spaniard Valverde finally struck gold in Innsbruck, Slovakia's Peter Sagan made the Worlds his own with three successive titles following the victories of Philippe Gilbert, Rui Costa and Michal Kwiatkowski.
And after the success of the Tour de France grand départ in Yorkshire five years ago – and the subsequent Tour de Yorkshire spin-off from ASO – the World Championships return to England for the first time in 37 years. Who will emulate Giuseppe Saronni's glorious Goodwood win from 1982? Time to look closer at the parcours and protagonists…
Starting in Leeds and finishing in Harrogate 275 lumpy kilometres through the Yorkshire Dales later, the men's road race is a trip down memory lane which mirrors the opening stage of the 2014 Tour de France before seven laps of a tough and technical circuit.
The opening 185km are pretty much a carbon copy of that Tour stage, won by Germany's Marcel Kittel after home favourite Mark Cavendish crashed out right in front of the famous Betty's Tea Room on the finish straight.
With a total of 3,645m elevation over an estimated seven rainy hours in the saddle, whoever is crowned world champion on Sunday afternoon will need to be an all-round rider with as much an ability to kick clear as to climb and battle the elements.
After a rolling opening 50km as the riders leave behind the city centre of Leeds, a trio of climbs could well whittle down the pack before the race heads back towards Harrogate. The climb of Cray/Kidstones (1.6km at 7.1%) is a nice leg-stretcher and is followed by the Buttertubs (4.5km at 6.8%) and Grinton Moor (3km at 6.6%).
Once in Harrogate, the peloton will tackle seven laps of a punchy 14km circuit which features the Otley Road climb (1.6km at 3.4%) as well as the uphill segments at Pot Bank and Penny Pot Lane ahead of a flat finish on Parliament Street in the town centre.
It's an unpredictable route which, on paper, suits neither the sprinters nor the climbers; a route which constantly goes up and down over narrow roads, which will make it hard for one team to contain; a route which, along with the weather, could lead to a battle of attrition with a last-man-standing denouement; a route, in short, which best suits a strong Classics rider.
Nations are allocated a number of spots according to their riders' results during the calendar year – meaning some of the big-name favourites have an entire eight-man squad behind them, while others, such as the triple champion Sagan, have to make do with just a handful.
"The big problem for the smaller nations is only having one or two support riders," says Eurosport's Sean Kelly, who twice came third in the Worlds (1982, 1989) with only one and three teammates respectively on each occasion. "The big nations can support their leaders better during the race and that means a lot in the end of a 250-plus kilometre race."
Although alliances with trade teammates are not unheard of, the system, as Kelly indicates, certainly benefits those from the established nations – with the obvious caveat that too many cooks can often spoil the broth.
After all, we all remember Rui Costa's win against the odds in Florence in 2013 when Spain – despite, of because of, having both Joaquim Rodriguez and Valverde in the finale – made a hash of things, coming second and third…
And then there's that man Sagan, who did not let only having his brother Juraj come in between him and three gold medals.
Eight teams have the full quota of eight riders on Sunday: Australia, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Netherlands, Slovenia and Spain.
But while they are at an advantage, there is also the small problem of backing the right rider. For instance, try picking one name as leader from Belgium's illustrious squad, where Tim Declercq is the only real bona-fide domestique.
His form in the Vuelta, where he snared two stage wins, suggests that Philippe Gilbert could well be donning the rainbow stripes when he returns to Lotto Soudal next year.
But the Belgian veteran will face stiff opposition from his QuickStep teammate Julian Alaphilippe. Unlike Gilbert, who could find opponents within his own national set-up, let alone the rest of the field, Alaphilippe will have a decent French squad entirely behind him – and taking the rainbow stripes would make up for losing the maillot jaune agonisingly close to Paris in July.
For many, however, the biggest threat comes from the irrepressible Dutchman Mathieu van der Poel. Although still splitting his time between cyclo-cross and the road, the 24-year-old has notched 10 wins this season and looked indomitable on the British roads during the Tour of Britain earlier this month.
Slovakia's Peter Sagan has had a quiet season by his standards, but he was runner-up in the GP de Québec and is perfectly capable of freelancing on other team's trains over rolling terrain like this.
Winners in Québec and Montréal respectively, Australia's Michael Matthews and Belgium's Greg van Avermaet have to be taken seriously, while dark horses include Italy's Matteo Trentin, the dependable Norwegian Alexander Kristoff and the evergreen Spaniard Alejandro Valverde.
Underlining Belgium's strength in depth, prodigy Remco Evenepoel could add another medal to his TT silver, while Denmark's Jakob Fuglsang has shown his ability in punchy one-day racing with his Liège-Bastogne-Liège scalp this spring.
Given this is a course that should suit the riders of an Ardennes persuasion, other names to throw into the ring are the in-form Kazakh Alexey Lutsenko, Luxembourg's Bob Jungels, Germany's John Degenkolb, the Czech Republic's Zdenek Stybar and, should he get over the hills, Ireland's Sam Bennett.
Britain's slim hopes lie with local rider Ben Swift, youngster Tao Geoghegan Hart or Lancashire's Adam Yates, although none look to possess the requisite armoury or form to mount a serious challenge and cause an upset.
Sean Kelly's verdict
"If they're going hard all day and make it a real endurance race then you have to ride on the front of the peloton all the time if you want to win it.
" The classic type guys who I think are on form the most are the guys like Gilbert, who's riding well, Valverde, who can always do something, Stybar is the one I fancy because he's dangerous but operates in the background a little. He's very good at keeping his best till the end. Then there's Sagan, Van Avermaet… "
"If the weather is wet, and a little cold, over 200 plus kilometres, it's going to be a hard fight and you will only get the hard men together at the end. But if you get a dry day then you could get a group of 30 riders arrive at the finish together. The weather conditions will make a big difference.
" Van der Poel, Evenepoel – all those guys will be dangerous. Van der Poel is definitely one of the favourites, whatever the weather conditions. He can solo but his sprint is as good as anyone's – especially if it's a little bit uphill."
"Sam Bennett? He could be there. Depending on how he's recovered from the Vuelta. It's can come down to the day. You can feel very good but then you get over 200km and the legs start to feel heavy, very quickly. And Bennett is coming off the back of a very hard Vuelta. The riders won't know until they get to the final 30km of racing."
The World Championships men's road race starts at 8:40 BST and is scheduled to finish in Harrogate at around 15:20.