Well folks, it’s late September and another season’s end is almost upon us. That, of course, means that the Worlds is almost here – well, actually it’s already under way, but the men’s road race is just a few days away.
Held in Innsbruck, the third time it’s visited Austria, it’s the hardest course in years. The course is in a similar league as Sallanches in 1980 – won by Bernard Hinault – or 1995’s visit to Duitama in Colombia, where Abraham Olano triumphed. Can we predict a winner this time though? Most of us have an idea, but is it worth looking at how riders have prepared for the Worlds?
There’s a range of options – from the BinckBank Tour and the Canadian WorldTour races to the traditional warm-up of the Vuelta a España or the 2.HC Tour of Britain, which has positioned itself as an ideal Worlds prep event in recent years. We’ve taken a look at the last five editions of the Worlds, as well as this year, to try and figure out if there’s any correlation between preparation and final results.
2013 – Florence, Italy
Top ten: 1, Rui Costa; 2, Rodríguez; 3, Valverde; 4, Nibali; 5, Grivko; 6, Sagan; 7, Clarke; 8, Iglinskiy; 9, Gilbert; 10, Cancellara
And so we head back all the way to five years ago – partly because it would take a looong time to comb through ten years of late-season results, partly due to word count restrictions. It was the 13th time Italy hosted the Worlds, with Switzerland on ten and Belgium (who haven’t hosted since 2002!) on nine next in the ranking.
Eight of the top ten on that wet day in Tuscany rode the Vuelta beforehand, with Nibali, Valverde and Rodríguez finishing second, third and fourth at the final Grand Tour of the year. The rainbow stripes went to Rui Costa in a close sprint – he warmed up in a series of one-day races culminating in Canada – as did sixth-placed Sagan.
2014 – Ponferrada, Spain
Top ten: 1, Kwiatkowski; 2, Gerrans; 3, Valverde; 4, Breschel; 4, Van Avermaet; 5, Gallopin; 6, Gilbert; 7, Kristoff; 8, Degenkolb; 9, Bouhanni
Again, the choice between the Vuelta and Canada dominated the top ten. Degenkolb and Bouhanni scooped six wins in Spain, while Valverde was third overall. Meanwhile Gerrans won both Canadian races ahead of Breschel, Van Avermaet, Gallopin and Kristoff.
Kwiatkowski, who won the Worlds with a late solo attack, was alone in his warm-up choice too. He finished second in a hilly, exciting edition of the Tour of Britain two weeks earlier, taking a stage win along the way. Ben Swift, who finished 12th in Ponferrada, was the next best-placed man who had raced in Britain.
2015 – Richmond, USA
Top ten: 1, Sagan; 2, Matthews; 3, Navardauskas; 4, Kristoff; 5, Valverde; 6, Gerrans; 7, Gallopin; 8, Kwiatkowski; 9, Costa; 10, Gilbert
Peter Sagan began his reign in Virginia with a solo attack on top of the cobbled Libby Hill, 3km from the finish. The Slovak had warmed-up with nine stages of the Vuelta, his time in Spain ended by a neutral service motorbike. With no racing for 20 days beforehand, as well as injuries to recover from, it’s quite amazing that Sagan won it as he did.
The three fastest men in the sprint three seconds behind the Slovak were filled by men fresh from Québec and Montréal, while Valverde and Gerrans were the only other men in the top ten to have raced the Vuelta.
2016 – Doha, Qatar
Top ten: 1, Sagan; 2, Cavendish; 3, Boonen; 4, Matthews; 5, Nizzolo; 6, EBH; 7, Kristoff; 8, Bonnet; 9, Terpstra; 10, GVA
The anomalously late-season staging of Qatar threw things off a bit, with both Il Lombardia and Paris-Tours coming before the Worlds, while the Eneco (now BinckBank) Tour was shunted to late September to accommodate the Olympic Games.
Sagan opted for the Canadian races and the Eneco Tour, winning Québec and two stages. Matthews and Bonnet did the same. Second-placed Cavendish rode a Tour of Britain with four flat stages before heading to Italy and then Paris-Tours. Meanwhile Boonen added Paris-Tours to the same schedule as Sagan. There’s not a lot we can take from 2016, really.
2017 – Bergen, Norway
Top ten: 1, Sagan; 2, Kristoff; 3, Matthews; 4, Trentin; 5, Swift; 6, GVA; 7, Albasini; 8, Gaviria; 9, Lutsenko; 10, Alaphilippe
Last year’s Worlds looks like being the end of Sagan’s reign. He once again went to the BinckBank Tour and Canada, again winning two stages and the GP Québec. Fifth- and sixth-placed men Swift and Van Avermaet did the same.
Silver medallist Kristoff took the points jersey at a very flat version of the Tour of Britain which saw six of eight stages end in sprints. Gaviria was there too, winning a stage. Third-placed Matthews raced Québec and Montréal, also riding as part of the gold medal-winning Sunweb TTT squad a week before the road race. Trentin and Lutsenko were the only men in the top ten to race the Vuelta.
2018 – Innsbruck, Austria
This year we’re likely to see a change, with very few potential Worlds favourites racing in Canada (just Rui Costa and Jakob Fuglsang). Meanwhile, a hilly edition of the Tour of Britain saw Julian Alaphilippe triumph over Wout Poels and Primož Roglič – all three are contenders in Innsbruck. Giro- and Tour runner-up Tom Dumoulin opted for the revived Deutschland Tour, while Romain Bardet and bad boy of the peloton Gianni Moscon have been racing Italian one-dayers.
Most of the big names were at the Vuelta, and with such a tough road race course this year – the 269km route includes eight ascents of an 8km climb, which averages at 5.7% – it looks more likely than not that one of the overall contenders will take the rainbow jersey this year. The Yates brothers, Miguel Ángel López, Enric Mas, Alejandro Valverde, Nairo Quintana, Dan Martin and Thibaut Pinot are just a selection of the names to look out for on Sunday.
All-in-all then, there isn’t really any correlation between the warm-up races a rider selects and how well they do at the World Championships. Every Worlds course is different – this year’s especially – and so each one requires a tailored build-up. That said, three of the last five winners have raced the Grands Prix Québec and Montréal beforehand though, so Rui Costa and Fuglsang might be onto something.
What is striking is how few winners have been at the Vuelta beforehand, although plenty of top ten-finishers have opted to warm up there over the years. And once again, considering that this is a Worlds more for Grand Tour contenders than puncheurs, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see one of the men who were tackling Unipublic’s goat tracks earlier in the month atop the podium in Austria.