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WILCOCKSON: A RISKY ROAD TO THE RAINBOW JERSEY

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Sept 26, 2015 – What will it take to win the elite men’s rainbow jersey at the world championships in Richmond on Sunday? After watching Friday’s under-23 men’s road race, experts agree that the new champion will need great patience, superb bike-handling skills, smart timing, bravado, and not a little cunning. And the main action will all likely take place in the final 4 kilometers—where the climbs of Libby Hill, North 23rd Street and Governor Street come in quick succession—after more than six hours of racing in what is forecast to be scattered thunderstorms, some of them intense.

Words: John Wilcockson/Photos: Yuzuru Sunada

Just a light rain shower on the final lap of the U23 race was enough to cause riders to fall at the foot of the cobbled Libby Hill, and that triggered the winning move by the French riders Kévin Ledanois and Anthony Turgis, who crossed the finish line in first and third places respectively. Ledanois is the son of the former pro Yvon Ledanois, who’s now a sports director with Team BMC, and his inbred cycling knowledge certainly helped him to success on Friday. “A year ago, I attacked a lap too early at the worlds in Ponferrada, so I knew I had to wait till the finale,” Ledanois said. “But I really had to hold myself back.”

Then, describing his decisive move with Turgis, a close friend, at the foot of Libby Hill, Ledanois said, “We were aware it was raining a little, conditions we both like, so we were at the front heading into the climb. We knew from earlier laps that the positions at the top of that first climb stayed the same until the finish line. So we took our chances after the first turn, where a Belgian [national champion Nathan Van Hooydonck] fell between us.” Instinctively, the two Frenchmen sprinted up the winding cobbled climb, with Turgis leading the charge as he barged past the Italian U23 champion, Davide Martinelli, who’d attacked from an earlier breakaway.

26 September 2014 Road World Championships (Ponferrada, SPAIN) Men Under 23 LEDANOIS Kevin (FRA) Photo : Yuzuru SUNADA

On a flat section at the top of Libby Hill, where the Austrian Alexander Wachter tagged onto the three leaders out of sight of the TV cameras, Ledanois said he went to the front “to lead Anthony as long as possible. But when I saw that the Austrian rider wasn’t able to follow I made my move.”

Ledanois soloed the last 3 kilometers and, helped by a strong easterly wind at his back along the last 700 meters down Broad Street, he just held off a late-sprinting Simone Consonni of Italy. Behind them, the 95 riders that began the last lap together were split into more than a dozen groups spread over five minutes. A much smaller group will tackle the finale on Sunday when the elite men have six extra laps of the 16.2-kilometer (10-mile) circuit for their 261.4-kilometer (162.4-mile) distance.

With the potential for wet roads all day, conditions will be treacherous on the circuit’s 20 turns, and the rain will simply add to the day’s difficulties. Talking about this to peloton, Eddy Merckx said the Richmond circuit in the rain will be “very hard and dangerous.” With that in mind, the Belgian legend said the race will be wide open, with dozens of riders in with a chance of taking the rainbow jersey. Merckx added that the men at the top of his list of favorites were “Kristoff, Gilbert, Nibali, Stybar, Boonen, Van Avermaet, Valverde…but there are 50 names so it’s difficult to say, there are so many.”

4 September 2015 70th Vuelta a Espana Stage 13 : Calatayud - Tarazona TERPSTRA Niki (NED) Etixx - Quickstep, at aAlto de Beraton Photo : Yuzuru SUNADA

The name that Dutch journalists are putting at the head of their list of favorites is Niki Terpstra: “If you look at the results of the cobbled classics over the past three or four years, he’s been more successful than all the others, and he’s motivated for Sunday,” said Raymond Kerckhoffs of the daily newspaper De Telegraaf. Indeed, many have compared the Richmond course with the spring classics, particularly the Tour of Flanders, whose infamous bergs are not unlike Richmond’s two cobblestone hills (each to be climbed 16 times!) where the race will be lost and won.

In same ways, the race will not be unlike Canada’s recent Grand Prix de Montréal, part of the UCI WorldTour, which was raced in continual rain and described by many of the riders as their hardest race of the year.

On the podium in Montréal were 2013 world champ Rui Costa of Portugal and the surprising Adam Yates of Great Britain, neither of whom has been mentioned much as favorites this weekend, but might have come to their best form at the right time. Strangely, the winner in Canada, Tim Wellens, hasn’t been selected for the Belgian worlds team, which is relying on their stalwart veterans, Tom Boonen, Philippe Gilbert and Greg Van Avermaet.

Any of these stars could take the rainbow jersey, as could the others that Merckx mentioned, Alexander Kristoff of Norway, Vincenzo Nibali of Italy, Zdenek Stybar of the Czech Republic and Alejandro Valverde of Spain—all of whom excels in bad weather conditions. And among the others that Merckx didn’t mention include many other countries’ best chances, such as defending champ Michal Kwiatkowski of Poland, Tony Gallopin and Julian Alaphilippe of France, Michael Matthews and Simon Gerrans of Australia, John Degenkolb and André Greipel of Germany, and Peter Sagan of Slovakia.

24 August 2015 70th Vuelta a Espana Stage 03 : Mijas - Malaga 1st : SAGAN Peter (SVK) Tinkoff - Saxo 2nd : BOUHANNI Nacer (FRA) Cofidis 3rd : DEGENKOLB John (GER) Giant - Alpecin Photo : Yuzuru SUNADA

On a worlds course that is not merely technical, but acrobatic, the nimble, fast-finishing Sagan has most of the qualities needed to win the title. He’s cunning, has buckets of bravado, has great timing and superb bike-handling ability, but as is often the case with the enigmatic Slovak, he may not have the patience to wait for the exact moment when the winning move is made. If so, then Terpstra, Valverde and Van Avermaet all have the necessary qualities to don the rainbow jersey around 3:30 local time on Sunday afternoon.

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You can follow John on Twitter @johnwilcockson