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World Championships Countdown: Elite Men’s Road Race Favorites, Part 1

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The world elite men’s road championship is a race like no other. It is a rare occasion when riders compete for their national teams instead of year-round trade teams. And often the underdogs upstage the confirmed favorites in what is always a very tactical race. This year’s title race in Bergen, Norway, will require a versatile rider, as the repeated laps up Salmon Hill could well take their toll on the pure sprinters. Whether there is enough climbing on the 267.5-kilometer course to break the race apart is unknown. But plenty of riders will try to follow two-time defending champion Peter Sagan in their quest to wear the coveted rainbow-stiped jersey. Peloton looks at 10 top contenders for this Sunday’s elite men’s road race. Here is Part 1, the first five; look for Part 2, the top five favorites, on Saturday:

Words by James Startt | Images by Yuzuru Sunada and Startt

1/10: Julian Alaphilippe (France)

Fresh off a stage win in the Vuelta a España, Julian Alaphilippe will lead the French national team.

French rider Julian Alaphilippe is only 25 years old, but he’s a punchy rider (shown here in Paris—Nice in March) who has earned a reputation as one of the world’s best one-day riders since turning professional in 2014. He is an annual contender in the hilly Ardennes classics Liège–Bastogne–Liège and La Flèche Wallonne. Although injuries suffered in a crash this past spring took him out of both those classics and the Tour de France, the Quick-Step team rider came back strong at the Vuelta a España. His stage win there greatly impressed the new French team director Cyril Guimard, who has designated Alaphilippe as the leader of the nine-man French contingent in Bergen. If a breakaway gets clear on the final lap don’t be surprised to see Alaphilippe in the mix!

2/10: Sonny Colbrelli (Italy)

Up-and-coming Italian Sonny Colbrelli could be one of the big surprises in this weekend’s world road championship.

The race for the rainbow jersey is unlike virtually all other elite road races, because riders compete on national teams, often forging unlikely alliances. In addition, the circuit-race format often adds a different dynamic, compared to the more traditional point-to-point style of racing found in the classics. As a result, the sport’s biggest champions can often be upstaged by lesser-known riders that are particularitly suited for a specific course. This year, for example, the Italians are not even bringing their two biggest stars, Vincenzo Nibali and Fabio Aru, and instead have built a team around versatile sprinters like Matteo Trentin, or this guy Sonny Colbrelli (shown here winning stage 2 of Paris–Nice). The up-and-coming 27-year-old sprinter may not be the fastest in the bunch when it comes to pure speed, but he has finished strongly in tough classics like the Amstel Gold Race and Tour of Flanders, proving that he can go the distance in the longest single-day races. Looking for a rider who can get over the climbs in Bergen and still have something left at the finish? Look no further than Colbrelli!

3/10: Alexander Kristoff (Norway)

Norwegian star Alexander Kristoff will have a serious home-court advantage in Bergen on Sunday.

The Norwegians hold the home-court advantage in this year’s world championships, and Alexander Kristoff will be central to their game plan, along with Edvald Boasson Hagen. The 30-year-old Kristoff is a versatile sprinter, who could make it over the moderate climbs on the Bergen course and sprint for victory. Although he has not had his best season to date, in the past Kristoff has won both Milan–San Remo and the Tour of Flanders (shown here riding to fifth place this spring) and he can clearly go the distance. Also, his victory in the European road championship in August served notice that he is riding strongly through the end of this 2017 season.

4/10: Michael Matthews (Australia)

Australian Micheal Matthews has made the world championships a key objective this year.

“Everything from after the Tour until now has just been a stepping stone to be at my best at the worlds,” Australian Michael Matthews said during the Canadian grand prix races last week. And, indeed, the Sunweb rider, who won two stages as well as the green points jersey in the Tour de France, continues to ride tremendously. His podium finish at the Grand Prix de Québec was followed up this past Sunday with a gold medal in the worlds’ team time trial. This coming Sunday, of course, Matthews will wear the Australian national team colors, not the black-and-white of Sunweb, but he will still be a heavy pre-race favorite along with two-time defending champion Sagan and 2016 Olympic gold medalist Greg Van Avermaet.

5/10: Philippe Gilbert (Belgium)

Two-time Belgian national road champion and world champion in 2011, Gilbert is an experienced championships contender.

Few teams can boast more depth at this year’s world road race championship than the Belgian contingent led by Greg Van Avermaet, Tim Wellens and Philippe Gilbert. While GVA is currently the world’s No. 1-ranked rider, it is Gilbert (shown here on the attack in Paris-Nice this spring) who has the most impressive collection of victories. Quite simply, Gilbert is the winningest classics rider in the peloton today with victories in monuments like Liege–Bastogne–Liège, the Tour of Lombardy and Tour of Flanders as well as other top one-day races such as the Amstel Gold Race, Strade Bianche, Paris–Tours and, of course, the world title he won in 2011. Although the 35-year-old Gilbert may not dominate like he once did, his solo victory in Flanders this year showed that he is still capable of greatness. And his competitors know: Never count Phil Gil out!