Now that the Tour of Britain has concluded, all eyes are fully focussed on Tuscany for the UCI World Road Race Championships this week. Racing started today with the Team Time Trial before moving onto the individual time trials in the middle of the week and then culminating with the Blue Riband road race events next weekend. Junior (Men and Women) and U23 (Men only) versions of all the events are either side of the midweek races, filling out a packed schedule of competition. We are guaranteed some gorgeous scenery as the routes traverse the beautiful Tuscan landscape around Lucca, Pistoia and Florence and there are going to be plenty of fireworks throughout the event.
The Team Time Trials – uniquely contested by trade teams rather than nations – kicked off the annual event and both the Mens and Women’s events were won by the defending champions, though in starkly contrasting fashions. Whilst Specialized-Lulu Lemon romped home in the Women’s race, besting second place Rabo Womens Cycling by over 70 seconds across the 42.7km course, the Men’s Omega Pharma QuickStep squad had a somewhat narrower margin of victory over the Orica Greenedge team. Racing an extended course of 56.8km, the Belgian outfit – who were the last team out on the road – took the title from the understandably gutted Australians by less than a single second. Their time of 1:04:16.81 was just enough to deny Orica Greenedge, who had maintained a strong run in the final kilometres to set up the nail-biting finish. Sky Procycling rounded out the podium some 22 seconds further back.
Home interest in the Team Time Trials has been impacted by the fact that cross-scheduling of this event with the last stage of the Tour of Britain meant that two of GB’s best male testers were unavailable. Whilst Chris Froome (SKY), and Steve Cummings (BMC) both took part, it was the absence of the talents of Alex Dowsett and Bradley Wiggins – both of whom illuminated the final ToB stage in some way of recompense – that was most obvious.
The mid week Individual Time Trials could well be the highlight of the week. A resurgent Bradley Wiggins is heading to Tuscany with the Tour of Britain overall win in the bag and both his confidence and hunger seem to have returned in equal measure. He beat an under-the-weather Dowsett last week by some margin in the ToB Time Trial and has also scored a recent victory over one of the other leading contenders, Switzerland’s Fabian Cancellara, at the Tour of Poland. Wiggins’ chances are being talked up due to both his recent form and the fact that Cancellara is also targeting the rainbow jersey of the Road Race winner – the one accolade missing from his vast palmares – at the end of the week. Germany’s three-time Individual Time Trial winner, Tony Martin, will be the other name to watch closely. He led the OPQS team to their team victory today by taking massive turns at the front in the latter stages and he also will also be fully concentrating on the Individual Time Trial from now on. In all probability those three names will make up the podium after a tightly contested race. We will have to wait to see whether the fact that both Martin and Cancellara have now raced the course in anger once already becomes significant.
The weekend Road Race is generally much harder to call. There is always an element of a lottery about what is perhaps the second most coveted winners jersey in cycling. Billed as being the toughest course for a decade, this years parcours should suit the Grand Tour contenders like Froome much more than the last two editions, where first sprinters and then puncheurs were given their chances. Team GB will be one man shorter than some national teams this time around as not enough riders gained sufficient ranking points this year but, unlike in Valkenberg in 2011 and the Olympic Road Race last year, this should be less of an issue as other teams will not be looking to GB to control to the same extent. Wiggins will line up alongside Froome for the first time since the season opener in Oman, and since the phoney war about the leadership of Team Sky that preceded the Giro and Tour de France. Things are much clearer this time and Wiggins – hopefully buoyant from a midweek ITT win – will most probably do much of the early work supporting his Sky colleague before bowing out gracefully and letting Froome fight on. Or maybe not – who knows which Wiggo will take to the start line? It would cap an incredible year for Froome to win the race but I have to say that I would be surprised if the Tour de France winner does cross the line first. The 16.5km finishing circuit, which the riders will complete 10 times, will certainly devastate the field and make a significant selection, but I think a Cancellara or a Sagan will have the bigger kick if a number of riders are still in the mix coming to the line.
As with many events in Women’s racing it’s hard to see beyond Marianne Vos for the Women’s Road Race. The Dutch rider is such a prodigious talent that she dominates the sport in Merckx-like proportions. Road, track, cyclocross – she has won it all and shows no signs of stopping. GB’s Lizzie Armistead will be hoping to gain revenge for narrowly missing out on the top prize at the Olympics to Vos, who pipped her on The Mall in atrocious conditions. Even with much better weather expected in Italy this week, the result could well be the same.
Team GB Juniors & Under 23’s men have had an excellent year on the road. Juniors Tao Geoghagen-Hart and Scott Davis came first and second in the recent Giro Dello Lunigiana and are part of a four man team representing GB, whilst twin brothers Simon and Adam Yates won two stages and claimed 2nd overall respectively in the U23 Tour de l’Avenir – the “Tour of the Future” which is raced over much of the same ground as the Tour de France. Simon also claimed the Tour of Britain’s inaugural summit finish in Devon this week and will be going into the race on a high after getting onto the final podium with a excellent third place.
I mentioned fireworks at the start of this piece and the most explosive of those may come from the other contest going on in Tuscany this week. Friday is the day of the election of the new UCI president and the outcome of the sometimes bitter battle between the incumbent Pat McQuaid and challenger Brian Cookson will be decided. The election has already seen more twists and turns than anyone who cares about the governance of the sport should feel comfortable with and we can only hope that the process and outcome of the voting is resolutely clear and final. I recently spent a considerable amount of time trying to explain what has already occurred in the lead-up to the election to a friend who, very wisely, has not chosen to follow it too closely. Every development that I outlined was was met with a such a level of incredulity that I was forced to repeat myself a number of times just to convince him that it had really occurred. The sport clearly deserves better and I hope that Mr Cookson prevails in order to deliver it.
But let’s finish with some cycling. The rainbow jerseys that all the riders are chasing this week are the very pinnacle of the sport; as precious as a FA Cup to a footballer or an Ashes urn to a cricketer. We often hear talk, usually later in the following season, of whether the winner ‘did the jersey justice’. And the people posing that question are deadly serious. It’s a hugely powerful emblem that the owner inherits from all those who have won before. It is a piece of living history that connects the sport to its past, present and future. All the winners will, by definition, be worthy of those shimmering rainbow stripes. In these still sometimes-troubled times for the sport let’s also challenge them to be exemplary.