Who will be the first to the line at the World Championships road race in Harrogate next weekend?
A glance at the results sheets from the past few months reveals a handful of riders that are suited to the brutally lumpy, 285km parcours, and boast the recent form to be in with a strong chance of success.
Those four riders in with a legitimate chance of donning the stripes of world champion are Mathieu van Der Poel (Netherlands), Julian Alaphilippe (France), Philippe Gilbert (Belgium), and reigning world champ, Alejandro Valverde (Spain).
Will a young whippersnapper take the title, or does a race as tough as that which Yorkshire promises to be need the cool, experienced head of a hardened veteran?
Let’s look a little closer at those results sheets and consider some of the arguments for and against our four on-form riders:
The Young Guns
Mathieu van der Poel (Netherlands, 24)
2019 at a glance: Amstel Gold Race; Tour of Britain GC: 1st; Tour of Britain: stages 4, 7, 8.Embed from Getty Images
Van der Poel really is the name on everyone’s lips this year, and he is one of the hottest contenders for rounding out 2019 with the rainbow jersey on his back. Having been crushing every on-road and off-road race he’s chosen to turn his attention toward since the mud and ice of cyclocross season, he seems able to win on a whim.
Perhaps the most startling thing is the way he wins though. His opponents know when he’ll attack and what he’ll do. But they just don’t have the power to match him.
There was some question over his ability to go the distance having grown up preparing for the hour-long full-gas blasts of cyclocross, but his results in the spring classics, which included a fourth at the 267km Tour of Flanders and that win in the similar-length Amstel Gold race suggests otherwise.
The case against
The power behind his recent victories in the Tour of Britain won’t have gone unnoticed by team managers and rivals around the world, and you can be sure that tactics will be formed around ‘how do we beat Matthieu?’ rather than ‘how do we win?’.
As Matteo Trentin, the unfortunate recipient of the van der Poel hammer on the uphill finish of stage 7 at the Tour of Britain said, “hopefully he won’t be there at the finish. I hope he’ll get dropped.”
You can foresee strong teams such as Belgium and France piling pressure on him through the race, looking to isolate or wear him down.
When up against a field stacked with vastly experienced riders such as Phillipe Gilbert, Greg van Avermaet, and Peter Sagan, it may be his youthful enthusiasm – the inability to not attack all day long – that may catch him out as he looks to weather any softening tactics of rival nations.
The case for
Videos speak a thousand words, so just watch this:
Julian Alaphilippe (France, 27)
2019 at a glance: Strade Bianche, Milano-San Remo, Fleche-Wallone; Tour de France GC: 5th; Tour de France: Stage 3 and 13.Embed from Getty Images
Rider of the year? Possibly. Alaphilippe has been knocking on the door of greatness for a few seasons, but 2019 undoubtedly saw him secure such an accolade.
After a strong spring, flourishing in the one-day classics for which he earned his reputation, he went into the Tour de France far off the pundit’s radars.
His stage 3 win in Epernay with a punchy attack was trademark Alpahilippe and earned him the yellow jersey, but the way in which he continued to defy doubters was the true revelation, with his time trial victory and second place on a summit finish on the Tourmalet standing out. There seemed no limits to what he could do.
The length of the World’s course won’t worry Alaphilippe, and neither will the succession of steep gradients. While he may not have the outright power of van der Poel, he sure has the race experience, and in a race as attritional as a world championship, that’s arguably worth more.
The case for
Alaphilippe’ seems in no way pressured by the mantle of a favourite. “I’ve just had the most beautiful season of my career so far… I’ve achieved all the objectives I set for myself and the Tour de France was above what I had hoped,” he said recently. “Everything from here is a bonus.”
A rider free of pressure or fear is a rider able to enjoy the race and attack without doubt, and that’s what Alaphilippe does best.
The case against:
Alaphilippe took a long break after the Tour due to fatigue, and has come back to racing with starts at the Tour of Deutschland and the Canadian one-days.Embed from Getty Images
He may be fresh and sparkling, but has he had sufficient race days in the last few months to be ready for as hard a race as that which Yorkshire promises?
Philippe Gilbert (Belgium, 37)
2019 at a glance: Paris Roubaix; Vuelta a Espana: Stage 12 and 17Embed from Getty Images
Having become a superstar with his dominance in the one-day races around ten years ago, including winning the world champs in Valkenberg in 2012, Phil Gil has had a renaissance in recent years, with 2019 being one of the best of his career.
In 2019, he transformed himself from the Ardennes-style punchy climber that gave him so much success early in his career to win the most brutal cobblestone classic, Paris Roubaix.
However, he somehow retained his age-old ability to punch over short kickers, with his stage 12 win at the Vuelta a Espana being forged on the kind of spikey parcours on which he thrived in his younger years.Embed from Getty Images
Gilbert’s ultimate strength is in his racecraft, and he proved this at the Vuelta. He timed his acceleration over the final climb of stage 12 to drop his two breakaway companions and solo to victory in Bilbao to perfection, distancing his two Basque chasers who would have had knowledge of the roads.
Additionally, his stage 17 success – having been part of a Deceuninck-Quick-Step masterclass in crosswind racing that was deemed ‘the hardest stage’ of the race – shows that the Belgian is still tough as nails as well as tactically razor sharp.
The case for
“Gilbert is one of the smartest riders in the peloton,” Deceuninck-Quick Step DS Wilfried Peeters told Sporza. “He knows perfectly what can happen and feels good about every scenario. If we think something, then he has already done it. He’s just a cunning fox.”Embed from Getty Images
The fox is clearly still hungry for success and his teeth are still sharp. Only the strongest, most intelligent, and luckiest of riders will beat him after 7+ hours of Yorkshire grit.
The case against
Being on a Belgian team that also boasts Remco Evenepoel, Greg van Avermaet and Oliver Naesen could prove as much a blessing as a curse. All of these could be considered legitimate contenders for the win, and to what extent will they be happy to sacrifice their own chances for Gilbert?
Alejandro Valverde (Spain, 39)
2019 at a glance: Tour de France GC: 9th; Vuelta a Espana GC: 2ndEmbed from Getty Images
Sure, 2019 hasn’t blessed Valverde with the roaring successes of Monument wins or spectacular stage victories like it has the others on this list. But he’s Alejandro Valverde.
The reigning world champion has defied the ageing process and the anchor of riding on a team with several GC leaders to place in the top 10 of two grand tours, without ever having a fleet of domestiques to support him, and without ever really making a big fuss about it.
Despite not being known for his tempo climbing or abilities at altitude, he came fifth in the attritional Andorran stage of the Vuelta, won atop the punishing 25% ramps of Mas de la Costa, rode a solid time trial, and never seemed to have an off-day. Valverde is always there, and he never goes away.Embed from Getty Images
As defending champion, he’ll be fully motivated to double up in Yorkshire. Arguably, the race may be a touch too hard for him (if such a thing was possible), but you just can’t ever rule him out.
The case for
Like Alaphilippe, Valverde will go into the race free of pressure. He said after gaining his rainbow stripes in Innsbruck that any other big results in his career would be “a gift“. His Vuelta success rocketed him back into his nation’s hearts and there is a sense that they won’t be heaping pressure and expectation on him in the way that Dutch fans will on van der Poel.Embed from Getty Images
And let’s face it, you never rule out Alejandro Valverde. There’s a reason why he has the record for most podium spots at world championships. He can basically do anything, at any race.
The case against
To be honest, I’m struggling to think of anything, beyond the impact of the Vuelta in his legs. He has two weeks between the two races to freshen up. Will that be long enough for the old fella?