Picking favorites for a one day race like the World Championships is tricky. A cyclist who performs well in late August/early September may be totally out of shape come October. Riding on to the podium of a race like the Vuelta will leave you in peak condition, but what sort of impact will three weeks of stage racing have on fatigue levels?
Can we use past performances as an indicator of what it takes to win? Looking at the last 10 road World Champions, there are a few patterns that emerge.
9/10 World Champions rode the Vuelta
In 1995, the Vuelta was moved to September, and the Worlds were moved to October. This made the Vuelta the perfect race to build form for a late September/October campaign. Before 1995, the Worlds were in August, making it a well-timed race for Tour de France riders, and a target for greats like Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Greg Lemond. These days, it seems like the one-day specialists have a lock on the race.
Only one champion of the last 10 (Romans Vainsteins, 2000)- and an additional 2 (Óscar Freire 1999, Johan Museeuw 1996) since 1995 haven’t ridden the Vuelta.
Is riding the Vuelta the only way to prepare? Probably not, but its certainly a proven method.
6/10 World Champions won stages at the Vuelta
There’s no hiding form. 6 out of 10 World champs won at least 1 stage at the Vuelta. Some won more. If you loosen those requirements a little, 8 our of the 9 Vuelta riding WC’s finished in the top three in one or more stages.
Mario Cipollini won 3 stages in the Vuelta before winning the Worlds in 2002. Paoli Bettini took a Vuelta stage before each of his wins (2006, 2007), and Alessando Ballan took one before his (2008). Freire won a stage in 2004, and podium’d in 2001. Others were a little more subtle; Cadel Evans took a few 3rd places en route to winning the overall 3rd place in the Vuelta (2009), and Tom Boonen came in third just once.
Only Igor Astarloa failed to win or podium on a stage.
8/10 World Champion’s DNF’d the Vuelta
And while there’s no hiding it, form is fickle. Peak too early, and you’ll either lose form or overtrain by the time you reach the Worlds. Back off on training at the wrong time, and you’ll head to the worlds with less than perfect form.
Only Cadel Evans rode the Vuelta to completion, ultimately finishing on the bottom step of the podium. Every other World Champion Vuelta rider dropped out at some point. Some dropped out earlier than others, but the last few champions have dropped out somewhere between stages 13 and 17, in order to avoid complete fatigue brought on by the killer hills of the Vuelta.
Dropping out early seems to be part of the Italian Worlds playbook. Cipollini, Bettini and Ballan all dropped out of the Vuelta – Cipollini did so after stage 7, making his 3 wins even more impressive. Bettini dropped out before stage 18 for both his wins, and Ballan bailed after stage 15. Freire 2001 was a stage 15 dropout, Freire 2004 bailed during stage 12, Tom Boonen hung in through stage 13, and Astarloa called it quits during stage 11.
9/10 World Champion’s had full (or close) teams
The rainbow jersey isn’t won without help. 9 out of 10 world champions, Romans Vainsteins again being the notable exception, rode with more than the minimum allowed complement of riders on their teams. Team sizes have changed over the years, settling on 9 in 2005. The extremes have been mitigated – Vainsteins won on a team of 3, while many of his competitors were on teams of 12.
Some teammates were unequivocally devoted to delivering their compatriot a win, as was the case with the Squadra Azzurra victories of Cipollini and Bettini. Others didn’t necessarily have total support going in to the race.
Regardless, the more team mates you have, the more likely it is you’ll have someone to shield you from the wind, or act as a leadout man in the final sprint.
Where’s that leave us for 2010?
Only one rider hits all four markers – rode the Vuelta, won a stage, dropped out, and has a non-minimal team. That rider is Thor Hushovd. Thor’s been talking about the World’s being one of his major goals for 2010. He dropped out after stage 16, quietly suggesting his form was where he wanted it to be headed in to the World’s, and he didn’t want to lose it.
Hushovd’s still thought of as a sprinter – being a two (maybe someday three…) time winner of the points jersey hasn’t helped dispel that – but at this point in his career, he’s really a classics/technical finish specialist, with a knack for taking advantage of the weaknesses of the pure sprinters. He’s no mountain goat, but he thrives in the sort of power-climb environment that this years Worlds profile seems to offer.
…And Norway’s team, which was originally supposed to be 5, is down to 3. I still think Thor’s the best situated by numbers – his Vuelta stage win had the same sort of selection-forcing climbing in the later kilometers, and he skipped that last week of the Vuelta. He should be fresh, and given his ability to read a race, should be able to stick with the other favorites to keep in contention.
Four riders hit important markers – rode the Vuelta, win a stage, have a good sized team. Gilbert, Farrar, Erviti and Barredo.
Gilbert is on just about everyones list for top contender this year. He was there until the end in last year’s championships, and outperformed everyone in October. If Cadel’s win salvaged the season for Lotto-Predictor, Gilbert made it almost respectable. This year, he notched two dominant wins in the Vuelta, and looks poised to have another great fall.
Farrar won two stages of the Vuelta as well – one while going toe-to-toe with a less than humble Mark Cavendish. Farrar may be able to take advantage of the uphill finish in the last few kilometers of the Geelong
circuit – unlike many sprinters, he seems to do well when the road tilts upward a little bit.
Erviti and Barredo each notched a win in the Vuelta. Barredo is best known for assaulting another rider with his wheel at this years Tour de France. Erviti has won a couple of Vuelta stages. Both will be riding in support of Óscar Freire and/or Sammy Sanchez. Neither of them would make for an obvious choice for Worlds, but the same could be said for a number of winners over the last 10 years – never underestimate the unsung heroes of the peloton.
Is that it?
Another 15 riders meet some of the markers.
Mark Cavendish and Peter Velits both won stages in the Vuelta, but will be riding on minimally sized squads.
Filippo Pozzato and Fabian Cancellara both had top three finishes, and dropped out of the race early to focus on Worlds.
Vincenzo Nibali, Daniele Bennati, Allan Davis, Matt Goss, Greg van Avermaet and Kevin de Weert all had top three finishes, and will be riding on full sized teams
Finally, Grega Bole, Martin Velits, Manuel Cardoso, Frank Schleck and JJ Haedo all top-three’d, and will be riding with reduced squads.
I predict I can find a stat to support any eventual outcome. I don’t feel I’m making a particularly bold statement by saying I think the winner will be one of the 20 guys mentioned in this article. You’ll have to wait until tomorrow for specifics, when we’ll publish the Pavé staff picks for the race!
Are stats total bunk, best left to talking heads looking to fill time between commercials for auto-tinting lenses? Or do past performances work as an indicator for something complex like bike racing? Let us know!