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?
However, we looked at past performances as an indication of what it takes to win and came up with some criteria for winning the World Championships. Last year, “The Numbers” (with a bit of massaging) predicted that Thor Hushovd would win. This year is a little harder to predict, with the Vuelta ending a little earlier, World’s being held over a week earlier, and a number of the favorites thrown off due to injuries in the Vuelta. With a course that everyone is saying favors the sprinters, it’s tough to use basic statistics and expect them to mean anything – but we’ll try nevertheless.
Last year’s 4 criteria were: riding the Vuelta, winning a stage, dropping out before the end of the Vuelta, and having a large (read: non-minimal) team. Let’s see what that means this year. To review the markers:
10/10 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.
Every one of the last 10 champions has ridden the Vuelta as preparation – and only 3 since 1995 (Romans Vainsteins 2000, Óscar Freire 1999, Johan Museeuw 1996) haven’t ridden the Vuelta.
7/10 World Champions won stages at the Vuelta
There’s no hiding form. 7 out of 10 World champs won at least 1 stage at the Vuelta. Some won more. If you loosen those requirements a little, 8 out 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 podiumed in 2001. Last year’s winner Thor Hushovd won stage 6 of the 2010 edition, as well as a 2nd in stage 13.
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 (2003) failed to win or podium on a stage.
9/10 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.
Last year, Hushovd hung up his bike after stage 16.
9/10 World Champion’s had full (or close) teams
The rainbow jersey isn’t won without help. Full squads supported 9 out of 10 world champions. Team sizes have changed over the years, settling on a maximum 9 in 2005. The extremes have been mitigated – in 2000, Romans 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.
Last year’s Thor Hushovd only had a pair of teammates. This is probably an example of where having extensive experience and awareness in the peloton can pay off – if you don’t have your own wheels to follow, knowing the right ones to latch on to is the next best thing.
Where’s that leave us for 2011?
Two riders participating in this year’s World Championships meet all of the above criteria: Tony Martin and Marcel Kittel. Each won a stage in the Vuelta, and dropped out prior to its completion.
Martin clearly used the form he built to his advantage, soundly beating everyone in this year’s Time Trial World Championships, coming in well over a minute sooner than second place Bradley Wiggins’ time. It’s safe to assume he’ll be riding support for the German team, as he’s both likely to be fatigued, and unlikely to be a major threat in a course of this style. That said, it’d be foolish to let him get off his leash in the final laps of the race circuit, given how fast he can ride solo.
Kittel’s win came in a crash marred stage 7, leaving him contending the final sprint against a reduced, but still highly talented group, including Peter Sagan, Oscar Freire and Danielle Bennati. Furthermore, he just won over the likes of Andrei Greipel and Robbie McEwen in the Kampioenschap van Vlaanderen, to bring his win tally in his first full year of professional racing to 14. He’s young, but he’s riding with an experienced German team that should be well prepared to contend in what’s predicted to be a sprint finish. The only major question is, will he be the protected rider on the team, or will it be Andrei Greipel? And if its Greipel, will he still have the opportunity to mix it up in the final sprint, if it comes to it?
4 riders won Vuelta stages, and will be riding in “big” teams: Chris Froome for the UK, Pablo Lastras for Spain, and Francesco Gavazzi and Daniele Bennati for Italy. Of the 4, Bennati is the one most obviously suited to the course.
Notably absent from the above is Peter Sagan. Sagan notched 3 wins (and an additional 2 podiums) in the Vuelta, and a total of 14 for the year. He’s well suited to the course, and is currently ranked as a top favorite by both the cycling press and those with the most to lose – the bookmakers.
This year is hard to apply stats to than last year. 2010 lacked the USA Pro Cycling Challenge as possible tuning race in the month of August – an option some top conteders took this year. It also had a World’s race taking place 9 days later – but a Vuelta that finished 8 days earlier. Similar recovery time should negate any concerns about fatigue differences, but makes it hard to understand the impact races between the end of the Vuelta and the World’s road race has. Is riding the Tour of Britain this year a good idea? Last year you would have had 3 weeks to recover from it prior to World’s. This year, just 1 week. For riders like Mark Cavendish, a major favorite for this year who dropped out of the Vuelta early, it was an opportunity to get some more racing miles in his legs as a lead-in – a necessary gambit, to be sure, but a major unknown when compared with prior year’s successful preparations.
Personally, I’m liking riders like Sagan, Bennati and Kittel for this year’s course. Kittel and Sagan are both exceedingly young – brash and capable of stunning their competitors, but also liable to make mistakes. And while the “numbers” don’t support it, discounting contenders like Mark Cavendish, Philippe Gilbert (never bet against Gilbert), Thor Hushovd, Oscar Freire, Fabian Cancellara – the list goes on and on – would be foolish at best. If riders like Gilbert decide to turn the race into a long-range slugfest, will the sprinters be able to get it together for a bunch sprint?
Think the numbers will mean anything this year? Let us know in a comment below!