• Is this a sight we'll see tonight in the men's road race in Bergen, Norway (AAP) (AAP/The Canadian Press)Source: AAP/The Canadian Press
Peter Sagan (Slovakia) has his eyes set on an unprecedented feat in cycling, three successive world road race titles. Who’s to say he can’t do it? The rest of the world.
Jamie Finch-Penninger

Cycling Central
24 Sep 2017 - 9:20 AM 

The course

While the elite men have the added bonus of a 39.5 kilometre jaunt prior to hitting 11 laps, they'll ultimately face the same 18.8km circuit as the races that have come before them. Lumpy in parts, technical in others, the flat finish will have sprinters hoping they can hold on until the end.  

The junior women's and U23 races have played out in that vein with attackers having a slight edge over the peloton so far. With the junior men and women just yesterday, a solo move during or at the start of the final lap defending a significant time gap, also seems to be a popular move. 

But the higher degree of organisation and larger teams present in the men’s elite field may swing that balance back to the teams riding for a sprint.

Again, the newly-famed Salmon Hill is the main obstacle they’ll have to overcome. A climb in two parts, a steady drag up, a false-flat section then a steeper drive towards the summit. The climbs combine to form an ascent of 3.6 km at 4.5%, but with the variable difficulty of the slopes, it will be a harder proposition for riders on the day.

It’s enough to knock out the pure sprinters, maybe it wouldn’t if it was just a single climb near the end of a profile, but the repetition and the overall distance of the race will ensure that only the toughest of riders will be able to win the rainbows in Norway.

A fast descent follows the climb, a good opportunity for talented descenders to extend any gaps at the top of the climb. Once back on the flat, it is a relatively sedate run back in to the finish, with eight kilometres of comparatively easy terrain. The fast nature of the descent has seen the race get even more selective, it’s almost happens too fast and doesn’t allow the riders that have been dropped much chance to catch back after being dropped.

It’s a balanced course, guaranteeing unpredictable racing and the winner will be decided on how the the Norwegian roads are tackled by the bigger teams.  

Catch all the action of the men's road race at the UCI Road World Championships tonight live from 5.50pm AEST streaming here or at SBS On Demand. Watch the race on SBS Viceland from 10.30pm AEST.

The contenders

Peter Sagan looms large as the man to beat and the back-to-back champion will have his work cut out ensuring his six man Slovakia team isn’t eliminated early and he is isolated in the finale. If he does end up alone, the race could ride off up the road, but the canny Sagan has ridden for most of his career in these sorts of situations.

There’s noone better in the peloton at finding his way through a crowded finale to the perfect wheel and he’s managed to use his strength and nous to avoid missing out in the past two years. Before the worlds in Richmond 2015, he spent a number of weeks proving he was prepared to lose, not contributing to chases and refusing to take full responsibility as a younger Sagan often found himself doing. He came into the finish at Richmond fresh enough for one blistering attack he held to the line.

In Doha 2016, he was caught out behind the split after the crosswinds blew the race apart, but used his ridiculous reserve of power to blitz across to the rapidly departing front group and then picked his way through perfectly at the finish to win the sprint.

Will we see another Sagan masterclass? Well the plans of the other teams look to be playing into his hands. The Australians, Italians and Norwegians all have riders who they are prepared to put up against Sagan in a sprint and they look to be fairly singularly focused around that goal. What Sagan will have to decide is whether he goes with dangerous moves in the final few laps or sit and bide his time.

He’s got the pedigree, he’s got the form, as he showed in the Canadian classics, and he’s also got the smarts to win. Sagan did suffer illness earlier this week which saw him take three days off the bike and missed riding for trade team Bora-hansgrohe in the team time trial in Bergen. Even so, the cycling rock star is hard to go past. 

As noted above, Australia goes into the race backing Michael Matthews to the hilt. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a sprint win for the Tour de France green jersey winner, he can follow even the very best on the climbs and have them handily covered in the sprint for the win. Australia’s selection policy came in for some heavy criticism and indeed was overturned on appeal in the women’s race, but there are plenty of questions in the men’s race as well.

The non-selection of Nathan Haas is the biggest stumper. In an interview back in April, he volunteered himself as a helper for Matthews at the worlds and outside of the Team Sunweb star, Haas appears the best rider suited to the course in Bergen. Instead the squad is clearly entirely focused on delivering Matthews to the final few laps and see what happens from there. Jay McCarthy may be called upon to cover late moves, his recent riding in service of Sagan but must now turn the tables on his trade team leader.

Haas: 'It's a bit of a shame that the Cauberg isn't in the final"
The irrepressible Nathan Haas was in a buoyant mood on the eve of the Amstel Gold Race as he takes the next step in his career, leading the Dimension Data squad in the Ardennes classics.

The question is whether Matthews can counter the attacks of dangerous teams like the Belgians, the Dutch and the British, all while keeping himself in good enough shape to beat Sagan, van Avermaet, Boasson Hagen, and Kwiatkowski in a sprint finish. He’ll need some allies and every ounce of race craft he’s learnt over the years to take out the win. 

That brings us to the Belgians who, as usual come in with a team packed full of stars. The difficulty has been getting them all on the same page in the past, racing with a coherent strategy to win. They’ve been decisive players in recent world championships, but have lacked the knockout blow to take the victory.

Greg Van Avermaet, Phillipe Gilbert, Tim Wellens, Dylan Teuns, Jens Keukeliere, Jasper Stuyven, Oliver Naesen, Julian Vermote. It’s an embarrassment of riches for the Belgians, who will almost certainly be looking to catch the big favourites out and send an attack away to the finish. If not, they always have the fall-back of van Avermaet’s sprinting. He may never win a bunch kick in normal circumstances, but put him at the end of a 250km plus course over tough terrain and the BMC rider is a match for anyone.

He’ll be the big name that everyone will have their eye on, but will the Belgians back him against Sagan, who looked to have his measure at the recent Canadian classics?

Sagan scores century with win in GP de Quebec
Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) claimed his 11th win of the season and the 100th of his career with a powerful sprint on the tough uphill finish of the GP de Quebec. He held off the challenges of Greg van Avermaet (BMC) and Michael Matthews (Team Sunweb) to take the victory in the 8th edition of the Canadian classic.

Matteo Trentin (Italy), bound for Orica-Scott next year in what looks like one of the biggest coups of the transfer season, has vaulted his way into world championships contention with a stunning purple patch of form. Not content with winning four stages emphatically at the Vuelta, he took out the Classic Impanis van Petegem and looms as a threat for the Italians.

Normally, you’d be inclined to put him in with the second lot of contenders, but his results in the longer classics were strong this year and coupled with his recent showings, you’d be brave to leave out the classy attacker come sprinter.

He might play a role as a foil to a rider like Gianni Moscon, himself in top form, who attacks off the front and then works the tactics with Trentin in behind.

One team that certainly won’t lack motivation are the Norwegians, who go into the race with two leaders. Edvald Boasson Hagen and Alexander Kristoff are their stars, both with the quality to go deep in the toughest races and win, but can they do it on this course? Their U23 sprinter wasn’t able to deliver when the race got tough and the case can be made that it will be the same for their World Tour counterparts.

Kristoff, for all his protestations against Katusha’s claims he’s underperforming, isn’t as good as previous seasons when he took memorable wins at Milan San Remo and the Tour of Flanders. In addition, he doesn’t have the same pedigree over non-cobbled climbs, he’s needs a setting where he can use his power and is arguably not suited to the course.

Boasson Hagen has been in better form, especially recently at the Tour of Britain where he was second overall, but he hasn’t proved whether he can win against the likes of Sagan, van Avermaet and Matthews.

A man who can claim wins against all those riders is former world champion Michal Kwiatkowski. The Polish star was the strongest rider over all terrain at the Tour de France this year. To do what he did at the front of the bunch for Chris Froome day after day was incredible and he can do it for himself as well.

After the Tour, he took a strong win in Clasica San Sebastian, had a little freshen up, then got back into form at the Tour of Britain, where he was just 18 seconds off overall victory in fifth. The win against Sagan at this year's Milan San Remo will give the Pole a lot of confidence going into this race, but also singles him out as a marked man. He won’t get the same comfy ride to the line on Sagan’s wheel this time around. His victory at the 2017 Strade Bianche, and strong performances for two podiums in the Ardennes classics and you see why Kwiatkowski is one of the top contenders for the rainbow jersey.

Of course, there are exclusions from this list - I've no space to talk about Fernando Gaviria (Colombia), Tom Dumoulin (Netherlands) Julien Alaphillipe (France), Diego Ulissi, Alberto Bettiol (Italy), Daryl Impey (South Africa) or even Rui Costa (Portugal).

The beauty of this race is it looks like an open affair, lending the advantage to the riders and teams that can work the tactics the best and put down the power when required.

Whoever wins will certainly have earned the honour of wearing the jersey and it will one you won’t want to miss.

Catch all the action of the men's road race at the UCI Road World Championships tonight live from 5.50pm AEST streaming here or at SBS On Demand. Watch the race on SBS Viceland from 10.30pm AEST.