• Alejandro Valverde (C) stalked his rivals before pouncing for his first world championship title in 2018 on a climbing-heavy course. (Getty)Source: Getty
4,491 metres of elevation over a 258.2 kilometres long route around the surrounds of Imola have the peloton contemplating which style of rider will be best suited to Sunday's world championships road race.
Jamie Finch-Penninger

26 Sep 2020 - 12:51 PM 

The race looks wide open ahead of the start, with a multitude of contenders from different nations, all with viable claims at taking the rainbow jersey on Monday morning Australian time.

Added to the uncertainty is the shifted season landmarks with the revamped 2020 calendar. The Tour de France has just finished rather than the Vuelta and the Giro is just round the corner! Riders have very different approaches to the race than the past, and the question for many will be whether they have recovered sufficiently from a hard edition of the Tour de France to line-up just a week later on a tough worlds course.

The Course

The 2020 world championships road race, starting and finishing at the Imola race circuit in Italy is 258.2 kilometres long and takes in an altitude gain of 4,491 metres. A hilly lap of 28.8 kilometres, featuring two short and very steep climbs, is ridden nine times.

The Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari serves as the hub for the racing action, the unfortunate location of Ayrton Senna's death and of the 1968 world championships. The men's race that year was claimed by a margin of just under 10 minutes, which gives you an idea of the difficult terrain in the region.

The major part of the race takes place on narrow roads to the south of Imola. The final kilometres of each lap are on the race track, the wide race track not normally conducive to interesting racing, but the narrow roads of the remainder of the course should make for compelling viewing.

The climbs on the circuit are short but hard. The 1.5 kilometres ascent of the Via Mazzolano serves up an average gradient of 8.7 per cent, with the steeper first section hits pinches of up to 13 per cent. The Cima Calisperna 1.3 kilometres climb slopes at 10.9 per cent and the steepest parts hit a whopping 14 per cent.

From the top of the Cima Calisperna it's 12 kilometres either downhill or flat into the finish line back in Imola.

While the 18 ascents of the climbs in the men's race will be the key factor in determining the winner, there's plenty of flat or false-flat riding and technical descending to add an extra wrinkle.

The Contenders

Wout van Aert (Belgium) comes into the race as the favourite. He has been on an impressive tear of form since racing restarted, winning the first WorldTour race back, Strade Bianche, then Milan San Remo, then claiming two stages of the Tour de France despite working as a domestique for team leader Primož Roglič. If you thought he might be too tired to produce a good performance after all that, he went and disproved that notion by taking in the world championships time trial on Friday.

The 26-year-old is a do-it-all talent, but he will have a big target on him as none of the other contenders, perhaps with the exception of Michael Matthews, will be happy arriving to the finish in the same group as the fast Belgian. His team isn't the strongest in the race either, Tiesj Benoot and Greg van Avermaet should be able to stick into the later parts of the race, but they don't have quite the abundance of multiple winning options that other nations possess. 

Italy are one of those teams, and could make the most of their unexpected home world championships. Vincenzo Nibali and Diego Ulissi will likely lead the Azzurri, but Nibali has downplayed his chances heading into the race. Fausto Masnada, Damiano Caruso, Alberto Bettiol and neo-pro Andrea Bagioli, all shape as very useful riders who could either serve as attacking foils for their team leaders or potentially give a crucial numbers advantage within a late escape.

Ulissi, in particular, seems very well suited to the course, the punchy climbs are very much in his favour and he's in form at the moment, coming off a Tour of Luxembourg victory.

Australian hopes appear to rest on Michael Matthews and Richie Porte. Richie Porte is coming off his best-ever Tour de France, and depending on how he has pulled up from the three-week ordeal, he could be Australia's strongest rider. The punchy climbs of the course don't really suit him despite the steep gradients as they are really quite short and as much meant for the classics and powerful types as the mountain goats. His history in one-day races is less strong than his stage-racing pedigree, but he has shown just recently that it's folly to write him off at the moment.

Michael Matthews and Simon Clarke were both left out of their teams' Tour de France squads, but both may be thanking their lucky stars as it means that they'll get a better preparation for the world championships. Neither would have been a big fan of the Switzerland course, and Matthews said that he was going to go there as a team helper. That may change now that the course contains a lot of short climbs and the more classic inclined riders in Clarke and Matthews will fancy their chances. 

Clarke crashed heavily on Stage 8 of Tirreno-Adriatico, while 5000 metres of vertical gain is arguably a bit too much for Matthews, but if either get down into the finale, there will be few better placed to finish things off than the Aussie pair.

Jai Hindley is a bit of a smokey as a young climber for the Aussies. He was good form at Tirreno and is starting to really put results on the board in his third year in the professional ranks. Late withdrawals of Giro-bound pair Lucas Hamilton and Jack Haig mean that Chris Hamilton and Nick Schultz come into the squad.

The Spanish always bring a strong team to the climbing editions of the world championships and the question might be whether they back the perennial contender Alejandro Valverde in or try a more diverse strategy. If they try and keep the race together for the 40-year-old, it could play right into the hands of Wout van Aert or Michael Matthews.

However, the Spanish teams of recent years aren't afraid to throw their riders in moves and it would seem that Mikel Landa, Enric Mas, Pello Bilbao and Luis Leon Sanchez all have the ability to play an important role in the race.

The Slovenian pair of Primož Roglič and Tadej Pogačar took the Tour de France by storm and there's little reason why they can't continue that trend on this course. Roglič never used to be amazing in one-day races, but took a string of wins in the Italian classics before finishing seventh in Il Lombardia in 2019. Pogačar came out of under-23 racing with a healthy standing as an impressive one-day rider and has looked promising so far in his outings in classic-style races. 

Both possess plenty of punch in the climbs and a good sprint, at least from a group of climbers coming to the finish, and have to be considered as top chances. 

Colombia's stable of climbers gets trotted out here and it's impossible to ignore their pedigree on this course. Rigoberto Uran has the history in one-day races, but does he have the form to win after fading at the back end of the Tour de France?

Daniel Martinez, Sergio Higuita and Miguel Angel Lopez are all mountain goats, but none have really high finishes in one-day races. Of those, Higuita shapes as a special talent in one-day races, in a similar mold to a Valverde-style rider. At just 23, it may be a bit early for him over the near 260-kilometre course, but he's probably the best hope if he's managed to recover fully from his crash at the Tour. 

Michael Woods leads the contenders who don't really have too much team support to shape the race. The Canadian was in very nice form at the recent Tirreno-Adriatico and these punchy climbs will be to his liking, if not so much the narrow roads and fighting in the peloton. 

There's plenty of riders who will also likely be fending for themselves in the final 50 kilometres of the race, with Michal Kwiatkowski (Poland), George Bennett (New Zealand), Richard Carapaz (Ecuador), Marc Hirschi (Switzerland), Tom Pidcock (Great Britain), Max Schachmann (Germany), Julian Alaphilippe (France), Tom Dumoulin (Netherlands) and Jakob Fuglsang (Denmark) all with less strong or non-existent teams in terms of climbing and classics support. 

SBS coverage starts from 1750 AEST Sunday on SBS On Demand, with the television broadcast on SBS VICELAND beginning at 2230 AEST.