Forget France, the cycling world is watching Le Geelong
In the world of professional cycling, the rainbow jersey represents the pinnacle of achievement. It is awarded to the winner of the World Championship each year. For ever after, the victors are entitled to wear the rainbow colours on the collar and armbands of their racing jersey, a lasting reminder of having been the best cyclist on the globe in each event.
This week’s World Championships in Geelong are special for Australians. Not only is it the first time that the event has been held down under, but the Australian, Cadel Evans, is the defending champion in the blue riband event, the elite men’s road race.
The championships have drawn the best field of cyclists to Australia since the Sydney Olympics, and none more so than the three-time winner, Oscar Freire. The diminutive Spanish sprinter burst onto the world stage when he finished second in the under 23 road race championship in 1997. Two years later, he claimed the elite event at Verona. He repeated the feat in 2001 and 2004. Since then he has won a series of events, including the Milan-San Remo classic thrice and the green jersey for the leading sprinter in the 2008 Tour de France.
By winning in 2004, Freire joined only three other riders to win a third World title: Alfred Binda, who won the first race in 1927 before repeating the win in 1930 and 1932; Rik van Steenbergen, and the great Eddy Merckx. The American rider, Greg Le Mond, won an under 23 championship before going on to claim two elite titles.
Now aged 34, Freire is riding for a record fourth rainbow jersey at Geelong on Sunday. His form in the Tour de France was ordinary and he abandoned the
Vuelta a España after the 15th stage, but his brilliance in one-day classics cannot be ignored. If Freire doesn’t shine, his compatriots, Sammy Sanchez and Luis Leon Sanchez, are capable of winning.
Australian interest naturally will focus on the defending champion, Cadel Evans. Evans is the only Australian to win the open road race title. Jack Hoobin claimed the amateur championship in 1950 – there were separate amateur and professional races until 1996.
Evans returned to racing in Canada recently after breaking his elbow while wearing the leader’s yellow jersey in the Tour de France. Apart from being a marked rider in the championship, Evans’ task is difficult. Many great riders, including Fausto Coppi, Louison Bobet, Bernard Hinault and Lance Armstrong only won the race once. Others, like the five-time Tour winner, Jacques Anquetil, never donned the rainbow jersey.
Twelve riders have won the elite event in their home country. Only five riders have successfully defended the title the year after winning, and only one, Rik van Steenbergen in his home country when he won his second championship at Waregem, Belgium, in 1957.
Apart from Evans, six other Australians have finished in the top ten in the modern era. Robbie McEwen was narrowly defeated by the flamboyant Italian, Mario
Cippolini, at Zolder, Belgium in 2002, and finished fifth at Salzburg three years later. Scott Sutherland was seventh in 2000 at Plouay, France, Stephen Hodge eighth at Stuttgart in 1991, and Phil Anderson ninth in 1983 in Switzerland.
Two Australians riding this year have had a top five finish. Stuart O’Grady was fourth at Verona in 2004, one place ahead of Alan Davis. O’Grady, an Olympic track gold medallist, has had an interrupted preparation after he and Andy Schleck were withdrawn from the Tour of Spain following a late night on the town.
Alan Davis is one of the most underrated Australians. The 30 year old from Bundaberg had an interrupted season when implicated by association in Operacion Puerto, the Spanish doping investigation. He was cleared and has gone on the win the 2009 Tour Down Under and has placed in a number of feature races.
Simon Gerrans had an interrupted preparation when his Sky Team withdrew from this year’s Vuelta a España after the death of a team official. Having won a stage of each of the three Grand Tours, Gerrans knows what is required to claim the rainbow jersey.
As the World Championships are held at a different venue each year, the course is a major factor. In 2002, the Italian sprinter Mario Cipollini, rode the flat 256 kilometres course at Zolder, Belgium at an average speed of 46.54 kilometres an hour. Last year, the hillier course in Switzerland suited a different type of rider, helping Cadel Evans to win at an average speed of 37.78 kph.
This year’s course includes two short climbs, with one of them rising to a gradient close to 20 per cent. Both Australia and Italy left their best sprinters, Robbie McEwen and xxxxx Bettini, out of their teams, believing the course would not suit them. However the fastest road sprinter in the world, Britain’s Mark
Cavendish, is riding. The brash Cavendish will not have the assistance of his usual Australian lead-out man, Mark Renshaw, and has conceded that the course will be difficult for him. His best chance, along with America’s Tyler Farrar and Germany’s Andre Greipel, is for a mass bunch finish.
The specialist climbers such as Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck, who fought out this year’s Tour de France are also missing.
The course suggests the winner will be a strong rider, capable of getting over the short, steep climbs on each of the 11 laps, but with enough speed to out-sprint rivals on the uphill finish.
The Belgium, Philippe Gilbert, is the pre-race favourite, having set himself for the event months ago. Interestingly, riders from Belgium have had the most success in the road race, winning 25 editions of the championship.
Fabian Cancellara is the strongest rider in the peleton. Nicknamed “Spartacus”, the Swiss rider last year equalled the feat of Canberra’s Michael Rogers in winning three World Championship time trials.
The Italian Filippo Pozzato won the warm-up race at Ballarat last Sunday. His national team coach, Paolo Bettini, knows what is required, having won back-to-back championships in 2006 and 2007.
Others in the hunt include Thor Hushov, the Norwegian sprinter who can climb, and Alexandr Kolobnev, who has finished on the podium twice before.
It is possible that there will be a breakaway, especially as race radios have been banned for the event this year. Without the team riding by the Australians at the front of the peleton last year, Cadel Evans would have had a much more difficult task. Close attention to attempted breaks will determine whether the race comes down to a bunch finish.
Winners of the rainbow jersey have usually been champions of the era. Sunday’s event will produce another worthy champion.
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