For some riders, the pinnacle of a cycling career is to win the biggest race in the world, the Tour de France. For any generation, there are few riders who can claim to be genuine contenders for this honour. For the next three or four years the yellow jersey will probably be won by one of only two riders, Alberto Contador or Andy Schleck. There are a number of other possible candidates, but something would have to go badly wrong for both Schleck and Contador for them to stand a chance. The likes of Cadel Evans, Vincenzo Nibali, Denis Menchov, Samuel Sanchez and Ivan Basso will all be talked about as Tour contenders next year but all will likely fall short.
The World Championships however is different. In any given year there are dozens of riders who stand a genuine chance of being declared World Champion. The Tour de France suits the same sort of rider no matter what the route, but the profile of the World Championships changes sufficiently year on year to give every type of rider a shot at the title at some stage during their career. In what other race have past podium finishers included riders as diverse as Miguel Indurain, Mario Cipollini, Johan Museeuw, Cadel Evans and Marco Pantani?
As well as the route, another major difference between the Tour and the Worlds are the teams which take part. In the Tour de France (barring late withdrawals) every team starts with the same number of riders, and these are riders which are used to riding together as a unit all year. In the Worlds, team sizes can vary hugely and teams are assembled based on nationality for one day a year only. In the upcoming World Road Race in Geelong, Australia, teams which have qualified to field the maximum number of riders will have the luxury of fielding nine men. This maximum of nine has been in place since 2005, previous to this, teams with a maximum allotment could field 12 riders, and the team of the reigning champion could field up to 13.
Since 2005, of all the podium finishers at the Worlds (that’s 15 riders for those counting), only one rode for a team without the maximum of nine riders. That was the Dane Matti Breschel who took a bronze medal in 2008 with only five team mates. In the past 30 years, only 14 riders have medalled at the Worlds without the maximum number of team mates. That means that 85% of riders who ended the race in the top three, were all able to call on the maximum amount of team mates throughout the race.
Throughout these past 30 years, only four riders have managed to land the rainbow jersey with truncated teams. The most recent to do so was Romans Vainsteins in 2000 who was part of a three man Latvian team. Previous to this was Lance Armstrong in 1993, as part of the USA team who could actually boast a substantial ten riders of a possible twelve. His compatriot Greg LeMond won the Worlds ten years earlier with only two team mates. Finally, of course there was Stephen Roche in 1987 who won the rainbow jersey as part of a five rider Irish contingent. Although it’s true for every race, it’s clearly no less true in the World Championships that having a large number of team mates is a massive help.
Of the 14 medals won by riders without the maximum number of team mates since 1980, Irish riders can account for four of them. Sean Kelly has come third twice, in 1982 and again in 1989, while 1987 winner Roche also took a bronze in 1983. But neither of the great Irishmen were the first from these shores to get their hands on a World Championships medal. Shay Elliott was the first to do so in 1962 when he was runner up to his trade team mate Jean Stablinski. Wikipedia has us believe that ‘Elliott sacrificed his chance for Stablinski’s benefit’ which seems to stem from an article written by John Wilcockson. However, Peter Crinnion, who would go on to partner Elliott at the 1963 World Road Race, reveals more in the excellent documentary on Elliott ‘Cycle of Betrayal’. Perhaps ultimately Elliott did sacrifice his chances for Stablinski but there were more sinister dealings which afoot that day in 1962.
Elliott was the first ever Irish rider to compete at the Worlds when he took to the startline as a one man team in 1956. He missed the 1957 edition, but competed every year from 1958 until 1966, each year on his tobler, apart from 1963 when he was joined by Crinnion, the 1960 Irish road race champion.
After the great Elliott raced the Worlds for the last time, Ireland had no entrants at all until Kelly came along in 1977. Remarkably, Kelly rode every edition from then until 1993, 17 consecutive years. But it was to be a race that Kelly would never win, a race which he admits he most regrets missing out on during his career. Kelly was joined intermittently throughout those 17 years by various team mates. Stephen Roche partnered him on nine occasions, including his own victory in 1987, where he rode selflessly, entirely at the service of Kelly only to find himself in the winning break in the final kilometre.
Roche attacked in Villach and soloed home with a group led by Moreno Argentin right on his heels as he crossed the line. Roche said afterward that he had no choice but to attack, there was no guarantee that the group containing Kelly would have caught his own group to set up a sprint finish for Kelly. Roche added that he was in a five man group out front, so if it came down to a sprint he said he would have come fifth. Amazingly for Roche, he nailed it and added the Rainbow jersey to the Giro and the Tour he had already won that year.
Other riders to ride alongside Kelly at the Worlds were Martin Earley (seven times), Alan MacCormack and Lawrence Roche (three times), Paul Kimmage (twice), along with John Brady and a certain P.McQuaid who both rode once. After 1993, when Kelly, Earley and retiree Roche all rode their last Worlds, there was to be another hiatus on the participation of Irish riders. This was ended in 2002 by David O’Loughlin, the three time Irish road race champion, who was to be joined by David McCann and 1998 Junior World Champion Mark Scanlon over the next couple of years. Then came the current crop of top Irish professionals, over the following years Nicolas Roche, Philip Deignan and for the first time last year, Dan Martin, all rode the Worlds for Ireland. Roger Aiken was also selected for his only appearance in 2008.
In total, 16 riders have represented Ireland at the Worlds, a paltry amount when compared to other nations. Nevertheless, in the medal count table, Ireland lie joint 8th with five medals alongside USA lying only behind the traditional cycling powerhouses Spain, Italy, France, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland and Germany. The most riders Ireland have ever had present at the Worlds is five. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that this was in 1987. This year Ireland will have three representatives, Nicolas Roche, David McCann and making his first appearance, the current Irish road race champion, Matt Brammeier.
This year, for the first time since the era of Roche and Kelly, Ireland have a rider in with a genuine chance of a podium place in Nicolas Roche. He is coming off the back of a great Vuelta a Espana, traditionally the best preparation for the Worlds, and will be aiming to tide his form over to next weekend for the big one in Australia. However, having only a three man team will definitely be an inhibiting factor. The number of team mates at Roche’s disposal will affect his race in two ways. Firstly there’s the physical aspect: in his AG2R trade team at the Vuelta he had eight men fetching him food and water and sheltering him from the wind. The energy that this work by team mates can save a leader is invaluable in a race which extends to over 250 kilometres.
Secondly, having very few team mates suppresses the tactics which can be employed to maneuver Roche into a podium position. The likes of Spain, Italy and USA, all nine man teams, can send riders in early breaks to alleviate the pressure to chase, they can send riders on the attack in the latter stages to wear down opposing teams and they have a mix of sprinters and rouleurs to account for various eventualities. The likelihood is that when it comes down to the final 20 or 30 kilometres, both McCann (who will be somewhat fatigued from the time trial) and Bremmeier (who has never ridden a race of this distance) will be spent and Roche will be fending for himself.
It’s not unheard of for one man to pull himself into a medal position in a race like this. Think of the one man Swiss team at the 2008 Olympics. But that was Fabian Cancellara, and Nicolas Roche is not Fabian Cancellara. Roche, if he manages to remain at the front beyond 200 kilometres, will probably get one chance to choose the right wheel to follow. Sniffing out the right wheel, is something I mentioned in my last post, and thus far, is not a talent that Roche has displayed too often. In my opinion, it would take a very fortuitous set of circumstances for Roche to end up in the top three at the race’s end.
I read an article recently in an old Cycle Sport mag which contained an interview with the Italian rider Michele Bartoli. He was discussing Liége-Bastogne-Liége and he said ‘If you’re stronger than the others, you have a great chance to show it. There’s never a surprise winner at Liége. The two or three strongest riders always fight it out to be the winner’. Because of the changing route every year, this is not always the case with the World Championships where there have been plenty of surprise winners in the past, Romans Vainsteins, Igor Astarloa and Rudy Dhaenens to name but three.
There’s been plenty of debate over whether this years Worlds will be a race for the sprinters or not. Regardless, it certainly isn’t a route which is as hard as Liége-Bastogne-Liége. Having tried to inform myself as best I can it seems to me the race will pan out more like a Milan San Remo and may not necessarily be contested by the strongest riders. If the race is controlled by the bigger teams, it is possible that it could come down to a sprint. But if enough teams and riders are willing and able to disrupt proceedings, there will be opportunities to attack and form a break in the latter stages. For it’s not only sprinters that have won a race like Milan San Remo in the past, Cancellara, Chiappucci and Fignon can all count themselves as winners in that race.
Roche’s best chance of success will be if the big teams who want a sprint (USA-Farrar, Germany-Greipel) can keep things together until 10 or 15 kilometres to go and then follow the right breakaway, while the lack of race radios may play havoc with the plans of the teams hoping to control the race in the final stages. Again, as in Stage 19 of the Vuelta, I would suggest that the right breakaway is the one with Philippe Gilbert in it. Easily said on paper, it remains to be seen how Roche’s form holds up on the day as there will be plenty of riders there who have prepared for the Worlds especially, even ignoring the Tour; Gilbert being the prime example of such a rider. It would seem to be the Belgian’s race to lose, but perhaps Roche can have his say in what is sure to be a fascinating race.