The World Championships is a perhaps unique event in the men’s calendar for how it attracts such a wide range of the peloton’s top stars to vie for victory, and this year’s edition is set to be no exception.
There are some high-profile absentees, including Tour de France winner Jonas Vingegaard, Primož Roglič as he recovers from injury, Mads Pedersen after he decided to focus on finishing Vuelta a España and Caleb Ewan, who, despite being the home nation’s star rider, was not selected due to lack of form.
However, this is still arguably the most illustrious meet of the season. Every big classic this season has been absent of at least one big star for one reason or another, with Mathieu van der Poel not lining up to defend his Strade Bianche title due to lack of form, Wout Van Aert missing out on the Tour of Flanders with a Covid positive, Tadej Pogačar opting to skip Liège–Bastogne–Liège for personal reasons, and injury affecting almost the entirety of Julian Alaphilippe’s season. Thankfully, this time all four are present, and will be joined by a whole host of other big name hopefuls.
WOUT VAN AERT - BELGIUM
It seems inevitable that Wout van Aert will play another protagonist role at the Worlds. Since 2020, he’s been on a remarkable run of finishing in the top-eight in all eight of the monuments he has ridden in, making it to the podium five times during those occasions. However, in all that time, he’s won just one monument (the 2020 Milan-San Remo), while also registering a total of one Olympic and three Worlds silver medals without yet adding a gold to his palmares.
His difficulty in upgrading from runner-up finishes to victories resurfaced just recently at the GP de Montréal, when he lost out to Tadej Pogačar in a sprint finish you’d normally expect him to win, but that result did at least confirm his good form going into the Worlds. With a peerlessly strong Belgian team to support him (assuming him and Vuelta winner Remco Evenepoel have reconciled after their spat last year), he has a great chance to at last deliver the big one-day win his extraordinary season has merited.
TADEJ POGAĈAR - SLOVENIA
Victory at the GP de Montréal and an impressive sixth-place in the Worlds time trial against the specialists confirms that Tadej Pogačar is fit and filing again, which will strike fear into the other victory hopefuls. His defeat to Jonas Vingegaard at the Tour de France diluted the mystique of invisibility that he had established in recent times, but it shouldn’t be forgotten just how strong he was riding prior to that race.
Though his Worlds record isn’t great, having failed to make the top 30 in either of his two previous appearances, Pogačar has made a habit this season of excelling in terrain and races that weren’t thought to be suited to him, from the gravel roads of Strade Bianche to the cobbles of the Tour of Flanders. He’d have preferred a harder route and more climbing, but he’s a major contender whatever the parcours.
MATHIEU VAN DER POEL - NETHERLANDS
Barely more than three weeks ago, Van der Poel’s prospects at the World Championships looked uncertain, following an uncharacteristically lacklustre Tour de France and a long break from racing in its aftermath. But now, with a victory at last week’s GP de Wallonie under his belt, he’s right back in the reckoning as one of the top favourites for the title.
Playing especially in his favour is the parcours. Likely to be too difficult for faster sprinters to stay in contention, but not difficult enough for the purer climbers to jump away from him, it appears to be pitched perfectly for the Dutchman’s strengths, and it’s easy to image him launching one of his trademark powerful attacks on the punchy slopes of Mount Pleasant. With a strong team featuring Paris-Roubaix winner Dylan van Baarle and (assuming the birds leave him alone this time) Bauke Mollema, a first road World title to go alongside his four from Cyclocross is on the cards.
JULIAN ALAPHILIPPE - FRANCE
Even less certain than Van der Poel’s form is Julian Alaphilippe’s, whose crash and dislocated shoulder at the Vuelta a España was the latest in a series of setbacks that has blighted his season. We still have no real idea what his form will be like, as he hasn’t raced since, but the Frenchman has confirmed that he will ride, and hasn’t dismissed his chances of taking what would be a third consecutive World title.
As one of only two riders participating to have previously won the Worlds along with Peter Sagan (Slovakia), Alaphilippe is sure to be one of the most watched riders. Knowing him, something dramatic is bound to happen — but will it be another calamity that has characterised his season so far, or rather a spectacular and potentially triumphant attack in the manner of his 2021 and 2020 victories?
BINIAM GIRMAY - ERITREA
What a twelve months it’s been for Biniam Girmay. Since becoming the first black African to win a Worlds medal by taking silver in the under-23 race in Leuven last year, he’s continued to break new ground, winning Gent-Wevelgem in the spring, then a stage at the Giro d’Italia.
Though he hasn’t won a race since returning from the freak accident that saw him hurt his eye with a prosecco cork, he’s certainly coming into form ahead of the Worlds, only once finishing outside the top six in his last five races. There’s not a single rider who will be comfortable backing themselves against his lethal sprinting kick at the finish, so if he can keep himself in contention, then he’s a chance of achieving what would be the biggest landmark yet in this historical season for the Eritrean.
MICHAEL MATTHEWS - AUSTRALIA
In the absence of Caleb Ewan, Michael Matthews is the man the home nation are pinning their hopes on, and he’s almost guaranteed to be there or thereabouts at the finish. The 31-year-old is one of the most consistent performers in the peloton, and shouldn’t find anything on the parcours beyond his capabilities.
But can he deliver a dream result for the Australians and go out and win gold? Although his ability to make it over the hills and sprint with the best has earned him a hatful of great results over the years, including silver and bronze at previous Worlds, podium finishes at Milan-San Remo and Amstel Gold, and top six finishes at the Tour of Flanders and Liège–Bastogne–Liège monuments, his biggest one-day wins remain the Bretagne Classic and GPs of Montréal and Québec. He has long threatened to win bigger, and claiming gold at a home Worlds would be the kind of career-defining moment worthy of his talent.
Whether or not Remco Evenepoel will ride as a co-leader with Wout van Aert and use his deadly long-range attacks to animate the race, or perform as a super-domestique and control the race for his teammate, is one of the big questions going into this Worlds. Whichever it is, he could shape the way the whole race is run, assuming that he isn’t too burnt out from winning the Vuelta a España.
Aside from the Belgians, the French possibly have the strongest line-up, with lots of options should Alaphilippe not be in top shape; Christophe Laporte and Valentin Madouas are ready to step up having done such great work as domestiques for their respective Jumbo-Visma and Grouapama-FDJ teams this season, and Benoît Cosnefroy is in form having just won the GP de Québec. Great Britain also has an eye-catching team, mostly due to its youth, with Ethan Hayter and Fred Wright the stand-out names.
By contrast, the traditional Worlds superpower of the Italian team is looking uncharacteristically weak. Alberto Bettiol could deliver a big result if he’s on a good day, but Matteo Trentin hasn’t done much this year to suggest he could. Far better are the prospects of Switzerland’s Stefan Küng, no doubt smarting after yet another near miss at last weekend’s time trial, while the likes of Alexander Kristoff (Norway) and Magnus Cort (Denmark) could use their sprint finishes to land a good result.