Julian Alaphilippe faces a huge test in Australia in his bid for a third consecutive road race title at cycling’s world championships after a chaotic build-up of crashes, injuries and Covid.
The Frenchman has missed much of the year after sustaining serious injuries in a smash during the Liege-Bastogne-Liege in April and then got Covid on his return.
The 30-year-old Quick-Step rider was not fit for the Tour de France in July but returned at the recent Vuelta a Espana — only to crash out on stage 11, dislocating his shoulder.
“He has seen more hospitals than he has races,” French team manager Patrick Lefevere said.
In-form Belgian pair Wout van Aert and Remco Evenepoel are primed to take full advantage at the September 18-25 championships at the coastal city of Wollongong, 80 kilometres (50 miles) south of Sydney.
Van Aert, 28, will be fresh for the men’s elite road race which caps the championships after opting to skip the individual time trial, despite coming second to Italian ace Filippo Ganna in the past two seasons.
Instead his focus is on toppling Alaphilippe in the road race to end a superb year in which he won three stages and the green jersey at the Tour de France while helping Jumbo-Visma teammate Jonas Vingegaard to overall victory.
“I think the legs are turning well,” said Van Aert, who is in Wollongong after coming second at the Montreal Cycling Grand Prix last week.
Young compatriot Evenepoel will also be a big threat after winning this month’s Vuelta a Espana for his first Grand Tour victory.
“I’m confident we have a strong team and it’s a big advantage that we have two cards to play,” Van Aert said of having Evenepoel on the Belgium team.
Two-time Tour de France winner and this year’s runner-up Tadej Pogacar is also a serious contender, coming off the back of edging Van Aert to win at Montreal.
“We go to Australia with confidence,” said the Slovenian.
The Dane Vingegaard is skipping Australia with Jumbo-Visma opting for a different late-season calendar for the 25-year-old.
– Wheel-to-wheel –
The elite men will tackle a hilly 266.9 km course from the northern hamlet of Helensburgh, looping Mount Keira, before heading to Wollongong, delivering a mixture of fast straights, sharp climbs and technical sections.
More than 1,000 cyclists from over 70 nations will be vying for 13 gold medals in races across eight days of wheel-to-wheel combat.
It is only the second time the event has been held in Australia, after Geelong in 2010, and will provide a stark contrast to the well-raced roads of Flanders in 2021, presenting fresh territory for most of the field.
Italian Elisa Balsamo denied the mighty Dutch clique last year to win the women’s elite road race and will defend her crown on September 24.
It should be a fascinating encounter, pitching Balsamo against Dutch veteran Annemiek van Vleuten, who won the inaugural women’s Tour de France this year, and Tour runner-up Demi Vollering.
Ganna is gunning for a third straight men’s time-trial crown after beating Van Aert by five seconds last year in a carbon copy of the 2020 outcome.
The 26-year-old recently extended his contract with the Ineos Grenadiers team by four years and will face stiff competition from Evenepoel, Pogacar, and former European champion Stefan Kung.
Dutchwoman Ellen van Dijk will defend the women’s time-trial title, with Germany the current champions in the mixed time trials.