This weekend sees the elite men and women battle it out for the World Championship road titles in Doha, Qatar. While the Tour de France remains the most famous bike race in the world, the World Championship can be a more intriguing affair as it’s often unpredictable. For a start it’s a one day race, rather like the Olympic road race, and the riders will be competing in their national teams, meaning that there can be untried and untested combinations of team members. It remains the most important one-day race in the calendar, above the one day Classics and Monuments.
The course changes each year and has favoured climbers, sprinters and all rounders equally over the years, depending on where it’s been held. If you hang around long enough a course that suits your abilities will eventually come round to give you the opportunity to win the coveted Rainbow Jersey.
The blue, red, black, yellow and green bands on a pure white background bestow greatness on the wearer. He or she must wear it for the following year in all events of that discipline in which they won the title. When they are no longer World Champion they are allowed rainbow piping on their collar and cuffs in future years. The five colours were originally lifted from the Olympic rings, but it has become iconic in its own right. Woe betide a club rider who wears a replica rainbow jersey: while it’s been said that wearing an unearned replica yellow, green or polka dot jersey from the Tour de France is a sin, to don the rainbow colours, if you’re not World Champion, is a blasphemy.
Like most of Cycling’s great races, the World Championships has a long and fascinating history. You can go all the way back to 1883 and a velodrome in Leicester for its first incarnation when, sadly for the Brits, a Frenchman called Frederic de Civry won on a penny farthing. Various races tried to lay claim over the World Champion title (rather like boxing) throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But it wasn’t until 1927 that the first UCI World Race Championships were held in the Nurburgring, Germany. It was an Italian full house on the podium that day with Alfredo Binda the winner.
Sadly for Binda he was suspended the following year by the Italian Federation for “not defending with faith and determination the prestige of Italian cycling.” Apparently he had squabbled with team mate Costante Girardengo, allowing Belgian George Ronsse to take advantage and win by a nearly 20 minute margin. After a break during the war the race returned in 1946 in which former winner, Belgian Marcel Kint, made a solo break from the main field and was on track to win in the closing kilometres when a spectator pulled him off on the final climb.
But perhaps my favourite Worlds story comes from 1963 when Rik Van Looy, a two time winner, entered full of confidence. As an extra incentive to get his Belgian teammates to work for him, he had offered each of them a reward of $1,500 if he won. All looked on track as they approached the final sprint until an impatient Van Looy jumped past his lead-out man too early. On the opposite side of the road, fellow Belgian Benoni Beyeht made a charge for the line and Van Looy veered across forcing Beyeht to put out his hand – to some it looked like a push, to others a pull, but Beyeht crossed the line in front of a furious Van Looy resulting in a feud that lasted for years.
This year it definitely looks like one for the sprinters in the pan flat desert of Qatar. It’s probably the first time in the last five years that there’s a course that favours them this much. As Eurosport’s Carlton Kirby put it earlier in the week, “You almost double your field of vision by standing on a local phone book.” There’s also the possibility of cross winds, something that Dutch and Belgian riders have historically been skillful at dealing with. They’ll also have to cope with extremely high temperatures. The Team Triallists had to put up with 40 degree heat on Tuesday. Dutch rider Anouska Koster crashed after suffering in the extreme temperatures and US rider Chloe Dygers was seen to be “evacuating her tummy” (Carlton Kirby, again, who else?).
With the heat, extremely flat course and a dearth of spectators there’s been plenty of controversy over the decision to hold the race here. Tom Dumoulin said that it lacks atmosphere, while Eddy Merckx, a former World Champion himself, has been defending the decision, pointing out that racing in Spain and California also have extreme temperatures.
Whatever the whys and wherefores, a World Champion will be crowned on Saturday (women) and on Sunday (men). Lizzie Deignan (formerly Armitstead) has already won a medal in the Team Time Trial, but she’ll be defending her road race title as well. She’s unlikely to be a favourite among a field of world class sprinters however. Watch out for the Italian, Bronzini who won the last mass sprint in Copenhagen and could win her third Rainbow Jersey here. Kirsten Wild (Netherlands), Jolien d’Hoore (Belgium) and Chloe Hosking (Australia) are all strong finishers too. Then there’s two-time world champion and London Olympic gold medalist, Marianne Vos, who can disrupt any race with explosive attacks.
For the men the ever popular Peter Sagan, last year’s winner, can never be ruled out. But he’s going to have to go head to head with a heavyweight trio of out and out sprinters in Mark Cavendish, and German André Greipel and Marcel Kittel. The pugnacious Frenchman Bouhanni could figure if he can avoid hotel room punch ups or disqualification in the argy bargy at the finish. Cav put in a storming performance in the Tour, although recent stomach problems may have affected his form. Greipel will always be dangerous and Kittel’s form has been sketchy recently. A second World Championship for the Manxman looks like a fair bet.
Here at Ride Velo we’re very much in the Eurosport camp for TV coverage. Strap in for a rip roaring ride with the language mangler, Carlton Kirby at 13.00 for the women’s race, live, on Saturday. Only the highlights of the men’s race are broadcast at 17.30 on Sunday, but with hours of televised desert edited out, that’s probably not a bad option. Alternatively you could watch the entire thing on BBC from 10.45 (women’s) and 08.30 (men’s) They also have a highlights package from 14.30 for both the men and women’s race.