Why the Canadian races will likely deliver the next world champion

With a puncheurs-styled course in Wollongong, not many are expecting the next rainbow jersey to come out of the Vuelta a España.

Photo: James Startt/GPDQM

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MONTREAL, Canada (VN) — The peloton’s top stars packed onto flights overnight Monday to fly direct from Canada to Australia for the 2022 UCI Road World Championships.

If recent history repeats itself, chances are high that the next rainbow jersey winner will likely be on one of those flights.

This year, the road to the rainbow jersey could go through Canada.

“It’s a matter of the smoothest way to overcome the traveling,” worlds favorite Wout van Aert said. “If I would go back to Belgium that is already a big trip, and then after a few days, to repack and it would be more traveling to go to Australia, and less time for training.

“Now we can go straight away, and we can do some quality sessions in Australia before resting up and racing the worlds.”

The Canadian WorldTour races at Québec and Montréal were loaded with worlds favorites.

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Joining Van Aert last week in Canada were several key Belgian teammates, along with rivals Michael Matthews, Biniam Girmay, and Peter Sagan. Tadej Pogačar and Alberto Bettiol were also stretching their worlds legs.

With a puncheurs-styled course in Wollongong on September 25, not many are expecting the winner to come out of the Vuelta a España that was loaded with GC riders and climber specialists.

Everyone agreed that racing into Canada and then prepping in Australia seemed to be the best approach.

“Some people come out of the Vuelta pretty good, but to come out of the Vuelta and travel to Australia, with jet lag and all that, so for this year that’s really tough,” UAE Team Emirates’s George Bennett said. “As the worlds as it is, you need to be explosive, you need to be fresh, so I think the Vuelta is not the ideal preparation. These Canadian races are ideal for the worlds.”

Both the Québec and Montréal races are contested on closed urban circuits very similar to what the peloton sees in every world championship.

The Vuelta’s endless string of long, steep climbs favors another profile that might not be well-suited for what lies in wait in Australia.

“These are the accelerations that you cannot replicate,” said Bennett, who raced in Canada. “You need that repeated 20-second stuff that you cannot do in training. When I look at the worlds, there are 25 corners on the circuit, and that’s just like what we’re seeing here.”

For years, the preferred road to the worlds went through the Vuelta and straight into the rainbow jersey. In fact, from 1996 to 2012, all but one world champion raced the Vuelta ahead of the worlds.

That started to change in 2013, when Rui Costa went from the newly minted Canadian races to win the rainbow jersey in Italy.

Since then, every eventual world champion has either raced in Canada or some other European race, but did not race the Vuelta. Only two world champions during the past decade — Peter Sagan in 2015 and Alejandro Valverde in 2018 — raced the Vuelta before winning the worlds.

Another reason? The Vuelta is a lot harder in 2022 than it was in 2002.

“If you look at the Vuelta today, it’s much more challenging than it used to be,” Belgian star Jasper Stuyven said. “The Vuelta now is a climber’s race. And now, riders can prepare better without racing so much. Remco [Evenepoel] will come out of the Vuelta looking strong, but the others will be more tired. The riders here in Canada will be fresher.”

As Stuyven points out, modern cyclists don’t need as much racing in their legs to arrive at racing fitness.

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Worlds favorites such as Van Aert and Michael Matthews might have less than a half-dozen race days in their legs since the Tour de France ended before lining up in Wollongong.

Instead, both packed hundreds of hours of training blocks into that Tour-to-worlds window.

“I’ve been non-stop since the Tour ended, though I haven’t raced that much,” Matthews said. “I took a short break after the Tour, but I went to altitude camp and raced in France, Maryland, and here before I go to Australia. The idea was to keep that high level I had at the Tour all the way to the worlds. Let’s see if it works.”

Finely tuned training camps and race-specific training programs mean that riders can ride at their own pace and in controlled, less-dangerous conditions than the rough and tumble element of the Vuelta.

“I can train a lot harder alone and get better fitness than I might get from racing,” American rider and 2019 junior world champion Quinn Simmons, who is bypassing the worlds this year, said. “And with racing, there are the transfers, the hotels, the bad food. When you’re at a camp, it’s much more focused on the training.”

Van Aert echoed the same thing.

The Belgian superstar rides into the worlds this year as the five-star favorite, yet he will only have raced four days since the end of the Tour before the elite men’s road race on September 25.

“It’s better to arrive in Australia now and then we can do some proper training to achieve the fitness before the race,” said Van Aert, who will not race in the time trial in order to focus wholly on the road race.

“It’s also mentally hard to keep focusing on a lot of things, and now I am focused only on the road race and I am really longing for it,” he said. “I think it still makes a difference when I can travel from here to Australia and have a proper training block. I think that’s impossible when you do the TT then it’s just resting up always and trying to get fresh for the next event.”

And there’s the simple math of why the next world champion was probably on that flight from Montréal — distance.

This year, with the worlds back in Australia for the first time since 2010, racing in Canada means that most of the Europe-based pros are already halfway there.

“The way the course is and how far away Australia is, it just makes sense for most of the worlds guys to race here,” Bennett, who opted out of worlds this year, said. “If the course was like it was in Austria [in 2018], a lot of the guys would be racing in the Vuelta.

“If you’re in Canada, you’re a lot closer to Australia,” Bennett said.

It’s 22 hours from Montréal to Sydney. That’s shorter than seven hours back to Brussels, and then another 23 hours from Europe to Australia.

It’s a long way for a bike race, no matter how you slice it. Let’s see which pros pony up for business class to help the recovery even more.

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