UCI Road World Championships 2017 Bergen: Belgium, a team full of superstars

With the finale of the UCI Road World Championships, the elite men’s Road Race, a mere nine days away, it’s about time me and JustProCycling start previewing some of the main favourites. First up, the Belgians…

The Belgian national team are forever a main feature of any UCI Worlds event. CREDIT: Sport.be

In the entire history of the bicycle, the terms Belgian and World Champion have almost become synonymous. From 1921-2016, the Belgian tricolore has stood atop of a Road World Championship podium no fewer than 38 times, 38 world champions over a 95 year history…

Their 2017 Worlds roster is looking for that illusive 39th, each of the nine man squad a realistic winner of the coveted rainbow bands. Despite being one of the first squads to be officially announced, the Belgian’s surely didn’t hold back in cramming the team full of talent, taking two team leaders with a host of back up plans for every type of race eventuality.

With Van Avermaet and Gilbert handed the dual race lead, Naesen, Keukeleire, Stuyven, Teuns, Vermote, Wellens and Benoot will all act as foils, domestiques and possible alternative options for the race’s finale. A nine man lineup that boasts more talent and power than the other top nations combined.

With such talent, however, comes the question of who will lead the team? And rather, will everyone ride for one man’s ambitions?

The World Championships are one of the only events on the pro cycling calendar where nations will ride as one, effectively limiting the bonds that can be forged between countrymen. With this in mind, there will surely be some unrest in the Belgian camp, some riders maybe believing that they have what it takes to don the rainbow bands for themselves…

2017: A year of resurgence and breaking the monument duck.

Both Philippe Gilbert and Greg Van Avermaet travel to Bergen, Norway, with the pre-race assigned title of leader. Each has had a stellar season, 2017 proving to be one of Belgian’s finest for nearly a generation; with two monument victories and a fistful of cobbled classics and semi-classics between them, it comes as no surprise that these two have been heralded as two of the most exciting riders this year.

Before 2017, Greg Van Avermaet was still yet to win one of the five monuments, his favoured Tour of Flanders forever eluding him. After winning the early season, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, a race which many regard as the big prelude to the queen of the classics, GVA was soon tipped as the favourite for the infamous Ronde.

Beating the likes of Sagan and Vanmarcke only boosted the Belgian’s confidence, proof that he could, in fact, beat the best in the world at their own game. However, come Ronde race day, a fellow countryman came to spoil the party…

Gilbert takes the Ronde crown in emphatic breakaway fashion. CREDIT: Kramon

Philippe Gilbert started off his 2017 season of resurgence with a series of second places in Dwars Door Vlaanderen and E3 Harelbeke, two strong results, but not of the calibre to suggest the next Tour of Flanders winner. One daring attack later and Gilbert crowned himself the 69th Belgian winner of the race; much to the dismay of Van Avermaet who had has his dreams quashed by a freak crash between himself, Naesen and Sagan.

Nevertheless, the 2016 Olympic Champion remained upbeat and dusted off his wounds from the Ronde, setting his eyes on the Queen of the Classics, the Paris Roubaix. On the form of his life, no one was to defy Van Avermaet on the cobblestones of Northern France, not even Belgium’s national hero riding his final ever race, Tom Boonen.

Van Avermaet took the race down to the final sprint, beating Zdenek Stybar in imperious fashion to claim his first ever monument victory. The win made it a glorious week for Belgium, two monument victories in two of the pinnacles of the cycling calendar, all within the space of one week.

Since their monumental victories, both have gone onto continue their winning form in 2017, Gilbert adding a fourth Amstel Gold to his Palamares as Van Avermaet took a rare stage race win in the Tour de Luxembourg. Over the run up to the Worlds in Bergen, the two riders have chosen different prepartion paths, Gilbert opting for the Tour of Britain as Van Avermaet traveled to Canada to race in Quebec and Montreal.

Sagan beats Van Avermaet into second place in Quebec. CREDIT: CyclingWeekly

Both line up in Bergen with an impressive 2017 of results behind them, but is the form in question for one of the riders? Van Avermaet impressed in Canada with a podium in Quebec followed by a top ten in Montreal, whereas Gilbert seemed to totally misfire in Britain, his Quickstep jersey hardly visible over the 8 days of racing.

Nevertheless, the Belgium Sport’s directors are insistent that the two will race as co-leaders irregardless of their form and current race condition.

Who does the route suit more?

The unique Bergen road race route is set to produce one of the most animated races of 2017, possibly even besting the worlds events of the past decade. Repeated ascensions of the aptly named climb, Salmon Hill, should prove to be the launchpad for the race winning move and will inevitably see the race splintered and broken apart.

Both Gilbert and Van Avermaet are strong uphill sprinters, Gilbert edging Van Avermaet slightly in this discipline. But with 10.6km to the finish line after the summit of the climb, this race isn’t exactly going to go to the strongest puncheurs.

Gilbert takes the 2013 World title after a perfectly executed attack on the Cauberg. CREDIT: RoadCyclingUK

The tricky finale and aggressive racing that will inevitably follow will rather suit Van Avermaet, the Olympic Champion possessing one of the best tactical minds in the business. In the eventuality of a reduced sprint, Van Avermaet is also the stronger, beating the likes of Michael Matthews and Peter Sagan previously in the discipline.

What Belgium effectively have at their disposal in Bergen is a double edged sword, two similar riders that excel in different racing eventualities. Depending on how the race pans out will depend on who the Belgian team ride fore. Even after an analysis on their individual wattage on uphill sprints, the answer will almost certainly come down to this, ‘who has the better legs on the day…’.

Plan B, Plan C, all the way through to Plan H, Belgium have got it covered.

The wealth of talent in the nine man Belgium squad is blatant for all to see, each of the nine riders all within a realistic chance of winning the event themselves, well, besides Julien Vermote maybe…

Tim Wellens and Dylan Teuns come to Bergen on some serious race winning form, Wellens recently winning the GP Wallonie and a stage in the BinckBank Tour as Teuns went onto conquer the Tour de Wallonie, Tour de Pologne and Arctic Race of Norway, stage race wins in each.

Wellens takes a beautiful solo win in Wallonie. CREDIT: Grenz-Echo

Despite the form and list of credible race winning results, both will be demoted to team domestiques for Gilbert and Van Avermaet. However, the term ‘domestique’, will be used loosely by the Belgian team; with such wealth of talent at their disposal, riders like Wellens and Teuns will be used as attacking foils, masking the real moves yet to be made by the team leaders.

Even if the race is brought down to a bunch sprint, Belgium have their bases covered with Jasper Stuyven and Jens Keukeleire, two strong sprinters that could potentially mix it with the best after 270km.

Oliver Naesen and Tiesj Benoot are two more aggressive riders that won’t simply be used to do the heavy work at the front of the bunch. The two youngsters are best used on the attack, each of them credible winners of the rainbow bands in their own rights. They’re too dangerous to be allowed any gaps, perfect for Belgium who will want to draw the sting out of the other nations in the chase.

That leaves Julien Vermote, often regarded as one of the best super-domestiques in the world. He’s been instumental in Marcel Kittel’s leadout train, as well as protecting GC leader Dan Martin at the Tour and has ridden to a strong series of ITT results over 2017. He’ll be the man doing the early work in the bunch, controlling the head of the peloton alongside the French, Italian, British and Spanish teams.

How will the Belgians race?

The Northern European nation is often highly regarded for it’s strong classics riders that can survive in tough weather conditions, Belgium dominating the likes of Paris Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders, two races often marred by horrendous weather conditions.

The Belgian’s have bad weather in their blood. CREDIT: The Inner Ring

In Dohar, Qatar, in last year’s World Championship Road Race, they were the team to set the race alight with over 110km still left to race. Using the motor engines of Iljo Keisse and Nikolas Maes to blow the race apart in the crosswinds, Belgium animated the whole race in a bid to put their leader, Boonen, into the rainbow bands.

They may not have two of their vital domestiques going to Bergen, but they more than make up for it in the attacking department. Such attacking wealth can only lead to one race tactic for the Belgian team, time to breakaway!

Benoot, Naesen, Wellens and Teuns will be their foils early on, attacking in an attempt to draw out the chase from the Australians, Italians and French. These teams are eager to take the race to a sprint, an eventuality that the Belgians aren’t exactly prepared for.

Gilbert will be left in reserve for the final 50km but even he may be used as an attacking foil for Van Avermaet, possibly on one of the final ascents of Salmon Hill. Van Avermaet will be on the defensive, following any moves from his main rivals if, and when, they launch themselves.

The final ascent will be the most pivotal and the likely point of a stinging Van Avermaet attack. Matthews and Sagan are world class riders, but none should be able to follow the Olympic Champion on 7% gradients for 1.4km. Even if it comes down to a reduced sprint, Van Avermaet will challenge.

Van Avermaet leaves Sagan for dust on the Kemmelberg. CREDIT: Cor Vos

Given the chance of rain, look no further than Tim Wellens. He’ll be Van Avermaet’s final man if the showers come, attacking into the storm with the prospect of a worlds title just through the mist…

So, will we see a Belgian world champion in Bergen?

InsideThePeloton: To put it simply, no. All my eggs are in a certain Italian basket, be it dreaming or just gut feeling. However, I do think that we’ll see the Belgians mob the top 10, but not necessarily with the riders that you would have first thought.

Tim Wellens will be a lot more crucial than many are anticipating, as will Dylan Teuns, both of them likely finishing the race within the top 20. Greg Van Avermaet will be their highest placed rider and I think he may just make the podium, given a strong enough sprint.

JustProCycling: No! Belgium to mess it up! Too many big names, too many egos. GVA will lose any sprint to Sagan/Matthews and not sure the likes of Wellens will have the freedom to get away…

As some of you older followers may know, the join series between me and @JustProCycling is back, an anniversary edition of UCI World Championships Rider Spotlight! For tomorrow’s post, head to @JustProCycling for a look at the Italian’s chance at a world title! Did you enjoy reading this article? Feel free to leave a comment down below…