UCI Road World Championships 2017 Bergen: Norway, on home soil…

It would only be fitting that two of the main favourites for this World Championships would be two riders from the home nation. Both Boasson Hagen and Kristoff come to this race on some stellar form, but will their ongoing feud hinder their chances of taking the rainbow stripes back to Norway?

Norway have been gifted with a crop of strong rouleurs over the past decade. CREDIT: ProCycling

The relationship between Alexander Kristoff and Edvald Boasson Hagen has always been a frosty one, constantly being forced to vie for team leadership at each annual World Championships. Ever since the Bergen route was announced, the pair have attempted to keep relationships amicable; Kristoff even stating in late 2016 that the pair would work ‘harmoniously’ together.

Balancing two giants of the sport is going to be a tough ordeal for the Norwegian team and they have split their team accordingly, a balance of strong rouleurs to take the race to a sprint for Kristoff; but also a handful of aggressive riders to act as foils for a potential Boasson Hagen attack.

The other seven riders making the strong nine man Norwegian contingent include, Sven Erik Bystrøm, Odd Christian Eiking, Daniel Hoelgaard, Amund Grøndahl Jansen, Truls Korsæth, Vegard Stake Laengen, and August Jensen.

Whilst most riders will be heading to this World Champs in Bergen with the competition in mind, the Norwegian camp may just be focusing on it’s own inner hostilities, Kristoff and Boasson Hagen sizing each other up for the main event. After all, nations only ride together once a year, neither will be up for gifting one another the race lead…

Stepping Stones to the Top

After his dominating 2015 season, Kristoff fell off the gas slightly in 2016 and failed to repeat his impressive feats. 2017 began with much of the same for Kristoff, a few small wins here and there along with a string of podium results in bigger races.

Kristoff wins in Frankfurt to kick off a winning streak in 2017. CREDIT: BettiniPhoto

The form was on it’s way, but it certainly wasn’t buzzing like it was in 2015. A stage win in the three days of De Panne followed by a top 5 in the Ronde then shot Kristoff straight back into WT prominence. From there, he went onto take a commanding victory in the Eschborn-Frankfurt race, his leadout man, Rick Zabel, actually placing second just behind.

But he still never managed to climb to the real peak of his form, always sitting somewhere comfortable on the rising limb of the slowest form trajectory he’d ever experienced. An average Tour de France was then followed up by Kristoff finally peaking in form, a string of wins in the Prudential Ride London Classic, Euro Road Race Championships and a stage win in the Arctic Race of Norway.

He then headed, alongside his countryman Boasson Hagen, to the Tour of Britain to maintain this peak form and prepare for the upcoming worlds. Whilst he didn’t manage to take a stage win, he did secure the points jersey, placing highly in each of the bunch sprints.

Whilst his top end speed certainly needed a touch up, his race awareness and positioning within the bunch was second to none, a real good indicator for the upcoming Bergen route, a route bound to erupt with aggressive attacks and breakaways.

Try, try, and try some more 

A silver medal for Boasson Hagen back in 2012 was his greatest World Championship result to date. Despite being a prolific rider on all terrains, the Norwegian has seldom managed to repeat such success. This is unfortunately the constant story that seems to plague Boasson Hagen, he’ll experience great success but then be marred by seasons of difficulty.

Sheer elation after a six year long wait. CREDIT: Reuters

After his duo of Tour de France stage wins back in 2011, the Norwegian struggled to add to his tally over the next five seasons despite hundreds of kilometres in breakaways and agonisingly close podium positions. The 2017 Tour started with much of the same for Boasson Hagen, consistently beaten into second place over much of the first two weeks; stage 7’s photo finish with Marcel Kittel the most excruciating.

By stage 19, the Norwegian had all but given up attempting to win the race in a sprint and instead joined the day’s large breakaway move. A stroke of tactical genius around a roundabout in the final 3km gave the Norwegian a small gap that he then exploited, punishing the struggling breakaway riders behind.

No one could catch the flying Boasson Hagen and he soon went onto take his third Tour de France stage win, almost six years since his last. The way that he took the win was indicative of his racing style; not to be dismissed as solely a bunch sprinter, Boasson Hagen excels against the clock as well as on lumpy rolling roads.

At the recent Tour of Britain, he mirrored his Tour de France performance, placing second in the early stages before giving it all in one final attack on the closing stage. His string of wins over the past few months indicate a strong period of form for the Norwegian, amazing news considering the route in Bergen is almost tailor made for himself.

Boasson Hagen takes stage 19 of the 2017 Tour de France. CREDIT: Tim de Waele

But how does his form match up to his teammate and countrymen’s, Alexander Kristoff. The two are arguably peaking at the exact same time, which creates the question, who do Norway ride for?

Feuding in the Fjords, who does the route suit more?

Ever since the Bergen route was announced, the script has been written for an Edvald Boasson Hagen victory on home soil. The route is tailor made to his abilities, featuring numerous ascents of a punchy climb before culminating in a reduced sprint finish.

Parcour that resembles a classic, one day race, will lend itself to the punchy one day racers in the peloton, the Greg Van Avermaets and Peter Sagans of the bunch. This is where Boasson Hagen encounters a little trouble, aside from participating in the Ronde and Paris Roubaix, he hasn’t really gathered the experience against these two titans in 2017.

This can work in one of two ways; he could totally underestimate the strength of the pure classics men, miss a pivotal move and throw away the whole race; or he could play everyone’s bluff, not only has he not raced with them, but they haven’t raced against him either, they don’t know the ins and outs of his incredible form.

Boasson Hagen defies the pack to take an impressive solo victory in Cardiff. CREDIT: Alex Whitehead

Whatever happens, Boasson Hagen has been prepping for this race since the season began, his wins in the Tour de France and Tour of Britain evidence of how he’s adapting his riding to put himself within a chance of winning in Bergen. Unlike last year’s Worlds route, he simply cannot leave it to a bunch sprint, better to test with a stinging attack just before the flamme rouge…

With numerous undulations throughout the route, and a tough ascent of Salmon Hill to contend with, the parcours don’t necessarily suit Kristoff, especially not 2016/2017 Kristoff. Back in 2015, this kind of route was his bread and butter, there would have been absolutely no question of who lead Norway if the race was back then.

Since 2015, the Norwegian has honed his ability as a bunch sprinter, following the likes of Marcel Kittel and Mark Cavendish by fully devoting himself to that discipline. It’s unclear how much of the ‘classics edge’ he has lost in the process, he may have won the Prudential ride London and ridden to a podium at the Bretagne Classic, but these are essentially sprinting affairs where he would be expected to make it to the finale.

There will only be one way for Kristoff to win in Bergen, and that’s a bunch sprint. With only the Italians to work with, the Norwegians will surely face an onslaught if they try to control the race for a sprint. All indicators point in the way of Edvald Boasson Hagen for this one, Kristoff may just have to take a backseat role in the engine room.

A disgruntled Kristoff will inevitably be forced to work for Boasson Hagen on Sunday. CREDIT: Tim de Waele

Regardless of form or ability on such terrain, the question of who is more liked within the team also remains. Kristoff comes off as a very brash individual, a true bunch sprinter in that sense. Boasson Hagen, on the other hand, comes across as calm and collected, a much more approachable individual. The Norwegian team may have been given certain orders, but with relationships already quite loose, it doesn’t take a lot to sway some riders into supporting others…

Home Soil

The Norwegians carry the home advantage into this race, a knowledge of both the route and tumultuous weather conditions that could set upon the race at any moment. Home advantage isn’t that much of a contributing factor in most bike races, but in those that base themselves in Scandinavia, it seems to serve as one of the most pivotal factors of them all.

Racing through the Fjords of Norway and across large swathes of exposed coastlines brings with it a fair load of challenges. Just as the crosswinds rip apart the roads of Northern Europe, they also have a similar effect in Scandinavia; added to that the rain and you have one hectic bike race.

Norwegian terrain is some of the toughest to ride on. CREDIT: FjordNorway

Norway have brought six strong rouleurs to aid Kristoff and Boasson Hagen in their quests, Odd Christian Eiking the only one without the characteristically large stature.  With the size advantage on their side, Norway will prove to be a force to be reckoned with when the rain comes down and the wind starts to blow; no one knows these roads quite like the Norwegians…

On such a twisting and turning route, knowledge of where the wind will come through is vital. Norway will rely on their in-depth knowledge of the route to time their attacks to perfection, waiting for an innocuous, but perfect, open part of the route to rip the race apart.

How will the Norwegian’s race?

With the knowledge of the route, and expectations from a home crowd, the Norway team will undoubtedly lead the race from the starting gun. A tactic they may employ early on is to sit their strong rouleurs, Sven Erik Bystrøm and August Jensen on the front to set tempo.

Many teams may interpret this as a set-up for a possible bunch sprint for Alexander Kristoff, they themselves then gearing up for that eventuality. Once one team sets a custom, others will certainly follow, even if they don’t have riders to fight in the sprint, they’ll bide their time a little bit longer than they may have originally done.

This give Norway a small window of opportunity to then break the race, who would expect such a move from a team that had previously been setting the pace for a bunch sprint? Odd Christian Eiking had a stellar Vuelta, especially on the climbing front, he’ll be the man to start pushing the watts on the climbs, whether setting tempo on the front or off on the attack.

Eiking will provide some loyal support for Boasson Hagen when the road starts to climb. CREDIT: letelegramme.fr

Alexander Kristoff will sit pretty in the bunch until the final 60km where he will then emerge as a foil for Boasson Hagen, or simply a loyal domestique. Norway won’t take this to a bunch sprint, rather using Kristoff as a final teammate for Boasson Hagen.

The big Norwegian may be able to cope with the first few ascensions of Salmon Hill, but once the race reaches the business end and the attacks start to fly, he’ll surely drop off. That then begs the question, will he attack off the head in hope to be in the main group come the finale, or will he ride for Boasson Hagen, protecting him right up until the finish?

Boasson Hagen won’t have such a dilemma, being the lead rider on, arguably, the form of his life, he’ll surely be confident approaching the finale. Speed wise, he can equal the likes of Sagan and Matthews so can afford to sit on wheels and follow their repeated attacks.

But, that isn’t the Boasson Hagen way. The Dimension Data seems to be a nervy kind of rider, never confident in his bunch sprinting ability. This nervousness forces him to commit to his characteristically long range attacks, something that he has honed over the past few months.

Matthews came out on top on this day in the 2016 Tour de France. CREDIT: AP Photo/Peter Dejong

His stage 19 Tour de France stage win and stage 8 Tour of Britain win may have just been foreshadowing of what’s to come this Sunday…

Will the rainbow stripes return to Norway? 

Since Hushovd’s victory in 2010, the Scandanavian nation has experienced some stellar results across the pro cycling scene, the sport really booming thanks to the former World Champion. Boasson Hagen and Kristoff look to pick up the mantle in 2017, but can they realistically don the stripes come Sunday evening?

InsideThePeloton: He’ll face fierce competition from Sagan and Matthews on Sunday, but if the race does come down to a bunch sprint, he has a one in three chance of taking the title. Each of them can edge one another in a sprint and it would be impossible to predict who would best the other in a flat drag to the line.

However, being the favourite and racing on home soil, as well as his ongoing feud with teammate, Alexander Kristoff; Boasson Hagen will be lef open to making some pretty horrendous decisions. He’s been known to fluff a race with one wrong move, he simply cannot afford to put a foot wrong this Sunday…

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 the next installment, head to @JustProCycling for a look at the Gaviria’s chance at a world title! Did you enjoy reading this article? Feel free to leave a comment down below…