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The Showdown in Spain: 2014 World Championships

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Sept 20, 2014  – Alejandro Valverde will have his work cut out if he is to end years of near misses and finally land the world title on home soil next week.

AFP/Yuzuru Sunada

The 34-year-old Spaniard will be one of the favorites at the World Championships in Ponferrada but time is running out for the 2009 Vuelta a Espana winner to finally claim the road race title following five previous podium finishes.

Spain are putting almost all their eggs into the one basket, although they have an excellent foil to Valverde in Joaquim Rodriguez, who finished second last year in Florence. Valverde was third in 2013, a position he also took in 2006 and 2012, while he was second in 2003 and 2005. But the field is tough this year on a course that offers potential opportunities to a great number of riders.

Of course, the men’s elite road race does not take place until Sunday 28 and there will already be a number of world champions crowned before then. Action begins Sunday with the team time trial which is contested by professional cycling teams rather than countries, even though for every other event riders represent their national colors.

Omega Pharma-Quick Step are taking this event very seriously but should face a challenge from Orica GreenEDGE, Sky and BMC on the 57km course. The time trials continue with the men’s and women’s junior and under-23 events before the women’s and men’s elite races against the clock on Tuesday and Wednesday respectively.

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German Tony Martin will be the big favorite in the men’s event as he hopes to land a fourth title in a row. But 2012 Tour de France winner and Olympic time trial champion that same year, Bradley Wiggins of Britain looks to be coming into shape at just the right time to challenge on the 47km course that has a couple of tricky climbs in the final 10km.

That could work into Wiggins’s hands as he is a better climber than Martin, but he will have to match the German’s power output on the majority flat sections. In the women’s 29.5km time trial Dutchwoman Elen van Dijk will be favorite to retain her title. One man who won’t be riding the time trial is four-time former winner Fabian Cancellara.

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The Swiss has decided to concentrate on the road race and the 255km course is suited to his abilities.  The same cannot quite be said of this year’s Tour winner Vincenzo Nibali, who nonetheless will lead the Italian charge. But perhaps the two countries most eyeing success will be Australia and Belgium.

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Liege-Bastogne-Liege winner Simon Gerrans comes into this event in fine form having won the Grand Prix of Montreal and Quebec in the last week. The 34-year-old Aussie will be ably assisted by Michael Matthews, as long as the 23-year-old, a stage winner and leader’s red jersey wearer during the Vuelta, can keep up with the punchers on the the climbs.

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There are two climbs on the 18.2km circuit around Ponferrada and while the first at 5.5km is not very steep, the second averages 6.6 percent over 1.1km and that could allow the punchers to get away. With only 4km left over the top on the final lap before the finish line, the sprinters could struggle to get back in contention if they lose touch.

But Germany’s John Degenkolb, winner of the points jersey at the Vuelta, and Norway’s Alexander Kristoff, a two-stage winner at July’s Tour, both have the ability to stick with it on short, sharp climbs. Many eyes, though, will be on the Belgian quartet of former world champions Tom Boonen and Philippe Gilbert, and in-form pair Greg Van Avermaet and Sep Vanmarcke.

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Current world champion Rui Costa of Portugal or Slovakia’s Peter Sagan, who has, however, had a relatively poor season, certainly cannot be overlooked. In the women’s race, over half the distance of the men’s, it will come down to a straight battle — if anyone can beat Mariane Vios, they should win the title. The Dutch star has never finished lower than second in eight attempts — although she has won only three times, in 2006, 2012 and last year.