Who Are The Favourites Vying For The Rainbow Jersey?

Last Updated on 21 Sep 2022 8:15 pm (UK Time)

The Elite Men’s Road Race will take place this Sunday as part of the 2022 UCI World Championships in Wollongong, Australia. In this article, we preview the contenders for the World Elite Men’s Road Race.

This list of favourites has been narrowed down to 7 riders but with several dark horses the World Elite Men’s Road Race can be one of the most unpredictable and exciting races on the calendar. In no particular order, the following are some of the potential protagonists at the most important one-day race of the year.

Michael Matthews: Can the host country win their second ever men’s road race rainbow jersey?

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Michael Matthews win in Mende – can the Australian add the World Elite Men’s Road Race title to his 2022 Tour de France stage win?

A good starting point for a list of favourites to win the World Elite Men’s Road Race, would be with the home nation’s team leader. With the non-selection of sprinter Caleb Ewan, Australia’s hope are resting on the shoulders of the versatile Michael Matthews. After his barnstorming victory on stage 14 of this year’s Tour de France, this year Matthews has shown the form to win a race like the World Championships. That win in Mende came about due to Matthews’ punchy climbing and never-say-die attitude which could prove to be crucial attributes on the hilly Wollongong circuit.

He will have the help of a strong team to support him. Rouleurs Luke Durbridge and Heinrich Haussler brings vast amounts of experience and are riders who will monitor breakaways. Nick Schultz and Simon Clarke both impressed at the Tour in July, the former coming close second on stage 10, and the latter winning the cobbled stage 5. They are useful teammates to have around their leader as the race goes on, as is the young Luke Plapp of Ineos who showed great form as domestique at the recent Vuelta a España.

The final spots on Australia’s roster go to two general classification riders, Ben O’Connor and Jai Hindley. This year, Hindley became the first Australian winner of the Giro d’Italia while O’Connor is a proven talent in hilly races. If he and is on form, he could be a valuable asset, alongside Hindley. Matthews’ best chance could be from a reduced bunch sprint – in which case O’Connor and Hindley will be shepherding him to be in the best position possible. A home worlds, a strong team, and the form to boot, could this be the year the former U23 world champion, takes to the top step of the elite men’s race?

Wout van Aert and Remco Evenepoel: Could an internal rivalry in the Belgian team influence the World Elite Men’s Road Race?

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Can Wout van Aert (l) and Remco Evenepoel (r) work well together to deliver Belgium its first World Elite Men’s title in 10 years?

Belgium has two favourites for the World Elite Men’s Road Race. Wout van Aert and Remco Evenepoel come from a nation steeped in rich cycling history. The Belgian public always have high expectations for the World Elite Men’s Road Race, and for good reason; with 26 wins they have won the men’s race more times than any other nation. This year could be an opportunity for them to add to this tally.

Van Aert is coming off what can be described as one of the most remarkable showings ever at a Tour de France; he took home the coveted green jersey, three stage wins with several second places, was prominent in many breakaways, and could even have won the polka dot jersey of the King of the Mountains if it were not for his team leader Jonas Vingegaard.

All this was done while a main responsibility of his race was to look after the aforementioned Vingegaard in his pursuit of the yellow jersey. Van Aert did this superbly and was indispensable to the Dane who duly rewarded his teammate’s hard work by topping the podium. Van Aert’s exploits were so incredibly versatile that many called it ‘Merkxian’. Eddy Merckx, often cited as the greatest cyclist ever, dominated the tour for almost a decade 50 years ago, winning on all terrains and was in fact a two time winner of the World Elite Men’s Road Race.

Belgian have been looking for the ‘next Merckx’ ever since the man retired in the 70’s. If Wout van Aert’s performances have been encouraging this title to be bestowed upon his name, then so have the talents and results of Remco Evenepoel. Ever since he burst onto the scene, 4 years ago, as a junior winning both the time-trial and the road race at the 2018 UCI World Championships, Evenepoel has had to carry the pressure of being touted as a potential hier to Merckx’s throne as the country’s greatest ever rider.

He won his first grand tour this year, at the Vuelta a España, in a dominant fashion. So, he certainly has form and has a proven himself to be a formidable force over terrains such as that of the Wollongong course, as shown by his victory at this years Liege-Bastogne-Liege.

If Evenepoel and Van Aert can cooperate then Belgium will be the main favourites. The only problem? Only one of them can win the rainbow jersey at the World Elite Men’s Road Race. This issue about shared leadership was a problem last year and could be the undoing for both of their chances again this year.

It has been ten years since a Belgian won the World Elite Men’s Road Race. Never before has the country had to wait that long between wins. With two of the strongest favourites in their ranks, could this be their year?

Tadej Pogačar: The multi-talented Slovenian will have to go solo to win the World Elite Men’s Road Race

The two-time Tour de France winner is looking to claim his first rainbow jersey. At the Tour, he came up against a strong Jonas Vingegaard and was beaten. Many viewers believed that the infamous day to Col du Granon was a sign of Pogačar’s weakness. However, what is not mentioned enough is that he had been defending attack after attack from Jumbo Visma duo Primoz Roglic and eventual stage winner and yellow jersey contender Jonas Vingegaard on the day’s previous climb, Col du Galibier.

Yes, he may have cracked compared to the other general classifications but in fact that day he proved himself to be in phenomenal climbing shape and it was only down to superb tactics by Jumbo Visma which put pay to his chances. As for the the other time losses to Vingegaard, these came about on long climbs after a hard day in the saddle deep into a three week race.

The race in Wollongong will be very different test. Pogačar’s punchy sprint was far superior to any of his rival’s at the tour, as shown in his stage victories at Longwy, La Super Plances des Belles Filles, and Peyragudes, all won by his finishing kick. It is testament to his extraordinary talent that second overall at the Tour de France, winning his third consecutive young rider jersey, and taking three stages along the way is considered a disappointing season. Claiming the rainbow jersey would change all that in eyes of many and would further bolster his growing reputation as a rider who can win on all terrains.

He will have to do it without the support of two of the strongest riders in the world in Matej Mohorič and Primož Roglič who both will not be in Wollongong for the World Elite Men’s Road Race. However, this may make matters easier for the team as they do not have to help multiple leaders. Slovenia will also not have to deal with internal rivalries within in a team that could put pay to Belgium’s chances. Pogačar has also shown he does not need to have the strongest team in a race to win it and what better way to underline this than with a victory at the World Championships?

Biniam Girmay: Could Eritrea win its first ever rainbow jersey at the World Elite Men’s Road Race?

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Biniam Girmay was second last year in the under 23 category – can he go one better at this years World Elite Men’s Road Race?

2022 has already been most successful season in the career of Eritrea’s Biniam Girmay. His performances at the Spring Classics showed he is good enough to compete at races such as the World Elite Men’s Road Race. He, like many on this list is a versatile rider. However, what makes him stand out, is his sprint finish. Whereas some riders on this list, despite having a strong kick, might not want to rely on it, Girmay has proven he is happy to wait for a sprint and for good reason: he is capable of beating almost anyone in the final kick to the line.

An example of this was his stage win at this year’s Giro where he out sprinted Mathieu van der Poel in a reduced bunch sprint. A feat not many riders can claim to have achieved. This win on stage 10 of this year’s Giro d’Italia further exemplified his talent after months of consistent showings at the biggest races. His victory at Gent Wevelgem – one of the most important Spring Classics on the calendar – was on the back of several top 5 placings earlier in the year.

Like Pogačar, Girmay will not have the same strength in depth on his team as the likes of Belgium, the Netherlands and France. This might not necessarily be a problem, the Eritrean has shown he can operate effectively without having teammates to help in the finale of races. In a race where often there is only one member from each country in the select group, this experience could prove vital for him as others who are more used to having teammates late on in races may struggle.

Biniam Girmay has already made history this season, as the first male Black African to win a Spring Classic and also a Grand Tour stage. He has a good track record at the World Championships. Last year he finished second in the under 23 category. This year he could be in with a good shout to upgrade that silver medal to a gold one at the World Elite Men’s Road Race.

Mathieu van der Poel: The exciting Dutchman could steal the show at World Elite Men’s Road Race

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Seen here leading of the Giro d’Italia – can Mathieu van der Poel add the World Elite Men’s Road Race title to his trophy cabinet?

To think a season that thus far includes a stage victory at the Coppi e Bartali, a win in a Spring Classic, victory at Dwars door Vlaanderen, a triumph in a Monument at Ronde van Vlaanderen – the Tour of Flanders, a stage win and a stint in the maglia rosa at the Giro d’Italia, and most recently the Grand Prix de Wallonie, could be considered a relatively subdued year for a rider, goes to show how much we expect from Mathieu van der Poel.

The Dutchman was the receiving end of that historic Giro d’Italia stage win for Biniam Girmay but what made the moment all the more special was the fact that his own sprint was exceptional – it was by no means easy for Girmay – and the modesty the Dutchman showed in defeat was exemplary. A later abandonment at the Tour de France and some signs of fatigue after what was an extraordinary couple of months, van der Poel’s form is a little unknown. But a recent win at the Grand prix de Wallonie will excite fans of the rider.

If he can rediscover his punchy ability he will be a threat to anyone. Going in slightly under the radar may help him as the expectations to control breakaways may be on other teams. And his team is by no means lacking in fire power. Bauke Mollema, Pascal Eenkhoorn, Wout Poels, and Dylan van Baarle – to name some of his teammates – will be there to help him. Despite coming in perhaps behind in the pecking order due to his shape being unknown, you cannot rule Mathieu van der Poel out of running for the World Elite Men’s Road Race.

Julian Alaphillippe: The reigning two time champion returns for the World Elite Men’s Road Race

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Julian Alaphilippe launching the attack that won him his second World Elite Men’s Road Race in 2021

Like Mathieu van der Poel, the fitness of Julian Alaphilippe is a relative unknown going into the World Elite Men’s Road Race. After a season shattered by ill fortune, through injury and illness, the reigning champion will be on the start line of this year’s World Championship. After a horror crash at Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the Frenchman was on the sidelines for several weeks and was forced to skip his beloved Tour de France. Upon recovering from his injuries, he caught Covid which further prolonged his absence from racing. He started the recent Vuelta a España and was beginning to show signs of his usual strong performances only to crash out.

He is back racing at the World Elite Men’s Road Race and if he has recovered in time, could be set to win his third consecutive rainbow jersey. Due to the aforementioned injuries and illnesses, his form is unknown, but as was the case last year, his form leading up to a race is not always helpful in predicating the mercurial Frenchman’s fitness. He will be backed by an extremely strong French team who could look to light up the race early on, which, judging by the fire power of the riders, is a tactic well within their capabilities. It is difficult to bet against Alaphilippe, even after a stop-start season blighted by misfortune.

Dark horses for the World Elite Men’s Road Race

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Fred Wright was in top shape at the Vuelta and the Tour and will be a dark horse for the World Elite Men’s Road Race

Despite the names above being the top favourites, the World Elite Men’s Road Race can often be hard to predict. Therefore, make sure to watch out for the dark horses at this year’s race. These include the trio of Tom Pidcock, Ethan Hayter and Fred Wright from Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Alberto Bettiol of Italy, and Switzerland’s Stefan Küng who was second at the timetrial last weekend. If Alaphilippe’s tilt happened to fall away, three of his French teammates, in Christophe Laporte, Valentin Madouas and Benoît Cosnefroy, could all realistically upset the odds and take the title at the World Elite Men’s Road Race.

Notable Absentees at the World Elite Men’s Road Race

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Caleb Ewan of Australia will not be at the World Elite Men’s Road Race

Despite the World Championships being one of the most important races on the calendar, there are some notable absentees from the start-list. None are possibly more surprising than the omission of Caleb Ewan. The stage had seemed set for the Australian at a home World Championships. Especially given his climbing abilities shown at Milano-San Remo.

However, the hosts decided against picking him for the World Elite Men’s Road Race. The team support required to shepherd him to a sprint finish would have been immense and would have taken away the possibility for the more versatile Michael Matthews, whom Australia have decided to nominate as their leader.

Denmark’s former world champion, Mads Pedersen, has decided not to travel to Austrialia. Having triumphed in the rain soaked 2019 edition in Yorkshire, Pedersen will not back at the race that propelled him into global stardom and announced the his arrival as one of the best riders in the world. The country is going through a golden age of cycling at the moment.

The hugely successful Tour de France Grand Depart in Denmark was followed by four stage wins and the overall win. First came Magnus Cort Nielson, who having been present in many of the breakaways during the first week, donned the polka dot jersey of the best climber for several stages. This impressive run climaxed in a stage win to Megève for the rider from EF Easy Post. Mads Pedersen provided more Danish joy with his stage 13 victory to Saint Etienne.

Cort Nielson will be in Wollongong for the World Elite Men’s Road Race. But the nation’s star of the moment Jonas Vingegaard will not be. Vingegaard’s dominant performance at the Tour brought two stage wins and ultimately the most cherished prize of all: the yellow jersey. Without him and Pedersen at the World Championships, the Danes are unlikely to be as strong as they were at the Tour, but 2022 can still be considered the Scandinavian nation’s most successful cycling of all time.

Another nation enjoying the limelight of a golden generation of stars is Slovenia. Despite the team having one of the most talented riders in the race in Tadej Pogačar, Slovenia’s squad is not as strong as it could have been. This is due to the Matej Mohorič and Primož Roglič not being in Australia for the race.

Alongside Pogačar, these two have been some of the strongest riders of the last few years, winning multiple grand tours, grand tour stages, monuments and classics between them. If Slovenia are to take the rainbow jersey, Tadej Pogačar, will have to do it without the help of Matej Mohorič and Primož Roglič.  

Despite these absentees, the World Elite Men’s Road Race promises to be one of the most exciting races of the year. If you agree or disagree with our predictions, let us know in the comments section below.

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