Italy coach Paolo Bettini is keeping rival teams guessing as the mind games gather pace ahead of Sunday's battle for cycling's coveted rainbow jersey.
The men's road race, held over a gruelling 262.7 kilometres (160 miles), will bring the curtain down on the five-day world road race championships.
And while Belgian Philippe Gilbert has been touted as the man best suited to a hilly 15.9 kilometre Geelong circuit that will be raced 11 times, the one-day classics specialist is by no means alone.
"There are about 10 guys who can really win the race," said Fabian Cancellara, who won a historic fourth world time trial crown on Thursday.
Like Gilbert, Spaniard Oscar Freire and a few others, Italian Filippo Pozzato is a strong one-day rider who can excel on hilly circuits.
Having missed out on the podium last year, the Italians are desperate to make amends, especially to honour former coach Franco Ballerini, who died in a rallying accident earlier this year.
With Bettini now at the helm, the Italians are confident. He is the Olympic champion from 2004 and won back-to-back rainbow jerseys in 2006 and 2007.
But Bettini is hoping to keep his rivals guessing over their race intentions right up to the finish.
"We still haven't defined the tactics for Sunday's race," he said. "It shows that we're not betting on one horse. We have many strong riders and if I compare our team with the other countries, our squad is the most diverse."
The men's road race starts in Melbourne and winds its way west for 87 kilometre to Geelong, where it should spark into life on the final laps.
After experiencing the course first-hand, British sprint specialist Mark Cavendish all but admitted his rainbow dream was over.
"According to what people had been telling me beforehand the rainbow jersey was a possibility, but now that I've been able to check it out for myself, I'll have to revise my ambitions," Cavendish said.
Freire is also a sprinter, but one who can climb well and finish fast on uphill home straights, such as in Geelong.
A three-time world champion already, he will be supported by a Spanish team motivated by the chance of helping him win an unprecedented fourth rainbow jersey.
Olympic time trial champion Cancellara can't be ruled out either.
Having shown his credentials in the road race last year, when Australia's Cadel Evans triumphed, the big Swiss hopes his comparative lack of teammates will simply allow him to follow the best.
"The Swiss team does not have to bare the weight of the race, we can wait for the Belgians or Italians (to take responsibility)," he said. "Then I can choose when I want to put the hammer down."
While Evans hopes to do well, it is believed teammates such as Simon Gerrans and Matt Goss will get the Aussies' full support.
But like Bettini, Tour de France star Evans is keeping quiet.
"A couple of the guys are going really well but I can't say who just yet," said Evans. "We have a good group and after the result of last year we can win it, so we are going in with that mentality."
Gilbert loves the course to bits, but he has warned Pozzato that the Italians will have to toughen the race up to drop their challengers first if they want to win.
"What I like is the finish, it is something for me," said Gilbert. "I don't have to attack and finish solo, I will have a chance from of a small group. I sent Filippo (Pozzato) an SMS after the race to say, 'Now, it is up to your team to control the race on Sunday, instead of mine'."
Cavendish won't rule out sprint finish at worlds
British sprint king Mark Cavendish has refused to rule out his chances of being crowned world champion at the road race championships here on Sunday.
Cavendish was reported to have said he had little chance of winning cycling's coveted rainbow jersey because the course's 15.9 km circuit, which has two climbs and finishes on a slight rise, is too difficult.
The 25-year-old Isle of Man rider is known mostly for his victories on flatter terrain which is favourable to sprinters. At the Tour de France this year he took his stage victory tally to a remarkable 15.
Cavendish, however, was perhaps given hope after he saw the under-23 men's race, held on the same circuit Friday, finish in a bunch sprint, with Australian Michael Matthews taking the honours.
While Cavendish refused to be drawn on his chances, he was quick to play down reports in which he said he would have to "review" his ambitions.
"I've never said that the race could not end in a bunch sprint. All I said was that the course was hard," he told AFP. "I still think there's a possibility it could finish in a bunch sprint."
The last time a British male won the world road race title was Tom Simpson, in 1965. The Englishman tragically died on the slopes of the Mont Ventoux two years later.
Ahead of the women's and men's road races on Saturday and Sunday respectively, Britain have had a successful championships so far. Emma Pooley won gold in the women's time trial while David Millar took silver behind Fabian Cancellara in the men's race against the clock.
In the elite men's road race, however, Cavendish will have only Millar and Jeremy Hunt for support -- and the trio face a potential tactical dilemma.
The numerically superior Italians and Belgians, with Filippo Pozzato and Philippe Gilbert respectively, have come to the event with all-rounders who will work hard to drop as many sprinters as possible.
Spain will be counting on Oscar Freire, a sprinter who can climb well and is known to like slightly uphill finishes like the one in Geelong.
Australia have a nine-man team of riders with different abilities, including reigning champion Cadel Evans, an all-rounder, and two sprinters in Allan Davis and Matthew Goss.
Philippe Gilbert (Bel)
Even before his two stage wins on the Tour of Spain, Gilbert was tipped as the perfect man for the challenging Geelong course, which culminates on a slightly rising section that should prove a challenge to most after 262 km of racing. A fairly strong climber with a great finish, the Belgian's penchant for launching acceleration after acceleration could make the difference on the 15.9 km circuit.
Filippo Pozzato (Ita)
Known for his impeccable style and love of fast cars, Pozzato is equally classy on the bike. Despite a relatively barren season the Italian, a former winner of Milan-San Remo, comes into the worlds with a stage victory on the Tour of Spain last month under his belt. Questions remain over the 29-year-old's chances against such a strong field, but the Italians, despite missing out on the podium in 2009, have been strong in recent years.
Oscar Freire (Spa)
If there's one man who knows how to come in under the radar, it's Spaniard Freire, who knows how to climb and sprint with the best. Freire had a great start to the season, beating Tom Boonen and Alessandro Petacchi to win his third Milan-San Remo title. It's been a comparatively quiet lead-up to the worlds, although Freire employed the same discreet approach build-up on his way to rainbow jersey wins in 1999, 2001 and 2003. A fourth win would make Freire the all-time record holder for the number of men's world road race titles.
Samuel Sanchez (Spa)
As Olympic road race champion, Sanchez knows all about coming out on top in races of attrition, and the Spanish all-rounder, who excels on hilly courses, comes into the race having finished a career-best fourth overall on the Tour de France. Race-savvy and cunning, Sanchez could become a last-minute replacement for team leader Freire if the Spaniard is not quite feeling up to the job.
Thor Hushovd (Nor)
Known primarily as a sprinter and one-day classic specialist, Hushovd admitted at this year's Tour de France his sprinting legs have let him down this season. But on this course, with a finale which should suit the powerful Norwegian, Hushovd might just find the motivation to dig deep and hand his country their first ever rainbow jersey. Like Cavendish, Hushovd won stages on this year's Tour de France and Tour of Spain.
Fabian Cancellara (Swi)
After Cancellara's fourth gold medal in the time trial, the pressure is off the Swiss who knows he can worry a few of the big contenders on the hilly Geelong course. Cancellara was one of the main contenders in last year's finale, only to miss out on a podium place after burning his powder too early.
A non-sprinter and not a climbing specialist, Cancellara's biggest weapon is an acceleration which, once unleashed, is practically unassailable.
Matti Breschel (Den)
Breschel had a great season in 2009, a year after winning bronze, his first world championships medal, behind two Italians at the 2008 championships in Varese. Although 2010 has been a quieter season to date, the 26-year-old should do well on a course that suits his abilities. An outside bet.
Alexandr Kolobnev (Rus)
Strong, versatile and determined in one-day races, the 29-year-old Russian national champion came close to his biggest career victory in April when he finished second in the prestigious Liege-Bastogne-Liege hilly classic.
Although he has no wins to date this season, the peloton won't be letting Kolobnev out of their sights in the race's final laps -- he has won silver in the road race in both 2009 and 2007.
Matthew Goss (Aus)
Despite the presence of fellow sprinter Allan Davis, Goss has been touted by defending champion Cadel Evans as the Aussie who could bring victory home. A versatile sprinter, the Tasmanian did not win on the Tour of Spain but was instrumental to HTC-Columbia teammate Mark Cavendish's three stage wins on the three-week race.
Simon Gerrans (Aus)
Gerrans has also been touted as Australia's team leader, although the Victorian's plans to hit the worlds in near peak form were disrupted when his Sky team quit the Tour of Spain after a team masseur died. Racing at home will undoubtedly give Gerrans extra motivation, but the 30-year-old might need it at the tail of a season which, on the victory front, has so far been barren.
Edvald Boasson Hagen (Nor)
Boasson Hagen is not an out-and-out sprinter but Team Sky's deadliest weapon in one-day races has an acceleration that is hard to match, and can put it to good use going uphill as well. Boasson Hagen has a total of six victories so far this season, including stage seven of the Dauphine Libéré where, at the end of a tough, rain-hit course, he left the peloton in his wake on his way to a superb solo victory.
Tyler Farrar (USA)
Farrar has slowly been making up ground on main rival Mark Cavendish in Europe, and comes to the worlds with two stage wins from the Tour of Spain and having defended his Vatenfall Cyclassics crown in August. The slightly uphill finale could suit the American sprinter more than it does Cavendish, but whether he has the tactical nous, and power, to match the likes of Gilbert and Pozzato remains to be seen.
Sylvain Chavanel (Fra)
It's been 13 years since France won a men's world road race crown, but in Chavanel France should have a real contender. Chavanel bounced back from massive injuries, including a fractured skull, earlier this season to claim two stage wins on the Tour de France where he was also the race's most aggressive rider. Chavanel likes to go on the attack, but he will be marked closely.
Mark Cavendish (GBr)
Cavendish has shown time and again this season he is the fastest man on two wheels, at least on the flat. Unfortunately for the Isle of Man's 15-time Tour de France stage winner the chances of a bunch sprint, small or otherwise, must be tempered by the fact the road race finale finishes on a challenging uphill section. With a total of 22 climbs on the circuit, Cavendish has a tough task on his hands.
© AFP 2010