Belgium's Philippe Gilbert is ready to bare the considerable weight of favourite for the world road race cycling championships, if it means he wins the rainbow jersey in Australia next week.
Gilbert, 28, left the three-week Tour of Spain on Sunday with two stage wins and having displayed the kind of form that could be needed in the gruelling blue riband of the men's road race.
The championships start on September 29, with the men's road race from Melbourne to Geelong the highlight of the week's events on October 3.
Debate has raged over whether the undulating 15km-long Geelong circuit, to be raced 11 times after an 82km ride from Melbourne, will finish in a bunch sprint.
Recent reports suggest, however, that highly-fancied British sprinter Mark Cavendish may have to wait until next year's worlds in Copenhagen if he is to succeed Tom Simpson, Britain's last rainbow jersey winner, in 1965.
Italy coach Paolo Bettini, a former two-time world champion, appears to have done his homework and last week announced a team practically shorn of sprinters, his hopes lying squarely on the shoulders of the versatile Filippo Pozzato.
"Italy will be racing to win, as always and even more so this year," said Bettini, the Olympic champion in 2004 and a rainbow jersey winner in 2006 and 2007.
"There will be scant chance to catch a breath on the course. I will be asking the boys to stay alert, talk to each other and adapt to the race as it unfolds."
Australia's Cadel Evans is the reigning world champion but this year he will share leadership roles with Simon Gerrans.
Evans recently compared the road course to the Tour of Flanders, the undulating and tough Belgian one-day classic that was won in stunning fashion earlier this year by Switzerland's Fabian Cancellara.
If that is the case, Gilbert will be buoyed.
The Belgian has yet to score a victory in Flanders but was fourth in this season's Liege-Bastogne-Liege and won the hilly Amstel Gold Race.
Gilbert raced intelligently in Spain, winning stage three, taking his foot off the gas the following week and bringing his race legs to the fore just at the end on stage 19 to show he will be among the main contenders.
In a race that can reach frenzied levels, the pre-race pressure can build up enormously. But for Gilbert, who famously lives beside one of the main climbs on the Liege-Bastogne-Liege course, the pressure is not on.
"It's normal that Bettini, Pozzato and others are saying I'm the favourite and that the Belgian team will have to carry the weight of the race," Gilbert told La Derniere Heure newspaper midweek.
"That doesn't frighten me, our team is strong. For the last four months, I've been eating and sleeping the world championships, and I want to get there at 100 percent," he said.
With Boonen not competing, Gilbert will be looking for the likes of Bjorn Leukemans, Jurgen Roelandts and Greg Van Avermaet to provide needed support, whether chasing down rivals or helping turning up the pace.
Among his other rivals will be handy Russian Alexandr Kolobnev, Canada's Ryder Hesjedal or even Cancellara, if the indecisive Swiss opts to compete.
In the event of a bunch finish, Isle of Man sprinter Cavendish, who took his stage win tally on the Tour de France to 15 in July.
His main rivals will be American Tyler Farrar, Spain's three-time world champion Oscar Freire, German Andre Greipel or Australian pair Allan Davis or Matthew Goss.
© AFP 2010