Emma Pooley may be eyeing Nicole Cooke's crown

British team has two cards to play in women's road race

Britain's Nicole Cooke heads into unknown territory on Saturday when she puts her world road race title on the line.

And while likely to be wary of Dutch, German and American rivals, the Welsh cycling icon could finally see her title come under threat from British teammate Emma Pooley.

Cooke, who resides in nearby Lugano, last year became the first female rider to win the Olympic road race gold and world championship title in the same year. However she has never had to defend a world title.

Before last year's triumph in nearby Varese, Italy, she won two bronze and one silver medal from the women's road race whose main prize, like that of the men, is the coveted rainbow jersey.

This year the circuit is hillier, and thus harder, than the one used in Varese last year where Cooke beat Dutch phenomenon Marianne Vos with a late surge inside the last 150 metres.

While the men race 262.2km, the women race the same 13.8km circuit nine times for a total distance of 124.2km.

Once again Vos, who won the 2006 title as a 19-year-old and who has finished runner-up the past two editions, is arguably her biggest foreign threat.

Vos, who also won Olympic gold in Beijing, albeit in track cycling's points race, said: "No matter what results she has had this year, Nicole Cooke is always strong when it comes to big events like the world championships."

But question marks hang over Cooke's form of late and it is believed that she has been given only co-leader status for Britain with Pooley. The Switzerland-based Englishwoman said the course is the "hardest" she's ever seen and hinted she would do all she can to "make the selection", which in cycling terms means riding hard to drop potential rivals.

"I like hard courses, the more selective the better," she said. "That could sound a bit arrogant because it means I'm going to make the selection but yes, I like it."

Germany's team features 2004 world champion Judith Arndt, but having broken bones in three separate places this season team leader duties are expected to fall to Claudia Hausler, the women's Tour of Italy winner.

Kristin Armstrong said after her time trial victory on Wednesday that she, or someone from her American team, should not be ruled out - especially as it will be her final race before retiring.

"I still have a big race Saturday," said Armstrong, who is no relation to namesake Lance. "We have a strong team and I hope to see another American on top of the podium. I cannot think of any better way to say goodbye to the sport than to be on top."

© AFP 2009

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