Australian Cadel Evans is among a handful of contenders already eyeing the coveted rainbow jersey awarded to the men’s road race champion at the world cycling championships next week.
But living nearby the Mendrisio course in southern Switzerland may be of no particular advantage to the former two-time Tour de France runner-up.
Evans is a strong time trialler who excels on hillier courses, such as the 13.8km circuit that the peloton will race 19 times, climbing a total of nearly 5,000 metres for a total distance of 262.2 km next Sunday.
In what is likely to become an unforgiving race of attrition he will have the support of a nine-man team including Stuart O’Grady, Michael Rogers, Allan Davis and Simon Gerrans, who will work to make sure Evans gets to the closing stages in as good a condition as possible.
However, there is an element Evans will not be able to control, namely the more tactically astute Italian and Spanish competition.
Although Australia have been a growing force in professional road cycling, notably in the past decade, they have yet to win the coveted world champion’s rainbow jersey – a feat that has been achieved by Spanish and Italian riders four times each since 1999.
While Swiss time trial specialist Fabian Cancellara is hoping to cause an upset in the road race, the smart money will be on either Alejandro Valverde, or Italian Damiano Cunego.
Runner-up in 2003 and 2005, and a third-place finisher in 2006, Valverde has threatened to win the world title for years and he could be extra-motivated by wanting to settle a few scores.
Valverde was forced to sit out the 2009 Tour de France after the Italian authorities hit him with a two-year ban from racing in Italy after claiming that a blood sample taken from him during last year’s Tour, when it passed through Italy, matched blood seized during a raid on a doping laboratory linked to the Operation Puerto doping scandal which erupted in 2005.
Since the 2009 race again went through Italy, Valverde was forced to stay at home for the duration of the Tour de France.
The Italians, however, are not the only target in Valverde’s sights.
Cycling’s world ruling body the International Cycling Union (UCI) said they would extend Valverde’s Italy ban worldwide if the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), to which Valverde has appealed to have the sanction quashed, upholds the Italian ban.
If Valverde fails to live up to expectations in Mendrisio, Spain will be looking for Oscar Freire, a less formidable climber but still a former three-time world champion, or Olympic road race champion Samuel Sanchez.
But team coach Jose Luis De Ramos believes Valverde is the man for the job.
“The circuit suits him perfectly,” says De Ramos. “He’s a circuit rider and has always managed to sacrifice himself for his teammates in the national team over the years. Maybe this year it’s his turn to benefit.”
Cunego meanwhile will spearhead the Italians’ bid for a fourth consecutive rainbow jersey, following consecutive wins by Paolo Bettini and Alessandro Ballan’s victory on home soil in Varese last year.
Cunego, a former Tour of Italy winner who like Valverde excels in the hillier one-day classics, earned his right for a crack at the rainbow jersey after settling for second place in 2008.
The ‘Little Prince’, as Cunego is known affectionately in Italy, has proved his form recently by winning the first and last high mountain stages in the Tour of Spain, which finishes Sunday.
The odds on Valverde becoming the first Spaniard since Freire in 2004 to join a list of world champions which includes Eddy Merckx, Stephen Roche and Lance Armstrong will hit the roof if he holds on and wins the Tour of Spain on Sunday.
© 2009 AFP