FLORENCE, Italy // The battle for cycling’s prestigious rainbow jersey could be overshadowed at the world road championships this week by a duel between the men bidding to lead the sport into a new, doping-free era.
A little over a year after the Lance Armstrong affair left cycling in tatters, incumbent International Cycling Union (UCI) president Pat McQuaid’s bid for a third mandate faces a stiff challenge.
McQuaid and the UCI have been in the firing line since Armstrong was handed a lifetime ban from the sport, in August 2012, after being charged with using illicit, performance-enhancing drugs throughout his career.
McQuaid succeeded Dutchman Hein Verbruggen in 2005 and although he is credited with boosting the sport’s fight against doping, the Irishman has fallen out of favour with some of the sport’s stakeholders in recent months.
The British cycling federation president Brian Cookson has emerged to challenge him, and after months of nasty politicking by both parties, the Englishman is expected to be voted the UCI’s next man in charge on Friday.
Before then, men and women from the junior to elite categories will compete in road races and time trials with the first elite event, the men’s time trial, tomorrow.
Germany’s Tony Martin has won the past two editions, and after helping his professional team Omega-Pharma to the team title on Sunday, is confident of making it a treble on the same 57.9km course from Montecatini Terme to Florence. “I’m pretty optimistic for Wednesday. This win is good for my morale,” Martin said. “I’ve got the experience to do well and want to do well.”
Notably standing in Martin’s way is Olympic time-trial champion Sir Bradley Wiggins, who has yet to win a world title in the event.
Wiggins, the 2012 Tour de France champion, warmed up with overall victory in the Tour of Britain on Sunday while former four-time champion Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland and American Taylor Phinney are also in the mix.
While organisers have set mainly flat courses for the time trials, the road races are held on undulating courses starting in different cities in the region. They all end in Florence.
On paper, the courses suit the peloton’s “punchers” – strong all-rounders who are particularly impressive on hilly courses with uphill finishes.
With a total 2,800 metres of elevation gain on the 272.26km men’s course on Sunday, hosts Italy are putting all their efforts behind 2013 Giro d’Italia champion Vincenzo Nibali. “It’s a hard course, but not too hard,” said Italy team manager and former classics specialist Paolo Bettini.
Although Gilbert, Britain’s Chris Froome and Spaniard Joaquim Rodriguez will be gunning for road-race gold on Sunday, one name perhaps stands out from the rest: Peter Sagan.
The Slovakian, a winner of the Tour de France green jersey for the points competition in 2012 and 2013, is one of the best young riders in the peloton and warmed up for the challenge with victory in the Montreal Grand Prix.
Sagan admitted after his win two weeks ago: “I want to do well, but the road-race championships can be a race unlike any other.”
As Sagan hinted, his bid could depend on the unpredictable game of alliances between national teams who share the mutual interest of eliminating common rivals in a bid to secure the coveted rainbow jersey.
It is a tactic that Cookson, who has won the support of several key federations in recent weeks, has employed well in the run-up to the UCI presidential vote Friday at Florence’s Palacio Vecchio.