There was a time when the World Championship road race wasn't really the World Championships at all. It was a three-way shoot-'em-up between Belgium, Italy and France, with other nations playing the role of walk-on cannon fodder. The first staging was in Nürenberg in 1927. Not until after the War did the troika release their stranglehold, with Switzerland and Ferdi Kübler the beneficiary.
How times have changed. Not so much for Belgium; they're alright Jack... or Tom, or Sep, or most likely Phil. Okay, the last gold at the end of their rainbow came in Madrid in 2005, but no one's talking about that stat betokening a great cycling nation's demise. Not until Gilbert gets Sagan-ed on the Cauberg they won't be, anyway.
For those old transalpine enemies the French and Italians, alas, it's a different story. France's last triumph came courtesy of Laurent Brochard at San Sebastian in 1997. Italy's was just four years ago and completed a hat-trick of consecutive wins - but the combined curses of those rainbows have been lashing the Bel Paese ever since. Their collective fortunes have mirrored those of the 2008 winner, Alessandro Ballan, who has never reproduced anything remotely similar in the past four seasons or outrun the spectre of doping controversy.
So what of their respective prospects in Valkenburg? How will their coaches Laurent Jalabert, who never won the Worlds, and Paolo Bettini, who did it twice, feel about their chances on a course which would have had both men gurgling with delight as riders?
In Thomas Voeckler, Jalabert probably has a captain that Bettini would nationalise with both hands given the chance. He also has newly crowned world TTT champion Sylvain Chavanel... but has told the press that Chavanel, like the rest of the team, will be working for Voeckler. Do we spy a bluff? And by 'helping' does he mean attacking with 50 kilometres to go, when Chavanel is at his most dangerous, to soften up the opposition for Voeckler's sucker punch, and maybe, just maybe, forging on to win himself?
As for Bettini, well, his best hope could be a neo-pro. Remember Lance Armstrong and Oslo anyone? Yes, well, in Bettini's head that tape has been playing on loop all summer. His Armstrong could be the 21 year-old nephew of Francesco Moser, Moreno. Riders that young can't cope with more than 250 kilometres, you say. To that Moser replies that he was third in the (extremely difficult) Italian road race championships over 254km, having already ridden respectably at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Nibali will lead the azzurri, but Moser is one of the three viable Plan Bs, along with Diego Ulissi and Oscar Gatto.
At stake is much more than just one rainbow jersey; France and Italy used to rule the world at this sport. Jalabert and Bettini each contributed to that heritage as riders - but never before has their country needed them like it will this weekend.
• The full version of this article appears in issue 21 of digital magazine Cycling News HD, and is just one example of what you can find inside. The issue also offers extensive coverage of the opening days of the World Championships, as well as detailed previews of the upcoming men's and women's road races, with interactive route maps and riders to watch.
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