Wild and wet world road race battle expected

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Richmond (United States) (AFP) - A narrow cobblestone climb and expected rain has turned Sunday's men's road race at the World Road Cycling Championships into an up-for-grabs showdown among the planet's greatest riders.

Defending champion Michael Kwiatkowski, 2014 runner-up Simon Gerrans of Australia, Spanish near-miss stars Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez and Slovakia's Peter Sagan are among favorites in the closing event over a 261.4 km (162 miles) course.

"There are so many guys. It's going to be a wide open race," Gerrans said. "It's going to be a super competitive race."

A 90 percent rain chance could make Libby Hill's narrow cobblestone climb a slow and risky fight while the other steep urban street climbs take their toll on those chasing the rainbow jersey symbolic of world supremacy.

Valverde, a career-best third in this year's Tour de France at age 35, has two classic triumphs this season and last year and could finally be in line for the world title after four third place finishes, including each of the past three years, and runner-up efforts in 2003 and 2005.

Not since Oscar Friere in 2004 has a Spaniard won the road race, but if not Valverde it could also be 2015 Vuelta a Espana runner-up Rodriguez, the 2013 road race runner-up who was also third in 2009.

Kwiatkowski, 25, does not plan on surrendering his crown without a fight after resting since helping a runner-up effort in the team time trial last weekend.

"I'm happy about my performance," he said. "I'm on my way to being up there on Sunday."

Sagan has been fancied because his best success has come on sprint courses with short but steep climbs like Richmond, although it might come down to how well his countrymen can position him for the final sprint to the line.

"I believe that Juraj Sagan and Michael Kolar will do everything in their power to get Peter to be out in front towards the finish. If they succeed, then it will be only down to Peter to tackle the given opportunity," Slovakian coach Jan Valach said.

"He proved many times already that in the end he can deal with the situation well on his own. However, it should not be forgotten that there will be many riders who will do all they can to thwart Peter's desire for the rainbow jersey.

"Sagan is one of the big favorites," said Team Saxo-Tinkoff director Steven de Jongh. "We all think that he deserves a top spot after fighting continuously throughout the season."

A season of nagging injuries has left Gerrans rested going into the road race while countryman Michael Matthews can point to solid race showings as each tries to become the first Aussie to win the road race crown since Cadel Evans in 2009.

Belgium offers three title threats in 2012 champion Philippe Gilbert, 2005 winner Tom Boonen and standout Greg Van Avermaet.

"I'm getting ready for the biggest challenge of my season," Gilbert said.

Germany's John Degenkolb, this year's Paris-Roubaix and Milan-San Remo winner, and Norway's Alexander Kristoff, who has 20 wins this year after a bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics road race, also figure to be in the hunt.

Dutchman Niki Terpstra, France's Nacer Bouhanni and Italy's Vincenzo Nibali, Elia Viviani and Diego Ulissi are in the mix as well.