Otley’s Lizzie Armitstead leads the British challenge in the women’s road race today, when the chance to add the rainbow jersey to her track world title and Olympic silver medal is the tantalising prospect.
Yet for such a decorated sportswoman – she also won the national road race title in Glasgow this year – the 24-year-old Yorkshirewoman has spent much of the build-up to the biggest race of the year, playing down her chances.
That admission is in stark contrast to how she began the post-Olympic year, with the road worlds the primary focus of her 2013 campaign.
But, a combination of a long season and a course that suits the climbers rather than the sprinters, means the woman who rode heroically through London and Surrey last year to set the blue touch paper on Britain’s medal rush, arrives at the start line feeling fallible.
“I would be happy with top 10 really. Maybe I am just a bit scared by the course because the circuits are pretty tough,” said Armitstead, who has endured a punishing season on the continent.
“Whether I will be able to keep up with the top climbers, I am not sure. There is a 4km climb and then a 800m, 15 per cent climb, so it is definitely about making sure you have the right gearing on your bike.
“It is going to be very hard. They always say this about world championships, but this is the hardest course in years.
“I think the Italian riders will be the ones to beat. They are always incredible at the world championships. They race so well as a team, and with it being a home world championships for them, they are going to be pretty hard to beat.
“With it not being ideally suited towards me and not really having had my strongest season, perhaps people might overlook me, which could work to my advantage.
“We also haven’t selected a full team, so maybe the other nations will overlook Great Britain and concentrate on each other rather than us, so there might be a bit of room to sneak away.”
That inexperience in support of her could indeed count against Armitstead. In London last summer, she was indebted to the sacrifices the experienced trio of Nicole Cooke, Emma Pooley and Lucy Martin made in getting her to the front.
In Tuscany, Armitstead will have the support of a young squad, including Nikki Harris, two-time world junior champion Lucy Garner and Katie Colclough.
As well as the powerful Italian train, the woman to beat could again be Marianne Vos of the Netherlands, the only woman to best Armitstead at last year’s Olympics. Vos has won world titles on the road, track and in cyclo-cross and appears invincible in the major races.
“She does have this kind of aura around her,” said Armitstead.
“And there have been races this season when she hasn’t been on her best form but she’s still won the races.
“Perhaps people haven’t had the confidence to attack her. Do you attack Marianne Vos? Who has the confidence to do that?
“But for this World Championships I don’t think she is the favourite.
“I think the Italians are the favourites and it’s their race to lose, rather than Marianne’s.”
The 140km course includes five loops and ascents of Fiesole overlooking Florence which could take its toll on a number of the riders, with Armitstead fearing she could be one of those to suffer.
“It’s been a long, tough season, but I’m still very much motivated for the race,” said Armitstead, who rides for Dutch team Boels Dolmanns.
“I’m not feeling on top of the world in terms of form, but I don’t think you need to be.
“I think it’s really about who’s got the most character at the end of 140 kilometres. It’s perhaps a touch too heavy for me, in terms of what suits my characteristics, but I’ll definitely give it a good shot. If I’ve got good legs and other people don’t, I’ve got a chance.
“It’s really a case of me being in the right place at the right time and giving myself the best chance.”
The men’s race tomorrow is headlined by Froome seeking to become the first man since Greg Lemond in 1989 to win the Tour de France and world title in the same year.
Coming so quickly after Cavendish won it two years ago, Froome is also out to become only the second Briton since Doncaster’s Tommy Simpson in 1965 to win the rainbow jersey.
Riding in support of Froome will be the high-profile figure of Sir Bradley Wiggins, who this time last year was the main man of British cycling, but now has to make do with playing second fiddle.
Playing a less high-profile role but no less important, is Leeds’s Josh Edmondson. The 21-year-old has had an up and down season in his first year of a neo-pro contract with Team Sky.
Yet the fact that he has been named as part of the British squad for such an important race underlines how highly he is regarded in British cycling and how his ups – like some exemplary leadout work at last week’s Tour of Britain – have really caught the eye.
The women’s race starts at 1.15pm today from Montecatini Terme with the men setting off on their 272.26km circuit from Lucca at 9am tomorrow.