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By Julien Pretot
VALKENBURG, Netherlands (Reuters) - Belgian and Spanish riders are most likely to battle it out for Sunday's world road race title as cycling's old guard look to reassert their authority.
While upstarts Britain controlled last year's race to set up a mass sprint finish for Mark Cavendish, Sunday's 261-km bumpy ride from Maastricht will favour punchy riders and Spain's Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez have what it takes to win along with Belgium's Philippe Gilbert.
Should those three falter on the punishing ascent of the Cauberg, a 1,200-metre climb they will tackle 10 times, three- times champion Oscar Freire of Spain and Tom Boonen of Belgium are expected to be in the mix for a small group sprint finish.
The Cauberg, where the Amstel Gold Race classic ends, is not the toughest ascent but climbing it 10 times at the end of a long and tough season means no squad will be able to control the race all day, just like Britain found out at the Olympics.
"The idea is to bring Philippe Gilbert and Tom Boonen to the foot of the Cauberg. Then, either Philippe makes a difference there or Tom can win it in a small sprint finish," Belgian rider Juergen Roelandts told reporters.
By the time the peloton tackles the Cauberg for the last time, some 1.5 km from the finish line, defending champion Cavendish will probably be long gone.
"We're here with an opportunistic mentality," British director of performance David Brailsford told Reuters on Friday.
"After a four-year Olympic cycle we could not be at the top of our game."
British hopes could rely on Jonathan Tiernan-Locke, a punchy rider who just won the Tour of Britain.
He will be supported, among others, by Tour de France champion Bradley Wiggins.
But many riders are wary of Thomas Voeckler's French flair.
The 33-year-old rider will have a team at his disposal for the first time and team boss Laurent Jalabert is confident France can play a role in the race.
"It has to be a tough race (to eliminate several riders). If it's not, it will be up to us to make it tough," Jalabert told Reuters.
"For the first time, we have a whole team dedicated to one rider."
Other contenders include Slovakian Peter Sagan and Norwegian Edvald Boasson Hagen.
Vuelta champion Alberto Contador had been tipped as a possible contender but his poor display in the individual time trial won by German Tony Martin on Wednesday has virtually ruled him out.
(Editing by Mark Meadows)
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