RICHMOND, Va. (AP) -- Take a bunch of ambitious cyclists away from the teams they ride with all season, and in many cases combine them on national teams with riders they are accustomed to trying to beat.
Throw in an arduous course. Some sketchy weather. Massive crowds.
Oh, and a gold medal for the first to cross the finish line.
No wonder the elite men's race at the road world championships tends to be the most chaotic, unpredictable event of the season, and one that has produced plenty of longshot champions.
"Every year is different," Slovakian sprint star Peter Sagan said, "and every year it's been -- not every year but the last two or three years -- it's been not the favorites."
Thor Hushovd, Mark Cavendish were Phillipe Gilbert may have been known quantities when they won the rainbow jersey presented to the world champion. But that was hardly the case when Rui Costa held off Joaquin Rodriguez for a rain-soaked victory in Italy two years ago, or when Michal Kwiatkowski of Poland emerged from a bunch of six riders to claim victory last year in Spain.
Likewise, nobody is proposing any confident predictions ahead of Sunday's race.
Sagan is among those named, but he refused to anoint himself the favorite. John Degenkolb of Germany, Alexander Kristoff of Norway and Tom Boonen of Belgium also have the skillset required to tackle the Virginia course, which combines bone-jarring cobblestone sectors similar to Northern European races and fast, flat straightaways common in American racing.
"It's a cool, unique aspect of the world championships," American rider Brent Bookwalter said of the course, the race and its fickle nature. "It's hard to know what to expect."
The U.S. hasn't landed a rider on the podium in the elite men's race since Lance Armstrong won gold in 1993.
The world championships are one of the few races where riders compete on national teams rather than trade teams. So while Bookwalter may ride for BMC Racing all season, he'll have six teammates riding against him Sunday: Jempy Drucker for Luxembourg, Gilbert and Greg Van Avermaet for Belgium, Silvan Dillier for Switzerland and Daniel Oss and Manuel Quinziato for Italy.
He will also have one riding for him in Taylor Phinney, part of the six-man U.S. team.
Phinney said the composition of national teams for world championships and Olympics often leads to turmoil. Multiple riders want to be anointed the leader, and that creates disharmony off the road and confusion on it, as teams try to organize throughout the 160-mile race.
That doesn't appear to be the case with the U.S. team, which is trying to defend home soil in the return of the world championships for the first time since Colorado Springs in 1986.
"These are all guys I would personally hang out with," Phinney said. "You can't really say that about a team every year, whether it's a trade team or a national. On national teams, you get a lot of guys together, usually there's some sort of weird rivalry. But we're a group of guys that would go out and have dinner together, which is nice."
World rankings determine whether a country has a full complement of nine riders, such as Italy, France and Belgium -- typical cycling powerhouses. Other countries only have six, such as Canada, the U.S. and Norway, while some nations have just a single rider.
The teams with full squads will try to determine the direction of the race, whether a breakaway of a few riders succeeds or whether the field is bunched up for a sprint finish.
"Unfortunately, we don't have a full nine guys and other nations do," Bookwalter said, "so the responsibility is on them to dictate how the race will go."
Tyler Farrar is fast enough to contend in a bunch sprint, and Phinney and others have the ability to freelance as they see fit.
One thing they've promised: The home nation won't sit idly by on Sunday.
"We're going to be Americans, do what we do," Bookwalter said, "and that's adapt and persist and endure and take advantage of situations that might arise."