Keep It Real . . .

Image: ©Kim Daebong

When I started watching bike races, I quickly became aware of what made certain races so special. Strade Bianchi has its dirt roads. Paris-Roubaix has its cobbles. Milano Sanremo is crazy long. The Tour de France has its big mountain finishes. Almost every race in Belgium has rain and crosswinds. The Vuelta Espana has a distinct lack of flat stages, and like most races in Italy, the Giro d’Italia is just… well, the Giro is just crazy.

Each race had its own identity and was special for a different reason. Generally, the victors were those that had mastered the unique conditions of that race, and they often developed a reputation for it, whether it be climbing, riding the cobbles or suffering in the crosswinds or poor weather. Each year, the races seemed to stay true to their reputations, and each edition was equally as exciting as the last.

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Recently, I have noticed that some races have been diverging from what they have traditionally been known for and trying to incorporate a little bit of everything to make racing more exciting. More and more races include stages with cobbles or gravel, crazy narrow roads or bridges, ridiculously steep climbs or exceptionally long distances. However, it doesn’t seem to be producing the desired outcome with many viewers complaining of races becoming too predictable and a snooze to watch.

In this year’s Tour de France, there were only three proper mountain top finishes and some stages even finished with a long descent after the climb instead of finishing at the actual top. There were several crashes with some of the favorites abandoning. For a moment, it seemed that the GC & Sprint jerseys were going to be rewarded to whoever made it to the finish line in one piece as almost all of the main contenders DNF’ed due to crashes or other incidents.

In recent years, the Tour has also included some sections of cobbles from Paris-Roubaix, and it cost some of the GC contenders dearly. In 2004, Iban Mayo crashed and lost any hope for fighting for the overall win. In 2010, Frank Schleck broke his collarbone while almost all of the GC riders lost time to Frank’s brother, Andy. And in 2014, the race jury removed two cobble sectors after heavy rains made them too dangerous and eventual GC winner, Vincenzo Nibali, made huge time on his rivals. 

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As a result, the Tour and many other races are becoming less about riders gaining time on their rivals and more about who can survive without losing time. Chris Froome, the overall winner at this year’s Tour, did not win a single stage but managed to stay away from the trouble and rode consistently. In a three-week race, it is already difficult to control everything and make sure things run smoothly without race organizers throwing everything they can at riders. Races are becoming less about winning performances and more about surviving unscathed.

Another thing that makes racing less dynamic is the super long stages. In the first week of racing, the Tour saw five stages over 200km in length. In Stage 4, just one rider was willing to go in the break for the 207-kilometers as riders knew that a bunch sprint was inevitable and it was better to save their legs for the next two weeks of racing. Guillaume Van Keirsbulck attacked alone from the gun, and the peloton rolled along at a leisurely pace, giving him a lead of 13 minutes before the chase began. In the end, Guillaume spent almost the entire day alone off the front and while a courageous effort---it made for pretty uneventful television.

This year, I have done four stages that are over 220 km. At the Tour of Hainan next month, I’ll rack up two more. The riders don’t enjoy them as they are boring to race and I suspect, even more boring to watch on TV. Each of these super long stages could have been half the distance and the outcome would have been the same, with a bit less time to fill. 

Races should stay true to their roots and stick with what makes them unique and special. These ridiculous routes designed to incorporate a spectacle into the race causes a lot of headaches for riders, teams and fans alike. Riders and teams need to be prepared for all kinds of scenarios, so the advantage goes to teams with more resources and racing becomes less about who is the best rider. 

Chris Williams rides for Team Novo Nordisk - the world's first all-diabetes professional cycling team

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