Thursday, 14 March 2013

When is a race too tough?

I'm very fortunate to work from home. Most cycling fans find a way to watch the Classics and the Grand Tours, but it's a rare office that will let you put Eurosport on the telly mid-afternoon, so many of the smaller races get missed. Back when I was in an office, I really only saw the Tour and a few of the Monuments most years. I much prefer being able to organize my working day in  order down tools mid afternoon and watch stuff like this:

That's a climb, signposted as 30%, widely quoted as 27%, which they went over three times. Some riders got off and walked. Team cars were held back at times so they could tackle the hill at speed rather than burning out their clutches trying to move at the pace of the peloton. It destroyed the breakaway, strung out the pack, and eventually allowed for a race changing break to develop featuring Vincenzo Nibali, Peter Sagan and  Joaquim Rodriguez. It was probably the most dramatic day of racing so far this year. Funnily enough, race organiser Michele Acquarone pretty much instantly renounced it, saying, among other things:

"If you lose half your peloton, you just have to be honest and learn from mistake"

" If riders are not happy, fans are not happy and I'm not happy too. Sometimes it's not easy to find the right balance"

"I loved it too, but it's a matter of balance. Without balance you fall down. After Prati di Tivo and Chieti it was too much."

In fact, those quotes are from his Twitter feed and were addressed at fans and journalists while the race was still going on. Acquarone is a smart, likeable man who genuinely seems to have cycling's best interests at heart and has bravely wrenched the Giro d'Italia and it's sibling races away from the dead end pursuit of ever crueller climbs. If he wants to avoid stages like that, then it's fine by me.

Having said that, I do think that balance, as Acquarone says himself, is the key. Whenever there's a great big monster of a stage like this, fans go nuts for the spectacle of it all, riders complain that it's too much, and doomsayers announce that difficult stages are an incitement to doping.

I have to say, I look at Tirreno-Adriatico stage 6 and think of it as being akin to a Spring Classic. Three ascents of a hill that hits 27% is brutal, but think of the Tour of Flanders. Ok, the steepest hills in that top out at 22 to 24%, but there are a damn sight more than three of them. I seem to recall an edition not so long ago that had over 20 climbs in the last 50km, many of them breaking the 20% mark. No one says the Tour of Flanders is too much, or an incitement to doping. And why? Because it's not in the middle of a stage race.

Tirreno-Adriatico stage 6 wasn't a bad route, but it did come the day after the queen stage to Prato di Tivo. Had the route found a way to isolate the two stages from each other, they would have been acceptable. Ok, there would still have been some grumbling simply because Tirreno-Adriatico is stage race ridden by stage racers, who have a different skill set to you typical Flandrian hardman classics specialist who would normally specialise in terrain like we saw on stage 6. Bu the complaints wouldn't have been the angsty "we'll never do it again, we promise" display that we actually got. Of course, Tirreno will always struggle to separate stages like that from each other due to it's point-to-point nature. It's not like Tirreno can head East, East, East, then suddenly head West to create a break between mountains. It's got to go from the Tyrrhenian to the Adriatic coast, that's its raison d'etre. But the larger point, the point that applies to all races, still stands: tough days aren't the problem, it's lack of balance that causes trouble.

Take this year's impending double-ascent of Alpe D'Huez. No sooner was it announced than doomsayers were crying all over the internet that going up Alpe D'Huez twice in a stage was too much, that it would force the riders to dope. I'm not sure where all those PED-predictors have been in previous years, when Alpe D'Huez has been preceded by a run over the Col du Galibier. Do they think that's a speed bump? Again, peppering a race with hard stages isn't an incitement to doping, it's just a challenge for certain specialists to exploit, while others try to survive in order to exploit other parts of the parcours. That's part of the joy of stage racing, that hitting someone on the terrain or day that best suits you doesn't mean they won't strike back later on. Three mountainous days in the Pyrenees separated by a week and two rest days from three more mountainous days in the Alps isn't an excessivley brutal incitement to doping, it's a selection of opportunities for riders to attack and defend.

Of course, if you want to see race route that's left balance far, far behind and would have pretty much anyone reaching for the bags in the 'special fridge', then look no further than this year's Vuelta. It will feature 41 climbs including the awe-inspiring 28% slopes of the Alto del Angliru, split over 13 mountain stages. Yep, 13 of the 21 stages will be mountain stages. That, I'll admit, might be an inducement to dope. On the other hand, it might also be an inducement to defensive riding, survival tactics and a general agreement to keep things tranquilo until the final few Kms of each stage. It might turn out like 2011's Giro, where everyone was so afraid of what was to come that the first decisive attack pretty much won the race on stage 9 and left us with a loooong procession to stage 21 in Milan. Oh, and a lengthy court case, garbled rulings, reversals and the eventual stripping of the title from Alberto Contador. But that all came later. The point is, just because a race route is hard doesn't necessarily mean you're going to get a Tour De France 95-style fizzing drug fuelled battle in which even porky sprinters contest the race lead over the mountains. You might. But equally, you might just kill the race stone dead. I think it will probably say good things for cycling if this year's Vuelta is ridden defensively, but even if it does turn out to be a suspicious battle of the supermen, it won't be because a given stage was too hard, it will be because the race itself is deeply unbalanced.

Anyway, that's my rant in praise of brutal stages and opposing brutal stage races. In the meantime, here's the full TV coverage of the stage that inspired it:

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