Tuesdays with Wilcockson: Greater parity means tougher finishes

[Editor’s note: Due to an extraordinary amount of travel with little to no down time for posting, we’ve been a bit quieter than usual the last couple of days. It’s why this post is a day late. Thanks for your patience.]

Over recent years, scientific training methods have brought a sort of parity to pro cycling that allows more and more riders to finish races together, even tough ones. As a result, to avoid too many mass finishes, organizers are making race finales ever more difficult. Just look at the two major stage races taking place this week and the number of riders finishing together at the end of difficult days in the saddle.

In Italy, after 10 stages and more than 40 hours of racing at the Giro d’Italia — including three summit finishes in the past four days — twenty-odd riders are still within two minutes of each other at the top of the overall standings. And here in the Amgen Tour of California, after two days and more than 20,000 feet of climbing, some 50 riders sit within a minute of race leader Peter Sagan.

Even hardened race followers felt that the California organizers had made their courses too tough this year, but the rugged climbs they included in Sonoma and Santa Cruz counties the first two days have failed to deliver the desired results. As Garmin-Barracuda team manager Jonathan Vaughters tweeted Monday night after 63 riders sprinted to the line in stage two at the Amgen Tour: “I anticipated a smaller group than that today.”

Over in Europe, the three Giro stages with uphill finishes have seen groups of 27, 25 and 33 battling for the win on the final climb. The only rider who has been able to separate himself (a little) from the group of race leaders is Domenico Pozzovivo — whose solo attack midway up the second-category Colle Molella on Sunday went virtually unopposed by the favorites who, like the Italian media, have marginalized the pocket-sized climber on the modest Colnago-CSF squad as a GC threat.

On Tuesday’s stage 10 finish in Assisi, the organizers made the hardest-possible finish, with the 15-percent grades of the San Damiano wall preceding the 11-percent climb on narrow, stone-paved streets into the heart of the medieval hilltop town. Even that spectacular finale didn’t produce huge time gaps, though the tough finish did its job of producing a new race leader in Joaquim “Purito” Rodriguez — with Garmin-Barracuda’s Ryder Hesjedal hanging tough in second place.

Sometimes, finishes can be too tough too frequently. The former Giro race director Angelo Zomegnan partly lost his job because he sought out ever-more spectacularly steep finishing climbs—which actually led to a too-tough course and a too predictable result last year. But even the normally conservative promoters of the Tour de France are inserting steeper climbs that they once considered too risky. At the upcoming Tour, race director Christian Prudhomme has decided to include for the first time in race history the Col du Grand-Colombier on stage 10 and the Col de Péguère on stage 14.

The Grand Colombier, just to the east of the French Alps, was used several times at the Tour’s “junior” race, the Tour de l’Avenir, in the 1970s when it was the springboard used by the legendary Soviet amateur Sergei Soukhoroutchenkov in his multiple overall victories. At 17km long and with an average gradient of 7.1 percent, it doesn’t sound too difficult, but it has long stretches of double-digit grades that make this tougher than many climbs in the Alps themselves.

The Péguère “wall” is even steeper, with the final 3.4km of its 9.4km tilting up at almost 14 percent, with pitches of 18 and 16 percent. There was talk of including the Péguère in the Tour route as long ago as the mid-1960s — and it was withdrawn after initial inclusion in 1973 — but the organizers considered this Pyrenean climb too steep and narrow and the road surface unsuitable. It will be the last climb of the day on July 15 and comes 39km from the stage 14 finish in Foix.

And, as last year, the Tour organizers are again spicing up the opening week of their race with three summit finishes. In 2011, those uphill endings saw stage wins for Philippe Gilbert on the Mont des Alouettes (stage one), Cadel Evans on the Mûr de Bretagne (stage four) and Rui Costa at Super-Besse (stage eight).

This year, the opening road stage into the Belgian city of Seraing was originally scheduled as a flat finish for sprinters, but Prudhomme changed it to a 2.5km climb, partly on cobbles, that will suit Gilbert. The next uphill finish comes on stage three at Boulogne-sur-Mer, where five climbs of around 10 percent each precede a 700-meter-long ramp to the line where Sylvain Chavanel won the 2011 French national championship. And stage seven’s finish on La Planche aux Belle Filles is completely new to the Tour, with its 6km climb at 8.5 percent featuring three double-digit sections that are likely to see an intriguing battle between the overall contenders.

The racing in California and Italy this week shows that the parity between riders is a fact of modern pro racing, and that closeness will only become stronger in future years. That’s bad news for sprinters, who will be getting fewer opportunities to unleash their high-speed skills, but good news for the fans, who will delight in more finales like that spectacular arrival in Assisi on Tuesday.


Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson

Image: Photoreporter Sirotti

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  1. Jesus from Cancun

    You could also blame the larger groups and smaller gaps to the better communications and organization among teams. I have noticed how the peloton has changed, from a collage of multi colored jerseys to a collection of similar jerseys riding together within a larger group.

    It is less and less frequent to see gaps opening because someone let the wheel go and the ones behind just looked at each other. Now when a gap opens there is always a team riding together and getting to work to close it.
    That, plus radio communications. Teams can quickly coordinate a chase when there is a split.

    I don’t mind; I think that racing can get very exciting anyway. And I like uphill finishes. Sometimes you can see sprinters vs. punchers, sometimes a long drag to the line with people dropped one at a time until there is a clear winner.

    I think it is a good idea to add hills to GT stages and to races like Milan San Remo. We all love uphill action, it looks great on TV and it makes for attack opportunities. Now more sprinters climb better so we have a ton of sprint finishes anyway, but the climbs and the attacks are what keep many people in front of their TV. I like it!

  2. Sterling Matt

    I think this dovetails nicely with the previous post about crashes. More parity equals more potential for problems, and as JC from Cancun says the teams all have a vested interest in protecting their GC riders to the demise of the break most days. The other culprit (?) is a ‘save it for the finale’ attitude amongst the riders…it’s one reason everyone was so shocked at Andy Schleck’s long distance go of it at last years tour. Mon Dieu…how audacious! Yet most can recall those audacious attacks of yesteryear that helped define the riders and the generations. Hinault in 86 (though he paid the price on subsequent days), LeMond at Superbagners, Delgado, Merckx, Pantani…they all left it on the road from afar.

  3. The_D

    When the course dictates little variance in preparation, there is a lot less the racers can do to dictate selection. In this way, it would be nice for the teams to “know” less about the course until very shortly beforehand. As it is, outcome is more a function of training that tactics.

  4. Bill McGann

    John Wilcockson’s posting about rider parity and the problems it poses for race organizers offers a new twist on the subject of the narrowing performance gap between the best and worst practitioners of a mature sport like cycling. But I expect no less from Wilcockson.
    Evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould’s extended essay, “Model Batter: Extinction of 0.400 Hitting and the Improvement of Baseball” explains the causes of increasing parity among baseball players using evolutionary theory and analysis of trend variations. I believe his methodology applies to bicycle racing and other sports as well.
    It’s in Gould’s book “Full House”.
    I hope this link works: http://books.google.com/books?id=SDZMSADyrd8C&pg=PP11&lpg=PP11&dq=%22Model+Batter:+Extinction+of++0.400+Hitting+and+the+Improvement+of+Baseball%22&source=bl&ots=cSVfvjCSmC&sig=6ZKfWqGHarPlVHbse7KC9iSf7Xc&hl=en&sa=X&ei=swi5T4WuLoOuiALT75DbBg&ved=0CE4Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=%22Model%20Batter%3A%20Extinction%20of%20%200.400%20Hitting%20and%20the%20Improvement%20of%20Baseball%22&f=false

  5. Michael Schlitzer

    When there are back-to-back, enormous climbing days the “major” gains that any one rider could make on a given day could just as easily be erased (and more so) on the following days when the body can’t respond. I think those monster days actually reduce the competitive nature of the race as everybody agrees to survive and fight it out someplace else. The reality of recovery hits even the pros. I hope (maybe naively, but I hope nonetheless) that this is evidence of less doping in the pro peloton.

    We all hurt and have to dose our efforts, even if those doses and efforts are higher and harder for the pros.

  6. Laurence

    Interesting post. And while the explanation makes sense I also wonder if larger finishing groups can also partly be explained by the old adage, “It’s not the course that makes a race hard but the riders.” Are riders riding more conservatively now? We often see cyclists watching each other and failing to animate things. Perhaps this is a result of directives from the car which then links into to the use of race radios as well.

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