[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.
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Image: Photoreporter Sirotti