A friend posted on Twitter the other day, “Why do I have such a hard time caring about the early-season desert races?” and I replied, “Because those are training rides the UCI has sold ads for.” Which is pretty cynical, though essentially true.
Everyone loves to throw their arms up crossing the finish line, but only the guy in first place doesn’t look like an idiot doing it. Andre Greipel won the sprint this morning at the Tour of Oman ahead of a hard-charging Peter Sagan. Marcel Kittel, the new fast German, took yesterday’s dash, and Sagan won the uphill finish the day before on the Arabian peninsula.
They are racing in earnest, even if relatively few people are watching. As much as searching for form, some riders are trying to make statements about their worth, and this is the time of year when not everyone is racing to win, when wins are available to those who really need them. But what are they worth?
In the present day, the early season is made of races like the Tour Down Under, Tour of Qatar, Volta ao Algarve, Tour de San Luis and Tour of Oman, and here are the names of some riders who have won at those races already this season: Tom Boonen (Tour de San Luis), Simon Gerrans (Tour Down Under), Edvald Boasson-Hagen (Volta ao Algarve), Alejandro Valverde (Tour Down Under). I think it’s safe to say that each of those riders has something to prove right now.
This week’s Group Ride asks the question: Which of these results is most significant? Who needed to throw that victory salute the most? Are there any results here that will bear on the big time races, later in the year?
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Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
If you had asked me where the Willunga Hill was five years ago, I’d have probably guessed New Jersey. Now I know the aforementioned topography can be found in Australia, and serves as the major climbing obstacle in the Tour Down Under, the January kick off to the pro-cycling season.
The TDU hits the Willunga Hill tomorrow and wraps up on Sunday with a circuit around Adelaide.
Shortly, the world’s top pros, the lion’s share of them Europeans, will battle head winds and dash for finish lines in Qatar. They’ll move on to Oman after that.
There is a reason to this globe-trotting rhyme having to do with climate, sponsorship and expansion of the cycling brand. While some small races (Etoile Besseges, Challenge Mallorca, et. al.) do stud the late winter calendar in Europe, the UCI has sought to jump start its season by traveling to the weather. In this context, Australia, Qatar and Oman make a lot of sense as venues.
Further, deep pocketed sponsors in those countries want pro racing. Qatar, in particular, is forcing itself into the international sporting scene, not only hosting an annual, but also securing the football World Cup for 2022. The UCI, in pursuing a more global strategy to growing the sport, are understandably happy to sanction big bike races for big money in small, wealthy nations.
But while the Tour Down Under stokes the fire of sporting passion in Australia and the burgeoning presence of Aussie riders in the pro peloton, one has to question the strategy behind events in the Middle East. With exactly zero representation on the ProTeams, Qatar and Oman are not exactly hot beds of cycling passion. Race video shows long straight stretches of dusty roadway occasionally dotted by small bands of curious onlookers.
Other than cash and carry commerce, what is the real point?
The Tour of Beijing this fall highlighted the profit-centered strategy of the UCI in stark detail. Many top teams were reluctant to participate but were then seemingly strong-armed into showing up by UCI head Pat McQuaid, who wrote a memo threatening the sponsorships of teams who failed to toe the line. The Tour of Beijing is put on by Global Cycling Productions, a for profit organization that lives within the UCI headquarters in Aigle, Switzerland and staffed by senior UCI officials.
Over the last two years the UCI has been assailed from most quarters, criticized for their stewardship of the sport in the areas of doping control, equipment standards and rider safety.
This week’s Group Ride examines the nature of globalization, its positives and negatives. Few would argue against the good of expanding cycling to a global audience, but is simply following the money the best way to do that? Without connecting top level races to roots level organizations, is the UCI actually succeeding in making cycling more popular? Or do you see the shift of the race calendar out of Europe as simply a dilution of the cycling brand, designed to enrich the governing body? What are the positives and negatives to this new paradigm?
Image: CJ Farquharson, Photosport International
The Tour Down Under
Langkawi. Qatar. Down Under. These are the new code words for the early season. There was a time when conjuring the spring for the PROs used terms like Besseges, Omloop or Nice. Today, early season races like the Tour Down under or the Tour of Qatar give riders a chance to enjoy racing in warm weather at a point when nearly all of us are doing what we can to muster the fortitude to head out the door for a ride that even for the luckiest among us may only nip the 50s. And with the winter we’ve had this year, many riders can’t really even contemplate trying to ride slick 700C tires on the roads and the dream of riding in weather that isn’t frozen is just that—a dream that will go unfulfilled this week, next week, and probably some weeks to come.
It’s difficult to watch someone lead a peloton in short sleeves over a sand-washed blacktop or through monsoon rains. Difficult not only for the fact that the PROs are flying along at 40 mph or more as if they were motor pacing, but difficult because our options are fewer, usually involving either a thermal jacket or the trainer.
We look to the gods of the peloton for inspiration, something us to help suck it up and get out for four of five hours when it would really be much easier just to stay in with a book and the family. We want to see them in jackets and tights or arm warmers, vest and slathered with an embro that could melt the paint off your car.
Little can make us appreciate their suffering more, or wish to emulate it more than a long, quiet shot of the peloton rolling along at 22 mph, the riders hands on the bar tops, the leaders evenly spaced across across the front with the order of bricks in a wall. You tell yourself: See?! Even the PROs know how to keep it in check in the early season.
Never mind the fact that 30 miles from the finish the pace will ratchet up to the fury of the Tasmanian Devil, we love the juxtaposition. After all, nothing can make the peloton seem faster than having seen them ride slow. And that’s what we need right now. Whether you’re braving the elements or the trainer, it’s so much easier to summon the strength necessary to suffer when you know someone else is out there, someone you know is tougher, stronger and more dedicated. That’s the very font of inspiration.
Of course, there’s always the chance that seeing the peloton enjoy weather of which we can only dream may inspire us to log miles no matter how miserable it is outside.
Images: John Pierce, Photosport International
All week, as pro riders have been tweeting from the Land Down Under, and fans have been moistening their chamois (What actually is the plural of chamois?) in anticipation of the coming season, I’ve heard a small but distinct contingent of cycling purists who are lamenting the rise of such races as the Tour Down Under, the Tour of Qatar, etc., the so-called “new races,” that seem to be supplanting old races like the Etoile de Bességes and Paris-Troyes and the traditional season-openers in Western Europe, like the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in Belgium.
So this week’s Ride examines the value of tradition in cycling, versus the value of innovation.
Do you like the newer races? Or prefer the old? Why? And regardless of your preference, do you think the new races are better for cycling, spread out as they are, or do you think the future of cycling is going back to its roots?
There are echoes of this debate throughout the sport, as in the UCI radio ban and even in the use of certain performance enhancers, but for now, with the TDU nigh, let’s focus on the races.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International