Thursday, November 20, 2014

Monoculture Racing?

There is a move afoot to change the organization of the pro road racing calendar.
This is not the usual grist for this blog, but I digress for this post because I guess I’m worried/annoyed enough to consolidate some thoughts on what’s going on in the world of pro cycling as it attempts a major overhaul.
I’m not going to say that I’m against any changes, there is obviously room for improvement, but I’m certainly against a couple of the arguments.
One is the geographically scattered nature of the race season, the second is the shortening on the grand tours.
The point has been made that in a single week, any given pro team might have riders racing in three or more events in as many different countries.
Let’s keep that in perspective. We’re not talking about countries on opposite sides of the planet, we’re mostly talking about Europe.

A shot that defined 2014. Photo Velo News.
The pro racing circuit has seen some growth in the last decade for events outside the European theater, but these events typically fall outside the heart of the racing season, or teams make a fairly big deal of which riders they will commit to these events.
Arguing that teams with multi-million dollar budgets can’t afford the physical and financial stresses of racing a few different events at any given time in Europe is a joke. For smaller teams, this may present greater challenges, but so increases the importance of selecting races that better suit their rider’s and the team’s collective goals. Some people who like competition would call this type of decision-making “strategy.”
If anything, this diversity of events, and the willingness of teams to send riders to different venues, means a greater number of fans have the opportunity to see a wider array of riders.
Obviously, not all the top names in the sport will be represented at every race as a result, and decisions will have to be made as to what events to race each season.
Here it comes: so what?
Much has been made of the fact that even with 1 million Euros on the table, the top three riders in the peloton declined a Russian billionaire’s offer to compete in all three grand tours next season because of the massive physical stress that would present.
I can only draw comparisons to things that I have done in my own life, but here’s what I know: there are rides that I’ve completed and mountains that I’ve climbed and skied, that I may never do again. It’s not so much that I would not want to repeat them – although certainly there are a few that once was enough – but that there are other goals I hope to achieve.
I don’t need to climb to the top of the same mountains each winter to feel complete. Indeed, in the world of backcountry skiing, there may be windows that are only days long over a period of years to safely ski certain lines.
The fact that rider’s will work so hard to stand atop the podium at a particular race just once in their career speaks to the significance of the achievement.
Every year shapes up a bit differently as a result.
Riders have strong performances one season and appear to fall out of the ranks the next, race routes change, the weather is pleasant, or harsh, or somewhere in-between.
Let’s just look at the Tour this year. Who raced? Froome? Yep. Contador? Yep. Nibali? Yep. Sagan? Yep. Cavendish? Yep. Want me to keep going?
There were a bunch of big names on the start line, and look what happened; most were annihilated.
This year’s Tour in particular was won through a force of will to survive heinous conditions.
As a spectator, and maybe more importantly, one who values the role the environment plays in racing, it was awesome to watch.
The fall out, by the way: a good number of those big names who were defeated in the Tour showed up for the bastard-child of the grand tours: the Vuelta.
I was so stoked for the Spanish tour this year. Quintana promised to be fresh after his long hiatus, and Contador and Froome were undoubtedly bloodthirsty and looking for redemption. Let’s not even talk about the rivalry between teammates Valverde and Quintana.
Sure. It could have played out different, but it didn’t.
The pro cycling circuit is a forest of ancient trees.
Some are taller and more prestigious, some are gnarled and twisted like hell, yet others grow into each other and compete for the same limited space, all while a new crop of shoots fights to grow into their own.
Lopping them all off to about the same height and distance to create some UCI-sanctioned monoculture is to fail entirely to see this forest for the trees.

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