Having looked at the racing and Alberto Contador’s victory yesterday, time to look at the race itself. It’s been a successful tour with big TV audiences, as you’ll see below. Were 10 summit finishes necessary? Was there a big contest for the points and mountains jersey? What can the Tour de France organisers ASO learn from this race?
This was certainly a race for the mountain climbers with 10 summit finishes. These ranged from 10 minute ascensions where riders had to be caught after crossing the line to ski stations with big wide roads and so each brought something specific. But each time they tended to tease out the same result.
I’ve written about how thanks to the right gearing the steepest climbs are an almost arithmetic test of rider power to weight, divide one by the other and the highest score wins. So yes we got the same riders trying for the same result but because the climbs varied it did feel different. What we didn’t get was much steep climbing mid-stage or a descent to the finish line to vary the mix, most stages saw a succession of easier climbs before finishing up a wall.
All that climbing certainly worked on TV. It had a maximum share of the TV audience of 21.5% with the Stage 20 and the Bola Del Mundo climb drawing in 2.6 million viewers in Spain, making it the the most viewed bike race in Spain since the Vuelta in 2004, an age when multi-channel television was limited. Overall half the Spanish population watched at least some of the race and on average it had 1.4 million viewers a day and over 10% of the viewing audience, making it the most watched edition of the race since 2006.
If the Vuelta had so many uphill finishes it was because the race sought out extra climbs and roads and it’s something the Tour de France could reflect on. Many of the climbs were not above 1,500 metres above sea level, proving you don’t have to head to the high mountains and climb above the tree line for steep and selective roads.
Beyond the Alps and Pyrenees the spread of TV, mobile telecoms and, increasingly, wind turbines mean many hills and ridges have small, surfaced roads to their peaks, for example Mont Tauch which sits beyond the eastern end of the Pyrenees but it’s one of many examples. These offer intense climbs and if there are logistical problems to get the race up and then back down these climbs, then the TV spectacle can outweigh the costs. On the money side, stages often finish in large ski resorts as they are happy to bid big for the privilege. But the audience figures mean an exciting finish is far more lucrative for the Tour and its sponsors. Used sparingly these finishes provide a thrill but without setting the overall classification in stone.
I can’t make up my mind on time bonuses. I like the way they force riders to sprint, rewarding the lively riders. But I don’t like the artifice they bring to the overall classification. Also they incentivise riders to save energy for the finish line instead of emptying the tank during the climb. I’m happy to see them in the Giro and Vuelta but equally happy they are not in the Tour.
I also didn’t see a great contest for the other jerseys. Don’t get me wrong, Simon Clarke did a great job though, he started the year with a flat battery on his bike and rode a clever Vuelta to take the jersey and then defend his lead but it wasn’t a head-to-head duel. But the points jersey seems to be too closely correlated with the overall result. It is not a sprinter’s jersey but we didn’t seem to see much of a scrap until Valverde poached it on the last day.
Another issue with the jerseys is that the holder gets no reward ranking points. There is a daily cash prize or “rent” and it generates both publicity and pride. But no UCI points. The overall classification in Madrid gets UCI points of course but wearing the red jersey for many days earns no points, the same for the other jerseys. Worse, there is not a single ranking point for winning the points or mountains jersey competition. As often stated on here, ranking points are a currency in pro cycling and riders who win these prizes should perhaps get the economic prize to match the prestige of the jersey.
A successful race with some innovations. The organisers had plenty of climbing but ex-pro Abraham Olano ensured nothing too hard appeared too soon. For me this is a crucial lesson for other races, it is possible to have steep climbs in many cases so long as organisers have a “lite” finish line, perhaps with the media infrastructure and more located at the foot of the climb. Remember the Tour organisers ASO own half of the Vuelta and should pick up on this. It’s a way to ensure the first week is never just for the sprinters, that the battle for the overall lead should take place early and often.
But the Vuelta organisers can learn from others too. Take the points and mountains jerseys, they see too closely correlated with the race for the overall and if used right, can help to animate the moments when the big names are taking it easy. That said the organisers are probably very satisfied with the race and the strong TV audiences.
Either way that’s it for the grand tours in 2012 and we can project our thoughts to next year. It might seem a long time away but the 2013 Tour de France route is unveiled in six weeks’ time.