The Tirreno-Adriatico race concludes today with a time trial and there will be some sore legs from the previous day’s racing. Stage 6 included a climb that with a modest average that hid some sections at 27%. This had riders stalling with many having to walk up and some got a push. A sizeable number of riders quit and after a 130km solo effort BMC Racing’s Taylor Phinney crossed the line but was eliminated after missing the time cut.
It created a post-stage polemic with many riders taking to the airwaves, Twitter or their blogs to say the stage was too much. Race director Michele Acquarone was moved to say sorry. Was the climb too much?
First let’s look at the climb itself. In fact there were two routes up to the hilltop village of Sant’Elpidio al Mare, first approaching from the west and then a finishing circuit that climbed up for the east. But both sides had slopes of 27% according to the race manual whilst the road had a warning sign with 30% on it. Riders knew it was coming and came equipped with special low gearing.
But the gradient alone wasn’t the problem:
- the road was very narrow and with an uneven surface. This means if one rider stalls, whether because of their legs or a crunched gear change, then others nearby can’t escape and have to stop
- a big factor was the rain, the started dry but the clouds rolled in. Riders trying to stand on the pedals found their wheels slipping. More and more teams are running 25mm tires this year and even with lower pressure there was plenty of slippage
Is there a maximum gradient?
Visit the HQ of Michelin in central France and you’ll see strange ramps that slope up into the sky. They’re redundant today but remain a landmark. In the past testers would drive up and find at what point a vehicle slid backwards, a test of grip.
With cycling such a test can’t be replicated. There’s no set gradient when a cyclist will slide back down the hill. Plus each rider is unique with a different weight, position on the bike and more. Instead, especially when cadence slows, grip is disrupted by the uneven torque as a rider leg presses their way up. Momentum matters too because the longer the climb, the more the gradient takes its toll.
So whilst we have rules on sock length or the maximum distance of a race, the sport can’t rule out a road because its gradient. The difficulty of a road is function of the slope, surface, length, width and more and its use is the choice of the race director.
Tirreno-Adriatico has long exploited these climbs. No more so that visits to Montelupone and the backroad ascent with its 20% slopes where Joaquim Rodriguez made a name for himself. In fact this week alone we’ve seen the infamous Chieti stage finish with its 19% ramp into the town. Now 27% is a different story but fits a pattern, see the return of the Muro di Sormano in Il Lombardia.
The Zomegnan Factor
Angelo Zomegnan is an journalist who rose up through La Gazzetta Dello Sport to become the Giro’s race director. In reductive terms Zomegnan’s reign as race boss is remembered for wild stages that probed the frontier between sport and Wacky Races as the race sought out the most fiendish roads possible and when the roads ran out, Zom found dust tracks. The Olympic games have a motto of Citius, Altius, Fortius but Zomegnan had the derivative creed of Lentius, Altius, Furiosius.
To his credit the 2010 Giro d’Italia has to be one of the finest grand tours in recent times and if the riders make the race, the route included the infamous strade bianche stage and Alpine mayhem. But the flipside was that some riders complained and more riders avoided the race, fearing it was simply too tough. This left the race an Italo-Italian affair with domestic teams and riders keen but many others skipping it. The point is that too many difficulties scare riders away and you create an infernal spiral where the public soon takes ordinary climbs for granted and expects more and more each year.
Competition and Rivalry
Vincenzo Nibali and Chris Froome aren’t the only rivals this week. Tirren0-Adriatico coincides with Paris-Nice and the Italian race got most of the best riders. Not to knock Richie Porte and Andrew Talansky but they’ll readily admit they don’t have the star factor of Alberto Contador or Mark Cavendish.
— Michele Acquarone (@micacquarone) March 11, 2013
So we need to see Michele Acquarone’s in the context of this rivalry and Zomegnan’s past. RCS pulled off a coup but they’ll be concerned about bad memories and riders opting for Paris-Nice in 2014.
Hard Day’s Work
Think twice before labelling the riders as soft for complaining. A 200km stage in the rain is hard enough and it comes after a week of racing. The slopes of Porto Sant’ Elpidio took riders out of their comfort zone and it’s normal some wanted to complain. After a hard day at work, it’s normal to say so and these Twitter lets riders express themselves when in the past complaints might have stayed on the bus or in the hotel. Ride a mile in their shoes before you have a go.
For all the technical analysis, complaints and apologies so far, it was fantastic television that had many viewers on the rivet of their sofa. Chris Froome said the slope wasn’t ruinous, the cold got to him. But one rider said yesterday that the race put the “credibility of the sport in question.”
On the contrary, it made it human again. These days pro cyclists are Voodoo children who chop down mountains with their legs. Riders spin up The Stelvio at 90rpm, still 80 minutes of threshold pain but the riders often look at ease. Yesterday saw the riders reduced to pushing their bike. Everyone could relate to it.
In the last week Team Sky had been suffocating their rivals but the squad fell apart yesterday. The squad’s high tempo tactics don’t just strangle rivals but suspense too. Whilst hardcore fans admire pacing strategy, many casual viewers flick channels. So when Froome was isolated and then dropped I wonder if Tour de France chef Christian Prudhomme is scrambling to find some wild slopes for his race? Probably not, after all the Mur de Péguère in last year’s Tour will be remembered for the punctures rather than its gradient. But if a race owner is worried about mountain trains dulling a race then these slopes can sometimes derail team plans.
There’s a final line between sport and spectacle and yesterday a good proportion of the pro peloton felt the race went too far. Fabian Cancellara labelled it as sado-masochistic and many others complained. But for all the concerns, a moment like this is memorable. Giant mountain passes thin the bunch but TV viewers end up watching a gradual power to weight contest whereas yesterday brought genuine unpredictability.
The irregular and slippery nature of yesterday’s climb guarantees that Porto Sant’ Elpidio remains part of the sport’s legend and it stands out because the sight of riders pushing their bikes uphill is such a rarity.
Was it too much? There’s no right and wrong here. The race would have been different if the roads had been dry.