August is the busiest month of the year for pro cycling with more race days than any other time of the year. But there’s a comedown after the Tour de France and it’s also hard to place the races in context.
Much of the season sees the calendar spread out like chapters in storybook but once the Tour is over it feels like the tale stops. For example some of the enjoyment of the Dauphiné or Tour de Suisse comes from anticipating tactics and form ahead of the Tour de France, the same with other races before the classics or Giro.
But August is different, there’s little to build up to the Vuelta and perhaps even Zdeněk Štybar’s win today in the Eneco Tour is something to think about in the context of next year’s spring classics?
It’s possible to enjoy a race in its own right but there’s something extra when the race is part of a storyline leading to a great moment of the season. When the race is live there’s plenty to involve you in the action but the context of upcoming battles adds something more, the chance to scans the results, examine sprint teams and perhaps check climbing times and power estimations with a view to forecasting what might happen next. For example you can enjoy a stage in the Dauphiné in its own right but there’s another dimension by projecting forward to what might happen in the Tour de France a month later.
It’s not always healthy. The Tour de France dominates the calendar and reduces many races in June to prologue events. David Veilleux took a great win in the Dauphiné’s opening stage. He punched into a headwind, powered over the climbs and held off the chase but talk turned to whether he’d be part of Europcar’s nine man team for the Tour. It’s as if victory can’t be enjoyed for its own sake, as if there is permanently another race, a fresh test.
Even the European national championships can be seen through the Tour’s prism because we discover who will be wearing new jerseys for the Tour. Also selection decisions can be made after this race, a strange idea given results in a one day race can be random at best and picking riders for the biggest rendez vous of the year is surely not something to be left to the last minute.
All the same the Tour de France helps give these races extra meaning. It’s the same with other races, for example the Tour of the Basque Country is a great contest but also reveals who is coming into shape for the Ardennes Classics. The Giro di Trentino manages to attract a lot of star riders because it’s a warm-up race for the Giro, there is a symbiosis between a grand tour and the preparatory races that precede it.
A mental leap is required too. The Eneco Tour is on now in Belgium and the Netherlands, terrain more famous for the spring classics. It’s almost strange to see a stage race in the land of one day races. Of course it’s perfectly normal to have a stage race in countries where cycling is so popular but we’re so used to seeing these lands in April that warm sunshine, trees laden with leaves and fields full of crops almost make the race look out of place.
There’s also the question of perspective. Races on at the moment like the Eneco Tour or the Tour de l’Ain – Romain Bardet’s just taken his first pro win – might feel small and perhaps nothing to get excited about but they’re still big events that sit at the top of a pyramid of races. The Eneco Tour is Belgium’s biggest stage race.
The concept of looking ahead to the next race shows up a couple of problems of the Vuelta. First of all there are not many races to whet the appetite. The Vuelta a Burgos is always a good test with its Queen Stage a helpful indicator of pre-race form but there are not many other pre-Vuelta races; last year Alberto Contador was shining in the Eneco Tour but it’s hard to build much a story from this race to the Spanish tour. The Vuelta itself suffers because it’s a chapter in the storyline leading to the worlds with several big name riders using the race to improve their condition for the Worlds.
Look to 2014
We’re already looking forward to 2014. It’s transfer season and the announcements of rider moves and contract extensions allows us to project into 2014, skipping past all the races yet to happen this year.
Stybar’s win is another form of projection with many cyclo-cross fans wondering how he will do on the road. A series of wins already means the only question is what he’ll do next, especially in the spring classics next season. Already 2014 is shaping up.
Longer term there’s talk of reform to the calendar with plans to stop races on the World Tour overlapping. It should help ensure more focus on each race rather than seeing races compete for the attention of fans. But take the Dauphiné and Tour de Suisse which overlap at the moment, it’s not ideal but if there was no clash because there was a gap between these events it still might not bring the best racers trying their hardest. Many would still use the race as preparation or perhaps skip it all together as perhaps you can’t do the Dauphiné and Suisse in June without being too tired for the Tour de France.
A race’s status can be measured in different ways from the prize list to past winners, UCI category or total distance. But another test is whether a race can be used for training to target another race. Perhaps only the Tour de France and Paris-Roubaix are not training events? This leaves hundreds of other races which offer excitement and prestige but also allow fans to track the progress of a season, a chance to look beyond the daily winner.