What was longest event at the Olympics this year? The answer is the men’s road race, six hours and ten minutes and by some margin. That’s roughly double the duration of the 50km walk and three times longer than the marathon, the 10km open water swim and the triathlon. Games like tennis or cricket can last for days but they stop for lunch. Cycling’s unique selling point isn’t distance but this is big part of its identity, race names like Paris-Nice evoke distances normally done by plane, train or automobile and even the combination of all three.
Only now some races are being shortened to make them snappier for TV. Are we in danger of losing something?
Cycling has traded on distance, endurance and stamina from the start. Many of the early bike races were ways to advertise the solidity and robustness of bicycles. The premise was that if a bicycle could survive a race from Paris to Rouen then it would be good enough for a commute to the factory or field, especially in an era where a typical buyer may never travel beyond their village or town in their lifetime.
Over the course of the next century this distance would be at the core of the sport’s legend. It wasn’t that Coppi or Merckx just won bike races, it was because they’d accomplish feats that mortals could not imagine. Distance was majestic. It still is. Nineteenth century vestiges like Milan-Sanremo persist. Modernity means these events are easier, what was once a self-supported stunt that started before dawn is now a smoother affair with tarmac and a following car. But it remains exceptionally hard. The three grand tours are so long that if a new promoter came along and tried to copy them they’d surely be denied. A non-cycling friend once heard about the 250km Paris-Roubaix race, “how many days does that take?” they enquired and were shocked to hear it was done in a day. Mountain stages in the grand tours elicit similar incomprehension and wonder and this form part of the sport’s attraction. Cycling stakes a claim to be one of the hardest sports around.
Only all this is a bore for the television. What is hard going tends to be slow and gradual and that’s bad for ratings. Annually we get excited about Milan-Sanremo but when it’s live on TV there’s a lot of nothing happening for hours on end and this can be replicated in many races, daily even during a grand tour. Of course there’s action too but it can be the TV equivalent of an afternoon’s fishing with hours spent in idle anticipation of sport. Of course there are things to enjoy in the meantime, such as who has gone in the early breakaway and the tactical considerations of this but this subtle, like an art critic spending ages pouring over the brush strokes left behind on a canvas when most people just glance at a painting and move on. In a world where the TV viewer can just press the remote or open a new tab cycling’s languor is a weakness.
The response in recent years has been to make stages shorter and snappier. It’s scientific as the greater the distance, the more gruelling the contest and you don’t need someone in a lab coat to tell you that after seven hours it’s hard to attack, let alone to launch a flurry of moves and counter others. The result is that long mountain stages see the riders huddle for hours on end and only strike out when its safe to do so because the risks of failure are catastrophic. By contrast a short stage allows – but does not guarantee – a livelier race. Think of the stage the Tour de France stage to Alpe d’Huez in 2011, just 109km and a textbook example of what race owners hope will happen as Alberto Contador attacked at the foot of the Col du Télégraphe prompting other GC contenders including the yellow jersey Thomas Voeckler and eventual winner Cadel Evans to give chase.
It’s exciting but what if this becomes the norm? A parade of ever shorter stages in the mountains where the pros are regularly contesting battles between, say, 80-130km. It’s made for TV and we consume cycling by TV now. Yes you might read a race report online or leaf a copy of L’Equipe or La Gazzetta and even read a stage preview over here but these tend to be subsidiary to watching the live TV. These abbreviated stages are have gone from the experimental to a fixture with several short stages in each of the grand tours and they co-exist alongside other marathon stages like the Giro’s 227km royal stage to Bormio and the Tour’s 214km Pyrenean passage to Peyragudes.
What danger more and more short races appear at the expense of the habitual distances? If the sport’s legend has been built on these distances then is losing this key feature going to undermine the sport’s identity? If we take it as a given that shorter mountain stages are likely to offer more action then who will be the first classics organiser to experimentally condense their one-day race? Bastogne-Liège anyone? That might sound outrageous but Paris-Roubaix or Gent-Wevelgem are already Compiègne-Roubaix and Deinze-Wevelgem respectively, although these abbreviations are not driven by TV. The question is if they’ve been shortened already could they be reduced even more? Possibly but we really see this effect at work in the mountain stages of the grand tours.
The good news is that shorter races are relative, mountain stages are shorter but the overall distance of a grand tour isn’t down by much since the rise of the shorter mountain stages.
Also among all the ham-fisted reforms that get announced and abandoned there’s little institutional pressure to abbreviate the races, there’s no compulsion to abandon this distance.
Much of cycling’s legend rests on its distance. Races are uncommonly long and no other sport, at least among the Olympics, takes so much time. We take this for granted and Paris-Roubaix, the Tour of Flanders or Il Lombardia are 250km and six or more hours because that’s just the way they are. We ought to reflect and even take pride on the enormity of a sport than can cross landscapes and mountain ranges in a day.
Now races are being shrunk to fit on TV. Concern with the loss of the sport’s character is just thinking aloud at the moment, a means to turn thoughts into pixels and explore some of the issues. It feels like we need to be concerned but this blog has yet to review the highlights of the year and obvious contenders include the final stage of Paris-Nice, the shortest stage of the week; a stage or two of the Giro, perhaps the 132km run to Andalo where attacks flew from the start or the 134km dash to Sant’Anna di Vinadio where the race was turned upside down; or what about the 146km stage of the Tour de France to St Gervais won by Romain Bardet, the shortest stage if we exclude time trials and the Parisian parade; ditto the Vuelta and its “Froomigal” stage, the shortest but surely the most exciting day? Less is more it seems. If formula works in the short term the question is whether we’ve settled on a new equilibrium that alternates sprints and marathons or if this is the start of an inexorable trend?