Television is the driving force behind pro racing today and course design reflects this. The Vuelta is an interesting example because of the trend for uphill finishes. This year’s race has 11 of them.
It’s entertaining but often you need only catch the final 20 minutes and that’s still plenty of time to settle into your proverbial sofa and look out for small details like which team mates are where and so on before the action hots up. It’s TV as tapas, bite-sized snacks to consume each day rather than a visual feast.
A more subtle course might provide better racing though. One of the best finishes in the Vuelta so far was Stage 12 to Estaca de Barès, culminating in Alexandre Geniez’s stage. It was a tactical finish with the big breakaway splitting from far out under Davide Formolo’s attacks and then a lively race with more splits and lots of poker moments.
Again and again in recent years the Vuelta exploits steep uphill finishes. These are exciting and crucially promise to be exciting. It’s this second component that helps bring in the audience, people know there’s a goat path with 25% slopes tomorrow so they’ll make an appointment to watch the race again. A bunch sprint can deliver thrills but the stages tend to be formulaic, the early breakaway containing a handful of riders tasked with “animating” the race, code for giving the TV producer two scenes to film, to be able to flick between the break and the bunch. An uphill finish though is intense and sees the big contenders in action.
The audience plays a part too, the bulk of the audience of for the Vuelta is the domestic viewers in Spain and they’re more likely to want to watch the likes of Alejandro Valverde contend for stages compared to a sprint stage where currently Spain has no world class sprinters. There’s academic research to support this. A paper from 2015 by Rodriguez, Perez, Puente and Rodriguez in the Journal of Sports Economics looked at audience data and one conclusion is that “the audience for cycling has a nationalistic component that is easily understandable as a function of proximity, language, and patriotic feelings” or put plainly the Spanish audience is boosted when Spaniards are winning, just as, say the Dutch audience for the Giro would grow if a Dutchman was leading and so on. This implies it makes sense to design a course that suits the biggest audience segment, in this case the Spanish audience. Still with the retirement of Joaquim Rodriguez and Alberto Contador, Spanish success in these uphill finishes isn’t as numerous. When Alejandro Valverde retires perhaps the course design will change? It’s not to say the Vuelta is explicitly made this way but it can influence things.
One danger with all these summit finishes is the pernicious effect of inflation. We’ve seen the Tour de France exploit more steep roads, the idea is that the greater the slope the less the drafting effect and so Team Sky’s mountain train isn’t as dominant. But it means a climb like, say, the Col du Tourmalet, looks boring in comparison. Back to the Vuelta and the advent of 20% climbs make even a 10% slope look humdrum. So you need 25%, then you need 25% on a cement track, then 25% and gravel and so on in order to grab attention.
None of this is new. Rik Van Steenbergen won the 1954 Milan-Sanremo, marking the start of a series of foreign wins and Italians felt “their” race was being stolen by foreign sprinters so they added the climb of the Poggio in 1960 and so on; Paris-Roubaix only really became the cobbled classic we know today in 1967; some of bergs of the Ronde van Vlaanderen were only included in the 1970s. More recently Gent-Wevelgem has incorporated gravel tracks, Paris-Tours will do so later this year. But it does seem that the Vuelta’s recent theme is to seek out some of the steepest roads possible, to the point of paving dirt tracks, this was the case with the climb of Les Praeres above Naves on Stage 14 which was tarmacked so it could host the Vuelta. Things end up full circle where having ever steeper climbs because of TV the course ends up using access roads to TV and telecoms masts.
A grand tour reflects a country’s geography but the Vuelta seems to relish the steep climbs, perhaps because this has suited local riders likes of Alejandro Valverde, Alberto Contador and Joaquim Rodriguez well in recent years and home success can boost TV audiences. These uphill finishes make for exciting TV, you can make an appointment to tune in for the action. But the quest for ever steeper climbs can render normal mountain stages boring, once slopes of 15-25% become the norm a route without them could look underwhelming.