The Story of The Season

Zdenek Stybar Eneco Tour

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.

David Veilleux
Veilleux celebrates but talk quickly turned to whether he’d get selected for the Tour

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.

47 thoughts on “The Story of The Season”

  1. The Spring and Fall Classics have intrigued me most, but I cannot put my finger on why. Perhaps just an anticipation for the season ahead and introspection on the season that proceeded. With Stybar doing well, could it signify the next generation of Classics specialists coming of age? I am somewhat out of touch, but curious about the rise and (seemingly) falls of riders such as Gilbert and Devolder at the Classics (and in general). Thank you, as always, for another plate of food for thought.

  2. spot on, as always. I think the Worlds and Il Lombardia aren’t training events. And of course some less known names ‘peak’ towards other races.

    • Good point about the worlds and Lombardia. I thought about the Italian race but it’s also been an end of season race so by definition it didn’t lead on to anything. That’s changed now but there’s still not much to follow on, except for the Tour of Beijing points grab.

      • I know that realistically it’s impossible to control, but I wonder whether it would be worth engineering a second classics season in autumn/fall with Il Lombardia and the worlds as the main focuses.

        It seems to me that single day races peter out in favour of tours as the year wears on. It would be good if specialists had something to aim for later in the year. They could take up the slack when all the big stage racers are out of sight.

        I say this partly based on my own cycling. I cycle in the hills when temperatures are colder and daylight hours are short and then switch to longer rides (albeit not three-week rides) during the summer months. It gives a nice rhythm to my year and I don’t see why something similar couldn’t work with the pros.

        • I think there are a lot of fall one day races if you look for them. In addition to the worlds and Lombardia, there are a the two Canadian races, GP Ouest, Vattenfall, Paris Tours, Tre Valli Varesine, Giro del Piemonte and San Sebastian. There’s the now defunt Züri-Metzgete that was a great race.
          One of the best parts about the World Cup was how it split the season into two equal halfs, with riders chasing points year round.

          • It doesn’t constitute a season in quite the same way as the spring classics though, does it? They’re quite disparate races, spanning continents and a couple overlap with the Vuelta. We as followers of the sport can pick out a bunch of one-day races at this time of year, but they don’t produce much of a narrative because they’re not targeted by riders in quite the same way.

  3. But this is also part of the beauty of the calendar. Many of these events do not have a projection, in terms of a larger goal, but now the weight of season is fully in display. For it is now about the rider, not the race. Who has had an anemic spring and/or summer and is looking for a result? Who comes out of the TdF with great legs and exploits that form. Which riders are in need of a contract for the following year and are desperately riding to impress. Also, the chase for the rainbow jersey is an intriguing story line. Think of many of the great riders who tried in vain to wear that jersey,and failed. At this point in the season many riders are starting to develop nausea from the bike, and who is still hungry enough to battle, or is content to start their preparation for 2014. The 2013 story has been told, but we can also enjoy the epilogue.

  4. Better still once the season is over I can look back during the winter months too. Going back over past football games and results just isn’t the same, the varied nature of the calendar means revisiting the spring classics is a different thing.

    I’m also getting into the history of the sport, it seems we can go back to Merckx, Coppi and more.

  5. This has been the first year that I have followed the entire WorldTour season as a fan (not in person alas). In previous years Le Tour seemed like an epic plateau of excitement, a parallel universe of athletic magnificence, this year not so much. Maybe I have over indulged…..
    I have always liked like the post-Tour comedown, and the eerie melancholy of La Vuelta, a weary swansong in the baking heat, a final twitch of the wounded beast. For me it exemplifies the tragic masochism of the sport, the destructive nature of heroism and ambition, the relentless futility juxtaposed with astonishing passion. And I like the silly ITV4 Vuelta jingle. Looking forward to the Vuelta previews, I hope this blog continues forevermore, thanks for doing it.

    • ‘…and the eerie melancholy of La Vuelta, a weary swansong in the baking heat’. Agree, wonderfully put! Watching it from Northern Europe as summer is ebbing away adds to the melancholy feel for me.

  6. Doesn’t this speak more to the hype that journalists build around the Tour than it
    does to the stature of the races before and after? Think of how many riders at the
    Tour seem to be saddle-fillers rather than adding to the ‘superiority’ of the event!

    Each race, or tour, has its own character, it’s own identity or vibe. Personally I more
    interested in the Giro, Vuelta and Tour de Suisse than TDF. The only moment I
    was jumping out of my chair during TDF was when Jan Bakelants burnt muscle in order
    to hold of a pack of wild dogs chasing him to the line! And that was during the first few days.
    The rest of the Tour…I think they refer to it as ‘anti-climax’!

    As for the Classics…TDF does not compare! Still glowing from Cioleks ability to sell Sagan a
    pug face! Bring on Il Lombardia!

  7. Thinking of individual races and longer narratives, I wonder if anyone has written anything on longer cycles in cycling. What I mean is that in the short time I’ve been following the sport I’ve noticed that much attention is paid to when various riders aim to peak in a year. But there seem to have been several riders whose performance has peaks and valleys on a longer scale. For instance, Tom Boonen seems to have been in something of a decline until his excellent year last year. Phillipe Gilbert had his magical year and then nothing, but he seems (I hope) to be on his way back. Have there been any coaches, athletes, or journalists who think in terms longer than single seasons? I’d be interested to read anything about this, if anyone knows where to find it!

      • Yep, an ‘interesting’ man who seems to pop in various teams around the same time they have a bit of a winning streak? OPQS have had a great season and Lampre have just never been the same since he left…

        Might be coincidental, but he does seem to bring marginal gains aplenty!

        • lets just hope Brailsford doesn’t employ him for a year before becoming ‘aware’ of his background…
          sadly the more I read of Lefevere and his comments and actions etc, the less I trust his ‘judgement’.

          • Hmm, that is disappointing. However, I still think this would be something worthwhile to track. It seems like something maybe Sky would be thinking about, unless their philosophy is that the right training should mean riders can be at their peak all year every year?

          • So wacha saying? You might ask, well I ain’t saying noth’ , I’m just saying…
            I like those two riders but it put a dampen to my excitement needless to say, this being cycling…
            OPQ or Lotto should have known better.
            Then again, something as simple as changing butcher seems to influence a cyclist performance cycle…

  8. For me the next big races are the World Championships which looks like it should be exciting this year.

    Then of course the cyclo-cross season starts, which I will enjoy, both as a participant in my local league and as a spectator at the bigger events 🙂

    The Tour of Britain should be entertaining, if only to see what Quintana makes of the British roads (and weather…)

  9. I understand your point of view. The race schedule is buildt up like a classic drama, with diffrent Storylines and protagonists.
    We have the early season as introduction, the classics campaign and Giro as rising action and of course the Tour as climax and other different subplots. The August with Vuelta should be falling Action and WCC and fallclassics as the final. Whats wrong with August is that there are to much races which split the stars and that they’re not fit into the bow of suspense. We go from Tour which include every terrain to almost flat races. I would suggest to intoduce a real tour revanche with all the stars (maybe USPCC)
    a Vuelta Preperation and a sprinters campaign. 3 races a day should be enough.
    But aside from those problems, there are a bunch of different and attractive races. Tour de l’Ain, I rode myself as Cadet, is an exiting race with regional flair. The same with Burgos, Artic Race, Denmark and Portugal. These races offer the chance for regional, young and not so successfull riders to shine, not to mention their teams (like Vacansolei). So August has its own dynamic and charme of racing.

    Personally I prefer the August with different regional events and one big stagerace as Tour Revanche (not Pologne or Eneco, they are to flat and have no soul).

  10. Though they are not all WT races, I like the way North American races are developing into interesting late season narrative. From the high altitude stage races in Utah and Colorado, to the new race in Alberta and ending with the 2 single day WT races in Canada, we see a large block of regional racing where a number of the same WT and and Pro-Conti riders participate throughout. It’s interesting both as an internal narrative over this month but also as it is an alternative build up to Worlds.

  11. I like the post tour tours actually and I think they serve an important purpose for people who are just getting “really” into cycling after the tour. I remember my first tour that I watched fully, it was great to see some riders in the races after, who I felt like I knew because I’d seen them in the tour a couple of weeks back. Then after that they tided me through to the Vuelta, and from there I was hooked.

  12. Personally I definitely find it easier to remain motivated to follow EVERYTHING through the classics season and then the Giro-Tour period. August definitely feels like a comedown (though perhaps burnout is an issue as well, it’s a long season!). Rather than battle internally with myself and my current lack of commitment to say follow the Eneco Tour and the Vuelta Burgos I am going to accept my feelings for what they are and just concentrate on the Vuelta and Worlds (which should be great this year…) when they come along. Oh and the Tour of Britain, because you have to support your home race!

  13. Is the Eneco Tour the biggest stage race in Belgium? I’d wager that the locals hold the Tour of Belgium in higher regard. However, it’s place on the calendar (clashing with the Giro) limits the quality of the field.

  14. Having just finished the cyclo version of the Tour de l’Ain (run concurrently with the pro version, just a few hours ahead of it each day), it great to see an otherwise forgotten department of France get a bit of it’s own glory (poor neighbors to the Haute Savoie and Provence). A lot of locals never even get to feel part of the Tour de France when it comes to their town, it’s more like a speeding freight train that blows in and out of town, more focussed on it’s own cargo than on it’s surroundings. At the l’Ain, locals mingled with the riders each day and on any hint of a climb there was a family or a retired couple set up with folding table, lunch, and a bottle of rouge on the roadside to enjoy the day’s festivities. It felt like cycling from a bygone era. It felt grassroots, it never felt contrived.

  15. I find this time of year a reshuffling of the decks. Teams are losing, and adding riders, younger super domestiques are presented opportunities to shine as their team leaders prepare for the worlds.

    As well a reshuffling of the pecking order for neo-pros, who are lest we forget as new professionals seek to influence their financial future by achieving goals expected of them or not.

    Every race day morning presents an opportunity for a “new” star to emerge especially in these “lesser” races.

  16. I followed every race I could from the winter until the Tour de France. That means downloading torrents of every semi classic I could find, and watched the full footage.
    But I have to admin since the end of the Tour I’m less interested in following the races. I watched Poland, but much less than what was broadcasted. I haven’t seen any footage of the Burgos, for example, not much of the Eneco either.
    Maybe I’m just tired, and will be back for the Vuelta, but I’m not sure.

  17. there are plenty of wonderful pro races in Italy all the way to the end of the season. I always look forward to it and you just have to check it out not always watch cycling through yellow tinted lenses. Why not rosa?

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