A Change of Gear

The Brabantse Pijl happens today. La Flèche Brabançonne to francophones, this is a hilly race and the start of the “Ardennes” spring classics and a transition race from the cobbles to the climbs as it features both.

It’s good to change format but the upcoming races seem to be stuck in a rut with repetitive scenarios.

A new cast: it’s always good to change and after weeks of cobbled classics and flat routes, now the big one day races start to climb and we’ll see plenty of new names in action like Philippe Gilbert, Michael Matthews, Michał Kwiatkowski in action against Vincenzo Nibali, Nairo Quintana and Chris Froome, especially as the revised route of the Flèche-Wallonne will mimic the route of the Tour de France’s third stage. Liège-Bastogne-Liège is the hilliest with enough vertical gain to rival a stage of the Tour de France.

Sit tight and snipe: for all the promise of new names and some stage race stars forced to put it all on the line in a one day race there’s a formulaic nature to these races. Each event is reduced to an uphill sprint and even if the effort is quite different the same names seem to feature. Now someone can win the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix in the same year too but somehow this is more convincing and committed, the winner on the cobbles has be at the front of the race for a long time and take risks. Whereas in the Ardennes the optimum strategy is to track the leaders and, having saved energy, win the sprint. It’s still a huge effort to win but for TV viewers the action is late and unsatisfying. This is especially true of the Flèche Wallonne where a bunch “sprint” seems inevitable – the last rider to have won from a breakaway was Igor Astarloa in 2003. It can be a good day out to stand on the Mur de Huy to see the race pass several times and also to see the women’s racing too but the sport lives today for television. It’s also the shortest ever write-up for a Moment The Race Was Won review piece.

Romain Bardet Flèche Wallonne

A flat finish to prevent a sprint? There’s been talk about moving the finish of Liège-Bastogne-Liège to Liège. Currently it finishes in the suburb of Ans and there’s a contract to keep it there until 2018. But the idea is to change the formula and prompt more risk-taking from riders. The climb to Ans deters some from a late move because the long drag allows chasers to pace their pursuit and the theory goes that a flat finish in Liège would force the climbers to take a flyer with, say, 10-20km to go and use the hills before the finish in order to get away from the finisseur who’d beat them in a sprint. As well the theory goes that riders get used to a course, they know where to race but also where to recover, there’s no surprise factor. Whether a major course change would work is another matter, look at the countless changes to the finish of the Flèche-Wallonne to add more twists, turns and hills before the Mur de Huy and see how the story is always the same.

Small window: there’s a category of riders who only have a few chances to win every year whether in hilly one day races or taking out a grand tour stage win on a “transition day”. We call them puncheurs and in the peloton today they are riders like Philippe Gilbert and Simon Gerrans or others, go a level down there’s Nathan Haas or Arthur Vichot. Making the Ardennes races a target is their goal but there are few chances to thrive, just four races. Compare this to all the classics, whether big days like De Ronde or all the smaller ones like Dwars door Vlaanderen.

Ardennes police: the Brabantse Pijl, the Amstel, the Flèche Wallonne, Liège-Bastogne-Liège make up what are collectively called the Ardennes classics but only two are in the Ardennes. The Brabantse Pijl is just outside the area and this weekend’s Amstel is in the Dutch province of Limburg, not in the Ardennes either. However they’re all characterised as hilly one day races. Beer is also a theme too with the Brabantse Pijl starting in Leuven, home of Stella Artois and finishing in Overijse, home of Leffe and then Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race is of course named after a beer.

Elsewhere: these four races attract the best riders and plenty of coverage but look out for this Sunday’s Tro Bro Léon. The race organiser hates his race being called the Breton Paris-Roubaix, partly because he doesn’t want his event to be subjugated to another but also because the link is too simple, the Tro Bro Leon uses mud and gravel rather than cobbles. There’s also the Giro del Trentino and the Tour de Romandie. Trentino is a final test before the Giro for some while Romandie promises another pre-Tour de France clash with many of the big contenders for July in action.

Conclusion: some great races with some big names but if there’s a rich history, in recent years the televisual aspect has been lacking. Riders seem better able to survive the course, the speeds are higher and there’s more gain from lurking as long as possible in the bunch. The Flèche-Wallonne is the best example, numerous course changes never seem to change the scenario.

65 thoughts on “A Change of Gear”

  1. “Beer is also a theme too with the Brabantse Pijl starting in Leuven, home of Stella Artois and finishing in Overijse, home of Leffe ”

    Not anymore… It’s brewed in Leuven at the giant InBev site where Stella is also produced.

  2. A flat(ter) finish to LBL should be tried – back to how it once was.
    When will race organisers learn that having a tough finale does not always mean a more exciting race?

  3. Counting the days until L-B-L! Will (try to) ride some of the course over the two days prior. I have a hard time caring whether one of the 5 monuments is “TV-friendly” or not. It’s one of the FIVE MONUMENTS of the sport for Pietro’s sake! Does EVERYTHING in sport have to be boiled down for simpletons with short attention spans to enjoy?

        • +1 If you don’t find the Ardennes Classics exciting you don’t like cycling. There are plenty of ‘Formulaic’ bike races. Flat stages in Grand Tours always have a breakaway that gets caught in the last 10k, mountain stages are just a gradual whittling down until someone is left alone, someone always has a crack on the Poggio in Milan-Sanremo, and they always get caught, and the winning move in Flanders is usually initiated on the Oude Kwaremont. There will always be subtleties involved though, and its there that you find the enjoyment.

    • I’d have thought that ‘simpletons with short attention spans’ would prefer just to tune in for the final 20 minutes and see a sprint. (And that certainly seems to be what non-cycling-fan friends of mine are interested in.)
      LBL is still very exciting, but it could be better – and I think Inner Ring has a point that the Ardennes Classics end in an uphill sprint too often.
      Changing LBL to a flatter finish could encourage earlier attacks, leading to more interesting, nuanced races.

  4. The finish of the Flèche Wallonne is indeed the most predictable, but the Mur de Huy always produces a good show -even if it only lasts 3 minutes-…
    Regarding Liège, it depends. Last year was totally boring, it was almost a bunch sprint. In other years a group of riders successfully escaped on the Roche-aux-Faucons (on top of my mind I have the wins of Gilbert, Schleck, an one of Valverde’s). Anyway, it is clear that la Redoute is not anymore the place where everything happens.

    Curious to see what Gilbert can do. Doesn’t look to bad this year.
    Purito has come back, as we saw last week when winning euskal herriko itzulia.
    Valverde? Kwiatowsky?

  5. I like Fleche Wallonne very much. This race is calculable like tea ceremony. Inevitable there will be a spectacular big name mountain sprint. This classic offers the best one of all. Anything before that is a serious celebration af boredom. Observe the riders eating bananas and be ready for a total powerful Muur duel ala Contador-Evans.

  6. how many kilometers from Cauberg must be finish line be for it to be an exciting course?
    Last year it’s almost 2kms now its around 1.7 kms

  7. Inring, nothing is as boring as the flat sprint stages of Tour de France. Some have equated them to watching The Lord of the ring on wheels: still riding, still riding, still riding… Till the sprint of course. Thank god for the beauty of the French countryside. To continue the flat stages very rarely have impact on the GC classification (save a flat or a crash). So why not eliminate them too. Want to make cycling exciting – take away radios, power meters and other forms of informing the peloton of the gap to the break (I know utopia). That would end calculations and reward the brave and courageous.

    • The sprint stages are boring too but these classics are stacked with history and fame but as TV viewing goes, the audiences are falling. I’d love to write about an epic Flèche-Wallonne but it’s not been happening.

        • Ha, the former. “The Moment The Race Was Won” is often X surged ahead with 75m to go. There can be subtleties with hindsight, who was saving energy here and there, which team delivered their leader just right etc but the pattern has been a race decided in the final moments of the climb.

      • Spot on, Inrng. I wonder what is the difference in calories spent between an Hinault-era Flèche Wallonne or Liège-Bastogne-Liège and nowadays.

    • How do power meters help chasing?

      Also, even before radios they’d know the gap. Team cars and a DS with a stopwatch used to see to that. And that guy with the chalkboard. Even in the lowliest of road raced the commies will tell you the gap to the break.

    • The flat stages on the TDF being dull is not a reason to not try to improve LBL.
      And all the TDF organisers have to do is introduce one or two more lumpy, classics-style stages in place of a couple of pan-flat ones, as they did in 2011 – and they do have the Muur this year (plus the Dutch stages could be windy – with emphasis on the could [see this year’s Paris-Nice for an example of how relying on wind is not necessarily the key to a great stage]).
      If the peloton never knew what the gap was to the leaders (couldn’t happen anyway), they would never let a break go – so your idea would have the opposite effect to what you hope for.

      • Me too – but I’d be still more interested by a greater variety of stages. Too many of any one kind of stage tends to lead to less exciting racing: the Vuelta has fallen into this trap, of late – too many steep, summit finishes leads to same-y racing. In both cases, the big hitters all wait for the sprint at the end.
        Five flat stages in a row are not as exciting as four broken up by a lumpy stage in the middle, for instance.

        • Could be worse fella, remember the days when the Vuelta would routinely spend a week traversing various dead straight highways through featureless plains?

    • Agree with removing radios. It makes for much more interesting racing I personally believe. Just look at the London 2012 men race when Great Britain completely messed up the chase for the Cavendish win.

      Agree as well about power meters, it’d be interesting to see how Froome would ride in the mountains without one.

      • Exactly the same I would think… All it does is tell you how hard you’re going. If you can’t sustain the pace your opponent is putting down, then knowing you can’t isn’t going to make any difference.

      • London 2012 was to do with teams of just 5 (and no-one else wanting Cav to get to the finish in the front bunch) rather than radios or no radios.

  8. Haven’t you forgotten about San Sebastian and of course Il Lombardia and the slew of Italian races preceding it? These are all hilly one day (semi)-classics as well made for the Gilbert/Valverde types of riders. San Sebastian actually has a more or less flat finish and it seems to work there. Over the years we’ve seen climbers and punchers win, solo or from a reduced group. I guess it could work in LBL as well, then again, not every race has to boil down to the same scenario. And of course the riders make the race as much as the parcours, yesterday was a nice example of that.

  9. Pandering to the whims and fancies of a group of people, who are otherwise totally unrelated and have only their backsides planted on the sofa in common will inevitably not do the sport that much good in my opinion. Isn’t that what they have done with F1 over the years and it has become just a technological bore fest between the Haves and the Have Nots. I do not pretend to have the answer but I think it has a lot to do with the way people watch conventional tv now, in respect of Youtube, Iplayer etc. etc.

  10. I appreciate that its convenient for some to decree that power meters and race radios are the root of all evil, and are directly responsible for every boring race that you see.

    But they’re not.

    We had boring races before the introduction of either pieces of technology.

    It’s the route and it’s the riders that shape the race. Then throw in the additional factors of the riders now being of a consistently high standard right across the peloton, its far less attritional, far greater numbers of riders are still at the front come the finale, the pressure from team management to get the points + pressure from the sponsors to win big = more conservative racing…

    So, focus as INRNG on the route factor. What could be done to trigger a change in a big group arriving together to decide it in the final handful of minutes.

    • I agree. While the technologisation of sport isn’t always welcome, race radio and power meters are both perfectly logical and acceptable elements of racing.

      I also agree that it’s both route and rider that shapes the race – for example, a lot of the medium-mountian-ey transition stages in last year’s TdF would potentially have been more interesting were every team not attempting to mark Sagan out of the race.

      Having lively pro-conti invitees mixing things up also helps (e.g. Bretagne-Seche rather than Cofidis).

  11. What’s sure is that races will not get worse by banning those gadgets, and there are chances that they will get better and less predictable. No serious fan can defend them.

    • But surely that’s the same instinct that led to the hour record being totally demeaned for decades – the technical prohibitions just became ludicrous.

      As I commented above, we should view the introduction of new technology into a sport carefully and critically – but with power meters and race radio (and disc brakes) you’re hardly talking about bleeding-edge innovation. We’ve seen plenty of great racing with race radio.

      • The question is certainly not if it is still possible to see great racing with race radio. The question is if radio makes it more or less likely to see great, less predictable racing. Even if the quality of races stayed the same there wouldn’t be a case in favour of radios, because it would mean they didn’t add anything. And, let’s be honest, buddies, radios do not add anything for the spectator (what value could they add?), but on the contrary they can (and often do) detract value.
        And the same goes for anything that helps pelotons and riders pace themselves.

        • Ferdi, race radios are not the cause of all dull racing. In actuality, they make little difference: the way races are now is not that different to how they were pre-radio – it wasn’t anarchy back then, with riders randomly pinging off constantly. Teams still controlled races and riders (e.g. Lemond being forced by his team not to attack, because they wanted Hinault to win the Tour in 1985), and they almost always knew the time gaps.
          The major difference without radios is that riders have to decide tactics for themselves more often – but are still told what to do directly from team cars. This doesn’t necessarily lead to more attacking racing. For example, a rider might be in a chasing pack one minute back from a small group of leaders, but does nothing because he has a team mate in that lead group. However, he does not know that his team mate has been dropped and therefore does not attack – thus, there is less of a race.
          Without knowledge of what is going on up front, more conservative riding can result – sometimes; sometimes not.
          Another thing that can happen is that races are decided not by who is the best rider, has the best tactics, etc., but by ignorance. For example, Blel Kadri won the first Roma Maxima because the bunch behind did not chase him – because they did not know he was still out there. I think most people would agree that this is not something we’d like to commonly see.
          This is a complex argument; without a black and white simple answer. And that answer is not the solution to all dull racing.

    • I’m not a great adopter of bike-tech myself but I can’t see a problem with the use of power meters or race radios. As was mentioned before by Multiplex Rant, careful introduction of tech should be accepted. I think is totally fine to allow power meters if a racer is willing to and has trained with it. I would be more worried if his performance was somewhat maimed by a rule that wouldn’t allowed him to race to his full potential.
      Regarding race-radios, we should note that cycling is a team-sport, and it’s my opinion that increasing ease of communication within a team is only beneficial to team strategy. For example, I think a move like that of Tony Martin and Kwiatkowski at end of stage 5 of Pais Vasco (not successful but still menacing for a good while) because they were able to coordinate efforts and timing by radio. I feel that, most of the time, the communication by radio helps teams with good strategy against those less prepared.

  12. There is almost too much angst in some of the comments here but at the same time it is somewhat entertaining. Inring blog is f…. awesome because he picks topics which generate these “passionate” comments. I definitely am not the alpha and certainly not the omega of cycling and will not push what should or should not be in cycling. Some folks raise good points. Technology is not evil: I think disc brakes are long overdue, any other safety feature would also be welcomed. Some tech takes away from the purity of competition (just my view). look at tennis: progressive improvements in racquets resulted in a game which is dominated by the serve and people drool over a nice rally.

  13. Love the classics all the way from Omloop to Liege, however Flèche is 198km of boredom. It’s the height of heresy to suggest it but think it could make great TV to do some form of Sprint knockout up the Muur. 4 riders do the final 2km of the Flèche course with top 2 going thru. Start with 32 or 64 riders and you’ve got some great TV with the winner having to do 5/6 runs on the Muur in the day.

    Don’t think AG or LBL need changing at all though!

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