Going The Distance

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.

The golden age in black and white
The golden age in black and white

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.

Waiting and waiting
Waiting and waiting

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.

On the rivet of your sofa
On the rivet of your sofa

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.

Attack, attack, attack = ratings and clicks galore
Less is more

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?

118 thoughts on “Going The Distance”

  1. i see it as an evolution of the sport in two regards:

    first, the television. early races were reported in print, leaving the excitement to the story. of course an arduously long race can be told as feats of super-human grandeur no matter how slowly the events developed. tv broadcasting show it in real time, like reading a novel of a news article.

    second, race tactics and sports science. as you pointed out, it doesn’t take long for racers to realize a solo attack with 160km to go (or even a small group) probably won’t succeed, so instead, they have increasingly relied on their teams and overall race tactics to carry them to the very last strategic point of attack to launch as fresh as possible.

    these points are probably obvious to most who read this site, but do present the question in stark terms as to whether we as fans wish to hold dear to the traditions and core root of the sport? or wish to see it as a modern competition?

    • It’s difficult. If the sport tries to compete as a fast-moving action adventure it’ll always be behind other sports which can offer more action more often. But staying in the newspaper age doesn’t work either.

      As an aside, a lot of people followed the big races in print but it could take days or even a week before people could read what happened, the first source was the telegram. In between the results of the big races and stages were displayed as a telegrams in the local post office or cafe, building anticipation as to just how a rider managed to win or lose time. An early form of tension if you like.

      • As an aside to your aside:

        As you say cycling was born from the newspaper age and historically road racing has been ideally matched with newsprint coverage in pace, intensity and even suspense.

        It does seem as if cycling and television may be essentially incompatible but that such incompatibility is not necessarily a matter of TV superficiality either.

        If an event is commented upon in newsprint it might take up say 800 words in a serious, analytical column article. That same event commented upon to camera simply for a 10’o clock news report will need about three words per second for a typical news report slot of around two minutes fifteen seconds, which makes just over 400 words. A big news event might exceptionally command say six minutes –over a thousand words, which may be as much as a national newspaper might expend in its entirety.

        The key point is that a TV commentary is in addition to moving pictures that a newspaper cannot match. If a picture really is worth a thousand words then it becomes apparent that a six minute TV report would be considerably longer than any newspaper reportage –including the Sunday papers that take a couple of men to lift them up off the doorstep.

        The conclusion is that TV essentially has a natural density rather than superficiality of reporting that is incompatible with a long drawn out event. This is the challenge that leads to so much vacuous TV race commentary that your readers often complain of. It brings us back to the inevitability of TV highlights coverage rather than TV full race commentary.

        • Nice media theories (not sarcastic), even if they don’t make a lot of sense in semiotics terms. But I’m not going to discuss that.

          My real concern is: whatever theory we build up, what factually happens is that cycling is doing quite good on TV with hugely satisfying figures – when it’s broadcast, at least (not being broadcast, or not being broadcast on the *right* channel, is cycling’s main problem, today).

          There’s one single exception to this positive trend: the 2016 TdF. That was disappointing audience-wise, indeed.
          But – is anyone really surprised? And: was it a problem of… stage length? Please.

          And we should also note that *even in 2016 Tdf* the best ratings were achieved by the longest mountains stages, those who stretched over more than 180 kms. The most disappointing stages, speaking of audience, were those less-than-150kms-long mountain stages we had to suffer in the last week.

  2. Interesting thoughts as always. I wonder how much the excitement of shorter stages is dependent on accumulated tiredness? For example, it’s hard to imagine Sky would have been caught out as they were at La Formigal had it been on stage 1 of the Vuelta, rather than stage 15? So hopefully any trend to shorter stages still acknowledges the impact that fatigue has on the action – a GT of only short stages may not produce the all-action race that might seem apparent from extrapolation from a few “fireworks” stages.


  3. How freaking hard would it be to show highlights of the early action when the broadcast comes on air during a dull part of the race?

    The execrable quality of the televised product is the problem. Eurosport broadcasts typically lead off with a few minutes of silence and a continuous shot of people setting up at the finish line. What other sport allows such amateurish presentation?

    • Most cycling coverage is like this, just the live and there’s little pre and post analysis, often a replay of the bunch sprint or the decisive attack but without all the accompaniments you might see on other sports. Some of the US coverage does better, you have an arrow pointing out the eventual winner etc but it’s still simple. The budget for all of this is eaten alive by the costs of live outdoor broadcasts with helicopters, motorbikes and more, as well as the longest sport it could well be the most expensive to film too.

    • +1 Even the Monuments have poor packaging which I’m sure must put off a wider audience. Surely they have enough money to supply pre-race packages? Interviews with current/past champions, archived footage to put the race in its historical context etc.

      • I really don’t need another bland 10sec. interview with a rider or someone from a team, where they spin stereotypical things nobody would say in real life. And when I have to hear 29 times how “amazing” something is, I amazingly turn off the tv. Making cycling like other sports or adapting it to usa-like tv production (for example:the permanent ticker running on the screen with the same information again and again only underlines or evokes the feeling, that nothing happens) will only result in a double loss: First you will never be able to keep up with other sports and will never be able to get enough new fans, especially not with ever more entertainment flooding the world. Second you will lose fans that love cycling as cycling and as a sport and not as something else.

        I for example hate highlights packages. I’d rather see the last half hour or hour of the race again than a package that exists of:the crashes, the start, the flamme rouge, the finish and then an endless clipshow of people saying the same thing over and over again with different words. I want to watch cycling, not people talking. Where should this “wider audience” come from? In usa cycling had huge publicity during armstrong-years. As in Germany during Telekom-years. The sport had thousands of hours on tv to show itself to the people and they all stayed glued to the tv. Exactly till those years were over. So if there really would be a huge amount of “wider audience” waiting – cycling already had the possibility to access these. No. If we not finally learn to accept the truth, that cycling already reaches the fans it can reach and that those huge audiences in the wonder years really don’t care about cycling at all, they only care about one of theirs winning, we will always chase windmills and don’t see what is in front of our eyes. Cycling will always grow – but on a small and steady level.

        I think it would be far better to strengthen cycling’s identity, the reason why it is able to get people passionate about it now for over a century. And then to build on that strength and identity, so more people can see what we see, love, what we love. Yes, better equipment to have time gaps on crucial points would be great, yes, a better format for time trials to make visual what happens would be great, but stop making it faceless and something it isn’t. Cycling always was in principle a democratic, free and open sport. Something which in principle anybody can do. But when we talk about teams buying licences and then monopolizing the sport, removing it from access, or about races running solely on circuit-laps, that is to me a carricature of the sport. Something I want to have no part of.

        Change is a natural and good thing, if it happens naturally, as evolvement to become better, to adapt. And when it includes everybody. But change that gets dictated by a few to appease their hunger for power and without taking the whole picture into account, is a whole different thing. Not everything old is bad, not everything new is good and vice versa.

        Btw: What really helps and what most cycling-countries have, is having tv-commentators, that can translate what happens on the road to the viewer. In Germany Jean-Claude Leclerqc makes this especially good. You need someone who can tell you the little signs, how a rider might feel, what will happen next. I think some channels in english-speaking countries lack in that department. And that is a serious mistake. It is important to work on the quality, not to twist and turn the whole thing, till it is broken.

        When riders protest against long stages with not adhering to the rules (meaning the time cut), it certainly damages the sport. But this shows exactly the problem: It shows the lack of respect all parties in cycling have for each other and that is the real problem. That is what leads to cycling being in peril now for some time. This can only go on for so long, till something breaks. The parties in cycling don’t need to love one another, but if they would respect each other, we would have a whole different situation. So to me what we would need to work on is: Strengthen cycling’s identity as it is different than anything else. Work on the quality of production. But first and foremost: The parties in cycling have to give up their own plans for cycling-world-domination and respect each other, work together or soon they will have nothing to work on anymore at all, as either a third party comes and simply swoops up the whole thing, while the others are busy arguing amongst themselves or because it simply breaks apart and gets even more meaningless.

        But as long as we have things like vaughters calling french people frogs in tweets, we surely won’t see any progress.

        Sorry for the lengths of this and the off-topic parts.

        • Hear hear. Brilliantly put. Agree with every word. Stop chasing ratings that aren’t there and improve the sport. It’s never going to be basketball/football/etc. Smaller teams, less technology – that should mean more one-on-one racing. And better commentary is a big thing: Eurosport’s commentators used to add a lot to the race. Now, instead of Harmon and Duffield, we have Kirby’s knowledge-free jabbering. (Boulting and Millar are already a gargantuan improvement on Phil and Paul.)
          Sign my Get rid of Carlton Kirby petition and we might finally stop this man from ruining our viewing. I will send it to Eurosport. ipetitionsDOTCOM/petition/get-rid-of-carlton-kirby

          • I agree with much of what Ms / Mr Anonymous says, chasing ratings is a fools game. In both the UK & US football viewing figures (in the US both the American version & premier league) are dropping. The various media concerns have paid out vast sums and now find the audience is moving on.

            I would suggest the biggest TV related issue for cycling is that the money (such that it is) paid by the TV companies goes to the race promoters not the teams. This is not a sustainable situation though there is no obvious solution.

            I for one like Carlton Kirkby and Sean Kelly. It is is very reminiscent of Test Match Special (sorry to non UK readers) . It is very difficult to fill long periods of time when it appears not much is happening and I think they do a pretty good job, perhaps not quite up to the standards of Henry Blofield’s descriptions of the number 23 bus passing the gas holders but not far off

        • There’s a lot of strawman arguments in there that no-one actually thinks, but since you acknowledge they should “Work on the quality of production” I think we, sort of, agree. No-one wants cycling to try and directly imitate others sports coverage. It has to find its own niche. But the Monuments in particular are amazing events that I just feel are undersold and deserve a wider audience, particularly Paris-Roubaix and Flanders. There’s nothing wrong with highlights packages either, not everyone has time to sit down for hours on end, nice as it is, so something akin to the way ITV do TdF coverage would be great for the Monuments.

        • I agree with the general concepts, but it’s not true that “cycling already reaches the fans it can reach”. It’s quite false, indeed.

          Televised cycling enjoys notable figures in several countries. But some of the most important races aren’t broadcast. As simple as that.
          When it happens that a given race start receiving a proper treatment, the figures rocket up immediately. That is, there’se a genuine interest there… but for some reasons nobody is working to take advantage of it.

          What I’ll comment below *doesn’t* include Eurosport, whose figures are generally low in the countries I’ll name (even if they’re growing, when cycling is concerned).

          In Spain they *didn’t broadcast* the Giro. When they started to show it on little regional TVs, the audience looked immediatley very promising, even if those local channels can’t get a significant share in national terms. Subsequently, the national public TV bought the Giro and… boom, you suddenly have several hundreds of thousands spectators (nearing 1M) more, watching cycling everyday for three weeks more a year. And that’s not everything. The Giro is usually broadcast on Teledeporte, the specialised sport channel. If it was on a generalist channel, it would probably double those figures (we got a long historical set of studies on the subject).
          Note that when GTs are on the leading generalist channel (LA1), in Spain, they are able to be on several occasions *the main programme of the day*, in terms of audience results.

          Flanders is not on TV in Spain. Zero.

          The Vuelta is not on TV in Italy, a country where the other GTs, both the Tour and the Giro, are usually able to average 2M viewers a day along the whole three weeks.

          In France the situation is even sadder.

          And I could go on, listing WT important, historical races who just aren’t on TV in countries with a proven interest for cycling. Contracts, politics, a lack of adequate work or interest on the UCI’s part, and we’re just leaving avid viewers without products which they’ll probably watch avidly (as we saw every time that a *new* race started to be broadcast in a traditional cycling country).
          Situations like… some GT organisers see the other GTs as *competitors* and, thanks to their influence over the national broacasters or even the national institutions (think ASO), they create pressure on the broadcasters themselves not to buy TV rights and not to broadcast the… competitors (the other GTs).
          That works in all the directions, plus various *vendettas* and old grudge, the result is that the market isn’t at all driven by the desire to *maximise results*.
          Cycling institutions should act to avoid this conflicts in order to raise as much as possible the general interest towards the sport (towards the sport AS IT IS, it’s working, and it’s working great, why change it?).

          • Sorry, my bad, think I didn’t write good enough, what I meant: I meant the appeal cycling has is good as it is and with that it can reach everybody who potentially will stay. I wasn’t talking about tv reach. I think with watering it all down, that appeal will fall, not rise.

            I forgot one point above: What will help is also to strengthen the basis, the foundation, so that kids go cycling and have a chance to actually race. We need again more junior races in different formats, especially stage races, where they can race against the best. And organizing a race can’t become ever more expensive, cause for every tiny bit of real life happening, some people call for rules, the uci can’t stand the pressure (and has no vision of it’s own) and reacts to those calls and installs unnecessary rules. I wish the uci would sometimes simply say: “Don’t be ridiculous” to some fans or simply laugh. But of course they won’t do that. With that insane amount of badly thought and worded rules we not only create more problems, we also endanger cycling. Many races around the world are run by a cycling club or the likes and that is a good thing. It must be possible to organise a race without going broke.

            WT is only a tiny part of cycling. And (luckily) it can not exist on it’s own. We need those good second level races, like we have many in Italy, France, Spain, Belgium, where there is a mix between top and the following levels. We got to keep it fluid and open. Not only to keep the imagination and vision alive: “One day I could be the one riding in that kick ass team”, but also so that all can profit from knowledge and ability on all levels. Especially this year many developments and smaller teams folded or stopped, which is a shame and a real problem (one good bit of news was, that Team Roth can at least field a Conti-team, but there were way more bad than good news).

            Teams like sky & tinkoff ruin it for everybody else. It costs so much to be at least partly competitive and everybody loses huge because of them. Not only competitors, but everybody. Even the Tour de France – although the sporting side is really only one part of the Tour.

    • I enjoy the “few minutes of silence and a continuous shot of people setting up at the finish line”. For me it’s an appetizer before the moving feast to come, the calm before the enjoyable storm and a chance to see an unpolished picture of the scene at the race location.

  4. The problem for GT course directors is that opportunism is unpredictable. A one day race is more predictable because the terrain and distance will be the only determinants. But in the GT you’re looking at which riders are feeling like they can attack and are looking to exploit a stage. Because you can plan your fitness for a classic these are more formulaic in how they finish (group sprint, solo attack, splinter group). It’s the possibility for recovery that shakes things up. Sky wanted an easy day at Formigal, as the previous one was so hard. If you give them too many chances to recover they will throttle the race to death.

  5. I don’t actually see whats wrong with 250 km road classics, unless you want a track rider to win road events.

    What is ‘wrong’ is the appalling quality of TV presentation and commentary in the modern technological age. What is ‘wrong’ is that the courses have not changed to allow for technical and human advances in performance. What is ‘wrong’ that the riders are now radio controlled. A 120 km long race through the desert is always going to be ‘wrong’………

    It’s not the distance that is the problem, far from it. It is all the other undesirable aspects that have either crept into the sport for spurious reasons, or others that have been allowed to remain unchanged for 60 or more years. Some changes will have a financial penalty (TV), but that should be more than compensated for by a larger audience.

    It’s not rocket science. It simply requires people to stand back and SEE the problems which unfortunately the sport appears intent on inflicting upon both itself and its supporters.

    It is nothing to do with distance.

    • Yes, it would be wrong to see track riders winning 250k road events. Luckily Cavendish (Current world madison champion, second in the Olympic Omnium, second in the 6-Day track event in London) was second in the World Road Race Championship. His partner for the London 6-Day was a certain former Tour winner.

      • Tom. You have not completed the set of riders that graduated through BC ! Of course you have point, but these two riders were classified as endurance track riders, Cavendish and many others rode in Italy on the road before turning professional. I guess Viviani and a few others could also be classified as track riders. But these riders would consider themselves first and foremost road riders who could successfully transition to the track. Wiggins is a stand alone exception, but also an endurance track rider equally at home on the road. These riders are contracted and paid for their road performances. My main point stands. 250 km plus road events are the events which generally bring out the true and worthy road champions.

          • Tom. Cavendish is a very worthy road and track champion. I don’t think there is any disagreement and I am not trying to point score.

            My view that 250 plus km road races are the true arbitrator of worthy road champion stands.

  6. I’d argue you (and the UCI, and the IOC) are thinking about “broadcasters” as oligopolies that control content within easily defined national boundaries with set top boxes. (1990-something)

    The broadcast model is changing and the old model that makes everyone so much money is going away. We’re already seeing the very early examples in the U.S. with live scoring. The actual content can now be captured with tiny, cheap cameras. And the audience can be worldwide, immediately.

    My broader point is the shift to “punchier” events doesn’t set the federation/ASO up for the future of sports media consumption.

  7. as has been said, you need distance to create some fatigue and sort out the strong from the weak.
    in a tour this can be the days before the crucial stage.
    in a 1-day race it means some attrition time before the real action. its not about fatiguing the leaders though, its reducing their team’s ability to shut down attacks. you need to weaken the team support around the leaders, just as we saw at formigal. of course this could be achieved by reducing team numbers too. so any reduction in overall distance/difficulty needs to be balanced by a reduction in team sizes.

    or you can just use climbs that are so hard its every man for himself, we’ve seen a bit of that recently too

    • There has to be more than just distance though, surely?
      It’s like making every football match last two hours instead of 90 minutes. Yes, it would cause fatigue and players would tire, cramp and make mistakes but that can’t be a sports main selling point?
      Football (sorry to use this example as I’m sure it will automatically upset some) has tweaked its rules to make the game faster and more skilful, and tactics have evolved to overcome improved fitness.

      • I don’t think you’ve ever written anything on here I agree with Ecky Thump. Football has tinkered with its edges, banning dangerous tackles to cut down on injuries and the back pass rule to make it harder to hang on to a 1-0 lead. What you are proposing is replacing proper 11 a side 90 minute football with 10 minutes each way 5 a side.

        • I’m not aware of any moves to shorten the Monuments or major one-day races, though the World Championships road race for instance is in need of shaking up, in my humble opinion.
          Those who point to reduced team sizes and longer distances could look at the WC’s as a pretty staid example of this mix.

          • How would making the WC shorter improve it?
            Having the odd one in the mountains, not having it in a country where no-one is interested, having someone competent film it – those would help.

          • The worlds is my favourite race of the year. This year was an exception due to the drab nature of the course and total absence of fans. Bergen and Innsbruck, and Yorkshire, have the potential to be excellent.

          • The WC’s are a hard sell to make. All the positives of a cycle race that Inner Ring has described – the changing narrative of a course from somewhere to somewhere on open road are self-confined in a repetitive, usually urban, circuit whose greatest challenge is the one presented to the television commentator to keep going for over 6 x hours.
            I liken them to a very elongated 10,000m athletics track race, with all the action at the end. Except what takes 30 odd minutes of building tension on the track takes 12 x times as long on the bike.
            If you were designing a television viewing experience. the WC would be the absolute polar opposite of a project.

            Why not, for instance, get regions to bid for the hosting rights, rather than an individual city, but use established local cycle race courses – be they pro or amateur, so that there is true ownership and the organisers can call on the experience of the local cycling fraternity?
            Imagine using the Fred Whitton Course in northern England as a route (twice round, I guess) or using the Tro Bro Leon course etc etc…I’m sure there are hundreds of local courses / routes that could be used.

            The WC’s forego many of the positives of cycling and distance becomes the defining factor. And it doesn’t work properly, in my opinion.

          • I don’t like circuit races as much either – takes away the element of surprise. But there have still been some fantastic WC’s – as recently as 2013 in Florence.

          • The trouble with what you are suggesting, to my mind, is that then you are just adding things – 30% slopes, mud/gravel – that turn it into a macabre lottery where you are hoping for people to fall off/crash/get a puncture rather than for a good race. Also I live in Cumbria and believe me if it rained, which it does around here quite often especially in October, people would be walking up Hardknott on the first lap and nobody would get to the second because they would all have crashed coming down. That’s what happens on hills that are 30% up and down.

  8. It feels to me that the most successful sports are those that its fans can do themselves.
    It’s all very well having legend and black & white photographs of riders of yore doing 280km in a blinding snow storm, but it provides no reference to the fan.
    Who is going to try doing that? Why would you even want to try?

    Perhaps one advantage of shorter stages is that it brings into the realm of the believable and achievable for the fans; some sportives can be of a similar length?
    That’s not to say that all the races should be shortened, but there is a place for them.

    • I disagree with that notion – the point of pro cycling is exactly to go to limit of the humanly possible. A very, very large portion of cycling fans aren’t riders themselves nor do they intend to. That does not mean they can’t identify with ambition of winning and the pain in going to the physical limit.

      Having said that, even untrained cyclists can ride for very long distances without problems. But of course not at 40kmh/h

      • I guess you meant “the point of professional sports…” not only “pro cycling”. Actually I always thought most of cycling fans are riding for themselves, as opposed to football (soccer).

        • Only in countries where cycling as a spectator sport is marginal. And this is true for many marginal sports, they are only watched by those who practice it.

    • It’s already more or less like that 😉
      It simply isn’t official, and not every yellow jersey holds this power, but if you’re a yellow jersey in a big team, you can make that call. We might remember very recent examples if we think about that.

      However, you should also take into consideration that cycling, very generally speaking, is a hugely interesting sport because it creates automatic handicaps: if you’re the stronger rider, the others will race against you, if you’re on the front or decide to attack, those behind will take benefit and so on. That is, the idea is not giving more advantage to whoever is leading, quite the contrary.

  9. To me the long traditional one-day races are simply not long enough to accomodate todays higher standards (quality of the peloton, better communication, bike technology, roads etc). Especially LBL almost seems to easy, kind of a preposterous notion, but when 40+ riders finish together, something is wrong. I don’t mind attrition marathon races with no attacking, if they can deliver the images of riders arriving one by one which are so unique for pro cycling, but sadly quite rare nowadays.

    The Val di Fassa stage that Mikel Nieve won in the ’11 Giro was all this and more, truly epic. Nieves winning time was more than 7½ hours!

  10. Just for historical context and looking at the TdF only, stage distances have been dropping for a long time, although the tours of the 1980s had shorter stages than trend:

    I did an analysis of distances and race speeds here:

  11. I love you inrng, but as so few races are shown from the off your complaint re coverage is really moot. Personally I suspect that any race that takes less than eight hours is a bit suspect. But isn’t all cycling…

  12. I am all in favor of sprinkling in shorter races and stages because they provide a good contrast to the long grueling efforts. We embrace the coexistence of the prologue specialists who thrive in the short, explosive efforts, and TT specialist who thrash the field with their long, sustained power output. Why not provide the same contrast in the mountains?

    In addition, assuming (huge assumption coming) we can get to clean racing, the sport will need events that suite all types of physiology. In fact, varying the efforts strikes me as and effective way to remove the incentive for cyclist to dope themselves into the unlimited spinning machines we’ve come to know (or suspect).

  13. I love long, arduous races. It’s the essence of road cycling. In amateur events (and even just rides) these long distances from a gone era are now replicated because – as you say – it grabs people’s imagination.

    In a not so distant future, TV won’t be a consideration. New media technology will change parameters of what is marketable.

    I can’t wait.

  14. For the sake of perspective, we no longer see TT stages of epic length in stage races and I’m not sure they’re missed. Those stages were part of the legend of superhuman cycling efforts but we are happy to leave them as part of the sport’s history. Do we need 25oKm stages in stage races? Probably not very often but, on occasion, they can not only be dramatic but set up big dramas on the subsequent days. Similarly, we don’t need many short stages but enough to keep things unpredictable. However, if there is any attempt to shorten the monuments, I will cry foul.

  15. I would like to see an artillerry barrage aimed at the peleton at a predetermined time during the northern classics. Not only would this liven up proceedings, the consequent damage would also improve the parcours for televisual purposes.

  16. The long stages in the grand tours and week long’s are important and will not disappear. Putting in a shorter stage is important too and gives balance. It creates a balance and creates different opportunities for different types of riders, which livens things up and perhaps makes things less predictable.

    *Less predictable is more exciting.

  17. It’d be easy to write an essay on this but I think the simple answer is there’s room for both in GTs. Occasional shorter stages can add a lot, this year’s Vuelta being an obvious example. It would be terrible if the Monuments’ lengths were cut, but I dont think anyone wants to see that.

  18. It’s very hard to predict what the ingredients are which make for a satisfying race. Surprises happen too as in the 2016 world championship where the peloton was broken early – a change from the standard formats where the breakaway is brought back by the peloton with 10kms to go, or a large group waiting for the final climb where the final gap between leaders is mere seconds. Part of the reason the new classics (San Sebastien…) lack character is the missing 40kms, while the old classics lose character as the same distance is eased by better roads, equipment, training and, above all, teamwork. Probably the best to hope for is status quo in the old classics and a substantial number of >200km stages in the GTs. A 260km stage in the TdF would now be rejected by France Television. A pity.

  19. It’s always problematic comparing sports, but cricket has done a pretty good job of combining the traditional 5 day test match with the ‘made for TV, over in 3hrs’ 20/20 format in their calendar.
    I think there’s room for both – keep the monuments 250k+, and mix up the GTs with long and short stages – I think the variety that we’ve seen recently works really well.

  20. Personally I would hope for a good mix that would promote a season for all kinds of riders; specialists and all rounders. Cutting everything short risks compromising the sporting aspect, I think.

    I’ve always seen the grand tours as an all rounder event. The winner should be good in all terrain, tactical and a good leader. That also includes having to survive a looooon mountain stage, staying out of trouble in bunch sprints, handling side winds, tricky descents etc.

    But what about a short stage race with only short aggressive stages and no time trials?

    • The Eneco Tour could provide that, I think it’s a much underrated event, although this year’s had an individual TT and TTT which I think spoiled it a little.

  21. Variety is everything. The short stages are good, but the long stage are not ‘a bore for the television’ (especially if they’re not flat). Some may think so, but the sport should not be cheapened in order to placate those with a short attention span.
    I keep saying it, but a grand tour also needs long stages (over 220km) in the mountains: a) to be a true test; b) to provide variety; c) to see if all riders can manage such things. For example, maybe Froome isn’t that good at a longer distance over many mountains. He very possibly is, but he has rarely been tested in this manner.
    Also, a long stage with many mountains – and as few flat bits between the mountains as possible – can be the best kind of stage. Yes, it can be raced in a conservative and tedious manner, but it provides the chance for someone to try a long-range attack for 100km or more. Many complain that this happens less and less in cycling now, but you have to at least give the riders the opportunity to do so if they wish.
    Fortunately, I can’t see the Monuments being shortened as a 250km one day race is usually better than a 200km one – because there’s more of a selection – and people can just tune in later (and see the more famous riders win, generally).
    The idea that only short stages in the mountains create excitement has been accepted by most for reasons I don’t understand – many of us have seen great long stages in mountains. Why would you not have both? (Also, we saw plenty of dull short stages in the Tour – nothing can force riders to attack: I know this from shouting at the telly.)
    We should be pursuing the best sport – not the best ratings. Why this money obsession? (Apart from because that’s what society has drilled into us from birth.)

    • “Also, we saw plenty of dull short stages in the Tour – nothing can force riders to attack: I know this from shouting at the telly.” Haha, good line.

    • The problem these days is that the power meter / science behind cycling has taken away the legend and the unknown.
      Teams *know* how many watts are required at a certain tempo and the body can only ride these long distances at tempo.
      In the unlikely event that a rider does go for it and breaks away, he risks going in to the red.
      Rival teams will almost certainly make him pay in the following day/s and his GC goes up in smoke.

      The beauty of shorter stages is that they, to an extent, bring the unknown.
      The days of the super long stages are numbered, forgive the pun.
      Actually don’t forgive the pun, because that is exactly what they are.

      • So ban powermeters, unless it can be proved that they improve racing. This should be the case for all technologies.
        Better still, have UCI powermeters, which display nothing to the rider – these can be used to combat cheating, e.g. holding on to cars. They might even provide evidence to suggest doping, so that testing could then be targeted at that rider.

  22. I have no real interest in Football anymore, but to pander to my occasional viewing, why not cut down each half to 15mins. I reckon I could just about manage to contain my concentration for that long. I am sure the die hard followers of the game wouldn’t mind would they. I jest of course, yes there are some short stages where the action has flowed but I sincerely hope the sport does not pander to the broadcaster or the attention span challenged viewer just yet.

  23. Short bike races already exist – track, cross, mtb, downhill, BMX – and they are even less popular than the long ones. Plus you have soap operas and reality tv for those of the dim wit and short attention span. Why would you ruin your sport to attract them? Also good luck telling the Belgians and Italians their prestigious classics are only going to be 95km long!

    • Also, it’s pointless trying to attract these new fans if they’re not going to stick around. The Germans and Americans largely lost interest once they were no longer successful and how many of the new fans in the UK will still watch once a British guy isn’t winning the Tour de France most years?

      • True, but we should also note that Germany was keeping away about 1M willing viewers just… not broadcasting the TdF on a main TV channel.
        I’ll totally agree with you about your general concept and the fact that the speculative growth of fans (as opposite to organic growth) is ultimately useless, yet we shouldn’t forget that even when the occasional fan is gone, in a country like Germany cycling still holds a notable potential. It was enough to switch the cameras on again on a national channel to suddenly call back 1M people to arms… well, to their armchair, I mean.
        And, out of experience, I’d also say that such figures would have gone growing up year after year, if it wasn’t for the 2016 Tour which was like a hailstorm for the Tour audience worldwide (partial exception, UK – obviously enough). Luckily, the Vuelta and the Giro went on doing pretty good.
        Let’s see what happens next in Germany, I hope that the Big Start will help to put things on the proper route again.

        • Nobody was keeping away about 1M willing viewers. They all just watched Eurosport altt the years, plain and simple. And they do so further. The numbers for the Tour in the ARD are more like 3-500k, housewifes and retired people who wait for the next zoo show and cheap soaps. You have no idea who tv quotes in the BRD are measured, do you?

          • If you were an inrng’s regular reader you might have seen, about a year ago, a review of an academic book, the Economics of Professional Road Cycling. The editor, professor Van Reeth, has been studying cycling TV ratings in several countries for years. Here’s what he wrote here about Germany:
            “German audience for the Tour in 2014: 0.34 MIO on Eurosport; in 2015: 1,17 MIO on ARD and 0,35 MIO on Eurosport”.

            The same person presented an improved paper with a detailed comparative study of the TdF TV markets of 14 countries throughout the last 7 years.

            Let’s see his data.

            The average number of spectators in 2016 was 1,132 M on ARD and 235 K on Eurosport. In 2016 ARD barely lost spectators, when compared with other countries, but Eurosport lost a third part of its viewers.
            Before the 2012-2014 break, the public broadcaster averaged 1.2 M viewers and Eurosport 360-380 K: Eurosport shortly raised to 430 K in 2012 and 2013 but was already back to 340 K in 2014, before the public broadcasting was resumed.

            I didn’t study the German market, but apparently someone did it in a scientific context, and it looks like that *you* are the one who has missed the mark.

  24. Nice piece with some great comments. I look forward to more of this thought-provoking during the off-season. Can we define the problem here? Is is that pro bike racing is boring? Watching racing on TV is boring? TV viewership of pro bike racing is dwindling and how can this be reversed? I think of Major League Baseball, something pretty much everyone in the USA grows up being familiar with, so the nuances of the game are more obvious than to someone who knows nothing about the sport. I lost interest in all of the stick-and-ball sports years ago, but I can understand their fans interest. I would ask is there anything more boring than baseball? Perhaps pro cycling if you don’t know anything about the sport? What needs fixing here? Baseball could be spiced up – perhaps with some sand traps or water hazards in the outfield so the players might have more challenge going after that fly ball?
    TV audiences love to see things fly through the air, so perhaps pro cycling needs some huge jumps in the course or maybe the peloton can ride through some flaming hoops? Of course pro cyclists no longer start 500 kilometer stages in the dark, but I’d hate to see the sport turned into a Made-for-TV event, no matter how much profit is generated by crap like the X Games. I think of the old saying, “Be careful what you wish for.” What was the problem again?

  25. I’m not having much time, hence I’m writing without having read previous commentaries, something which I usually do. Apologise if I’m repeating things. I don’t even know if I’ll be able to follow up, either.

    I think that we (and, what’s worse, some cycling institutions) might be working on *wrong* assumptions if we’re saying that a certain kind of long racing event isn’t favourable in TV terms.

    I’ve studied thouroughly several set of audience data, and, at least in main cycling countries, it’s *NOT TRUE* that long mountain marathons, lasting several hours and including more than a couple of KOMs produce worse ratings.
    Quite the contrary tends to be true, at least – as I said – in the countries which contribute with the most viewers to general cycling audience (Italy, France, Belgium and Spain).

    If we look at last Vuelta’s results in Spain, for example, Aramón Formigal produced excellent ratings (but let’s remember that although it was a short stage… still it was broadcast ENTIRELY, and the *interesting part* lasted *several hours*), indeed, but the top stage in terms of audience results was the Aubisque’s 200kms-long mountain marathon, even if at the end of the day we hadn’t any great battle. The third best-rated stage is another 200 kms-long mountain stage, the spectacular Aitana one.

    The most disappointing stages, factoring in several elements, were for sure Mirador de Ézaro y La Camperona, with a good lot of action concentrated in the last quarter of hour.

    Another significant hint: the Vuelta was averaging 1.5M spectators on a generalist channel, but on the specialised sport channel they were starting the broadcast one and a half hour BEFORE for whoever wanted to have a longer show… the results were amazing, except in the first week. Some 400-500K viewers decided systematically to watch 90′ MORE of cycling, and in 9 out of 11 days this EXTRA SUPPLEMENT of cycling was the *most followed* programme on the sport channel.

    Aramón Formigal was the *most watched* show on the main national channel that day, sure, but SO THEY WERE Aubisque and Aitana.

    This is totally consistent with other data I’ve collected for the Giro and the Tour.
    I’d say that if we want to speak about the “TV effect” we should take into account real TV ratings…

    A whole different thing is what totally ignorant sponsors who not only never watched cycling but never looked at a ratings chart, either, *do suppose* that might be *good for TV*.

  26. I can barely stand being 5 hours on a car or a bus, but I often spend over 10 hours on the bike and I really enjoy it. I don’t even think about the distance or the time. Psychologists call it “the flow”, a mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.

  27. Excellent and interesting as always. I think the rise and appeal of these long distance Trans-Continental or Trans-Am races and low-fi method of following (ie following the dots) and the slow anticipation that builds is a big part of their appeal. Similar to the early newspaper days. It’s left to the people to fill in the blanks and create their own version of the story.

    I’m not a cricket fan but it’s a sport that seems to thrive on tv with five days of seemingly nothing happening. Not true of course, but that’s how the uneducated fan sees it. The subtleties, stats and brief explosions of action keep it moving along. Perhaps cycling broadcasters need to do a better job and telling the story instead of just pretty pictures of castles and mountains?

    • Agreed Wade. I was endless hitting refresh at work with the Trans Am and was hanging out for more detailed updates when they came.

      Re test cricket, TV ratings for the recent Perth test were the lowest ever and on the rained out day in Hobart yesterday, 1990s era nostalgia packages probably rated higher. In the 1990s there was a sustained build up and sense of anticipation to those first matches of the summer, now they just seem to appear almost unnoticed and get lost under endless cross promotions for other tv shows and shouty matey matey banter from a new era of commentators.

      Cricket commentators (and commentators for other sports) have forgotten the value of silence and the economy of words. The sporting calendar has been stuffed with meaningless shorter versions of the game.

      Cycling needs to remember its traditional product and rather adding more and more events needs to build up the narrative throughout the season and then within each race. The commentary needs to be knowledgeable but also appealing to the wider audience.

  28. Short and long races/stages can coexist.

    The classics is the place for long one-day races, on prime time sundays in the spring.

    The tours can have shorter, action packed stages, mixed with long stages, on strategic days to match weekend/weekdays and audience availability.

    I’d say most of the racing is fine as it is. The main benefit in shortening stages/races is in the second tier of races, where the fans won’t stay home the entire day to watch the TV, but will be happy to spend an hour of packed action.

  29. Another problem is that what action there is in a GT stage often overlaps with other action. How often have you sat patiently watching nothing happen for two hours until seeing the GC contenders duking it out on the lower slopes while further up the stage win is being decided? The camera cuts back and forth but you inevitably miss something.

  30. The problem is that one cannot seperate the parcours from the riders and the team tactics. That short stage in 2011 was thrilling, but moreso because the previous day had been an epic 200km stage with three HC climbs in it, and one that saw Andy Schleck launch a bold move and Cadel Evans chase it down. They tried to get the magic to happen twice with an identical stage in 2015, but Sky’s strength and Movistar’s conservative racing meant it was a bit of a squib. As I’ve argued before the 2012 Tour could have been one of the all time great contests, all it needed was for Wiggins and Froome to be on different teams. So you can mix it up with 240 and 110km stages, but that alone is no guarantee of a thrilling contest.

  31. Maybe longer stages could be livened up if the GC contenders had something to win/lose along the way. There was an experiment in the 1974 Tour de France: the stage finished in Orange but on the way there the riders crossed Mont Ventoux. The first rider to reach the top was awarded a time bonus of 1 minute max; how much he actually got depended on the gap that he had at the top over the other riders. The arrangement prompted a fight between the Merckx and his rivals (principally Poulidor and the Spanish KAS armada) between Chalet Reynard and the summit. Gonzalo Aja of Kas (second in the GC) ended up taking some time back on Merckx thanks to reaching the summit with a time gap. I never understood why the experiment (as far as I know) was never repeated. If there is a “stop the clock” with time bonuses on the top of a number of climbs, the GC guys have a definite interest to race one another on those climbs, even if the finish only comes after a descent.

  32. I agree in part, but for the sake of argument I will lawyer completely against your position, just to better develop ideas. You mention first Alpe d’Huez 2011, but that stage came after a 201 km long Cuneo Galibier, with Agnello Izoard and Galibier. Pure old style long alpine stage, to me more intriguing than the Alpe stage, with the real contenders for the yellow facing each other and Andy and Cadel performing two of the most memorable gestures in modern cycling. L-Alpe came after that stage, the only missing tile in the attack was Voeckler, and Contador tried to force the situation just because he already won the Giro and desperately tried to shuffle the cards after a bad loss the day before. You mention Sant’Anna this year, but don’t forget the same year the 22o km marathon towards Corvara, with riders climbing one by one for about 30 km (anyway, short stage like Sant-Anna, with only climbs, are actually long in terms of duration… And are not completely new: 1997 Bourg d’Oisans – Courchevel, less than 150 km, 4.30 hours on a bike, one of the most difficult stage I remember because of the Festina team attack on the first climb of the day, the Glandon.

    Remove Contador and Nibali from Alpe d’Huez and Andalo, Fuente De’ and Corvara, Formigal and Risoul, and you have half of the fun. Short or long, Nibali and Contador are going to think something… : > )

  33. Unlike football, where a goal might be scored at any given moment, in a long difficult stage there are portions of the race where little drama is likely. As others have said, the risk is too great. If fatigue, and its influence on the outcome is to remain a factor, it needs time to develop. That said, surely there is a place for both live coverage and a well constructed digest of the day’s events. Not everyone has three hours every day in July to watch TV. Reality TV, when well done, takes hours of material and creates a compelling narrative that lasts an hour. It isn’t a highlight show, it is a narrative, constructed from hours of raw material. Show me what happened, explain it in context and do it in an hour. Everyone will watch it. Think of it as a value added product.

    • I don’t think so, not in a culture of live sport events. Perhaps in some other cultural or social environment, but not in traditional cycling countries.
      Besides, as I explained above, long mountain stages are getting the best ratings, whether it happens something big or not, so if we want to change that, let’s stop talking about TV.
      Cycling is doing great in terms of TV figures (even if, very specifically, last Tour was a disappointment audience-wise) in most countries where it’s being broadcast seriously.
      Is there some other reason to ask for a change in format? Let’s speak about it, but TV viewers are not the problem, quite the contrary.

  34. The way I see it, long races and stages are necessary to create fatigue and keep the epic aura. But you don’t necessarily need to broadcast the whole race. Though soon, with drones replacing helicopters, internet streaming and other technology that may not be very expensive to do anymore.

    Here’s an out-of-the-box idea. How about more two-stage race days in stage races. 125k race, lunch, another 125 k race. You still get the fatigue, there’s two ‘interesting half hours’ for those with short attention spans, there’s more winners (good for the riders!), more finishing cities that might pay (good for race organizers). I know some smaller races use the split stage format but why not GTs?

  35. I’ve been watching cycling on Eurosport for over two decades now and the one thing that never grows old is watching racing and the jostling for position and the moves that get progressively harder with fatigue.
    When a move goes or the sprint starts after 200 plus K it’s epic and if you’ve watched for hours it’s a heroic thing to see, highlights packages can’t explain the effort and the work, it’s all about sitting in for the long haul with the riders.
    I love action packed racing the Belgian continental tour racing this season was super exciting and fun, but the attrition of a long painful day is always just fabulous, start with brunch and beer and then finish mid afternoon having been glued to the sofa,watching and anticipating every move what could be better?
    If people find long races dull they need to learn the detail more it’s always thrilling for me, and watching racing when I’ve been in bars in Belgium it’s feels the same with people laughing and giggling at digs and riders trying to push on, as is is perfect for me!

  36. I think it all about having the right mix. To the uninitiated you flick on a long stage race I understand how it can appear boring as not much appears to be happening apart from the peloton cruising along over 200km but it is not always truly conveyed the sort of effort this takes as you need that to build the fatigue in these highly trained athletes.

    I think the presentation could be improved with better insight with use of data etc. I particularly enjoy David Millar who does a great job of explaining tactics and minor nuances of why riders are doing certain things. This fills voids of little action with little segments dedicated to this sort of thing or changing up footage.

    I think the clamor for more action in a short time frame is telling of the type of world we now live, people have shorter attention spans and want instant gratification. I mean you will always have hardcore fans who will tune in regardless – like the majority of people who will read this blog but passive viewers are potentially not prepared to give that much time to the sport. I know for example the NFL are concerned about reducing TV viewers for their games citing that people are put off of the fact that games typically take at least 3 hours with a lot of starting and stopping allowing time for adverts etc and our reviewing what they can do to speed up the game.

    • The trend in cycling (and not only in cycling… Norwegian TV *slo-shows* anyone?) is quite different.
      The casual fan tunes in more for a mountain marathon than for most other stages.
      Besides, a growing number of people is “asking for” (so to say) longer broadcast, watching the 90′ more of cycling which are often broadcast on a lesser/specialist channel.

      I really don’t think that ASO decided to go for the full broadcast option out of stupidity, madness or lack of information…

      What’s sure is that this new format will completely change ratings evaluation itself: you really can’t compare the average audience of a 6 hours show with the typical 90′-120′ broadcasting of the last 80 kms of a stage – it’s not simple to break up the 6 hours show in smaller units, since peaks may vary depending on different factors.

      I suspect that our idea of *what’s good for TV* or *the casual fan* is often a dull stereotype, the data say something else.
      Besides, as many said above, we should take into account the fact that the whole media model is changing (perhaps not as promptly as many would expect), and the even more substantial fact that a 150 years-old sport has got its core value in its own identity, not in chasing imaginary fans.

      • For those not familiar with the phenomenon: https://www.nrk.no/presse/slow-tv-1.12057032 and a search for “slow TV” will give you more than you will wish to read.

        FWIW I hardly ever watch a highlights package. If I don’t have the time or the opportunity to watch a stage in its (televised) entirety, I tend to prefer reading analyses and comments. What I don’t see (because I don’t watch the stage at all or because I have to be away for half an hour or because I must make a short visit to the kitchen or to hmmm use the facilities, I will never see and that is fine with me.

        Those non-cycling fans who actually watch a stage (because I have talked them into it or just because there is “nothing to watch” on TV) are in my experience actually attracted by the “nothing happens for a very long time until something happens” aspect rather than put off by it.

        I would guess that the highlights alone don’t make all that much sense (even when they come with expert commentary) until you are yourself familiar enough with the event, the competitors and the nature of a cycling race in general. In comparison, a beautifully scored goal can be appreciated without being aware of much more than what pleases the eye.

  37. “Now races are being shrunk to fit on TV”

    I agree with the article but I need to slightly disagree with this statement. I don’t think races are shrunk to fit on TV. They are shrunk to fit what TV viewers want to see. And those TV viewers are us and potential future cycling fans. Long stages also fit TV, not much less than short stages. Instead of covering a full 130 km stage, TV can cover the last 100 km of otherwise 217 km long stage and in 99% of cases we will not miss anything from those first 117 km. In recent couple of decades of tactical bike racing and in post-massive-doping times, long stages simply do not bring excitement anymore, due to, as mentioned in the article, fatigue and high professionalization of teams and consequential control of racing. We simply need shorter stages to make everything exciting again. Days of Cunego’s winning Giro breakaway or Landis’ reclaiming of yellow jersey in this infamous TdF are over. Short stages have proven to be the answer! And yes, sport is changing like many other sports. If we cannot compare the heroes of today to the heroes of 50 years ago, this is not a problem. This has happened in many other sports as well. Can you compare Eddie Merckx to Cristopher Froome or Peter Sagan individually? No, you cannot. Not because Eddie Merckx was so exceptional but because specialisation of cyclists these days is on a much higher level. So today’s pro cycling heroes are already not comparable to the past cycling heroes, this is not a threat we are potential being exposed to in the future would races be shorter. Personally, I stopped watching the first 285 km or so of Milano-Sanremo. In my opinion, LBL is also boring, even though the course itself is challenging and could be very interesting. And I love Vuelta and find TdF relatively boring as well (except for the media pomp)! Why? You do the math.

    I also noted one good comment….about lack of highlights of the stage before live broadcast. Excellent comment! Why is that not happening? That’s all we need. I don’t care what happened in first 117 km of 217 km stage, if in 100 out of 117 nothing happened. Why not using the unexciting moments of the last 100 km to show the interesting moments of the first 117? There is so many possibilities, in combination of more of them, to make this sport super exciting!

    • How do you (or TV broadcasters, or race organisers) know “what TV viewers want to see”?

      If you really *know* that, you can become very rich in a very short time!

      But, somehow, I suspect you don’t really *know*. Which isn’t a problem at all, the problem is that apparently many decisions are taken by decision-makers also without knowing, or, even worse, pretending not to know.

      Curiously enough, while we’re reading here and there about sort of an opinion campaign in favour of shorter stages, ASO is going all-in with the option of full broadcast. Sure the problem isn’t *excitement*.

      Long stages are currently bringing excitement and might be packed of action even in a supposed “post-massive-doping” era (I myself, along with other readers, listed examples in previous debates). Just as they were during the golden age of cycling, when doping simply wasn’t technologically good enough to make that big a difference. No relation can be established between doping and most racing dynamics, whether they involve stage length or not.

      And you might note that the Tour was able to offer short stages just as depressing as the longer ones.

      Regarding the highlights thing, well, it’s being regularly done in Italy and in Spain – I’m pretty sure that Sporza does that, too. Don’t know about the French.
      If it’s not happening elsewhere, it’s rather lame, indeed – they just have to copy the best.
      However, Italian, Spanish and Belgian viewers account for a third part (more or less) of the Tour de France global audience…

      • ASO is a profit oriented entity. They receive money from towns their races pass through. And even more money when broadcast is on at the time the race is passing those towns. And even more money when more people watch such broadcasts, which naturally happens with stage-finish towns/places. Here is your answer.

        On the other hand, ASO is an organizer of Vuelta for the past few years. Do you recognize a switch where Vuelta is going to? Shorter stages with many mountain top finishes. And, TdF route for next years reveals more mountain top finishes than traditionally.

        Of course, we can only make assumptions through those facts. I am not aware of any actual research being done on what existing and potential cycling fans want to see. I only know through my own “research” by talking to cycling fans and I know what we want. I also talk to people making fun of cycling fans and I know the reasons why they think cycling is boring. Both opinions are more or less the same. Long stages are boring, cycling often lacks action.

        • If you scroll a bit up, you’ll see – with a bit more substance – “what cycling viewers want” , because Gabriele listed the numbers. And they don’t support your feeling or those of your “testgroup”.

          • Well, as much as my assumptions probably include bias, also Gebriele’s research might include bias. If you want to declare something as a confirmed or denied hypothesis, you need to make a statistically valid research. I am wondering, and would really like to hear from Gabriele, how did she control for different factors which could influence the validity of her research. I can nam a few:
            1. Was the population statistically valid?
            2. In connection to point 1, is there sufficient number of short stages / races to allow for a valid statistical assessment?
            3. I assume majority of epic mountain stages, including most known epic climbs, are still classified as long mountain stages. Shorter stages usually take place on climbs without much historic recognition, such as Giro mountain stages in Apenines, while longer stages take place in more prominent Alps.
            4. Is it already that time when shorter stages can show their real potential? Cycling fans might still have hope in long mountain stages, especially due to short mountain stages being a relatively new concept? For that reason, cycling fans might still watch long mountain stages in order to not miss something out and hope for an interesting outcome.
            5. Did Gabriele control for weekend days and weekdays? Is it possible that shorter stages mainly take place during the week, while long stages take place during the weekend in order to achive the best media/viewer coverage per kilometer?

            I am looking forward to the answers on the above.

          • Gabriele made up some bias based on numbers that he can’t present here. He just packs his view in 20 lenghty comments to distract from that fact.

          • @TäveS
            As you can see above, I just presented some (more) figures. But I won’t lose anymore time to feed an evident lack of sincere interest in the problem (otherwise, you’d have already had better information yourself).

            There’s enough validated academic literature on the subject. Nobody is researching what cycling fans *want* to see, but there’s some good bibliography about what cycling fans *actually see*.
            Part of it has been even reviewed and debated on this blog in the past.
            Obviously, we’re speaking of academic articles, so all the funny questions you ask (they’re *funny* when you compare them to your approach “I spoke with my friends”) have been tackled. I myself criticised some aspects of some of those work, but through collaboration things improve year after year (that’s how it works in science) and, all in all, the results are always hugely better than commonplace assumptions based on a self-centred perspective.
            However, no research is focused on stage length: it’s a by-product of other works.
            Read the articles, get the data and we can debate about it (privately, perhaps). Otherwise, you’ll just have to take my word on it: anyway, I don’t mean what I write here as a “scientific opinion”, just as an “informed opinion” versus “personal impressions or generic belief”. You can see a perfect example in the discussion with TäveS above.

      • And, in addition to the higlights discussion. I watch cycling predominantly on Sporza. I switch to Eurosport only when Sporza doesn’t offer coverage. I do not note any in-stage higlights for part of the stage not included in live broadcast. When Sporza’s live coverage starts, Jose and Michiel usually explain what happened in kilometers before in words and do not provide video footage of those events. Live broadcasting of cycling is still more or less as it used to be in the past. We might want some americanization taking place, with highlights, facts and statistics. Of course not to such extreme as NFL broadcast but certainly to a larger extent than what we can currently see.

        • About Sporza, you might be right. I don’t watch Sporza very often, and I think I recall a couple of occasions in which I saw some highlights, which brought me to think that it was usual (I also tend to identify Sporza with broadcasting excellence). But I don’t have more specific information about the subject, hence if your personal experience is vaster and differs from mine, it’s for sure more valuable.
          Hats off to the Italian and Spanish broadcaster, they’re apparently better than Sporza, at least in this sense (the image production is still way better in Sporza, and in recent years it’s been getting worse both in Italy and in Spain for several reasons, among which ex pro Martinello becoming a commentator leaving his place in the production truck).

          • BINGO Gabriele! Your mention of Martinello moving up to the chair next to Pancani may explain why the images we see on RAI (and the international feed as a result) are not as germane to the action as before. I’ve often wondered WTF, as it seemed few of the other RAI staff had changed, but way-too-often I find myself yelling at the screen – “Mr. Director, why are we looking at a view from Moto1 when the action’s back at Moto2?” And yes, I know everyone’s a critic but this IS the person’s job for Pietro’s sake. I started wondering if this person was not paying much attention to the bike race or was incompetent? This year we watched the finish of Strade Bianche Eroica Pro in Siena just behind the RAI enclosure where Alessandra DiStefano was and even she seemed mystified (and irritated) when the screen would suddenly switch to a scene that showed nothing important rather than the final moments of the battle for the win. I couldn’t hear what she was saying but it appeared they might be some choice words of “advice” for the production crew?

          • Martinello’s eye is great. It’s always bad when you remember the past, and you also look nationalistic, but I’ve to say that Bulbarelli-Cassani with the mic, Savoldelli on the motorcycle, Martinello in the truck of the TV Director, and De Stefano as a reporter are my pick. I watch cycling on American, UK, French TV, Bike Channel Italy and Eurosport (UK, France and Italy), their quality was impressive.
            Cassani could spot a face in the peloton and the gear he was using in 2 seconds. Bulbarelli knew which pasta dish and which famous castle you can find in basically any corner crossed by the Giro. Savoldelli was so timely and technical… No wonder everybody moved up, Bulbarelli as a TV manager, Savoldelli as a voice of Bike Channel, Cassani as coach of the Italian national team, and Martinello outside the truck with the mic. Hope RAI calls Paolini in the Director truck, if he will be in reading TV frames as he is in reading the development of a sprint, we’ll have back our awesome images from the Giro.

    • Some, like me, find the (Vuelta of the last few years) a bit dull. They rely on the same kind of stage: a very steep hill at the end, which means you get little action until the last few km and then everyone goes for it. I find this lacking in tactical drama. And it’s only a short burst of excitement at the end of the stage. Also, it gets very same-y throughout a Vuelta.
      This year’s Tour was tedious because of the riders; the Vuelta’s lack of interesting racing was largely down to the course (which you can do something about).

  38. I like long bike races and like spending a lazy afternoon watching as much as possible while pottering about the house (or pretending to do work). However, I’m currently addicted to following a 70 day long race (I suspect that a lot of France is as well).

    • Good analysis and good comments. But one factor is always forgotten. Since what’s boring about cycling is to see a faceless peloton, and what prevents “action” is the maximisation of the benefit of drafting in a slipstream, and since ever increasing average speeds continue to increase this benefit and worsen the problem, anything aiming at reducing speeds is beneficial. And distance (I mean vastly increased distances) would significantly reduce speed, the benefit of drafting, the consequences of being chased down after attacking, and so on. The idea is to keep average speeds down to what they were in Merckx’ time. How many kilometers would a modern race (with contemporary equipment, riders, roads, etc..) need to have so that it averages the speed of races 40 years ago.
      One principle should prevail in the evolution of cycling, that would preserve its identity and appeal: “keep the effort constant”, so that courses are hardened and enlarged proportionally to the easing provided by modern equipment and preparation.

      • Very interesting ideas. I don’t know if you’re right – maybe others can debate/disagree.
        Maybe they could alter gearing (we’ve reached the end of my bike technology knowledge now) so that they don’t go so quickly?
        I’ve never been convinced by your ‘increased distances’ argument in the past, but you might be on to something here.
        Certainly, there would be nothing wrong with the Tour trying a 250km stage through the mountains. Unfortunately, the riders – amongst everyone else – would probably complain and thus would just trundle through the whole thing.

      • It’s about intensity not speed though?
        As noted above, if there is a really long stage the riders will tempo it.
        There’s only so much energy the human body can expend, it doesn’t matter how quickly or slowly that effort takes.
        In fact, having a mix of longer, slower stages and shorter, intense stages will ‘shock’ the body and make it tougher for the rider.

        • Note that I agree with the perspective of mixing several kinds of stage, with one or two “short” complicated stages (120-150 kms), one or two mountain marathons (over 200 kms) and so on. That said, besides the peculiar stages, the regular thing for *serious* mountain stages should be somewhere around 180 kms and with more than one KOM…

          What you say about riding tempo is oversimplification: for example, in the Tour the peloton recently rides very often quite below the affordable tempo on the climbs, then pushing a little harder on the flat stretches.
          You can force the pace early on and then count on in-stage recovery, if a stage is long enough: an ability which different riders hold in different measure.
          And there’s another factor: riders with “a big engine and a little tank” are more prone to errors in long stages, even if it’s *simply* about caring your calory intake. But if the rivals make things complicated… during 6 hours you might fail to comply with your caloric schedule, in some moment. The risk to get exposed to mistake under the adversaries’ pressure is higher (if they decide to put you under pressure).
          I could go on…

          A long and complicated stage gives actual room to try and implement different strategies (if the teams feel like it), whereas a shorter stage gives less margin to create a snowball effect, even if I’ll happily acknowledge that it favour blitzkrieg, which can also be surprising.

          Anyway, I’m not at all against flat stages, I’m more hostile towards the “final monoclimb” format if anything (especially if it’s being repeated several times, like it happens in the Vuelta and, OMG, like it’s going to happen in next Giro – we can have one of that in a GT, too, no problem, unless it’s like 3-4 stages).

          Another important idea is that the “short stage” concept, not that bad in itself, shouldn’t become an excuse to reduce the average or the typical length of most stages in a GT, nor to banish/reduce serious mountain marathons… this is the trend we’re starting to see in some races: on the one hand, the 200 kms length is reserved for easy stages, and on the other it’s harder and harder to get the ol’ good 6-hours stage in the mountains.

  39. Hope I’m not repeating what was said below as I haven’t time to read all posts… I was watching a replay of the 2014 Paris Roubaix this week and was struck by how interesting (or uninteresting) the commentators could make the broadcast. There were three different pairs of broadcasters, the first two including a recently retired pro rider, and the third pair of Liggett and Sherwin. L & S were dismal. The ex-pros were easily able to keep the interest up with info about riders in the race and strategies at work. Sherwin especially did nothing but repeat boring anecdotes and story lines that did absolutely nothing to enhance the race for viewers. Long cycling races are perfect for a great story teller to make the race come alive. Pity there are so few used in TV coverage.

    • Curious, I was commenting about Paris-Roubaix *right now* with my brother… he couldn’t watch it live this spring and, after many months, last week he was going to watch a replay and thus asked me what part of the broadcast he might skip.
      Obviously, he was never interested in watching any highlight in the while, he simply had read all the journalistic written material after the race.
      Now I told him he needed to watch the last 130 kms or so, and, if he had time, perhaps it was also interesting to watch… the first couple of hours to enjoy a very important part of the race we aren’t usually allowed to see.
      At first, he told me he was going to watch the first half an hour just to see how it looked like, then jumping to the last couple of hours or so.
      What actually happened is that he started with this idea in his mind but ended up watching the whole race, even if he had to split it in three separate TV session. He said he utterly enjoyed it like a sort of miniseries (a bit like the first seasons of Black Mirror) 😀

  40. These are some really great insights about the sport of cycling but they are presented poorly. Please edit the writing and get the quality back to where it was a while ago.

  41. Apologies for the hijack, but does anyone know how you can watch the Gent six day?
    Eurosport UK are showing the last day, but is there anything else?

  42. INRNG. Your observation “It’s made for TV and we consume cycling by TV now” made me reflect on how we follow our beloved activity.

    Generally I usually defer any viewing until I’ve seen the result and then decide if it’s worth watching. Personally, I feel video is something old-fashioned to be skipped as slow and poor in content density – Velon videos are classic examples of low return viewing – in the time it takes to watch these polished but empty snippets of canned answers you can flick through five or six informed ‘static’ resources.

    Certainly, on a lazy weekend, I can savour a long stage accompanied by a beer or two but I’m not glued to the screen and often dive out to do something interesting. Actually, thinking about it, a race may simply be an excuse to do nothing and get sloshed, hmmm…

    I doubt if shorter stages will engage me as an individual to watch more TV, it may actually make it rarer. Why watch an explosive stage when you can watch the post race précis whenever you want, they will be even more exciting and take even less time to absorb.

    I wonder how many of you also share this same experience?

      • Not sure I understand ‘*purist*’ in this context, surely they wouldn’t want to know the result? Perhaps you should revisit getting the result first, it’s quite liberating, ‘HE won! Never mind…’ JOMO ?.

        Mind you, sometimes it’s quite nice to watch a race for the other things that go on and interesting events on the road but usually it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out how things pan-out on the feed. Oddly enough, the last ten kilometres of dull flat race are often more exciting than the queen stages even though you know the results.

    • You remind me of a friend of mine who boasts/admits/readily tells that he doesn’t read novels. The reason he gives is not that he doesn’t have the time but simply that when he tried to read them he felt/thought that there was too much redundancy in the experience. (To his credit, he doesn’t read “condensed versions”, either.)

      I’m not sure, though, if there is an analogy worth pursuing – and if there is, where do we place those “readers” who prefer their novels as audio books?

      I don’t watch tennis – unless it is a drawn out match that is still going on Eurosport when we should be viewing cycling – but I have wondered what it would be like if the broadcast was “delayed live” and the director would leave out the balls and games with totally expected outcomes that “only” carry the match toward the decisive balls and games. A much shorter programme, of course, but also a different experience for a tennis fan, surely?

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