Gradient Inflation

Television is the driving force behind pro racing today and course design reflects this. The Vuelta is an interesting example because of the trend for uphill finishes. This year’s race has 11 of them.

It’s entertaining but often you need only catch the final 20 minutes and that’s still plenty of time to settle into your proverbial sofa and look out for small details like which team mates are where and so on before the action hots up. It’s TV as tapas, bite-sized snacks to consume each day rather than a visual feast.

A more subtle course might provide better racing though. One of the best finishes in the Vuelta so far was Stage 12 to Estaca de Barès, culminating in Alexandre Geniez’s stage. It was a tactical finish with the big breakaway splitting from far out under Davide Formolo’s attacks and then a lively race with more splits and lots of poker moments.

Again and again in recent years the Vuelta exploits steep uphill finishes. These are exciting and crucially promise to be exciting. It’s this second component that helps bring in the audience, people know there’s a goat path with 25% slopes tomorrow so they’ll make an appointment to watch the race again. A bunch sprint can deliver thrills but the stages tend to be formulaic, the early breakaway containing a handful of riders tasked with “animating” the race, code for giving the TV producer two scenes to film, to be able to flick between the break and the bunch. An uphill finish though is intense and sees the big contenders in action.

The audience plays a part too, the bulk of the audience of for the Vuelta is the domestic viewers in Spain and they’re more likely to want to watch the likes of Alejandro Valverde contend for stages compared to a sprint stage where currently Spain has no world class sprinters. There’s academic research to support this. A paper from 2015 by Rodriguez, Perez, Puente and Rodriguez in the Journal of Sports Economics looked at audience data and one conclusion is that “the audience for cycling has a nationalistic component that is easily understandable as a function of proximity, language, and patriotic feelings” or put plainly the Spanish audience is boosted when Spaniards are winning, just as, say the Dutch audience for the Giro would grow if a Dutchman was leading and so on. This implies it makes sense to design a course that suits the biggest audience segment, in this case the Spanish audience. Still with the retirement of Joaquim Rodriguez and Alberto Contador, Spanish success in these uphill finishes isn’t as numerous. When Alejandro Valverde retires perhaps the course design will change? It’s not to say the Vuelta is explicitly made this way but it can influence things.

One danger with all these summit finishes is the pernicious effect of inflation. We’ve seen the Tour de France exploit more steep roads, the idea is that the greater the slope the less the drafting effect and so Team Sky’s mountain train isn’t as dominant. But it means a climb like, say, the Col du Tourmalet, looks boring in comparison. Back to the Vuelta and the advent of 20% climbs make even a 10% slope look humdrum. So you need 25%, then you need 25% on a cement track, then 25% and gravel and so on in order to grab attention.

None of this is new. Rik Van Steenbergen won the 1954 Milan-Sanremo, marking the start of a series of foreign wins and Italians felt “their” race was being stolen by foreign sprinters so they added the climb of the Poggio in 1960 and so on; Paris-Roubaix only really became the cobbled classic we know today in 1967; some of bergs of the Ronde van Vlaanderen were only included in the 1970s. More recently Gent-Wevelgem has incorporated gravel tracks, Paris-Tours will do so later this year. But it does seem that the Vuelta’s recent theme is to seek out some of the steepest roads possible, to the point of paving dirt tracks, this was the case with the climb of Les Praeres above Naves on Stage 14 which was tarmacked so it could host the Vuelta. Things end up full circle where having ever steeper climbs because of TV the course ends up using access roads to TV and telecoms masts.

A grand tour reflects a country’s geography but the Vuelta seems to relish the steep climbs, perhaps because this has suited local riders likes of Alejandro Valverde, Alberto Contador and Joaquim Rodriguez well in recent years and home success can boost TV audiences. These uphill finishes make for exciting TV, you can make an appointment to tune in for the action. But the quest for ever steeper climbs can render normal mountain stages boring, once slopes of 15-25% become the norm a route without them could look underwhelming.

47 thoughts on “Gradient Inflation”

  1. The technology plays some part as well I believe. Before compact gearing and mountain bike type cassettes it was simply impossible to climb these gradients on a road bike. I feel roads need to be found now where the current pros appear to be struggling as much as in the 80ties with 52/48 – 11-21 gearing on 7 speed cassettes up 10%gradients like the ventoux or the tourmalet.

    • Thought this too last week. My tv commenters were talking up the gradients and talked of „we will see riders „zigzagging“ up the road“ – just to then have nothing of that „drama“, as riders rode the mountain in normal fashion and could even attack.

      The bikes these days make racing mountains easier. As steepness doesn‘t come across on tv much, the effort of the riders is the only thing we have to judge the effort. And when it looks normal, people might think it is not a big thing. The difficulty is lost in visual translation, so to say. So in a way the bike industry hurts itself with their inventions, because when people stop to marvel at the efforts, it is no good thing commercial wise.

      • Even with low gearing today the riders look smooth, it’s possible to adjust the ratios so that even the Zoncolan and Angliru look smooth on TV as riders pedal up at 80-90rpm. TV graphics are used today to signal the slope because often you can’t tell from the riders nor the camera.

        • The problem with “smooth pedalling” is that it might be better for the joints, but it is an absolute disgrace to watch. It just looks effortless. Old-time big-gear lumbar-pushed ultraslow-cadence painful-looking climbing (197o’s for example) is crucial to the visual appeal of a cycling. How do you suggest we get rid of “smooth pedalling”?

          • track bikes?

            by the way, Mr/Ms Ring, I think there must have been a typo in this phrase: “When Alejandro Valverde retires”. Surely you meant “If” he retires.

          • Crikey, I guess Larry T has competition in the Curmudgeon Jersey standings 😉

            It’s not just better for the joints anyway, and certainly isn’t effortless. Even as a crap amateur I find I work a lot harder spinning than pushing a bigger gear.

          • “How do you suggest we get rid of “smooth pedalling”?”

            I suggest you find something else to watch. You seem to hate nearly everything about what you watch today. Or maybe invent a time tunnel so you can go back to the past you preferred.

          • I suggest you and all the smooth pedallers focus on track cycling, and kindly allow us to get road cycling back to its slow-motion visible-toil pushing-with-your-back identity. 🙂

        • Yeah, I know. Problem is: Graphics just don‘t give you emotions.

          I think the crux is, that the race has to translate itself to the viewer in a not uncertain, emotional way. When ben king won in front of Bauke, I think?, it was easy to see how tough the race was for them. Both were suffering like crazy. You feel respect for human beings, who can be so determined, give so much and, crucially, you feel with them.

          I understand the idea behind using ever steeper roads, but I think it in truth damages more than it helps. Because you can‘t escalate without end. The right approach would be, I think, to invest long term in good tv commentators, tv directors. And to make it clear to riders/teams, that, by all personal goals, they have to honor the race (all this „I use the race for training“ : say what?!? I feel for the spanish people, when riders try to NOT lead their national Tour! I think it is disrespectful. I understand their reasoning, but think, the riders also have a duty towards the race/cycling. When riders don‘t think the race worth racing, why should I find it worth watching?).

          Plus I think the inflation of ever more races in the wt must stop, they should make the wt/race calender much smaller. The more races have to compete with each other, the more „drama“ they need to be be visible and “different“. The uci has brought this partly on themselves, too, with forbidding riders to ride non uci races and so all races have to apply to the uci race calender, if they like it or not. Even, if they just want to have a nice little, old race around town with a couple of professional home riders included. Look at spring racing: They race 100 days (so it feels) on the same roads. The only difference is, that the racing has different names each day. Aside from that, the riders and the roads are the same, day in, day out. In the beginning, this is exciting. At the end of spring it lost it‘s touch and meaning. So, less indeed is, most of the time, more.

          It is a complex situation and to answer that with simply dramatizing the race with gradients or underground is not a good answer. Especially, because, as you mention, this raises expectations, which not always can be met.

    • Obviously I have not been following cycling long enough. Heard someone say that before compacts they ascended Covadonga with triples, but of course the total bike weight was heavier considering pre carbon frame and other component materials?

        • Nope Triple had been used before.

          Battaglin used a triple on the ascent of Tre Cime di Lavaredo in 1981 (4k at 10%) – the year he won both the Vuelta and the Giro.

        • Quite so. I thought the question regarded the Vuelta only. I seize the occasion to recommend watching that Tre Cime stage, and compare it with watching riders climb nowadays. And then say honestly what is more attractive. The old kind of climbing is what hooked me to follow cycling. Modern climbing is what is failing to hook my son.

    • Excellent point! Even the rider’s body composition often reflects this – who in the pro peloton (with the exception of Peter Sagan) is there that a normal woman would find attractive/sexy?
      There were fewer of these stick-men back in the Golden Age of Cycling. With these twiddly gears it’s no longer much of a question of muscle/strength as it was in the days of Coppi and Bartali, but a more simple equation of watts/kgs.
      It’s becoming like F1 and MOTOGP where the equipment/technology (and perhaps doping?) is making revered courses obsolete so bicycle race organizers are ever after steeper climbs to slow them down enough for the TV viewers to a) tell who the rider is b) see him suffer. And of course all of this is championed by the bike industry, the most short-sighted of a generally short-sighted group of stakeholders.
      As I’ve opined before, perhaps ol’ Henri Desgrange was right?

      • Wasn’t Coppi described as looking like a skinned cat, and very awkward off the bike? Also I think only certain men with a huge man crush find Sagan sexy.

        • I wrote “…a normal woman would find attractive/sexy?” Did you miss the WOMAN part? And yes, Coppi was far from a muscular he-man, but compared to the stick-thin GT winners of current times he was seen as pretty attractive to more than a few – especially a certain Giulia Occhini.
          I wonder if there are female “groupies” following the exploits of Chris Froome, Robert Gesink or Steven Kruijswijk these days? I think it’s fairly obvious that Peter Sagan has more than a few?

  2. Its tricky isn’t it because too many of these goat tracks can be become a bit boring and samey, but then as Mad Black has said it shows the riders really struggling whereas nowadays I’m not sure riders struggle (relatively speaking) on the Alpine giants such as Stelvio. I really hope they improve the road for the last bit of Veleta as that would be an epic stage, via Güéjar Sierra though, not the wide autovía they used in last year’s race.

  3. Road racing is fairly unique in its scope for the organisers to enact what’s little better than legal race fixing (designing a route to favour some riders over others). Each Grand Tour should perhaps have a core specification that outlines the types of allowed stage finishes, so historical comparisons of winners can actually have a bit of meaning. In the social media age the pressure to deviate from the norm and ‘give the people what they want’ must be enormous. Personally, if I want to watch a Hovis advert I go on youtube.

  4. I think the easy and obvious thing hasn’t been said, which is that ‘generally’ the climbs in France are longer and so the Vuelta has to find a way of making the climbs bite.

    Personally I like the classics and the way, through repeated racing efforts, attrition whittles your men down to a selection. There is something so supreme about the raw strength and power of destroying the rest of the field.

    Don’t get me wrong. I love a good mountain stage. But the Sky train has yet to get their liquorice allsort kit to the Paris Roubaix in the lead.

    • Re classics: I always find the difference fascinating, which races the riders like and which races the fans like. Take the Ardennes races, many riders love them. L-B-L – many, many riders find it super exciting. Many cycling fans…not so much. I think this is telling and if we could make exactly the reasons, why riders like that race, visible, this would be „the answer“.

      I don‘t think onbike footage or graphics are it (the answer), as they don‘t give you a coherent story of the racing. They are gadgets, add ons. But what I think would be really good, is to not rely solely on one sense – seeing – in the tv production, but also use another sense, namely hearing. When you hear the wind, swoosh, you understand the speed of the race, the violence of nature, in a way no commentator can ever make you feel it. Right now the roadside mic is closed and we only hear the studio and talking people for hours. To me this is a chance lost.

  5. Hear hear re Stage 12. That was quite a fun watch. What’s fascinating to me is that what makes a particular stage in a multi-stage race interesting may have less to do with the design of the parcours, and more to do with the specific goals and situations of riders that day, none of which is particularly predictable, at least to the race designers ahead of time. Who is targeting a specific stage, or sprint points? Who is in the break who has a big enough time deficit that the peloton can let them out on a longer leash, who has legs who hasn’t been showing, who is saving it for later stages? So almost any non-flat stage can turn out to be unpredictable and exciting as the mix of incentives and strategies plays out.

  6. TDF 2025 stage 18 parcours: a 30km stage – handicap start, with starting times according to weight and route across a jungle rope bridge and up a 25% climb of a cobbled footpath, with cobbles.

    Did I mention the cobbles?


  7. Just to address a few of the increasingly tall stories about tall gearing back in the 80s…
    Any number of photographs will show that riders then were using rear sprockets around 23/24/25 teeth in the mountains. Campagnolo Super Record rear derailleurs would shift up to a 26t. Campagnolo’s 144mm bolt circle diameter crankset was well-established by the 1970s, and would take a 42t inside ring. A few manufacturers made 41s to fit them. By 1986 Campagnolo’s 135mm bcd C-Record and various Japanese 130mm bcd cranksets allowed 39t and 38t inside rings respectively.
    13-18 six speed and 12-18 seven speed straight block freewheels existed, but that doesn’t mean pros were riding them over mountains.
    One of the main differences with seven speed freewheels, by comparison with today’s 11 speeds, was that getting a freewheel with say 22 and 25 sprockets meant giving up a 12 and/or 16t.
    On a not entirely unrelated subject, 12t and especially 11t sprockets did not become universally adopted until fairly recently – Guido Bontempi reputedly used “only” a 13t and yet managed to secure many TdF and Giro stage wins in the mid/late 80s.

  8. My view is that road courses in both the Classics and Tours have not kept up with developments in bikes, equipment, coaching, nutrition, road conditions……….., whilst at the same time have continued to reduce their length because of the perceived relationship between doping and distance. This is not something that has arrived suddenly. It has been a gradual and ongoing process. Laurent Fignon was making the very same point 20 years ago.

    What is clear is that 25%+ finishing climbs are not the answer. They are so steep that only seconds difference are usually be gained by the small, light climbers These climbs do not appear as dramatically steep on TV and even a small icon showing gradient does the severity little justice.

    A complete rethink for many courses and distances is probably required by organizers. Some of the newer one day races have gained almost instant popularity because of the nature of their parcours and unpredictability. They probably point the way to future developments.

    • “Some of the newer one day races have gained almost instant popularity because of the nature of their parcours and unpredictability. ”
      Not the Canadian ones…

    • The obvious trade-off to “gradient inflation “ is how the TT’s fit into a Grand Tour?
      Instead of one or two long/er TT’s, could the race organisers not have, say, three or even four short TT’s over the three weeks, perhaps even with split days?
      Have an uphill TT also?
      TT’s are supposedly poorer tv entertainment but they’re really where most of the drama is happening these days, so do they need to be ‘spiced up’ in some way that brings both entertainment and race meaning?

      As mentioned, the equipment and riders’ fitness has reduced the impact of climbs. We now have the power climbs and, I’d suggest, the range of such climbs is increasing also – from 5 to 7 % upto and significantly beyond 10 % depending on the nature of the road.
      I don’t particularly want to see “suffering “, I want to see good racing. But the climb is only one element of this. Gradient inflation does nothing, in my view, to the race. Everyone slows down and tactics become staid.
      Look at other parts of the race, TTs, descents, etc.

      • You must be one of these nutjobs who invented the “new” Omnium, to make it more “attractive” to audience, while ruining the whole thing for everyone else.
        It’s cycling, not a Red Dull event.

    • “These climbs do not appear as dramatically steep on TV and even a small icon showing gradient does the severity little justice. ”

      Exactly this. TV seems to flatten things. For those in the UK who are motorsport fans, Paddock Hill at Brands Hatch doesn’t look like much on telly but to walk it it feels steep, and to drive it, it properly disappears from view as you tip in and it’s really tough to see where you’re going – something that’s not conveyed by the in-car cameras either.

      • ..and I can confirm that riding a bike round there is quite an experience. It’s not possible to change gear fast enough as the gradient comes up to meet you. Main difficulty though is judging your speed when the surface is so darn smooth;- not at all like the average roads all around Brands.

  9. These ‘Goat track” finishes are great where your stood at the roadside, seeing the big hitters and the “fat lads” at the back. On tv I feel the gradient is lost and the slow motion nature takes over! not that exciting.

  10. osbk67
    With Shimano’s overall dominance, I notice only a few Campagnolo components sponsorship this year. I am not a bike mechanic myself but had heard quite a few negative comments among LBS lately. Reasons of which I failed to comprehend. But it seems price has governed market choices.

    • Fewer teams are getting any real money from component sponsors these daze so the pro peloton follows the market – they BUY the almost ubiquitous products of the Big-S unless Campagnolo pays them to use/test their stuff.
      You might remember a few years back when a whole lot of teams used SRAM components? Once they’d established their presence in the market pro road cycling-wise, they stopped paying out the big money and teams went back to the Big-S.
      Further back Campagnolo enjoyed the dominant position and the Big-S was the newcomer. These daze not only has your stuff got to work, and work well, you also need to be a wizard in marketing and promotion as well as sourcing low-cost production locations – which is where the Big-S has certainly outshone their Italian competitor.

  11. Because of gearing, super thin racers and everyone knowing how to train with programs/power/etc. the TDF is one long boring TTT.
    Who will gain a few seconds here or there? Soon it will be as exciting as US stock car racing.
    Why not mix in a short stage of cyclo cross? Gravel on steroids.

  12. Did Rusty Woods make the top of stage 17 look steep and hard enough for you today ?

    Another aspect of ‘gradient inflation’ is the numbers that the race organisers publish and the media gleefully gobble-up and repeat – eg 25%, when actually the hill really isn’t that steep at all, apart from a couple of yards up the inside of a hairpin off-camber, and really it’s only 15%

  13. Other sports may offer cycling case studies in optimizing a course for media friendly, “exciting” racing. Biathlon, a relatively new sport that is now one of the most watched winter sports* in Europe, if not the most watched, has purposefully modified its rules over the last 20 years or so to create an exciting, television-friendly event. They deliberately avoid very steep climbs in their world cup courses. The explanation I’ve heard from IBU technical delegates is that they are trying to balance having enough hills to create opportunities for tactical racing, without being so steep that the athletes look clumsy struggling up them and the race becomes a ramp test.

    * that is, winter sports as included in the winter Olympics.

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