The racing comes so thick and fast at times that you can’t watch it on TV, you need a computer screen with multiple windows open. Last week you could watch the Tour of Slovenia, the Belgium Tour, the Route d’Occitanie and the Tour de Suisse all at the same time. This week? Not much.
The Groupama-FDJ team said today is the first day since 4 May that they haven’t had anyone racing. It’s the pre-Tour de France lull, you go from feast to famine with little more than the national championships to full a two week block.
If management consultants designed the calendar it probably wouldn’t look like this, you’d have no clashing races and a series of pre-Tour tests throughout the month, and probably with as much charm and authenticity as the vanished Hammer Series. Instead the calendar has grown organically and having multiple races and overlap events works in cycling in a way that it would not in other sports. Formula 1 won’t have some drivers in one GP, and others in another on the same weekend: that would be ridiculous. But it works in pro cycling where part of peloton can ride the Critérium du Dauphiné and another does the Tour de Suisse, all while others take part in additional events outside of the World Tour calendar too. They remain primarily national races in terms of organisation and target audiences, and teams are staffed to handle this.
But nevermind logistics or market demographics, it’s the intrigue that is the best part. Having Geraint Thomas in the Dauphiné and Richard Carapaz in the Tour de Suisse is more interesting than having them side-by-side in the same race, the fascination is trying to work out who is the better rider today and especially who will be better in July. Having them on separate paths means the Tour de France is a heightened contest. If they’d both done, say, a Dauphiné in late May and a Tour de Suisse in June we’d know more, or at least think we knew more and the suspense wouldn’t be the same.
Citing the two Ineos co-leaders just makes a succinct point but the same holds for the other riders and more so, Tadej Pogačar has just won his Tour of Slovenia which suits him and his home audience but also holds back any direct competition on a summit finish with the collective force of Ineos, and saves him from immediate comparisons to Primož Roglič, and we have no insight into his time trial form either. Meanwhile Roglič is training in Tignes and has been out on recon rides of many of the Tour de France’s key stages, short of lurking behind a rock with a stopwatch outside Tignes nobody outside the team knows what his form is like. We do know that his Jumbo-Visma team have looked weaker than a year ago. But how is Wout van Aert going is a big question given how Mathieu van der Poel was strolling around Switzerland and the Tour de France’s opening stage has that tricky uphill sprint finish. It all leaves a lot of loose threads that will be woven together at the Tour de France. The wait is long but hopefully worth it.
The one piece of action is the upcoming national championships over a long weekend with both time trials and road races, and in many countries across the northern hemisphere. Interest and importance varies, both for participants and fans alike. For some it’s a long way to travel home for one of the few races where only winning counts, coming 5th is much less meaningful than a top-10 in Sanremo or Liège. For some riders and teams it’s a big deal, the sight of the Groupama-FDJ team at work in the French nationals shows how much it matters to them…. although if it’s important they still let Thibaut Pinot stay at home last year as the Tour de France was even more important. Some Tour de France selection spots are dependent on the performance this weekend although it can be as much about staying out of trouble rather than having to prove form. If you want to tune in on TV or online the Italian championships use the same roads as last autumn’s world championships, and the French race is hilly – 16 circuits with a 2.5km climb at 6% – so a sprinter won’t be crowned.
Finally if there’s no racing it’s not to say nothing is happening. Final touches are being made to form with training and recovery rides. New bikes are being built in time for the Tour de France as Shimano’s new Dura-Ace group is set to appear, and at least one team is going to have new kit unveiled at the Tour and probably a minor name change so there’s team cars and a bus to wrap. Team managers have selection decisions to consider.