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Is pro racing heading for an alternative calendar?

22 Feb 2019

This article was originally published in issue 82 of Cyclist magazine

Words Richard Moore Photography Mark Boardman

It began as a joke during a conversation between Cannondale-Drapac rider Joe Dombrowski and a member of his team’s staff in early 2016.

Dombrowski’s big target for the year, the focus of his season, was the Giro d’Italia in May, but beyond that his racing schedule had yet to be decided.

‘Our press officer jokingly suggested that I do Leadville,’ says Dombrowski. By that he meant the Leadville 100, a 100-mile mountain bike race in Colorado that involves a lot of climbing and which has built up a cult status in the US.

Dombrowski started off as a mountain biker, so he liked the idea – but then quickly dismissed it.

The press officer was undeterred, however and raised the idea with team boss Jonathan Vaughters and Cannondale.

‘They were actually really into it,’ recalls Dombrowski. ‘My reaction was, “Come on, guys, we need to be serious here.”

‘I’m a professional cyclist, and the rider market is driven by results on the road.’

‘You have a short career as a professional rider, so I couldn’t afford to waste it.

‘But then I thought, why not?

‘By then I’d done a lot of racing that season – I had done the Giro, and Leadville fitted into a slot between the Tour of Utah [where Dombrowski was defending champion] and the Vuelta a España.

‘It ended up being a lot of fun. The thing I enjoyed most was thinking about the logistics around it and planning it.

‘As a road cyclist on a professional team there are some things you have autonomy over, but not many.

‘In terms of nutrition, what tyres to use, what pressure to run, what gearing you use, it’s pretty limited. It’s all done for you.

‘So it was kind of fun to go back to handling all this stuff on my own – it was like when I started out, going to races with my dad.’

Looking back now, in the light of the announcement by Dombrowski’s team – now called EF Education First – that in 2019 they will run an ‘alternative calendar’, Dombrowski might be considered a bit of a pioneer.

But he wasn’t the only road pro at the Leadville 100 in 2016.

Teammate Alex Howes was also riding, as was Lachlan Morton, the freshly retired Dave Zabriskie and Ted King, and also Laurens ten Dam, the Dutchman then on the Giant-Alpecin team.

When he suffered an early puncture Ten Dam instinctively raised his hand, as he would in a road race to call his team car up with a new wheel.

Of course, there was no convoy of team cars on the dirt trails of Colorado.

Just over six hours later, Todd Wells, a decorated and experienced mountain biker, crossed the line first.

After a further three minutes Dombrowski appeared, finishing a very respectable second. Howes was sixth.

Dombrowski flew straight to northern Spain and six days later, in Galicia, began his second Grand Tour of the season.

‘I can’t say Leadville was great preparation for the Vuelta,’ he admits. 

‘In fact, it was pretty terrible preparation. I didn’t ride well, but it was certainly fun.

‘And the team and sponsors were really happy, because they had a lot of engagement – more than they get from most races, even at WorldTour level.

‘Apart from the really major races, a lot are quite anonymous – quite frankly, who cares? But me doing Leadville got people talking.’

Adventure and exposure

There’s the rub. It is why, two years on, and emboldened by a new partnership with Rapha, the clothing company that appears to have the burgeoning ‘alternative’ scene in its sights, EF Education First will in 2019 be sending some of their riders to events such as Leadville or Dirty Kanza.

Even more ambitiously, the itinerary might even include ultra-endurance events such as the epic, unsupported Transcontinental Race.

There was a telling comment from Vaughters on social media in response to a headline that asked, in the wake of the announcement, whether EF were set to ‘dominate’ the alternative calendar.

Vaughters is adamant that they are not, and that in any case that is not the point. ‘It’s about engagement,’ he says, ‘not winning.’

It’s possible to see the EF plan as part of a wider picture of change and evolution in cycle sport.

There is a coming together, it seems, of events and disciplines that seemed for years to exist in splendid isolation – with elite, professional road racing in one box, and adventure, endurance and other alternative events in another.

Consider the case of Mark Beaumont. In 2008 the Scottish cyclist set a new record for riding unsupported around the world.

He did it in 194 days, an achievement hailed by many as astonishing, but which met with a snooty response from certain road cycling aficionados, as though it wasn’t ‘real’ cycling.

Nine years later, in 2017, Beaumont went for the round-the-world record again.

This time, though, it was a fully supported effort that was meticulously planned by his ‘performance team’.

It wasn’t ‘wild man style’, as his 2008 ride had been, but a competitive endeavour.

This time, it took him just 78 days to ride around the world.

That meant a remarkable 240 miles (384km) a day – a feat that looks as though it will remain in the record books for some time.

‘I was in full-on race mode for the full 78 days,’ he says.

In 2017, Beaumont noticed a different reaction, one he believes is indicative of a change in attitude.

‘I’m hugely aware of a coming together of ultra-endurance adventure cycling and “normal” road racing,’ he says.

‘I think adventure cycling has come a long way towards road racing. Ten years ago it was five-bag touring.

Now the serious guys and girls out there doing big distances are doing it on racing bikes with minimal kit.’

While this kind of cycling and ‘alternative’ events edge slightly closer to pro racing, so parts of pro racing seem to be moving ever so slightly in the opposite direction.

It’s a reaction, maybe, to the increasingly controlled, power meter-dominated nature of the sport at the very pinnacle.

More road races are seeking alternatives to tarmac.

The spring Classic Ghent-Wevelgem introduced the ‘plugstreets’ – semi-paved roads – a couple of years ago; Tro Bro Leon is a race over dirt roads in Brittany that has cult status; and Paris-Tours, once the sprinters’ Classic, this year sought out dirt tracks through some of the vineyards on the route.

Strade Bianche, held over the white dirt roads of Tuscany, is well established as one of the most loved races on the circuit – yet its history only stretches back to 2007.

The engagement party

Some pro riders are also creating their own adventures off the beaten track and achieving significant fan engagement in doing so.

In early September, when they should have been riding the Tour of Britain, Larry Warbasse and Conor Dunne responded to their team, Aqua Blue Sport, ceasing to exist by fixing panniers to their bikes and heading out into the wilderness for their own tour, which they called the #NoGoTour.

They arguably garnered more exposure through their social media posts than they would have by racing at the Tour of Britain.

A month later, following the season-ending Il Lombardia Classic, Lotto-Soudal teammates Thomas De Gendt and Tim Wellens did a similar thing, packing their bikes and riding the 1,000km from Lombardy back home to Belgium.

They called their adventure ‘The Final Breakaway’, and of course ensured it was well documented to their followers on social media.

Through these rides and by riding alternative events, pro riders are connecting with other cyclists – and maybe, in some cases, also rediscovering the simple joy of riding a bike, which can be eroded over the course of a career.

‘I spoke to Larry and Conor after ther trip and I think they enjoyed just seeing something new from their bike,’ says Dombrowski.

‘Larry came back with a very minimalist attitude: what do I need, what makes me happy – really paring things down.’

The irony for some is that what starts off as a tool for adventure, exploration and excitement – the bike – becomes the tool of a trade.

The focus and perspective of a pro racer can become as narrow as a skinny racing tyre.

‘On Strava they have this heat map and Larry and I were studying it,’ says Dombrowski. ‘You can see where people ride most frequently and where we ride most frequently.

‘We both live in Nice and there’s some incredible riding around here.

‘It’s very mountainous, with climb after climb, it’s a playground, but if we look at the heat map we ride the same roads all the time!

‘The most incredible roads might be terrible for getting from point A to point B efficiently, so we always ride the same roads.

‘That’s mostly because you know that if you do this interval, and then have to do that interval, you know that such and such a road is perfect for that, rather than mixing it up a bit.

It’s all very controlled, but you lose that spirit of adventure.’

Reconnecting with riding

They can’t be the only ones feeling what might be called power meter fatigue, where roads are selected not for their interesting climbs or spectacular views but simply for training utility.

Congestion and the danger of riding on the open roads are also driving cyclists off road – literally.

Dombrowski and King both agree that this has been a big factor in the growing popularity of gravel riding (‘gravel grinding’) in the United States.

There are maybe parallels here with mountaineering, which for so long was about first summits.

When all the climbs were done, and the most popular ones became increasingly busy, the more adventurous didn’t just keep climbing the same mountains but instead searched for new angles and tackled alternative routes.

The EF-Drapac experiment will be fascinating to follow, but inevitably it won’t be as straightforward as selecting some quirky events to do.

The WorldTour calendar, starting in January with the Tour Down Under, and finishing in Turkey in late October, comprises 37 events in 18 countries and adds up to 180 days’ racing.

On paper, it doesn’t leave a lot of time for an alternative calendar.

‘It’s obviously got a lot of attention but I think it will be fairly limited and our major focus will still be on the big WorldTour road races,’ cautions Dombrowski.

‘I don’t think Rigo [Uran] is going to be doing a gravel race the week before the Tour de France.

‘Some riders see it as a bit of a distraction – they’re like, “Why would anyone want to do that?”

‘But talking to the other guys, Mike Woods [Vuelta stage winner and bronze medallist in the Road Race World Championships] would love to do Leadville. And Lachlan Morton is coming back to us.’

Morton started his career with the team when it was known as Garmin-Sharp before falling out of the WorldTour, racing a few years in the US, then returning to the highest level with Dimension Data in 2017.

His considerable popularity owes nothing to his results at WorldTour level (he doesn’t really have any) and everything to his own alternative riding, not least the Thereabouts films he has made with his brother, Angus.

The films are all about adventure and riding purely for the sake of riding.

As Morton said on re-joining the team, ‘A lot of people have connected with me through the Thereabouts stuff because it’s relevant to them.

‘A lot of the time when I’m racing I don’t feel like I’m really relevant to a lot of cycling fans.

‘I think the most exciting thing is that they [EF-Drapac] see the untapped value that’s sitting there in cycling.

‘A lot of other sponsors haven’t really been able to tap into it. EF are really committed to growing it and in turn they’ll grow the sport as a whole.

‘And personally, I hope to be able to be competitive and get results in races from, say, the likes of Dirty Kanza, way up to the likes of the Tour of Spain. That would be really cool.’

Down and dirty

Gravel races such as the Dirty Kanza in the USA can help pro riders rediscover their love of cycling

Former WorldTour professional Ted King is a convert to ‘alternative’ races, and is a two-time winner of Dirty Kanza, the race run over gravel roads ‘in a sleepy town in the middle of Kansas’, as he puts it.

King retired after spells with the Cervélo Test Team, Liquigas and Cannondale.

He twice rode the Giro d’Italia and started the Tour de France twice, becoming something of a cause célèbre in 2013 after crashing in the opening stage and separating his shoulder.

He was dropped early in the Stage 4 team time-trial and struggled in alone, missing the time cut by seven seconds.

Many felt his disqualification was harsh in the circumstances.

When he stopped in 2015, King believed it was the end of his competitive cycling career: ‘I was ready to finish,’ he says.

He was 32. Next stop, a finance career on Wall Street… or so he thought.

‘Because I still loved riding my bike I did some fun events in spring 2016 and met Rebecca Rusch [the renowned endurance athlete and three-time Dirty Kanza winner].

‘She said, “You really gotta go to Dirty Kanza.” I’d heard about it but knew nothing about it.

‘All I knew was it was a mass-start event on gravel roads in the middle of America in a town and a state I hardly knew.

‘I went there not having any idea what to expect. I knew how to ride long distances [it’s 200 miles/322km long]; I knew how to ride off-road.

‘You have to be self-supported outside of the feed zones – there’s no outside support. There are three checkpoints that you have to pass. It’s nothing like traditional road racing.

‘I knew I had the ability to do well, but it was really going into the unknown.’

In his first Dirty Kanza, King did do well – he won in 11 hours 50 minutes, more than 40 minutes ahead of the second-placed rider.

In 2017, says King, ‘it was a lot more competitive and luck was not on my side’.

But this year he showed that  2016 was no fluke – he won again, this time by  10 minutes, finishing in 10 hours 44 minutes.

‘It’s a festival, a community that comes together in this sleepy little town,’ says King.

‘If you compare it to the Tour of Flanders – I mean, there, you’ve got about 200,000 who come to the start, and they really know the race, they understand it, it’s a community.

‘Dirty Kanza is kinda like that, but on a much smaller scale.’