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Should pro cycling's race calendar stay rearranged?

26 Nov 2020

With the Spring Classics coming after the Tour, and the World Championships before the Giro, this year’s pro season has seen the race calendar ripped up and rearranged. But has it been for the best and is it time to shuffle the dates? Cyclist investigates

Words: Richard Moore Illustration: David Broadbent

Mark Cavendish was standing in the pouring rain in the car park of a leisure centre on the outskirts of the Flanders seaside town of De Panne when someone brushed against his left arm and he winced.

The last one-day Classic of the season, Driedaagse Brugge-De Panne, was still being raced, but Cavendish was one of many DNFs. In his case the failure to finish was understandable: he had crashed, hence his delicate left arm. ‘I was in the front echelon too,’ he lamented.

It was a wild day in mid-October, the rain hammering down and the wind so fierce that riders were literally being blown off the road.

Mathieu van der Poel, three days after winning the Tour of Flanders, was blown from the front echelon into a deep ditch, where he lay motionless. Eventually he emerged and climbed into a team car. Apart from his race being over, he was OK.

It looked miserable. Cavendish felt differently. ‘I absolutely loved it,’ he said. ‘Crosswinds, echelons – proper racing. Hard racing. I’ve loved this period, having these races at this time of year.’

He had done Gent-Wevelgem, Scheldeprijs, the Tour of Flanders and De Panne. ‘I think they should be at this time of the year every year.’

Spring loaded

Cavendish wasn’t the only one who enjoyed the Spring Classics in autumn. Yves Lampaert crossed the line in De Panne with a huge smile on his face, and not only because the Deceuninck-QuickStep rider had attacked the lead group to win alone.

‘I was born in this region, in West Flanders, so it’s my habitat,’ he said. ‘I really like the wind and the echelons and the way we raced today.’

As Cavendish discussed these races and their timing, his future was uncertain. The 30-time Tour de France stage winner does not have a team for 2021, but one certainty is that, despite the enthusiasm of some for change, the Spring Classics will revert to spring.

‘I love Mark’s comments,’ said Tomas Van Den Spiegel, chief executive of Flanders Classics, which organises most of the big Belgian races, including the Tour of Flanders.

‘But at the same time I think the connection between spring and the Flemish Classics is too strong and too historically important.’

Van Den Spiegel was speaking a few days after De Panne as the dust was settling on a hectic, redrawn and improvised 2020 season.

The races had been tightly packed and there were casualties – the Amstel Gold Race and Paris-Roubaix were both cancelled – but it had more or less run as planned, squeezed in just before a surge in coronavirus cases brought new restrictions throughout Europe.

For Flanders Classics, the Tour of Flanders was the big one. Its safe running was essential, according to ;Van Den Spiegel, not just to prevent a blank space where 2020 should have been, but for 2021 and perhaps beyond.

‘We were quite confident we would be able to organise the race,’ said Van Den Spiegel. ‘We had been building up to it with the authorities and stakeholders since May because we always knew there would be a possibility that we’d have to organise it without the public, or at least ask people to stay home.

‘We launched a communication campaign three weeks before the race to persuade people to watch it from home. I invested a lot of time and energy into that, but it was a long wait, especially that last week, to see if it would work.We really emphasised for weeks that this was kind of our final exam to protect spring 2021 as well.

‘We always say cycling is a religion here in Flanders. People understood and really lived up to the expectations. They really wanted to show that they care about cycling and they care about the Tour of Flanders especially.

‘The most difficult moment was when ASO cancelled Paris-Roubaix because that was going to be a week after us. That was stressful but we had to emphasise again that people should stay at home and that we would have a safe environment for everyone.’

The communication campaign was a success. The Tour of Flanders looked as close to being a behind-closed-doors bike race as was possible.

With most of the Classics and the three Grand Tours all crammed into a little more than two months, cycling can say it passed a critical test.

There were hiccups, but perhaps there are also lessons to be learned from shuffling the races so radically – necessity being the mother of invention, after all – and maybe even an opportunity to rethink the racing calendar permanently.

Time for a shake-up?

The biggest lesson, perhaps, is that cycling is more resilient than many seemed to think. When racing stopped in March there were dire forecasts about what the sport might look like when, or if, it restarted. Teams would go. Races would disappear.

There was a novel, strange rhythm to the redrawn season. The Italian Autumn Classics, including Il Lombardia, came before the Tour de France. The Tour came after just one month of racing. The World Championships came immediately after the Tour, with the Ardennes Classics following, then the Giro, the Vuelta and, overlapping with the two Grand Tours, the Classics.

There were clashes, of course, but arguably no more or no worse than every other year, with the common complaint that there is no logic or ‘narrative’ to the season. Ironically there was arguably a clearer narrative to this year’s improvised season.

If Cavendish’s suggestion that at least some of the Classics move to autumn is unlikely, what of potential moves for Strade Bianche, which kick-started the restructured season at the start of August, or Liège-Bastogne-Liège, which came a couple of weeks after the Tour?

Strade Bianche, run on the white dust roads of Tuscany, is a relatively new race that was first held in October before moving to early March. This year’s August edition was a success sportingly, with a superb winner in Wout van Aert, and aesthetically, with the white roads at their most televisual in the blinding August light.

The dust and heat were problematic, especially for riders who couldn’t easily get bottles from team cars, but perhaps an early or late summer date would be preferable to early March?

A more compelling argument can be made for moving the Ardennes Classics. Liège-Bastogne-Liège is La Doyenne, the oldest one-day Classic, and for a long time renowned as the toughest and most prestigious to win.

It was where the Grand Tour champions met Classics specialists: Ferdi Kubler, Jacques Anquetil, Rik van Looy, Eddy Merckx, Roger De Vlaeminck, Bernard Hinault and Sean Kelly are all former winners.

The trend in recent years, however, has been for those targeting the Grand Tours to stay away. In its late April slot Liège-Bastogne-Liège is too close to the Giro for riders trying to win the Italian tour, while for riders focusing on the Tour de France it tends to fall in the middle of a heavy training block or altitude camp.

Liège-Bastogne-Liège has undoubtedly suffered from their absence, but this year, when it was held two weeks after the Tour and a week after the World Championships, the lustre was restored to La Doyenne.

The leading quartet that escaped to contest the finish featured the calibre of riders who should always be fighting for victory at Liège-Bastogne-Liège: Tour winner Tadej Pogačar and runner-up Primož Roglič, Julian Alaphilippe in his first race as World Champion, and newly emerged star Marc Hirschi, fresh from winning Flèche-Wallonne and a stage at the Tour.

It was a gruelling and thrilling race with a barnstorming finish. Alaphilippe sprinted erratically, impeding Hirschi and Pogačar, then celebrated too early, throwing his arms in the air as Roglič sneaked under his armpit to win.

It was the first time Roglič, the best stage racer in the world in recent seasons and perfectly suited to this race, had even ridden Liège. And his was, in the circumstances, a popular victory.

Pogačar had snatched the Tour from under his nose; Alaphilippe’s hubris saw him relegated; Hirschi has it all to look forward to… it was fitting and appropriate that Roglič should sneak past them all to win.

This race, following on from the World Championships the previous weekend, offered the perfect riposte to those who complain about a lack of narrative. This year the story of the cycling season flowed seamlessly, and satisfyingly, from Paris to Imola to Liège, with the same characters fighting the same battles in races that actually meant something.

Rip it up and start again

Practically, it would make sense to arrange the season as follows: one-day semi-Classics in February and March; short stage races in April through to June; the Giro in May and the Tour in July; then the major one-day Classics.

Perhaps the five Monuments should follow the Tour de France on successive weekends, building up to the World Championships (with apologies to the Vuelta, which would suffer).

If we want the best stage racers going up against the best Classics riders in races that suit them both – and why wouldn’t we? – it would appear logical to have them after rather than before the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France.

Some will point out that the San Sebastian Classic, which also suits climbers and stage racers, already comes a week after the Tour and often fails to attract the stars. But would that change if San Sebastian was followed by Ardennes week to form a block of races that could pit Classics specialists against Grand Tour stars – and provide a meaningful postscript to, or revenge matches to follow, the Tour? Perhaps.

Such radical changes seem unlikely, at least for now. Van Den Spiegel didn’t get any time off once the racing was over because he was planning the new season, with the first major road event, Het Nieuwsblad, in late February – ‘just around the corner’ – with the first planning meeting in early November.

It’s fair to say that radical change is the last thing on the minds of race organisers. The priority is survival.

‘For next year we’ll have to be open to all types of scenarios again,’ says Van Den Spiegel, which could mean no fans and no VIP hospitality – and the loss of significant income.

‘It’s really tricky but for us the primary reason to exist is to organise cycling events, so we have to fall back on that for now and see how we can make the best of that,’ he says.

‘For us it’s also about our responsibility to the cycling world to keep the season going. It’s really important for the teams, the riders and the whole cycling community.

‘We’ll do that again in early spring and see how the whole pandemic situation evolves to be able to start adding on things again, and to try to make it a more viable product again.

‘I think cycling has shown itself to be very united. I think the teams and the governing body and race organisers have never been closer. It has accelerated other things on different levels, on a digital level and in virtual cycling, so there are some positives.

'We shortened our races and had very good racing, which was very attractive to watch. We were able to have all the good riders compete.

‘Never waste a good crisis, they say, but it is still a crisis,’ Van Den Spiegel adds. ‘The fact that we found different ways to put the races on and bring them to the fans means that we are confident that next spring we’ll be able to pull it off again.

'We’ll be able to offer at least a very good TV product. I think people will prefer to have the race on and stay home than not have the race at all.’

Amen to that.

Far from the madding crowds

Perhaps more than any other sport, cycling actually looked normal this year, despite restrictions on fans. This bodes well for the future of the sport

Of all the professional sports that managed to return in 2020, cycling was arguably the least compromised. There were fewer fans but this did not detract from the spectacle in the way that an empty stadium does at a football match. If the sport can cling on to any positives, this is one of them.

‘I think that interest globally has not decreased,’ says Van Den Spiegel of Flanders Classics, organiser of the Tour of Flanders. ‘I also think that broadcasters and distributors have realised that cycling is really a very good TV product that they have to keep investing in.

‘That was an important lesson, especially if you compare it to other sports. Football has a hard time making a good product without spectators.’

The Tour of Flanders, effectively held behind closed doors, was a success. ‘In a regular year we have a million people on the course at the Tour of Flanders, but the race this year was very attractive without spectators,’ says Van Den Spiegel.

‘Of course we are into the full picture and having the crowds, the hospitality and the festival type of atmosphere, and we’ll keep investing in that. But we were able to bring the race to cycling fans in a different manner and pull it off, which is very good news for next spring.’