Monday, July 14, 2014

Tour de France 2014: Stage 5

I was about to start new blog for this post. Then I realized, I could put it here. I am not going to post more sport related posts, unless I really have point to make, which suits the context of this blog. Tour de France is sporting spectacle you can watch on tv. So with little fetching, this could be here. I am not going to discuss one stage of Tour de France. This is more about, what is generally wrong in current stage races.

Races can be divided into two categories. One day races and stage races. One day races run usually every year on same route with minor adjustments. One day races have their own characteristics and are more technical and tactical. They use smaller roads and riders can race like there is no tomorrow. Oldest and largest one day races are called classics. Stage races are run during several stages and days. Route changes every year and stages are less technical and tactical than one day races. Riders have to save their energy for later stages and route's main function is take race from one place to another. There may or may not be things, that make racing harder. For general classification, there are mountain and time trial stages.

Over last decade stage races have became really boring. There are four main reasons for this. First became after Festina scandal at 1998. Since that mountain stages have became easier. By easier I mean stages don't have as many back to back mountains. There are often flat roads between mountains. Currently it is rare to have any point attacking before last mountain. There is too much flat before last mountain. Strong teams can catch breakaway before the last mountain. Where we get to second reason. Lance Armstrong and his US Postal team introduced current stage race tactics. Best riders have second best riders as their team mates keeping high pace on mountain stages. This really started when Roberto Heras came to US Postal for season 2001. At the time he was third best climber on race after Lance Armstrong and Jan Ullrich. Mountain stages were US Postal keeping the pace high until there were only Armstrong, Ullrich and Heras.

Since that, richest teams have adopted that tactic. Best teams are so strong no individual rider can escape before last mountain. Last mountains are usually gone so fast, nobody can attack. Riders just drop from the group. To make races more interesting organizers have added more and harder mountain top finishes. This kind of tactics and number of mountain top finishes make riders wait for last mountain top finish to make their move, if they can make it. On earlier mountain top finishes, they wait as long as they can before they try anything. Fourth reason is more climber friendly time trials. Time trials don't give as time to good time trialists as they used. Climbers have less reason to attack on mountains, because they don't have to make time on time trialists.

Decade ago Tour de France had five stages for climbers and over 100 km of time trialling on flat terrain. This year there are seven or eight stages for climbers depending how you want to count tenth stage. There is only one time trial and it is suited for climbers. Climbers don't have to think about taking time on time trialists, since they don't lose on time trials as much as they did when time trials were flat.

All this has made largest stage races waiting game, where you wait something to happen. Classics are totally different. There anything could happen during last 50 kilometer. Most interesting classic is Paris-Roubaix, which characteristic is cobblestones. It has over 50 kilometers of cobblestones, which make race dangerous gamble and very tactical race, where everyone has to be alert all the time and even best riders have to ride for themselves. Usually best riders can ride behind team mates. There are Paris-Roubaix specialists, who love the race. Others want to stay as far away from it as possible.

Fifth stage of this year's Tour de France was mini Paris-Roubaix stage. It was raced over some of crucial cobblestones of the classic. It only had 13 kilometers of cobblestones and it was 100 kilometers shorter. What made stage more epic was rain. Rain makes riding on cobblestones harder. There was only about dozen guys, who normally would race on cobblestones. This made the stage more interesting than any other stage during last decade. Last 50 kilometers were all out racing. Best riders had to ride and tactics were straight from classics. They raced like there was no tomorrow. Race leader Vincenzo Nibali  rode like classic specialist and made two minutes or something like that on almost every serious overall classification contender. Stage will be remembered years to come. It showed what classics really are.

Those, who are against cobblestones in stage races, tell defending champion Chris Froome crashed twice and had to leave the race. It has to be said, that Froome crashed before cobblestones and had crashed on fourth stages too. He was only one, who didn't finish the stage. Three riders didn't finish sixth stage, which didn't have cobblestones. I don't think cobblestones were the reason of Froome's crashes this time. Last time on cobbles Fränk Schleck fell on cobblestones and broke his collarbone. That time cobblestones took big name from race.

The question is, should big stage races like Tour de France have cobblestones or other classic like stages. Currently it seems to be only way to have real racing in stage race. Rarely we have seen best riders riding against each other for last 50 kilometers. Normally it is less than 5 kilometers. But is there any point to make riders race on dangerous specialist conditions, when 5% of riders in race are specialists. Other 95% are specialists of different kind of terrains. I am for cobblestones in stage races, but I can see point, why there shouldn't be cobblestones. But is the problem, that big tours are currently designed for pure climbers than all-rounders like they were decade ago. Cobblestones are worst for climbers, who are light and who don't usually ride against the wind by themselves. All-rounders doesn't have as much problems on them. Okay, they are still dangerous, but other stages have taken more riders than cobblestone stage this year.

Because I don't blame cobblestones for Froome's exit, I say this year they made race better. The stage was exiting and it opened the race in a way other riders have to attack on mountains. They can't wait like they normally do.


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