John Wilcockson / Yuzuru Sunada
Over and over again, we hear people in authority say that cycling needs to be simpler, more understandable, if it’s ever going to become mainstream. Their argument is that our sport should be more like tennis, golf or F1—sports that have a world ranking system or yearlong world championship that everyone can relate to. But what those other sports also have is a one-dimensional structure: best of five sets (three for women) in tennis, four rounds of 18 holes in golf, and cars racing as fast as possible over a set number of laps on a Grand Prix circuit in F1.
Bike racing can’t be limited like that. It thrives because of it’s multi-dimensional, with several disciplines (road, track, mountain bike, cyclocross and BMX) and various events within those disciplines. Road racing is the most popular sector of the sport because of its inherent diversity—just look at the variety of major events taking place around the world right now!
Three of them are five-day races that got underway on Wednesday: the 60th Quatre Jours de Dunkerque in northern France, the third-year Tour of Azerbaijan, and the inaugural Women’s Tour in Great Britain. Then comes the 97th Giro d’Italia, which opens Friday evening in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and the 9th Amgen Tour of California, starting on Sunday in Sacramento. Besides these five highest-rated UCI-sanctioned events, this weekend also sees second-tier UCI pro races in Belgium, Morocco, Norway, Poland, Sweden and Switzerland.
Whether the races are very old or brand new, they have similar goals of promoting the regions where they’re held and giving race sponsors value for their investment—besides the obvious one of entertaining spectators with a competitive sporting event. Let’s start with the newest….
The title sponsor of Britain’s Women’s Tour is the Friends Life insurance group, which is already a major sponsor of Britain’s traditional major summer sport: cricket. When the sponsorship was announced last month, Friends Life chief executive Andy Briggs said, “We are proud to support cycling and women’s sport in general. The Women’s Tour is an ideal partner for Friends Life.” Briggs was undoubtedly pleased that the race attracted most of the world’s top women road racers—including the pair that fought for the 2012 Olympic gold medal in London, Marianne Vos of the Netherlands and British champion Lizzy Armistead, along with world No. 1 Emma Johansson of Sweden—but he was likely somewhat taken aback by its instant success,
Talking about this past Wednesday’s opening stage held in a rural county of eastern England, race organizer Mick Bennett, whose Sweetspot company also promotes the men’s Tour of Britain, said, “It surpassed all our expectations…the crowds were amazing. I reckon that today, on the first day of the first international stage event for women in this country, was the equivalent of the men’s Tour of Britain in 2008—and that was the year it really took off.”
It’s significant that while tens of thousands showed up at this nascent women’s stage race on rainy days in the middle of the week, significantly smaller crowds were watching the venerable Quatre Jours de Dunkerque men’s stage race in a similar rural area the other side of the English Channel. This French fixture is popular enough for it to be entering its seventh decade, but it has lost much of its luster because of changes in the UCI calendar. It’s still held in early May, but in its heyday in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s the race had little competition because it took place right after the Vuelta a España (a springtime race until 1995) and a couple of weeks before the Giro d’Italia, and most of the world’s top teams and stars took part (the palmarès includes Tour de France winners Jacques Anquetil, Bernard Hinault and Stephen Roche).
So while Dunkerque is still on the radar of all the French teams, this year’s edition attracted only two non-French UCI ProTeams, Giant-Shimano and Tinkoff-Saxo, along with five ProContinental teams from overseas. That paucity of top teams is not surprising when you consider that the event clashes with the Giro (which now starts two weeks earlier than it did in the early-’90s) and Tour of California (founded in 2006). But the cash-strapped Dunkerque organizers also have to contend with the new Tour of Azerbaijan….
This race was founded two years ago for under-23 riders, was expanded last year to UCI 2.2 status, and is now up to 2.1 and attracted eight ProContinental teams from seven countries, along with twice that number of Continental teams. It probably won’t be long before ProTeams begin traveling to Azerbaijan, an oil- and gas-rich country of 9 million people on the Caspian Sea that sits between Russia, Turkey and Iran. That nation’s plans include construction of the world’s tallest building and, starting next year, promotion of an F1 Grand Prix.
In contrast to Azerbaijan’s billions in petrodollars, Italy is still slowly recovering from Europe’s 2008 financial crisis, and that’s one reason why the Giro has come to Northern Ireland (part of the United Kingdom) for its 2014 Grande Partenza. Start city Belfast has pumped millions into the event, including paying Giro organizer RCS Sport a promotional fee estimated at $3 million, with the goal of publicizing the once-troubled province as a tourist destination.
That goal could have mixed results. Although the opening team time trial in the city looks like being held on a dry, partly sunny Friday evening, the Saturday stage around the northern coast, passing the spectacular Giants Causeway rock formation, is forecast to be raced in 50-degree weather, with an 80-percent of thundershowers and a strong southwest wind. Those conditions might help create a challenging race, with major splits in the peloton, but they’re not ideal for showcasing Ulster’s tourist attractions.
But the weather is one of the many uncertainties that makes cycling such a popular sport. That’s not always what race promoters want—just ask AEG Sports, which owns the Tour of California. After suffering from some wet, cold and windy conditions when the race was held in February—notably in 2008 on the marathon seven-hour stage along the Big Sur coast—the organizers moved to their current mid-May calendar slot, only to have the opening stages of the 2010 Tour cancelled and curtailed because of heavy snow around Lake Tahoe!
There will be no such problems this year. No rain or snow is forecast for the 2014 Amgen Tour, just sunny skies and temperatures in the 90s and 80s—and the peloton will likely have a tailwind on next Wednesday’s Big Sur stage. That’s perfect for displaying the state’s attractions to a worldwide TV audience; as for the race itself, it may well be decided after Monday’s 20-kilometer time trial at Folsom and a summit finish on Mount Diablo the next day.
Competition should be keen, with the roster boasting nine UCI ProTeams (with such overall contenders as Brad Wiggins of Sky, Laurens Ten Dam of Belkin and Rohan Dennis of Garmin-Sharp), three ProContinental squads and four domestic teams. But California is currently seen as a steppingstone between the classics and Tour de France for stars such as Tom Boonen, Mark Cavendish, John Degenkolb, Thor Hushovd, Peter Sagan, Taylor Phinney and Jens Voigt. Those are all riders that the Giro promoters would love to see in their race, but this year’s opening grand tour, with nine summit finishes, is built for climbers. So they should be satisfied that the Giro has been targeted by such men as Rigoberto Uran of Omega Pharma-Quick Step, Joaquim Rodriguez of Katusha, Nairo Quintana of Movistar, Dan Martin of Garmin and Cadel Evans of BMC Racing.
With such a range of races and riders making headlines in a single week, the UCI’s apparent goal of streamlining the calendar and giving more meaning to a yearlong, WorldTour-like ranking system seems like a distant (even unnecessary) goal. Meanwhile, let the fans in Britain, France, Azerbaijan, Northern Ireland, Italy, California—and all those other places where races are being held this weekend—celebrate cycling’s wonderful diversity!