In this era of wall-size, high-definition, flat-screen televisions, the beauty of cycling is being truly revealed. Its exemplified at the Tour de France, which is more popular than ever because of the manner in which the producers and cameramen of France Tlvision capture the topographic and architectural wonders of their countrys towns, forests and mountains. These panoramic helicopter shots and intimate roadside images provide the canvas on which the worlds greatest bike race is played out. And that knockout combination of scenic splendor and kaleidoscopic athleticism is now spreading to other major eventsincluding this weekends UCI world road championships in Tuscany.
Each of the worlds five road races (junior women, junior men, under-23 men, elite women and elite men) ends with multiple laps around the same hilly, 16.57-kilometer circuit in and around the city of Florence. And by starting most of the events in other regional townsMontecatini Terme (for the junior and under-23 men, and elite women) and Lucca (elite men)the races also showcase the climbs, villages and vineyards of Tuscany.
This worlds trend of preceding the traditional urban circuit with two or more hours of racing through the countryside began at the 2010 championships in Australia, when the elite mens race started in Melbourne and headed south through the Victoria countryside to a finishing circuit in Geelong. But the idea for combining a point-to-point element with a tough final circuit first emerged at the 2008 Beijing Olympicswhen the road races set out from the center of Beijing and headed to a circuit based on the Great Wall. (The 2012 Olympic course used a variation, by first heading out of London into the Surrey green belt for laps around the Box Hill circuit and then heading back to a finish in the city center.)
The new worlds formula will likely apply to the upcoming title races in Ponferrada, Spain, next year, and in 2015 at the U.S. city of Richmondwhich plans to highlight the Virginia countryside as well as the historic neighborhoods of the former capital of the Confederacy. The point-to-point plus circuit combo not only provides a greater variety of images for the TV audience, showcasing a regions tourist attractions, but also caters to the organizers goal of attracting the greatest number of on-site spectatorswho can see the race multiple times on a finishing circuit.
Looking into the future, this attractive race formula is likely to be seen more often in both one-day classics and major stage races. Its unlikely to happen at the longest monumental classics, Milan-San Remo, Paris-Roubaix and Lige-Bastogne-Liege, because of the distances involved; but the Tour of Flanders last year changed to a course that includes three loops with repeat climbs packed with fans, and Il Lombardia (the former Tour of Lombardy) often modifies its circuitous route and might easily have a circuit finish at some point.
Among the lesser classics, Ghent-Wevelgem includes mid-race loops; the Amstel Gold Race passes through the finish twice before ending with a third loop; Belgiums Flche Wallonne also has two finishing loops; Hamburg, Germanys Vattenfall Cyclassics has three finishing laps; and the GP Ouest-France takes place over nine laps of a 27-kilometer circuit in Brittany. And of course, the recent additions to the UCI WorldTour, Canadas GP de Qubec and GP de Montral are both held on closed circuits of 12.6 and 12.1 kilometers respectivelythough a preceding point-to-point section would enable the distances to be increased from their current 200-kilometer mark to the more challenging 240- to 250-kilometer range without adding more climbing.
As for stage races, the Tour de France, Giro dItalia and Vuelta a Espaa generally have final-day stage finishes on city circuits (such as the Tours Champs-lyses finish), but the Grand Tours are unlikely to fully embrace circuit finishes because their fame already ensures that thousands of spectators will line the roadsides every day. The Tours inclusion this year of a 50-kilometer loop at LAlpe dHuez to allow a double ascension of the infamous climb was not an attempt to attract more fans to the race, but a means of producing a more spectacular (and grueling!) stage finale. But dont be surprised if that successful experiment leads to further mountain stages finishing on loops (as opposed to shorter, hilly circuits).
It could be argued that American promoters in the 1980s were the pioneers of using circuits in stage races; but the short-course criterium stages in towns such as Aspen, Boulder, Denver, Sacramento, San Francisco and Vail featured in the Coors Classic took place before the UCI mandated that a free-standing circuit race had to be on a course at least 10 kilometers aroundthough finishing circuits as short as 3 kilometers (but with only three laps) are currently allowed in stage races.
The finish-circuit formula is still attractive for race promoters in North America and other places where the most challenging terrain can be far from population centers. There have been frequent circuit finishes at the Amgen Tour of California, while the organizers of this years Tour of Utah and U.S. Pro Challenge both included big-city circuit races (in Salt Lake City and Denver respectively); and the inaugural Tour of Alberta featured short-circuit finishes on three of its five stages.
Elsewhere, race organizers have been slower to adopt the circuit-finish concept. Some of the UCI WorldTour races, including Europes Tour de Romandie, Tour de Pologne and Eneco Tour, are starting to feature a few such stages; and two younger events on the WorldTour, the Tour Down Under in South Australia and Tour of Beijing in China, both include big-city circuit races.
Cycling is in a unique position among major sports. While other top sports, including soccer, tennis, basketball, cricket, golf, rugby and motor racing, all take place at a single venue, road cycling is held on ever-changing terrain that is helping it become the most beautiful sport in the world. And thats especially true when filmed by experts and broadcast to viewers watching wall-size, high-def, flat-screen TVs!
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