A Defence of the Traditional Road Cycling Calendar
Updated: Feb 17, 2021
Unprecedented- perhaps the defining description of the year that was 2020. Not only in terms of the mass lockdown of the world’s population, but also in terms of the 2020 road racing calendar. Whether it was the Giro d’Italia taking place in October or Strade Bianche racing through an August heatwave, the WorldTour restructure squeezed seven months’ worth of races into just three and a half months. What followed was an unbelievable spectacle that had the cycling world in awe. From Wout van Aert’s domination through August, to Primoz Roglic late-season revenge, we were kept on the edge of our seats almost every day of the week through August to November. I watched more WorldTour racing than I ever have done, it was simply a joy to behold. However, this is not to say this reshaped calendar is the way forward. I think we all know that a similar squeezing is unfeasible and unwanted in the future. This has not stopped the debate over the reshaping of the calendar though, with calls being made for some years now to alter the structure of the WorldTour season, as evidenced through Rapha’s interesting Roadmap series which envisioned a new way forward.
I am here, as a self-confessed traditionalist (I proudly ride a beautiful steel Condor), to mount a defence of the traditional road racing calendar, which whilst not perfect, only needs tinkering and not fundamentally restructuring.
After a long winter’s break that gets us all itching for racing to return (though I have discovered the beauty of Cyclo-cross in the past few months), the early races outside of Europe provide a gentle but distinctive start to the road racing season. The Tour Down Under has a relaxed feel but is always of great interest when looking out for new kits, equipment and signings. With a terrific route in place every edition, thanks to the recently departed (and long-standing) race director Mike Turtur, I think we all look forward to watching the action up Richie Porte Hill… oh I mean Willunga Hill! The races in the middle east got off to a rocky start in their early years but have formed an identity for themselves and the rivalry between Adam Yates and Tadej Pogacar in last year’s UAE Tour was gripping.
© Getty Images
With March comes the beginning of the European season, including the one-day races of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Strade Bianche and Milan-San Remo. This is what cycling fans across the world have been waiting for, a series of terrific one-day races that are in a close enough bloc for the riders to maintain form throughout. The bloc of one-days continues through April’s Spring Classics, an icon of the cycling calendar. My mind is wandering to Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen, Ian Stannard and Bradley Wiggins, Peter Sagan and Greg Van Avermaet, Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel. Wind, rain, hail, sleet, sun, mud… cobbles! The season is well and truly underway here and for many fans, this is the greatest time of the year. It is truly magical. Amongst the beauty of the one-days, there are warm up stage-races for the upcoming grand tours, each prestigious in their own right. This allows us an early glimpse into the form of the GC riders for the Grand Tours. 2020’s Paris-Nice was one of the most exciting editions in decades, despite it ending a day early due to the unfolding pandemic.
© Cor Vos
Following the final early-season Monument, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, we as fans are salivating at the prospect of the first Grand Tour of the season- the Giro d’Italia. For decades now, the Giro has been the opening three-week race of the season, making it the source of great excitement. For many others and I, the Giro is the greatest of the three grand tours. It has an incredible history, beautiful landscapes, the stunning Maglia Rosa and consistent unpredictable racing. It is the combination of the incredible history that the Tour de France has, with the unpredictable and exciting racing seen in La Vuelta a Espana. As such, it is the ideal Grand Tour to serve as the first of the season, wetting the appetites of all who watch.
After the magic of the Giro comes the full focus turned towards the legendary Tour de France. Fans have got both the Criterium du Dauphine and the Tour de Suisse to assess the potential winners of the Grand Boucle, with both races being fairly evenly attended by the GC contenders. This natural escalation leads all roads to the Grand Depart, where cycling fans of the world unite, with all eyes turning to Stage 1. For the next three weeks we are all glued to the television, soaking up one of the world’s largest sport events. We get to see the beauty of France in the July, with the sunflowers that line the road being the quintessential snapshot of this glorious race. This is arguably the crescendo of the cycling season, which is why reformists argue for the Tour to be positioned at the end of the road cycling season. However, whilst I agree it is the crescendo, I argue that this does not mean it should end the season. Following the end of the Tour, we as cycling fans can exhale an almighty deep breath, as the season has built up to Stage 21 on the Champs-Elysees. It is a culmination of months of racing, providing us all with fantastic entertainment throughout, whether it be the two Grand Tours or the Spring Classics.
Whilst some WorldTour races take place following the Tour in the usual calendar, arguably these are of a lower pedigree and the next big race of the season is La Vuelta a España. To my eyes, the Vuelta is the fun cousin of the other Grand Tours. It does not have the history of the Giro or the Tour, but it has arguably the most thrilling racing. Faced with having to create an identity for itself, ASO have long developed exciting courses which are distinct from the Giro and the Tour. Whether it be shorter stages or eye-watering gradients, La Vuelta always provides blockbuster entertainment, as seen through the outstanding success of the Alto de l’Angliru climb since its introduction in 1999. Just because the Tour de France is the climax of the racing season, does not mean it should be the end. We as fans get to enjoy the slightly more relaxed, jovial and fun entertainment of La Vuelta to close out the Grand Tour season.
I do not agree with the entirety of the traditional UCI WorldTour road calendar; after La Vuelta come races which, aside from Il Lombardia, lack prestige and appear out of place. Races such as EuroEyes Cyclassics, Bretagne Classic Ouest-France and the Tour of Guangxi would be better placed in the pre-European stage of the calendar, in the opening months of the season. If Il Lombardia is to stay in its usual spot in October, it would make sense for Milan San-Remo and Strade Bianche to move here too. I wouldn’t be against an Italian one-day campaign to close out the season.
Another tinkering which should happen with the WorldTour is the creation of a story to follow throughout the season. It is time that the UCI adopts an individual and team’s champion of the WorldTour, as they have in the Women’s WorldTour. By having a distinctive jersey on the line throughout the course of the season, as Cyclo-cross has with the World Cup jersey, it would create a story arc as the season progresses, as the battle to take the jersey hots up. It would encourage riders to become more versatile and avoid specialising in singular types of events. The points system would have to be intellectually worked out, giving equal emphasis to one-day Classics and Grand Tours. But, after a bit of work to figure out the rules of the competition, I believe it would serve as a fantastic story to follow throughout the season. For fans new to cycling, it would be a great visual and entry into the sport. “Who is winning?” they ask, now you would have an answer, the man in the WorldTour Champion’s jersey. Cycling can be intimidating to outsiders and hard to follow outside of the Tour de France. This could act as one way of simplifying things and is well worth introducing.
Evolution, not revolution, is the way forward when approaching the future years of UCI WorldTour calendar planning. The racing is thrilling and captivating to watch throughout the season, with only small changes needed to better the viewing experience. The main focal points of the season are the three Grand Tours and I believe the current ordering of these events is perfect. The Giro, with its rich history and unpredictable racing is ideal to start the year; the Tour is clearly a natural climax of the season; La Vuelta serves as a far more relaxed way to end the season, whilst also providing exciting and unique racing. I love the makeup of the traditional cycling calendar, perhaps I simply have Stockholm-syndrome! Alas, it is my view that only small tinkering should take place in the future, not a fundamental restructure. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!