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Wilcockson / Yuzuru Sunada
Cycling fans, including those experiencing snow and freezing temperatures in this mid-January week, are feeling lucky that they can already get live feeds from some big bike races this early in the year. Watching Cadel Evans battling with Richie Porte on Corkscrew Hill at the Tour Down Under was a thrill—and also a prelude to their potential showdown at the Giro d’Italia in four months’ time. And it was almost as exciting viewing Colombian climbing sensations Julian Arredondo of Trek Factory Racing and Nairo Quintana of Movistar winning stages of the Tour de San Luis on Argentinean mountaintops.
But there was a time not too long ago when team training camps were low-key, getting-to-know-you affairs in January, and it was late February or early March before top pros could pin on a race number. And even then the “early season” was mainly used for “getting in the miles” rather than all-out racing—until the season really got underway at Paris-Nice or Milan-San Remo in mid-March.
In the 1970s, the season-opening races were Spain’s Ruta del Sol and Italy’s Trofeo Laigueglia in the third week of February; by the ’80s, things got started in the second week of February at the G.P. Ouverture and Étoile de Bessèges in France; and by the mid-1990s those French races were still the openers, though they’d moved up to the first week of February. Meanwhile, a host of former amateur races became eligible for professionals in 1996 when the UCI formally ended the amateur category and replaced it with espoirs (or under-23s).
The influx of “new” races didn’t truly begin to affect the calendar until the turn of the century, and by 2004—a decade ago—the year’s first important early-season races were Australia’s nascent national tour, the Tour Down Under (third week of January), and the Middle East’s Tour of Qatar (first week of February). But the biggest change didn’t come until 2008, when the UCI put the Tour Down Under into its expanding ProTour (now WorldTour) calendar—and all of the first division teams (and many of their top riders) began leaving Europe for the Antipodes right after New Year’s.
Now, the Australian race has been joined by Argentina’s Tour de San Luis (which this year has attracted just as many stars as the Tour Down Under), while some top-tier teams began their year even earlier at last week’s Tropicale Amissa Bongo in Togo (won for the first time by a black African, the Eritrean Natnael Berhane of Team Europcar). And the early-season calendar has become even denser with the addition (three years ago) of the Tour of Oman and (this year) the Dubai Tour—two races in the oil-rich Persian Gulf region that now sandwich the Tour of Qatar in February.
As a result of all the changes, riders are starting serious pre-season training much sooner, even as early as Thanksgiving, rather than waiting for New Year’s. That’s the case with pros contending at this week’s big races—including BMC Racing’s Evans, who began training in his native Australia much earlier than usual to be in top form by early January, and his American teammate Taylor Phinney (a favorite for the Tour de San Luis’ time-trial stage), who spent five winter weeks training in warm Southern California weather before heading to Argentina.
As for the men not yet racing, most of them have been at high-intensity training camps in warm climes. This past month, Team Sky’s Chris Froome has been based at his former home in Johannesburg putting in six- and seven-hour rides (and getting some unexpected sunburn!) in the South African bush country. His teammate and fellow Tour de France champ Brad Wiggins has been on the Mediterranean island of Mallorca with other Sky colleagues, all training hard. Tinkoff-Saxo Bank’s Alberto Contador and Nicolas Roche have just finished a team camp on Gran Canaria, one of the Canary Isles off the Atlantic coast of West Africa. And Trek’s Fabian Cancellara and Andy Schleck, also in Mallorca, have been preparing for their imminent return to racing.
All of these developments—the racing starting a month sooner, new early-season events in distant parts of the globe, and a greatly abbreviated off-season—are putting bigger demands on everyone involved with top-level cycling. Team personnel (mechanics, soigneurs and sports directors) are not getting any true down time in the winter; the busiest riders have only 12 weeks between ending one season and starting another (leaving them little time to recuperate before cranking up their training schedules again); and team bosses have smaller windows of opportunity to negotiate with new sponsors, partners, suppliers and staff.
These elongated racing seasons clearly cost everyone a lot more money and a lot more stress—and, if you believe the rumors, offer athletes a greater temptation to seek help from doping in order to race successfully from early January to late October. That’s why the UCI is now investigating ways of reducing the length of the season (back to where it was in the 1970s!), cutting out some races from the WorldTour, and perhaps shortening Grand Tours from three weeks to two weeks (to make room for a compressed racing season).
That’s a noble goal, but could prove impractical. A more attractive idea might be splitting the WorldTour into two separate categories: one for stage races (including the Grand Tours) and the other for one-day classics. This would give greater meaning to each specialty (producing a classics MVP and a stage racing MVP), while there’d be room in each half of the calendar to include WorldTour-worthy races in new cycling countries—races that would further help increase the sport’s popularity.
In whatever direction the UCI chooses to go, what’s more certain is that you and I, and the burgeoning number of worldwide cycling fans, will continue having the chance of watching great bike racing—whether or not the sport goes back to having a traditional early season!
You can follow John at twitter.com/johnwilcockson