Short mountain stages are the thing for 2018. Stage 17 of the Tour de France was 65km in the Pyrenees, but its 3 climbs and 2hrs 21 minutes of racing make it look like an epic alongside Stage 7 of the Tour de l’Avenir.
The Stage 7 route, a whole 35.4km from Moutiers to Meribel in the Alps, was run off in just over 70 minutes, and won by Colombian favourite Ivan Sosa. The obvious intention of super-short stages is to encourage aggressive and exciting racing, a goal which was certainly achieved in Meribel, even without the Brandon McNulty-inspired excitement on the finish line. Logistically, following a long transfer down from central France after Stage 6, the prospect of extra time in the morning and being able to eat normal food for lunch would no doubt be welcomed by everyone.
Race director Philippe Colliou told EW, “We wanted try out a new format of race, because we had a long transfer from the centre of France to the Alps and we wanted take place a short stage after a long stage. It was a trial, but I’m satisfied because the race was interesting and it created some time gaps. It will not be a regular feature but I’d be happy to do a stage like this again – that the Tour de France also included a short stage shows that our idea works.”
No race director can please everyone. There was uproar in May when the Giro d’Italia’s final stage descended into farce as the GC riders decided not to race the criterium round Rome; yet sprinters are rarely indulged in the same way by being allow to opt out of riding hard in the mountains and get away with it.
Riders in the Grand Tour autobus consistently report that a mountain stage which goes uphill from the start, and where racing goes from the gun, is their worst nightmare. The Tour de l’Avenir Stage 7 time limit is the standard 20% of the winner’s time, in practice meaning that anyone finishing 14:02 down on the leader was eliminated. Although Izidor Penko (Slovenia) flirted with elimination, crossing the line in 14:01, but despite the short cutoff time we only said goodbye to 5 riders on the day.
While the climbers compared ribcages at the front of the gridded start area, EW spoke to Great Britain’s Jake Stewart and Italian Edoardo Affini – neither of whom are mountain goats, but are hardly propping up the broom wagon either – to see what these super-short mountain stages are like for the rest of the bunch.
Jake Stewart: “A short stage in the mountains is worse [than a long stage]. At least if it’s a long day you’ve got a longer time cut so you’re not going to be suffering as much. Today was ridiculous – the time cut was so short and you’re just battling as hard as you can to make it”.
The start pens in Moutiers had been arranged so that the leaders jerseys, top 10 overall and two ‘nominated’ riders from each nation started at the front. Behind them, the rest of the field had to choose to get into the “everyone else” pen early and be close to the front – but be stood out in the sun for too long – or carry on with their warmups in the parking zone.
— Tour de l'Avenir (@tourdelavenir) August 23, 2018
With the climbers in an “airlock” at the front, the racing kicked off from kilometre zero, making warmups all the more important, even for riders whose sole job in the absence of any domestique duties on the stage is to beat the time cut.
JS: “There wasn’t even a neutral zone. The Colombians took it up from the bottom of that first climb and rode all day on the front. For a short mountain stage you do a big warmup – jump on the turbo and get the breathing and heat rate up, try and get the power up a bit as well and then it just makes it easier when you hit the climbs. But you can do as much warming up as you want, it’s never going to make it easier!”
Unlike in a long mountain stage, in which there might be a couple of hours of riding to get through before the race blows apart, the contribution that riders at the back of the grid can make to their team is reduced to the negligible.
Edoardo Affini: There’s nothing you can do [to help the team leader] if you’re not a climber. You can keep going as hard as you can but there’s no need for going to the car. The only thing you can do is stay with your teammate in case they have a mechanical problem, maybe you can give them a wheel faster than the car.
Unexpectedly, Stewart rates the most difficult part of this type of stage as being the psychological side, and knowing that the best outcome from the day is that you’re allowed back to do it again tomorrow.
JS: “The hardest thing when you’re 7 days into a race is your head. It’s pretty hard if you know you’re just going to be in a box all day. I guess everyone’s in the same boat… but the climbers are in a better boat [with something to race for]“.
EA: “You have to treat it like a TT, which is what I did on this stage – I did a small ride in the morning and a warmup on the rollers before the stage, and the race was like a TT, mentally”.
There is often a tension between what the riders want, what the public are looking for, and what the orgnisers can deliver. Whilst new ideas like the Baby Giro “real time” time trial were well received by spectators, and the 35km Stage 7 at l’Avenir had many of us glued to the Direct Velo feed, the consensus seems to be that some experimentation is welcome, but you wouldn’t want too much of it.
EA: “When they try to do something different it can be a good idea but you need to keep the traditional racing as well. This short stage was really to avoid having a rest day – last year we had the same transfer from Bretagne to the Alps on a rest day so it was more relaxed.”
JS: “People are going to have mixed opinions on them and whether there’s a place for stages like this. It’s like the same argument with super-long 200km+ stages. If it’s being televised it’s fun to watch and makes the race interesting but for us riders, I don’t think we really enjoy it – it’s another stress. I don’t know if there were many crashes today but lads are going to start taking more risks on the descents to make sure they’re in the time cut.”
EA: “I don’t think there were many crashes, maybe one or two. The descent was fast and without dangerous corners – a couple at 90-degrees but not dangerous – so that was a good point from the organisation because of course everyone was going really hard on the downhill, too, to take some time back. At least it wasn’t a dangerous downhill where you could injure yourself”.
The Tour de l’Avenir continues with three more mountain stages, of which two are in the 80-85km range, which is still very short by under-23 standards. However, the less extreme parcours – with a neutralised zone, intermediate sprint and a kind-of-flat first half – should balance out the difficulties of a 35km stage with an uphill start, whilst still encouraging aggressive racing, meaning it finds equal favour with spectators and riders.