Blazin' Saddles: How to salvage a post-Covid-19 2020 cycling season
With the cycling calendar derailed by the coronavirus crisis, it's time to get realistic about the prospects for the remainder of the season. We weigh up what the 2020 cycling season could look like if and when it emerges from Covid-19.
France's Julian Alaphilippe (L) embraces Czech teammate Zdenek Stybar after winning the one-day classic cycling race Strade Bianche (White Roads) on March 9, 2019 in Siena, Tuscany.
Already the spring classics season is a write off and the Giro d'Italia has been "postponed". The entire May race calendar now resembles a list of trains or planes during a major strike or meteorological disaster; at the time of writing, two races for June – the Women's Tour and the Tour of Slovenia – have also joined the likes of the Tour de Yorkshire, Tour de Romandie, the entire Ardennes campaign and the first four Monuments of the season on the cutting room floor.
Only the Criterium du Dauphine, due to start on 31 May, stands tall. And given the slow reaction ASO took in winding up Paris-Nice – which ran in its entirety until the penultimate day – we can expect no decision there until Christian "Only two World Wars have stopped the Tour de France" Prudhomme and his team have decided upon the fate of the seemingly immoveable Tour (due to start early this year, on 27 June, due to the Olympics which will probably not happen now until 2021).
There is obviously no fair or ideal solution as to what should be done. But let's get both realistic and creative while looking at the options.
With cancel culture becoming common currency on social media nowadays, perhaps its entirely apt that the most drastic, but perhaps logical, solution to all this would be to draw a line through the entire season. After all, in the midst of what is potentially the biggest health crisis facing the western world in living memory, perhaps fretting over a few bike races is, well, a trifle insensitive.
As the five-time Tour de France winner, Bernard Hinault, told Le Parisien:
Sport is fabulous. The Tour de France is a fantastic party, but life is more important. We're talking about the risk of death. We don't care, frankly, about cycling in a case like this.
That said, the warmer summer months should, in theory, help curtail the spread of Covid-19, and there's nothing like a distraction to help pick up morale. Besides, there are going to be a few hundred people who – like most of us – have been deprived of doing their job for months.
With this in mind, it's unlikely that 2020 will be cancelled altogether – unless, of course, things spiral far more out of control than current trajectories. But given the recoveries of China, where the crisis first emerged, and other countries in the Far East, you would expect the Vuelta to run as normal, at the very least.
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Shorten the Grand Tours
There's been talk of a crowded calendar for years now with one proposal often raring its head – shortened Grand Tours. For many this is tantamount to cutting cricket test matches from five days to four; but could 2020 provide an ideal opportunity for a test run?
To salvage something from the Giro, it could be the only answer. With numerous races planning to be rescheduled later in the autumn, a two-week Italian race may be the only way we'll see the maglia rosa on display this year.
It would also be fairly straight forward to implement: by cutting the first three stages in Hungary and the next three in Sicily, the race would be down to 15 stages on mainland Italy with two rest days. None of the key mountain stages – with the exception of the race's sixth summit finish on Mount Etna – would be jeopardised, although losing three flat stages may enforce a prolonged quarantine for the sprinters…
Another option would be to cut the entire first nine stages and run the race as it is from the first rest day – starting in San Salvo in the Abruzzo. That would give the riders a couple of flat stages, some breakaway terrain and a time trial before hitting the big mountains of northern Italy for the expected GC showdown. Alternatively, RCS could tinker with a more localised course before running the final week of mountains as planned.
Matt White, the directeur sportif of Mitchelton-Scott, told Cyclingnews:
It would be a disaster if there was no Giro in 2020. They can definitely make it work, but things might need to be adjusted. There's talk of a different version, maybe of two weeks or 10 days and with locations changed, but regardless I would love to see a version of the Giro in this calendar year.
Beyond the Giro, it would be unlikely to see the Tour big wigs accept a reduced program. That said, ASO could put the Nice grand depart on ice for a few years and cancel the entire first phase of the race in southern France, starting instead on the Ile d'Oleron for what would have been stage 10. The race would then venture east through the Massif Central and into the Alps – as initially planned – and the effect on battle for yellow would be minimal, besides the obvious question mark over the level of competitiveness from a peloton in enforced isolation for months.
A shortened Giro and Tour would suddenly make the Vuelta the grandest tour of the year, a three-week last chance saloon for all the big GC favourites and an ideal way to placate fans after a season of disruption.
Wave sayonara to the Olympics
Japan's Olympic minister says the country is still planning to host a "complete" Summer Games but that looks less and less likely by the day. While Japan may be recovering from its coronavirus outbreak, the rest of the world is not. Postponing the Tokyo Olympics to 2021 makes the most sense – and it would free up a window in the cycling calendar for late July and early August, between the Tour and Vuelta (should they go ahead).
This could be an ideal window for some of the rescheduled one-week races or perhaps some of the big, but non-monumental, one-day classics.
We need to be realistic here. There may never be a 2020 edition of Eschborn Frankfurt or AG Driedaagse Brugge De Panne or the Classic Loire Atlantique or the GP Mediterrennean or the Guido Reybrouck Classic or, alas, the Duo Normand (both of them). Heck, there may not even be room for Dwars door Vlaanderen, Gent-Wevelgem or Brabantse Pijl.
And, let's be honest, would it be such a bad thing to miss seeing Julian Alaphilippe and Alejandro Valverde dancing up the Mur de Huy in 2020? If cancelling La Fleche Wallonne altogether is too much for the purists, then at least just make it into a single hill climb event.
The point here is that something will have to give. Races will have to either be cancelled or be prepared to run on similar days and overlap. This may affect the start lists but at least it will keep things ticking over. Squads are big enough nowadays to send riders to numerous events – so even if some rescheduled races take place during Grand Tour slots, it's not the end of the world.
As for the Criterium du Dauphine, Tour de Suisse and Tour de Pologne… they may have to take one on the chin and come back stronger for 2021. Besides, who's to say they won't be rained or snowed off anyway?
If it seems unlikely that there will be space for a four-day Tour de Yorkshire in the new-look calendar then how about making it a single, Liege-style one-day classic? After all, that's what many people think it should be in the first place and there's no doubting the interest such a format would generate.
By the same token, if the appetite for the opening 220km of Milano-Sanremo isn’t there, then how about starting the race before the Tre Capi climbs on the Ligurian coast and then let the rest play out over the Cipressa and Poggio?
Better still, cut off the opening 130km and start the race from Campo Ligure ahead of the Passo del Turchino. Then make this not only the first Monument of the season, but the opening stage of a new-look Tirreno-Adriatico.
Go further, still, by including the Strade Bianche route as, say, stage 4 of the race. Not only do you save the Race of the Two Seas, but also two iconic one-day classics. How cool would that be for a one-off?
To see some other creative suggestions, check out some of the replies to the tweet below…
An Italian autumn to savour
The flurry of Italian races in the autumn have been gaining increasing interest over the past few years, with fans drawn to the exciting, unpredictable races and end-of-term vibe.
As things stand, the main events are the Giro dell-Emilia (3 October), Tre Valli Varesine (6 October), Milano-Torino (7 October), Gran Piemonte (8 October). These are capped by what is usually the fifth and final Monument of the year, Il Lombardia on 10 October.
For an alternative idea than the one above, how about throwing in Strade Bianche (4 October) and Milano-Sanremo (5 October) to create a solid block of seven races in eight days? To spice things up further, they could also combine as a new one-off stage race which, with times added up, or points won corresponding to positions. To qualify for the GC, riders must ride five of the eight races to battle it out for the Autunno Italiano crown.
The whole thing could be tagged onto the revamped and shortened Giro (to take place in late September – after a rejigged and shortened World Championships programme), with Milan becoming the hub of this new Italian block of races (much like the Tour Down Under is centres on Adelaide).
Ardennes Autumn and Flemish & French Fall
We could be on to something here. The early scheduled running of the Vuelta this year (14 August to 6 September) means there will be a fortnight between then and the Worlds. What better way to fill it than a rejigged Ardennes week followed by a concentration of all our favourite Belgian cobbled races (plus Paris-Roubaix and Tro-Bro Leon).
So, to ease the riders in, the Ardennes Autumn would include Amstel Gold, La Fleche Wallonne, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and a shortened two-day BinckBank Tour.
Then there would be a block featuring E3, Gent-Wevelgem, Dwars door Vlaanderen and the Ronde van Vlaanderen, followed by a day off ahead of Tro-Bro Leon and then Paris-Roubaix.
For this new-look autumn to work, the focus will have to be on racing in Europe and not North America and so, reluctantly, the Canadian GPs of Montreal and Quebec will have to step down – a controversial move that will anger very few people beyond the likes of Peter Sagan, Michael Matthews and Greg van Avermaet – and that trio in any case should be appeased by the alternative, so it's a win-win.
With the weather in Spain still going strong in mid-October, a Hispanic block of races could complete the lengthened season instead of the Tour of Guangxi, running through to November. That would include the San Sebastian Klasikoa, Itzulia Basque Country and the Volta Ciclista a Catalunya.
In the spirit of appeasement and evening things out, the Santos Tour Down Under, Great Ocean Road Race, Herald Sun Tour and – with 100 per cent certainty – the UAE Tour (where this whole cancellation fiasco began) – could do the right thing by agreeing to sit out a fallow year in 2021. Not only would it give the riders a decent winter break following the elongated season, it would give the environment a break by cutting down on all that long-distance travel.
There we have it – some possible ways to solve the Covid-19 coronavirus 2020 cycling season calendar crisis.