Who would be a sprinter these days?
No really, once you get over the fact that if you are one, you’re likely to be a great hunk of muscle with elaborately quaffed hair and no shortage of high end speed and confidence, they really don’t have a very good lot in the cycling world these days. Race organisers are abandoning their cosy flat stages for attention grabbing mountain climbs. The numbers of summit finishes in Grand Tours is steadily rising. Sprinters can’t even win the yellow jersey in the first week of the Tour any more thanks to the 2008 removal of time bonuses. And now, the organisers of Milan San Remo seen dead set on removing the only Monument where they ever had a chance.
Of the five cycling ‘Monument’ classics, four are only really for specialists. The Tour of Flanders and Paris Roubaix are for great lumpy behemoths who can obliterate the pedals beneath their feet as they pound through the mud and dust where the spindly climbers would simply skitter and skid to a halt. These same climbers can have their revenge at the Tour of Lombardy, with its steep and long hills, and to a lesser extent Liege-Bastonge-Liege, where the ‘puncheurs’ come out to play. Sprinters can win none of these races, unless they’re they type of sprinter who says they’re ‘not a pure sprinter’ (more on them later) who could perhaps have a pop at Paris-Roubaix. Traditionally, they have been left with Paris-Tours, Scheldelprijs and the one remaining Monument, Milan San Remo, as there way into the immortalizing history books of the sport. But now, with the attempted addition of the Pompeiana climb, the organisers of La Primavera seem intent on preventing the fast twitch warriors from attaining it.
So what exactly is the Pompeiana? It’s a 4.71km climb, with a fairly miserly 4.9% average (albeit with a 14% maximum section), that the organisers of Milan Sanremo, RCS, had decided to place into the route of the 294 race inbetween the Poggio and the Cipressa in an attempt to try and make the race harder. This is nothing new – the Poggio itself was added for the same effect in 1960 by legendary race director Vincenzo Torriani, who added the Cipressa in 1982, again to try and roughen the race up. It now looks increasingly likely the latest addition to the capi – the rolling hills that make up the endgame of the race – won’t feature in 2014 due to landslides, but the intention is clear to see – the race is no longer for the sprinters.
Quite why RCS would want this to be the case is curious. In its current form, Sanremo is near perfection as a race. It is the only race in the world where both a sprinter and a grand tour contender can both be hot favourites. It is a beautiful, high tension piece of theatre in the last 20 kilometres as the pack hits the climbs, as the puncheurs all attack and try to claw their way to the finish line, already exhausted after six hours in the saddle, whilst behind the sprinters teams fight desperately to keep their men in contention for a showdown on the sea front (given the finish is no longer on the Via Roma). In the last ten editions, the sprinters have won thus battle five times. A lone late escape has taken the race twice in that time (Pozzato in 2006, Cancellara in 2008) and the remaining three have been small group sprints. That is the intrinsic beauty of Sanrem0 – anything can happen, and it is the one chance of a sprinter to win a Monument, and more importantly, defeat the men who hand out the hurt to them in Grand Tours. Take away Sanremo and what do the sprinters have?
Mark Cavendish is a case in point here. He is lucky to have won Sanremo in the absurdly tight 2008 finish with Heinrich Haussler, where it was estimated he had won by just 11 millimetres. Cavendish could retire happy with his palmares, given he already has 43 grand Tour stage wins, a green jersey and a world championship to his credit, but he must look at the likes of Erik Zabel, who won the race four times, and regret that he couldn’t at least the opportunity to win it that many times. The truth is, sprinters have had their opportunities dramatically relegated in recent years. Since Cavendish entered the pro-scene in 2007, the following has happenned:
– 2008: The time bonuses so often used in the Tour by sprinters in an unofficial battle for the yellow jersey have been removed, meaning sprinters only chance of yellow is a first day sprint stage. The opening flat road stage at the 2013 Tour was the first since 1966, although another follows in 2014.
– 2008: Ghent Whevelgem, another race that had traditionally been the occasional playground of the sprinter, moved away from simply ascending the Kemmelberg and being under 200km to being a 240km behemoth with a ‘hill zone’ full of rough cobbled climbs. In 2010, it was removed from its position in the middle of the Tour of Flanders and Paris Roubaix and placed the Wednesday before the former, in a clear attempt to attract more classics riders as a warm up for the following events. Sprinters were thus again marginalised.
– 2010-2011: The ‘Sprinters Classic’ of Paris-Tours saw several changes, including more hills in its finale as well as the shortening of its drag strip Avenue de Graumont (actually due to a tram system, not the organisers), leaning the balance away from the sprinters and towards the ‘classics riders’.
– 2014: Milan Sanremo proposes adding a third capi, the Pompeiana, to effectively remove any chance of the sprinters winning the crown.
There are other problems with Grand Tours, especially the blue riband Tour de France. As TV becomes increasingly influential, organisers seem keener to go for the awe inspiring summit finishes, as the last two Vueltas, with their paltry number of sprints, go to show. Another noticeable feature, which perhaps goes some way to explaining the increased propensity for crashes in the first week of the Tour, is that the traditional opening week of the Tour as a sprinters paradise has been eroded. Hilly stages and uphill finishes now punctuate the first week, interrupting the flow of the sprint teams and making them ever more desperate to secure that PR grabbing triumph.
This simplistic chart shows how sprinters have had their first week play ground steadily eroded. In 1999, there were six straight flat stages available for them after the opening prologue, with the next eight years having this broken only by a Team Time Trial or the occasional hilly stage to Valkenberg in the 2006 Tour. Since then though, there has been a steady increase in the number of hilly stages, or stages with sprinter unfriendly uphill finishes, as well as the influx of cobble stages (There was also a stage with cobbles on stage 3 of the 2004 Tour, but there was a negligible amount, unless your name happenned to be Iban Mayo).
So why don’t organisers like the sprinters anymore? Part of the reason could be attributed to Mark Cavendish’s dominance, but that is seemingly at an end with a great influx of sprinters, but he never rode every race anyway and it would be odd that organisers wanted to turn away a Star rider such as Cavendish who would provide copious amounts of publicity. Perhaps then the reasoning is twofold: firstly, simply that an influx of new races such as the Tours of California, Oman, and the Tour Down Under had to start out as sprinter friendly, flat city t0 city courses for cost and logistics reasons, but with increasingly publicity and funding can now afford to move towards the marquee mountains, which, let’s face it, are a more attractive TV proposition then a dual carriage way.
But there also seems to be a growing school of thought that sprints are ‘boring.’ The recipe for a sprint stage is dull, people say. A break goes, they get caught with 10-15km to go, and Mark Cavendish then usually wins. This is why there have been an increasing trend to add some token hill into the last 20km to try and add some suspense and spice. Sprints, people say, mean a dull four or five hour stage with only 10 seconds of excitement. But this too is daft. Uphill finish stages only extend the tension by a bit, and yes, they do introduce a new cast, but what could be more exciting then a bunch sprint? At its best it is a elegant, structured and yet chaotic orgery of speed and agility, and at its worst it is a manic bloodbath devoid of planning and settled by brute force and cunning. Sprints are where the egos of the sports are, especially in an age where everyone in the GC is just too nice to play psychological warfare, and so it is where the great rivalries are forged. Boonen versus McEwen in 2005. Freire versus McEwen in 2006 (Hell, McEwen versus everybody). Cavendish v Greipel and Kittel in 2013. Sprints are always a great show, even if, as is recent years, you have a reasonable chance of knowing who the winner is – although even then, their unpredictable nature, with crashes and lost wheels and being blocked in means the result can never be ordained in the way a mountain stage usually can.
So come on race organisers, give the sprinters a chance. They are not unworthy of Milan Sanremo. They deserve a shot at a Monument. And we fans deserve to see the crazy battle between them and the sprinters. Don’t deny us our fun!