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Overlapping Grand Tours and Monuments, a calendar that stretches into November, rule changes to lineup sizes for some races (but not all of them) – there’s plenty to digest from the UCI’s Tuesday unveiling of its new WorldTour calendars for 2020.
Condensing more than 40 events into little more than three months, the redesigned schedules are jam-packed with racing, preserving the majority of events on both the men’s and women’s calendars. They are nothing if not ambitious. Then again, they are also a welcome bit of structure for those in the sport who have been waiting months for someone to come up with a concrete plan.
Whether that plan will actually eventuate remains to be seen. For now, here are five things you should know about the UCI’s new plans for 2020.
1. The new WorldTour calendars rely on some optimistic assumptions
Before we dive too deeply into the race-specific talk, let’s deal with the big picture. It must be said that the UCI’s plans for rescheduled WorldTour calendars are optimistic. At best.
For everything to go as planned, there are quite a few things that will have to go right between now and the time racing resumes … and during the races too.
As it stands, mass-participation events remain banned in countless places all over the world, and that’s not scheduled to change any time soon in most of the places where racing is slated to happen. Those decisions are not up to the UCI or the ASO; they are up to governments, for whom the resumption of bike racing may not be quite as high on the list of priorities.
The French government is not currently planning to allow large sporting events until at least September. Right now, the start of the Tour de France is scheduled for August 29. For the race to happen, either the situation there will have to improve, or workarounds will have to be enacted, and that’s true for several countries where racing is currently on the calendar for the months ahead.
Even if restrictions are eased and bike racing is allowed to resume, a sport that requires athletes to bounce all over the world could face some serious obstacles as riders navigate travel restrictions and quarantine guidelines, unless those change too.
Should all of those issues be resolved, will there be plans in place for testing at the races? What happens in the unfortunate event that a rider comes down with symptoms?
And how many races will go ahead only to have stages called off midway through due to inclement weather? That sure seems likely in a Vuelta a España that’s set to run into November …
In short, the logistical challenges facing the cycling world amid a global pandemic and widespread lockdowns remain immense. It’s hard to quantify just how many things will need to go right for the UCI’s new WorldTour calendars to go ahead as drawn up. Under the current circumstances, it’d be as much of a surprise to see everything go according to plan as to see things fall apart completely.
2. Overlap abounds
Beyond that optimism, if you’re focusing on the racing aspects of all this, the first thing you may notice when looking at the new calendars is just how much overlap there is between events.
While a handful of men’s and women’s races have been officially cancelled for 2020, the majority have been rescheduled, meaning that the UCI has had to fit quite a large number of events into quite a small period of time. For both the men and women, racing begins on August 1 with Strade Bianche. Women’s racing runs to the end of October while for the men, the racing concludes on November 8.
As such there are stages of the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a España that overlap with one another, and four of the five rescheduled Monuments will take place at the same time as at least one of the Giro or the Vuelta. Paris-Roubaix overlaps with the Giro and the Vuelta.
So what’s wrong with overlapping races? Well, for starters, some events will see a significant drop off in the number of marquee riders showing up to race. How many star climbers will skip Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Il Lombardia because it means missing the Giro, or vice versa?
Overlapping races split viewership as well, particularly when the coinciding events are both high-calibre competitions. Paris-Roubaix doesn’t usually have to battle with the final stage of the Giro and the sixth stage of the Vuelta for eyeballs (although the event should also should draw plenty of new viewers this year now that it will finally have a women’s race).
In deciding to work so many events into the limited time available, the UCI and race organizers have decided that at least some watering-down of the product is acceptable when the alternative is the outright cancellation of races. It’s not an outcome anyone wants under normal circumstances — and yet, it needs to be said, it’s not the end of the world either.
Overlap isn’t great, but it’s nothing new. Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico have overlapped for years, as have the Vuelta and a string of one-day WorldTour circuit races. Yes, the overlap means that the biggest stars can’t do both, but the races have managed just fine. Michael Matthews, Peter Sagan, and Greg Van Avermaet have been consistent presences on the GP Québec podium over the past few seasons, while the Vuelta has also consistently delivered fantastic showdowns among marquee names for several years running.
Modern cycling is so specialized, and modern cycling’s stars lay out such specific targets, that a bit of overlap alone won’t kill the WorldTour.
3. No rest for the weary
There is, however, a compounding factor of the condensed calendar that will make everything a bit more difficult: the abbreviated schedule leaves hardly any room for the rest and recovery pros are used to between big targets.
The normal cycling calendar gives riders the opportunity to plan for multiple peaks through the season. A puncheur like Julian Alaphilippe, for instance, might target the Ardennes Classics in April, the Tour de France in July, and then have one last build-up for Worlds. What happens when all of those things happen between the end of August and the beginning of October?
For one thing, the likes of Julian Alaphilippe might shorten their list of targets for an abbreviated season. While overlapping races alone shouldn’t dilute the quality of individual events that much, the combination of overlapping races and decisions by stars to simply sit out for a week to recover from a hard effort might have a noticeable impact.
And for those riders that do try to fit all those pre-season goals into a shortened schedule, expect some very, very tired legs. Taking on both the Giro and the Tour was already hard enough, but with only two weeks between them it will be a recipe for exhaustion this year. There could be some tired Classics specialists in both the men’s and women’s peloton lining up at Gent-Wevelgem, which takes place the day after the Amstel Gold Race.
In short, the condensed calendar could add a fatigue element to the racing that will almost certainly have an impact. Riders who opt to whittle down their list of targets to a smaller collection of objectives, as well as those who just happen to be particularly resilient, could thrive. Meanwhile, don’t be surprised to see a big pre-race favorite falter at Liège-Bastogne-Liège after trying to stretch a run of form a bit too far from the Tour or the Giro Rosa into the Ardennes.
4. Smaller race lineups will help things run more smoothly, although more could have been done
In an effort to ease the burden of taking on so many races in so short a timeframe, the UCI unveiled somewhat relaxed rules surrounding team lineup sizes in its Tuesday announcement.
Women’s racing will be most affected by the rule changes, as the UCI has said that races can reduce the number of riders per invited team to five, as opposed to six or seven. “This measure will enable organizers to invite more teams (a maximum of 26 compared to 24 normally),” reads the UCI’s statement.
For women’s teams, whose total rosters generally include between eight and 20 riders, that decision will be very helpful when it comes to dividing athletes and resources between races across the world. It will also provide additional exposure to those teams that receive extra invites with the added space, at a time when sponsors are desperate to get some kind of return on investment from the money they are putting into the sport.
On the men’s side, the changes are less dramatic. The Grand Tours will still see teams with eight riders and other stage races will still feature seven-rider teams. The rules have been changed, however, for the one-day races, allowing organizers to bring the rider count per team down to six should they so choose.
Anything helps — although you have to wonder whether it would have been more beneficial to make the shift across the board. Reducing the number of riders per team in the Grand Tours might have created room for more teams to participate. As it stands, however, that hasn’t happened, meaning that Mathieu van der Poel and a few other big names on second-division teams will remain out of the Tour picture this year.
5. For any semblance of WorldTour racing to occur this year, the UCI had to put out a plan sooner or later
After pointing out the various challenges the cycling world will face in actually making these calendars a reality, as well as the various deficiencies with the plans as drawn up, I’ll close it out with an important final point. It may not be clear whether racing will actually happen in 2020, but for the UCI, it’s worth it to put these plans out there now.
It’s no coincidence that we find out what the route of a Grand Tour will look like months and months ahead of time each year. Bike races require a whole lot of planning on so many different levels. Shifting those plans is not easy.
As we all wait to see what the next few months hold, there are so many variables that are simply out of the control of racers, organizers, and governing bodies, but one thing that the cycling world can do – and must do if there is to be any hope of racing happening this year – is to plan ahead as if things will work out.
The ASO can’t simply start the Tour de France on a week’s notice. For racing to happen, organizers have to make complex plans in conjunction with governments, and those plans become all the more complex given the pandemic that is affecting every aspect of life right now. Organizers and teams as well must handle the logistics of getting personnel to places all over the world. Riders must prepare for grueling physical challenges after spending months away from competition.
By settling on redesigned calendars now, the UCI gives stakeholders around the sport the opportunity to prepare accordingly.
It’s practically impossible to say whether any of this will really matter come August, when WorldTour racing is supposed to start up again at Strade Bianche. Hopefully, however, everything that has to go right will — and the cycling world must be ready to move forward should things play out that way. The calendars that the UCI unveiled this week, ambitious and overcrowded though they may be, are a crucial part of making that happen.