The prospect of a Tour de France rematch this week in Paris-Nice has its obvious attractions. Underneath this though is a trend among many stage races to mimic the grand tours which means they’ve become the preserve of only a handful of riders. Are we having too much of a good thing?
Once upon a time Sean Kelly won seven editions of Paris-Nice, the Irishman was primarily a classics rider and sprinter but had the range to take some week-long stage races. The recordman for Tirreno-Adriatico is Roger De Vlaeminck, also a classics rider with range to take a stage race along the way. Only now these riders with six Paris-Roubaix wins between them would have very little chance at winning because of big changes to the rotutes. Both of these stage races have adopted long Alpine-style summit finishes in recent years. It changes reference points, the likes of Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel probably can’t put races on their palmarès that their predecessors could.
Paris-Nice often deployed Mont Faron as its summit finish, it’s tough but a mere four kilometre climb. There have been some bigger climbs, think of the visit to Vaujany in 1994, Valberg in 1999, it had the Montagne de Lure in 2009 and the next year finished halfway up Mont Ventoux. Yet from 2016 onwards a big summit finish has become an annual staple with the La Madone d’Utelle (pictured) and ever since the Turini, Colmiane or Couillole. Likewise in Italy, Tirreno-Adriatico has had a big “Alpine-style” summit finish every year since 2012, excepting 2019. Not that long ago these races were sometimes won by the likes of Fabian Cancellara, Davide Rebellin, Oscar Freire or Franck Vandenbroucke. Now they’re the preserve of grand tour contenders, and in vintages when they’ve not been this can often be explained because of bad weather forcing the big climb to be abandoned.
Other stage races can resemble mini-me grand tours like the Volta a Catalunya, the Tour de Romandie, the Tour de Suisse and Critérium du Dauphiné but since the first one tours a region that contains the Pyrenees and the other three are literally Alpine races, a summit finish of some kind is expected, it’s part of the terrain. That said, Catalunya hasn’t always had a big summit finish stage. Likewise Romandie and even the Tour de Suisse used to be far less mountainous than today’s routes. Again these races have also tilted towards becoming the preserve of grand tour winners.
Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico though, do they need a giant summit finish? Perhaps yes for TV audiences, having one big mountain stage is a crowd pleaser. It provides a satisfying, undisputable result where the long climb helps establish a hierarchy. Yet there’s an inflationary tendency here. The appearance of the Colmiane climb for Paris-Nice 2017 was promoted in part because of the record altitude for the race. Such big climbs can wow audiences but once the public has banked this and expectations have literally been raised, where next? Weather and logistics mean much more is hard.
A route with a lesser summit finish might look soft or diluted, “not as selective as last year” they’ll say. In turn a stage race won by a classics contender or the kind of rider who can finish 10-20th in a grand tour because big climbs are out of their range isn’t as prestigious. Carlos Betancur’s win in 2014 was interesting because it wasn’t a mountainous route but maybe that’s not possible any more? Only best days of Paris-Nice and Tirreno aren’t usually the summit finishes, it’s the stages with shorter climbs, twisty descents and the walls.
Also this tendency to gravitate to a winning format isn’t the preserve of stage races able to venture in the mountains. It’s also the classics season now and many of the Flemish classics have lost their subtle differences as they import more cobbles and the hellingen climbs. Het Nieuwsblad has become a mini Ronde van Vlaanderen by importing the Kapelmuur-Bosberg finish that used to be used by the Ronde. The Ronde itself doesn’t tour Flanders in the way it used to so that it can concentrate more climbs (and VIP tents) within a small area. Gent-Wevelgem used to be the “sprinters’ classic” but that’s too boring if it ends in a bunch sprint, they’ve imported more climbs as well as the “plugstreet” gravel tracks to split things up. It’s not just Flanders. Over in Wallonia in recent years the GP Le Samyn has imported more pavé, and over the border in France the GP de Denain has gone from being a sprinter’s race to a petit Paris-Roubaix. All this helps make these races more exciting, things happen because of the obstacles along the route and a race that’s 200km long and 100% certain to finish in a bunch sprint doesn’t sound that exciting for hours of live TV. Organisers can no longer just put on a race, it has to promise something compelling for TV audiences and absent any giant summit finish, obviously in come the pavé and sharp climbs. It’s great but again, more of the same.
There’s the joke where two diners in a restaurant complain, “the food here is terrible” says one, “I know, and the portions are tiny” says the other. Here saying that races have too many big climbs or a lot of cobbles risks sounding like a complaint the cooking is tasty and the servings are generous. Paris-Nice has supplied some great racing. Yet all the same, if this is good, it’s can be like dining in the same restaurant time after time. Paris-Nice increasingly resembles a mini-Tour, Tirreno-Adriatico a mini-Giro. Other stage races have gone down, and for, a similar route too.
Now a blog named after the gear for climbing in the mountains isn’t going to rant too hard about added mountains. At the time of typing, the first summit finish duel between Tadej Pogačar is Jonas Vingegaard in Paris-Nice is a few hours away and it’s all rather enticing. Yet a little variety in the week-long stage races can be entertaining too, maybe not every week-long stage race has to feel like a mini-grand tour?