Words by Nick Bull | Photo by SWpix.com
Richie Porte winning on Willunga Hill. WorldTour teams holding training camps in Europe’s warmer regions. New team jerseys being unveiled. At first glance there’s some semblance of normality to January 2021 in professional cycling. But the multiple race postponements announced in recent weeks reiterates that this year’s road racing season will once again look and feel very different to what we’re used to.
The Tour Down Under, Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race, Tour of Oman and Circuit de la Sarthe are all cancelled for the year. Challenge Mallorca, Volta ao Algarve and Vuelta a Andalucia have been postponed until May. March’s Ronde van Drenthe, originally set to be the third race on the 2021 Women’s WorldTour calendar, is still awaiting a new date from the UCI. It first requested to move in October. Worryingly, even before January’s end, the early-season calendar has almost as many strikethroughs as Tour de France results from 1999 to 2005.
Last year’s condensed calendar certainly had its advantages. In the space of 38 days we saw Julian Alaphilippe move into the maillot jaune (and raise hopes of another gutsy GC bid at the Tour) then lose it after an ill-judged roadside feed; solo to an unforgettable win at the worlds; mistime his celebration at Liège at the end of his first race in the rainbow jersey before making amends at Brabantse Pijl. Between August and September there was barely a day without a televised race. Until the start of October, cycling’s first Super Sunday was on the cards. But it was far from perfect: Team DSM’s Coryn Rivera said she felt “lucky” to have 15 racing days in her abridged July to October season. Any male rider who finished the Vuelta would have had 18 days alone.
Race postponements this year will again reiterate the seismic differences between the sport’s organisational powerhouses – most notably A.S.O and RCS Sport – and everybody else. Between late July and mid-October last year, they delivered 85 racing days combined, with only Paris-Roubaix (both men’s and the proposed inaugural women’s races) and Il Lombardia not running as planned from the revised calendar. The combination of their TV rights and sponsorship deals, mixed with towns and cities for whom the pride of hosting their races is often enough to justify the financial outlay, means that their events can cope with closing stage finishes in cities such as Lyon and Milan off to fans.
Instead the challenges are going to be felt further down the calendar hierarchy. “Seriously?” was the Four Days of Dunkirk’s Twitter response to Algarve’s post announcing their rescheduled May date. The two ProSeries races will now overlap one another as well as the Giro’s opening weekend.
The UCI find themselves in an unenviable position. Those races that ran in early 2020 should not be penalised this time around just because their dates last year sheltered them from COVID. At the same time, events that have long-held a calendar slot that allows them to attract strong fields (and with it vital sponsorship) understandably feel aggrieved when the governing body drops rescheduled races into their window.
Cycling’s messy organisational model has long created divisions over vested interests, but overlapping events have long been commonplace on the men’s calendar. The examples of Paris-Nice and Tirreno Adriatico, and Critérium du Dauphiné and Tour de Suisse show that they can co-exist. Let’s not forget that one proposed solution to ending this, as touted by the UCI’s proposed calendar overhaul in late 2013, would have seen many stage races outside of Grand Tours shortened (and separated where relevant), others downgraded and some lost forever.
The next round of rescheduling could certainly prove interesting: Challenge Mallorca and Ruta del Sol preceded Algarve in being pushed back to May, creating a packed schedule. The next slot in the calendar that could easily accommodate events is the week between National Championships and the Tour de France Grand Départ/La Course, which is far from ideal. Cancellation of the Tokyo Olympics would give the UCI dates to play with, as does the six-week gap between the Ceratizit Challenge by La Vuelta and Tour of Guangxi that ends the Women’s WorldTour calendar.
The governing body must do all it can to preserve as many races as possible. Vaccines provide hope for a near-complete return to normal life across Europe by this time next year. That the Giro ended on 25 October and the Vuelta concluded just seven weeks before Christmas in 2020 shows that elongating the season is possible as a stopgap. Achieving this is arguably easier when there’s a complete shutdown between mid-March and late July; given Tom Dumoulin’s announcement on Saturday, mental health also needs to be considered if riders are going to face an extended programme in 2021 without any enforced competition break.
Few cycling fans will be surprised to see more men’s and women’s races, particularly those ranked at ProSeries and 1.1 level, being rescheduled or even cancelled in the coming weeks. One race organiser told La Course en Tête that going ahead in early 2021 with only modest COVID protocols (such as testing and basic hygiene measures but no crowd restrictions) would add approximately €50,000 onto their costs. That number increases threefold should they require completely closed starts, mountains and finishes. This organiser also said that they “wouldn’t be surprised” to see some already rescheduled races request another date change. “Being pushed back to May,” they said, “seems like they’re just delaying the inevitable.”
Elsewhere, the long-term futures of the Tour of Oman (last run in 2019) and the Tour de Yorkshire look bleak. While the latter’s cancellation was attributed to COVID when announced in November, A.S.O reportedly already moved on from the event given the financial struggles of Welcome to Yorkshire, the race’s co-partner.