Words by William Fotheringham | Photo by SWpix.com
In the mid-1990s, riders who wanted to be in the winning break on a hilly stage of the Tour de France or Giro d’Italia had a fairly simple option: keep a good look-out for the Swiss pro Pascal Richard, and make sure they went where he did.
As long as they had the legs to keep at the front of the bunch in the magic hour at the start when the breaks were developing, eyesight good enough to track who was making the moves, and a clear enough head amidst the lactate fog to make the split-second decision to follow.
Richard was an early example of the stage hunter, a particular type of bike racer and a breed that has become increasingly signficant in the last two decades. Back then, he landed six stage wins at the Giro and Tour, as well as another 10 stages at races which now have an important slot in the WorldTour: Paris-Nice, Tirreno, Romandie, the Tour of Switzerland.
It’s crucial to point out that the Swiss wasn’t JUST a rider who targeted stage wins in major races. His skill set, climbing, explosiveness and tactical acumen, enabled him to win the Olympic Games road race, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Giro di Lombardia, but he raced these in the usual Classic style, waiting for the final hour. Where he was ahead of his time was in his approach to the stage races: the overall was never a priority, instead he and the DS who managed him for the best years of his career, Giancarlo Ferretti, would have their eyes on certain targeted stages.
This sounds very routine to the 21st century follower of cycling, but a quarter of a century ago, things were a bit different. Nowadays, at the Vuelta and the Giro, the hilly stages that the stage hunters circle in the route book are far more common, to the extent that they equal or outnumber either pure mountain stages or sprint stages. These days, organisers seek out the crazily steep climbs that create opportunities for the opportunists: back then, at the Tour de France at least, hilly stages tended to be “transition” days that happened to be in the route because they conveniently took the riders from A to B.
There’s been a change, but it’s a subtle one. Teams have always gone to stage races aspiring to win stages, they’ve just rarely done it as methodically, or as overtly, or as well as certain teams seem to do right now. Ferretti’s MG Technogym were an exception back then with their philosophy of simply raising hell in the first hour and getting riders in the move: nowadays, the way they rode has echoes in what we see on an almost daily basis at the Vuelta or Giro from teams like DSM or EF Education.
The change has come for good reasons. All three Grand Tours have become incredibly significant, not just the Tour. At the same time, it’s getting harder and harder for even WorldTour teams to win a Grand Tour overall. Of the last 12 Grand Tours, only two have gone to a rider outside Sky/Ineos, Jumbo and UAE. This is partly economics: Team Sky and now Ineos, Jumbo and UAE have changed the game to the extent that attempting to put together a WorldTour team that is truly going to contend for overall victory is simply beyond the budgets of many teams.
It’s also a risky way to allocate budget. Why invest the bulk of what you’ve got in one or two riders and a trail of high-class domestiques when a minor lurgy or a major crash can make the investment void? In similar vein, why buy up one sprinter and build a lead-out train around them, when the risk is similar – as Lotto-Soudal will attest after Caleb Ewan’s crash this year – and when there are fewer sprint stages in any case.
Better to buy up as many possible stage winners as you can. (There’s an alternative here, which is the Quickstep answer: have the strongest Classics team on the block, and alongside that, construct a lead-out train and invest annually in several sprinters who are just behind the very best in current results and market value). There’s a final factor: organisers have increasingly followed the example of Christian Prudhomme at the Tour, and tried to build routes which encourage attacking racing. Aided by Spanish and Italian terrain, the Vuelta and Giro have run with this principle, such that a bunch sprint stage seems like an aberration.
Hence (drum roll) the rise of the stage hunter, one of the best examples in recent years being Steve Cummings in his heyday of 2015-16. Cummings wasn’t a Classic rider who won stages in Grand Tours and WorldTour races, he was a stage race specialist who targeted his days like a sniper looking down his telescopic sights. And it paid dividends: five major stage wins in two years, plus the overall at the Tour of Britain (won in stage hunter style, by targeting one particularly hard day).
To me, stage hunting isn’t just about going to a race with a possible stage winner and hoping for the best. There have been plenty of Sergio Leone references in this year’s Vuelta, what with stages going close to his Spaghetti Western film sets; the best stage hunters remind me of his fictional bounty hunters. It’s about how efficiently, inventively and ruthlessly you go about using the resources you have and the opportunities that present themselves. Deceuninck-Quickstep are in a class of their own, but alongside them, two teams in particular are following the stage hunter route: EF Education, and DSM.
Look back to last year’s Tour de France and you have to admire the tactical brilliance with which the German team, then Sunweb, took their stages with Søren Kragh Andersen (pictured) and Marc Hirschi. Similarly, this year’s Vuelta, with Michael Storer. As for EF, think back to the Giro and Alberto Bettiol, and last year’s Tour and Dani Martinez. Not to mention the consummate stage hunter of the moment: Magnus Kort Nielsen, who is doing the long-range stuff with consummate brilliance, and grabbing openings when they come his way. Best of all, there are at least five more Vuelta stages that suit the likes of Storer and MKN.