ALMADEN, Spain (VN) — Sprinters rolled across the finish line Thursday in Córdoba hot, tired and exasperated.
Barely a week into the Vuelta a España riders had survived 100-degree temperatures, climbed to the highest point of this year’s race at 2,000-plus meters at Sierra Nevada and endured a harrowing string of stages that featured just about everything except straight, flat roads.
“The first six days have been the hardest racing I’ve ever done in my life, I think,” Heinrich Haussler told VeloNews. “It’s been a lot harder than the Tour de France.
“Like yesterday, I was just suffering all day just to stay in the group. I don’t understand it. They’re crazy.”
“They” are the Vuelta race organizers, who have thrown everything at the peloton in this year’s edition, which many are already calling the most brutal Vuelta ever.
And the race has barely started. Climbs such as the legendary Angliru, a new, very challenging summit at Farrapona and a foray into hilly Galicia and the Basque Country are still on tap in the final two weeks.
What strikes many is that this year’s Vuelta is long on difficulties and challenges, and very short on stages that should produce a sprint finish.
Going into Friday’s seventh stage, there’s only been one sprint finish, which came in stage 2 along the Mediterranean coast. And even that one was not an old-school, straight-shot sprint finish. That stage finale featured a tight, corkscrew corner and a very steep kicker in the final 1.5km that blew apart the peloton’s pure sprinters, opening the door for CJ Hunter (Sky) to attack on the false flats and win.
Sprinters feel like they are not getting their fair share of chances.
“It’s been a weird first week in the Vuelta. There haven’t been a lot of opportunities for guys like me,” said American sprinter Tyler Farrar, who’s won three stages in the past two Vueltas.
“Every race wants to be the hardest edition in the world now. Every race is doing it. They’re adding climbs. Even on the sprint days, they won’t want it flat, they want it really rolling all day. It’s just the way cycling’s moving at the moment. It’s a pity. There were only three sprints in the whole Giro and maybe four here in the Vuelta.”
Four if Farrar is lucky. Friday’s stage should produce a sprint. The only other guarantee is the final stage into Madrid on September 11. There might be another sprint finish into Haro in stage 16, but that’s the final week and anything could happen.
Other than that, this Vuelta is hard and getting harder. Five of the six summit finishes are still to come and every other stage features some sort of late-race dynamic that is sure to eliminate all but the sleekest and strongest of the sprinters.
“They are making the races too hard,” said Dario Cioni (Sky), who also acts as the rider’s representative on the UCI management council. “Sprint stages are not so easy, either, but people don’t seem to like them anymore.
“It’s good that they are spicing things up, but sometimes it seems that things have gone too far. I remember in the Giro this year, that stage that was 240km with seven climbs, that wasn’t exciting for everyone because no one had strength to attack. A few sprint stages are good for everyone.”
Riders are feeling the blunt end of a trend among the grand tours that is phasing out the longer, flatter stages that typically favored the sprinters.
Conventional wisdom has shifted among race organizers, who are under the gun to deliver exciting finales that capture the attention of fans and media alike.
That means more stages like Córdoba, where the peloton tackled a steep, second-category climb in the final 20km, and fewer like Friday’s, which rolls across Spain’s southern meseta with nary a rated climb.
The stakes have been steadily on the uptick among the grand tours over the past half-decade, fueled mostly by the innovations that came out of the Giro d’Italia. Angelo Zomegnan, who was recently removed as the Giro’s race director, started to add bells and whistles like Monte Zoncolan, the white roads of Tuscany and the climbing time trial over dirt tracks at Plan de Corones. Zomegnan had such an aversion to sprinters that he replaced the final-day parade and sprint show that typically closes a grand tour with an individual time trial.
Gone are the days when grand tours featured four summit finishes and two TTs and dedicated the remainder of the stages to sprinters. In his heyday in 2003, Italian sprinter Alessandro Petacchi won no less than 15 stages during three grand tours that season. There haven’t been that many sprint stages in the three grand tours this year combined.
“I don’t know what the hell they’re doing,” Garmin-Cervélo’s Haussler continued. “All the tours are getting more dangerous, more mountainous, more difficult. I remember 2005 when I did the Vuelta for the first time, there were like 10 sprints. You could sit in the back and take it easy. It’s not like that anymore.”
And it’s not just the sprinters who say it’s gone too far.
“This is a very hard Vuelta,” said RadioShack’s Jani Brajkovic. “*It’s much harder than the Vuelta I raced back in 2006. There hasn’t been a moment to relax. The GC riders have to be at the front all day.”
That, of course, is just what race organizers are looking for. Under pressure to deliver an exciting product that keeps cycling front and center in the ever-competitive media landscape, organizers have followed the Zomegnan model and jazzed up the modern stage race. After the Giro’s success, the Vuelta incorporated the likes of the Angliru, La Pandera and the Bola del Mundo, a steep climb held on a paved ski track in the mountains outside of Madrid last year.
“We want this Vuelta to be exciting from start to finish,” Vuelta director Javier Guillen told AS. “We have created a race course that will keep things interesting right to the final stage.”
The Tour de France hasn’t been immune to the new paradigm. While the French race prides itself on being the standard-bearer in the racing world and is the most resistant to change, the Tour has added its own twists.
This year’s Tour was the most balanced of the 2011 grand tours, at least from a sprinter’s perspective. Mark Cavendish won five stages while André Greipel and Farrar won one each. Yet sprinters cannot help but feel underappreciated by the Tour. The worst insult was when the Tour eliminated the finish-line time bonuses that, though they tighten up the GC battle, kill any chance for sprinters to make a run for the maillot jaune.
“It seems that the grand tours do not like sprinters any more,” Tom Boonen told VeloNews in an interview earlier this year. “Everything is moving in favor of the climbers. Of course, you don’t want to have a sprint every day. That’s boring even for me, but things seem to be moving away from the sprinters. I don’t know if that’s a good thing for cycling.”
The sad thing about this year’s Vuelta, at least from a sprinter’s point of view, is the quality of the field of fast men here, most of whom are at the Vuelta to gain form for the world championships, and the lack of sprint opportunities.
Every world champion over the past decade has come through the Vuelta. But if the Spanish tour makes itself so difficult that the sprinters cannot find a reason to battle through, they might start going somewhere else.