Here's one for you -- everyone who has studied elementary cycling in the third grade can name the top three stage races in the world. But what's the best of the rest? Or for that matter, how do you decide?
Setting aside the whole riders-make-the-race tripe, here's what you'd probably look for:
1) the startlist: if a race is bringing in the big guns, that's a hefty endorsement.
2) the finish list: 1) matters more if they're coming to do more than work off that excess 8 kilos.
3) the mojo: why does this race exist anyway? Deductions if the answer is "training for [insert name of other race]."
4) the course: must be challenging, which can consist of some mix of mountains and time trials. Bonus points for awesome scenery, unusual features, and creativity.
5) History:not just how old it is, but how illustrious its history is. You might be able to talk me out of this one, but let's keep it on the list for now.
I think that'll do. Now, the candidates. Obviously this topic came up when contemplating this week's overlapping contenders, the Dauphine Libere and the Tour de Suisse. Add in the Tour de Romandie, the Pais Vasco, Paris-Nice, Volta a Catalunya, DeutschlandTour, Vuelta a Castilla y Leon, and Tirreno-Adriatico. Let's run it down... on the flip! [Updated: now with 100% more Tour de Romandie!]
The Startlist: OK, there isn't one for 2009, since the race has been canceled for now. Typically the D-Tour has drawn a pretty impressive list of overall contenders, picking from guys coming off their Tour de France peaks and guys building for the Vuelta. Germany is also one of the sport's behemoth nations, with great impact in recent times. Not all good, but you can't deny the quality. Rating (scale of 1-5): 3
The Finish List: Their ace in the hole has been guys atoning for not doing better in France, along with Jens! Voigt's revenge against everyone who thinks he should have pulled for Ullrich in a stage of the 2003 Tour. The D-Tour is seriously raced. Rating: 3
The Mojo: Er, when it's raced. Germany, a large country in the heart of the Cycling world, with a solid history in the sport, should have a national tour. Slotting it in August is a pretty good idea, given the options. This could be a 4, but for the fact that the race is at least temporarily on life support and racing a bike is considered evil in the German media. Rating: INC
The Course: Varied. Last year the race was virtually over after two days. The two previous years Jens Voigt won the queen climbing stages, despite doing things to his bike in the process that would bring a tear to your eye. IIRC, though, the 2005 edition was ripping. Anyway, there's a ton of material to work with. Rating: 4
History: The last ten years marked the longest successive annual run of the D-Tour since it's "inception" in 1911. Apparently people need more convincing. Rating: 2
Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré
The Startlist: Stellar. Because it competes for starters with the Suisse Tour, they fall short of signing up every Tour contender in existence, but they more than hold their own. In fact, I would say this is the best startlist from a GC perspective most years, thanks to the race's tendency to mimic the Tour. Rating: 5
The Finish List: Not bad at all. The race can certainly be won by someone you weren't necessarily thinking of (Christophe Moreau, anyone?), but at least a few of the biggest names will battle from beginning to end, and among those doing the Dauphine-Tour de France double (in the same season) include Lance Armstrong, Miguel Indurain, Bernard HInault, Eddy Merckx and Jacques Anquetil. Rating: 4
The Mojo: Ostensibly the purpose is to show off the virtues of the Dauphiné region of France, which happens to contain the Savoie Alps and much of Provence, as in Mont Ventoux. It's also to sell newspapers. But the real thing that keeps it going is the race's ability to preview the Tour de France. It's a dress-rehearsal. Rating: 2
The Course: Occasionally dull, but that's pretty rare. Like any Tour rehearsal, it looks a lot like the third week of the Tour. They even tend to include a hard chrono to cover all the bases. Rating: 4
History: One of many races to come into existence in the aftermath of WWII. In the age of less specialization it was less obviously a warm-up race, and all those great names on the roll of honor presumably indicate some great battles. But I can't really research that from a race whose website can barely manage to convey details of tomorrow's stage. Rating: 3
Tour de Suisse
The Startlist: Despite its tug-of-war with the Dauphiné, the TdS usually gets something in the solid-to-awesome range. This year the Dauphiné cleaned up on the climbers, but the Tour de Suisse has everything else going on. I would say that the more established guys wind up in southern France, but the TdS ends up with the best guys you've never read about on ESPN.com. Rating: 4
The Finish List: Er, let's see... Roman Kreuziger is a perfect example of a TdS winner -- a great cyclist whose chances in July weren't rated too highly, at least not in 2008. By attracting riders who aren't under pressure to hold back, the TdS gets more mileage out of its less star-studded peloton. I'm not crazy about some of the palmares, but by comparison to the Dolphin race the TdS suffers much less from disappointed expectations Rating: 4.
The Mojo: National tour of Switzerland. Not sure how much I need to add here, except that Switzerland's contribution to the sport goes beyond really awesome roads. Rating: 5
The Course: Not usually as demanding as the Dauphiné, the TdS does usually manage to throw in the spectacular, and at least one stage that rates as hors categoire. Last year it was the Klausenpass; before that the Nufenpass (which got canceled); etc. Rating: 4
History: Dates back to 1933. It's meant a lot to a lot of people, if not necessarily the sport's top headliners. Rating: 4
The Startlist: Boffo. Nowadays you can't draw the Italians away from Tirreno-Adriatico, and same goes for foreigners whose main goal is Milano-Sanremo, but otherwise this is the marquee event in March for an interesting collection of guys. P-N works for the Ardennes crowd, looking to build their form. It works for the cobbles guys who are about to embark on their high season and could use a week of cold, hard racing. It also draws in a decent number of July stars biding their time building a lower spring peak. That's a nice, diverse group... sorta like what you used to see at the Tour. Rating: 4
The Finish List: Pretty big difference here. The race's honor roll is pure Cycling Hall of Fame, but lately the battle for the win has come down to a small handful of players: the insatiable Contador, the ever-anxious (and probably doped) Rebellin, and guys like Luis Leon Sanchez who might be pretty awesome if he weren't forced to ride for one of the stars. Frank Schleck should win this race someday, once Andy completely takes over the Grand Tour winning detail. Anyway, the stage battles have featured a lot of big names, so even if the overall isn't tempting everyone out, it's still a heck of a battle. Rating: 3
The Mojo: Big mojo here. The Race to the Sun is a destination to itself. Like anything in March there are limits to how hard people race, but it's certainly not subservient to another event. Rating: 4
The Course: Rollicking good times! Over the eight days the organizers usually throw the sprinters a bone or two, but then it's time to go uphill, or at least as high up as you can that time of year. Occasionally there are big-name ascents, but mostly the race capitalizes on the abundance of very tough, lower-elevation climbs from Saint-Etienne on south. The last day is a nice classics-style course too. Rating: 4
History: Plenty of it. The race goes back to '33, hasn't taken a non-war break, and has drawn in virtually every big name you can think of. Lots of epic snow battles too. Rating: 4
The Startlist: Definitely a cut below Paris-Nice most years from the long-range grand tour perspective, but the Due Mari gets strong participation nonetheless. In many ways, this race is to P-N as the Tour de Suisse is to the Dauphiné: a little less climby, a fair bit more Italian, and tons of fun. Rating: 3
The Finish List: Pretty impressive in a B-list kind of way. I suspect the percentage of guys really trying to win here is a little higher than P-N, given the Italian teams and their focus on the nation's second-biggest event (and what their efforts mean in terms of getting a Giro invite). Obviously the French teams are in the same position at P-N, but with less of a shot to win. Rating: 3
The Mojo: Like most Italian races, T-A is there for the home crowd. It's a mini-Giro, intended to whet people's appetites, force the tempo up for the MSR set, and otherwise put on a good show. Rating: 3
The Course: Hard to say anything categorically. Some years they thrown in a good bit of climbing. Some years there are no selections of meaning in the climbs, and the cronomen wind up in charge. Every year seems to include a few snoozers and oddly long transfers to get across a not particularly large peninsula. Some years they just try to showcase sprinters. Whatever will best showcase the top Italian riders. The recent addition of Montelupone has been fun though. Rating: 3
History: Not much, actually. Let's just say that I'm older than the race, though it's close. Oddly, Mr. Paris-Roubaix was even more pronouncedly Mr. Tirreno-Adriatico. I speak of course of Roger de Vlaeminck, who won six editions in a row. Not as dominant as Seán Kelly's seven straight Paris-Nice wins. Not as cool either. Rating: 2
Vuelta al País Vasco (Euskal Herriko txirrindulari itzulia)
The Startlist: Pretty hard to distinguish from the Tour de France. Honestly. Well, OK, sprinters need not apply, and the cobbles guys are otherwise engaged, but that's about it. Don't believe me? Go here. Rating: 5
The Finish List: Scrub Tony Colom (which can't happen fast enough) and your 2009 top nine goes: Contador, Sam-san, Evans, Lu-Lu Sanchez, Cunego, Gesink, Rogers, Nibali, Kreuziger. The death of the Tour de Georgia means that the PV is the place to be in April among the GC guys eyeing either the Giro or the Tour. Rating: 5
The Mojo: If there were a way to measure the intensity of interest in a bike race of people whose houses are passed by the peloton, the PV might be king of the world in this category. Is there a single other race in Europe which doesn't compete with soccer at least a little? Only the Tour, I'd say, and even then beware of a brisk transfer season. The downside for the international brother/sisterhood of cycling fans is the race's conflict with that trifling little distraction known as Holy Week in Belgium and France, but that's my problem, not theirs. Rating: 5
The Course: I may be a tad underqualified to write this paragraph, but my recollection is that they wind in and out of the Pyrenees and associated foothills for five or six days (give or take a time trial), then call it a race. Nothing wrong with that at all, mind you, but that's a far cry from the Dolphin or Suisse courses. Rating: 2
History: Was your race mentioned in a Hemingway novel? I think not! But only one edition between 1931 and 1968 is a downer... Wikipedia says similar races were held then, and I suspect the tumultuous politics of those years were the intervening factor, but I dunno. Another problem is the roll of honor, which is a funny way to describe a list of names like Rumsas, Gomez Marchante, Kloden, Mayo and Di Luca. But the steep slopes of Basque Country have lured in many true champions of past eras, and Alberto Contador, so what more could you want? Rating: 3
Tour de Romandie
The Startlist: I would caution against judging this race for what it isn't -- a grand tour preview. It's more of a week-long Ardennes extension and Giro warmup. For that purpose, it has a unique and top-rate startlist... but we're trying to pick the best of the rest from the whole calendar, and the TdR doesn't stack up. Rating: 2
The Finish List: Considering the material, the race is very hotly contested, usually right to the last KM. Rating: 4
The Mojo: Signature race of the Romandie region, and the number two race in Switzerland (depending on whom you ask, I suppose). Like I said above, it has a unique niche. And this is a poll of overall prestige, not niche-y goodness. Rating: 3
The Course: Very cool! Echoes of both the TdS and Le Tour, though of course at lower altitudes. The race also sports one of the hottest time trials of the season prior to any grand tour, which is one of its calling cards and a good reason to show up. Achingly beautiful, to boot. Rating: 4
History: Strictly post-war. Pretty fair roll of honor, but it can't match the other races on this list. Rating: 2
I had planned to discuss Catalunya and Castilla y Leon, but I was only being polite when I mentioned them, and after thinking about the PV I have decided there's no point. The numerical scoring:
- Tour de Suisse: 21
- Pais Vasco: 20
- Paris-Nice: 19
- Dauphine Libere: 18
- Tour de Romandie: 15
- Tirreno-Adriatico: 14
- DeutschlandTour: INC
Scoring can be an odd approach, but it's safe to say that Romandie, T-A and the D-Tour don't make the cut. I snuffed the CDL by calling it a Tour warm-up (which it is), and arguably robbed the PV of the top spot by virtue of its course, possibly arbitrarily. Let's call it a four-way argument. Take the poll!