Yes, I will get to some specifics of the race but first I want to take a detour. But for those here who are too time stressed, take a peek at Gavia's Steephill preview: totally excellent! But if you stay here,
Seriously, what makes a great stage in a stage race?
It's funny. We talk about and rank one day races in large part because of how the race is constructed: the placement of the hills, cobbles, dirt roads, opportunities for echelons, and what have you. All the Monuments have these things in almost perfect placement, guaranteed pretty much to insure a great race. Yes, one day races can vary exactly where they go but for all intents and purposes they only vary to a slight degree and never seriously diverge from their basic make-up. Riders make the race, yes, but Monuments are Monuments because the riders change from year to year.
Stage races are different. They usually have favorite stages that they often revisit but on the whole (and I realize that this is my opinion) they rarely repeat stages from one year to the next and those stages are only one part of the race. And that's the key: the stages are only one day out of a week to three weeks that make up the race. I must admit that personally I would love love love to be on a design crew of a stage race. So many decisions, so many turns of the road. But as I sit by my phone waiting for Christian Prudhomme to call I think of what it is exactly that makes for a great stage. I can think of several criteria that I spell out below. If you can add to my list, please do so.
1. A Great Stage must be in a high profile race. It has to be a part of a major stage race. Sorry Tour of Belgium or Tour of Murcia-for different reasons these two races and so many others like them are not targeted by enough top riders to allow them to make a Great Stage. Basically I am saying that to have a Great Stage, the race must be either a Grand Tour or one of the six top week long races: Suisse, Romandie, Dauphine, Pais Vasco, Catalunya, Tirreno-Adriatico, or Paris-Nice. Only these races have a critical mass of top riders to make the race compelling.
2. Along with the status of the race, the race needs to be televised. Bonus points for a huge crowd. Back in the day this wasn't necessary but now it's different. In the age of the internet, the fans help to make the race.
Okay those two criteria are pretty general. The rest are specific to what makes a stage great.
3. The stage must be wide open. Who will win it isn't obvious.
4. The stage should be decisive.
5. The stage affects the stages that come after (if there are any stages after it).
Of these three criteria the 3rd one is the most important. Let's look at last year's Tour as an example. There were several stages pre-race that looked potentially like great stages plus a bunch of meh stages. As it turned out there were no great stages last year and possibly the best did not actually have any pre-race hype to it. Let's look:
- The Monaco prologue was fun but the outcome wasn't a surprise, and compared to London two years below the crowds weren't overwhelming.
- Stage 3 was the surprise stage, wide-open and intense. That was the stage of the echelon split. As the race played out however it was not decisive.
- Stage 6 to Barcelona was quite good because of the crowds and city and because it was decisive for the Green jersey race. Thor needed one stage where he got points and Cavendish didn't and this was the one, but the result wasn't preordained like the later mountaintop stages were. For the overall it wasn't important.
- Stages 7 (Andorra Arcalis) and 15 (Verbier) didn't reach Great stage status because the best climber in the world rode away from his competitors just like we figured so the excitement factor was lessened.
- Stage 18, the Annecy ITT, also played out basically as expected. The top two from the Monaco ITT were one-two here too and since one of them was also the best climber, he had the race in the bag. I'm not saying it was a boring stage but it lacked that specialness that happens when you don't actually know ahead of time who was gonna win. Great? No. Very good? Yes.
- Finally stage 20, Ventoux, was a big disappointment as no one attacked Contador. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.
So that was last year's Tour. I used it to show how hard it is to create a truly memorable stage. Interestingly ASO had another race last year that included the same great climber that had at least one stage that was better than anything from the Tour and possibly a second such stage. That was Paris-Nice. The Great stage was the penultimate stage, the stage were Bert bonked. But it wasn't just because of Contador's failure that made the stage great, it was how Lulu and the other competitors attacked that made the race. Remember how Lulu couldn't even get off his bike at the end because he was so exhausted? (Quite a contrast to say, Boonen's procession into the velodrome in Roubaix in terms of drama and easy dismounting and raising of the cobble.) And not to be overlooked were Frank Schleck and Jens! and especially Chavanel, a Classics hammerhead contesting this race and stage with the mountain goats. The riders on that stage 7 in Paris-Nice gave themselves to the moment to create a Great Stage.
What's more, the race was blessed by another very good stage, Stage 3, the Rabobank-created echelon split that Chavanel took advantage of, just like stage 7, it put Contador at a disadvantage and he attacked the next day. So both stage 3 and 7 affected future stages so that the only stages 2, 5, and 6 were your basic run of the mill will-the-break-make-it-or-not stages that had no bearing on the overall.
Going back to stage 7 again, another interesting thing about it was that a very similar thing happened on the same penultimate stage a year before. That was the stage to Cannes where Bobo Gesink couldn't handle the decent and lost his lead to Tin Tin. And-not to get too repetitive here-the same highly contested penultimate stage happened again in 07 though this time the leader, Tin Tin, was able to hold off Contador, though just barely, setting up the next day where Bert was able to squeeze out the win. What all this means is that with Paris-Nice, Prudhomme has hit upon a winning formula that fits this race much like a great one day Classic is great because of its course. That's practically unique in stage racing. So what is the formula and how does it play out this year?
Paris-Nice starts out with a prologue, enough to set up a race order but with very small time gaps. Then comes two-four stages (depending on the year) which are the most iffy and by iffy I mean boring: fairly flat leading to bunch sprints or breakaways by riders who are already well back in the GC. Last year's windy stage three was unexpected and great because it spiced up the middle of the race but that usually doesn't happen. Too bad. If anyone has any suggestions on how to make these stages more interesting, I am sure Prudhomme would be all ears.
Next comes the mid-race climby stage. It might be up part of Ventoux or something else nearby or it might be like this year up the Mende climb, but wherever it goes this stage tends to get the most pre-race publicity. It will be interesting to see what Prudhomme does with this stage in the future as he needs an interesting stage at this point, but your basic climby stage is just so much red meat to Bert. If he keeps winning it in a few years people will talk about the inevitable Contador win. But that's in the future and while people focus on this stage it is the next penultimate stage that is the real deal in this race: the Bert Beater.
So what's so special about this year's stage 7? The length. 220 km.
The riders haven't yet had such a long day in the saddle this year. The Omloop was only 204 km and not only did most of the riders at Paris-Nice not ride that race but most of the riders that did were not in fine enough shape to seriously contest the last 50+km. But as that noted Classics hammerhead Sylvain Chavanel says in an interview in CN, Paris-Nice is "the first big event of the year". A much larger percentage of riders will be riding this race to try to win something but this stage will put them on their limit. For the race leader and his team, this stage will be a huge test on their ability to defend, particularly with that cat 1 Col de Vence 187 km from the start. Yikes. So if you can only watch one stage of this race, make it next Saturday's (March 13) stage. It will be a doozy and whoever is in the lead will be attacked and hard. That promise is one of the most reliable ones you can make in the cycling season.
(So now that you are focused on stage 7, watch out for stage 6, definitely a stage that a serious break could form.)
So who are the main contenders in this race? I mean don't the riders make the race regardless of all that I just wrote? hahha! Gasparotto! No, he'll be ripping up T-A next week. There's a likely cast of characters here: Start with Contador. Add in a serious Caisse d'Epargne team of Valverde and Lulu- and doesn't Valverde's case come up before the CAS either in the middle of this race or just after? This could be his last race in a loooooong time and he knows it. Then you got other GC types: Sam San, Kreuziger, Vande velde and his teammate Oh Danny Boy! Martin, Van Den Broeck, plus last year's KOM Skinny Tony "the other" Martin. You also got Levi, Brajkovic, and Horner plus last year's runner-up Frank Schleck who's got a serious team of Fuglsang, several Sorensens, Larsson, and Jens! to watch his back. Cunego's here and Rabobank has Mollema for the GC and Posthuma, Boom and friends to exploit any of the flat stages for Chavanel's benefit. Katusha is sending J-Rod against his erstwhile teammates too. Just a lot of big, big names and I'm not even mentioning Barbie. Speaking of Barbie, if you are a betting person you could do a lot worse than to peruse Majope's VDS team because on that team is the 2nd place finisher in this race. Guaranteed.
Then you got Chavanel. As he admits he needs another echelon type stage to get some time on the others since he'll lose a little time definitely on the Mende stage. But that's one of the things that I like so much about P-N and also T-A: since they are so early in the year they can't do the mega climbs that the Tour and Giro do so guys like Chavanel and Scarponi have a chance. I'm all over the idea of widening the pool of potential race winners. So enjoy the race. It'll be all over the intertubes and on Versus and Eurosport. Check Steephill and Cycling Fans for links.