Let's see: we are what about two and a half months into the main pro cycling season; two months since the first stage race, Paris-Nice. (Big apologies to our Down Under friends.) We've had...counting the Trofeos and Algarve, six freaking stage races in Spain and Portugal. This one, called Castilla y Leon, is the seventh. I have just one question:
Can you give me one reason to watch this race?
Am I gonna learn anything from this race that hasn't already been drilled into my brain? Why the hell is Denis Menchov even here? Seriously, I am asking for a little help here. For all intents and purposes this race is at best a grade B exercise. If you followed golf in the US this would be the equivalent of the John Deere Classic. A little golf tournament that only golfers worried about getting their automatic qualification card for next season should enter. A tournament for locals. That's what this stage race is.
Yet here we have Alberto Contador and the Spanish wing of Astana and Denis Menchov entered. Here's the full startlist. We got Tiago Machado too. Plus a couple other local goats like Marchante and Mosquera. Color me unimpressed. Heckuva Job Brownie is here too to throw elbows with Theo Bos. Should be fun.
But back to my main whine: why is this race even on our radar? To me this is a major problem of the pro cycling calendar. While some parts of the calendar are set up just right so the suspense grows over a month or six weeks then climaxes, the early season stage racing is just one slog around one part of Spain after another with no real increase in tension, no peak to the season whatsoever. Every interview with the main riders tells us that they are building for the future; that the race they are in is not important in itself. Okay. If it's not important then why would you expect many people to watch it? And the truth is, hardly any one does watch the damned races. Just look at the so-called crowds that come out for these things. Pathetic. Only Pais Vasco sees crowds that are into the race.
People talk about how pro cycling has declined in popularity in Spain as a result of the doping scandals. Bull shit. It's because outside of Pais Vasco and to a definitely lesser extent the Big Tour around Spain in September, the races are meaningless. All the riders are pointing elsewhere to find meaning for their year. Yet we are now on our seventh stage race of this young season. This is crazy; and by crazy I mean boring. If you haven't fallen asleep yet, follow me on the flip-side to discuss this "race".
We are talking about the Vuelta a Castilla y Leon. Five days. First two are your basic flat Spanish stages. Each has a categorized climb and...do I have to spell this out for you? Okay I'll finish. Then we have a climby stage with two cat 1 climbs. The second climb ends the stage and looks like this:
Long, fairly steep at first, gets easier near the top.
After stage 3, we get stage 4 because 4 comes after 3. Stage 4 is a 15 km TT. Finally we come to stage....wait for it! FIVE, another flattish stage with a slight finishing kick which might be compelling to watch if two conditions were to happen:
a) The race leaders are still within a few seconds of each other and,
b) Anyone gave a rat's ass. Seriously, you telling me that you are gonna pay close attention to stage five when at the same time Amstel Gold is happening? Didn't think so. (Source for the climb profile.)
Okay for those of you who I've offended with this Debbie Downer of a race preview, my apologies. Earlier today I was reading the CN interview with Vaughters and I got to thinking that if Vaughters can work out an agreement with ASO on the Tour (and I have hope that he can) then the next logical thing would be to make a sensible race calendar, one where at the elite level the races fit with each other to make a compelling racing season. Maybe I am naive but I think Vaughters and some of the other DS's and ASO would understand that by making the racing season less chaotic they would up the values of their races and bring more money into the sport. Obviously some of the calendar is golden, the cobbles part for instance, and should be left alone. But just as obviously this stage racing slog around Spain needs fixed. (Yes, that's grammatically correct.) Even Contador was wistful about missing Pais Vasco when talking about Castilla y Leon. He knew he missed the one highlight of the early season. In the future he shouldn't even have a choice given his stature. Guys like him and Menchov should stay at the elite race level and not drop down to AA level cycling where the crowds are sparse.
This race will be televised for us junkies. Tomorrow's the first day though the Brabant Arrow should be a lot more interesting. The best days to watch are on Friday (the climby day) and Saturday (the chrono day). No matter if Contador wins or Machado or Mosquera or some unknown guy, it won;t make any difference for when the stage races get compelling in half a month. And after this race is over then thankfully we will be able to see more interesting stage races for a while.