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Purito, BalaVerde and the Women’s Tour de France... More of the Same?

A spate of high-level non-changing changes and what they mean for next year

Le Tour de France 2015 - Stage Eighteen Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Today marks a turning point in Spanish cycling! No, wait, it definitely doesn’t. Yeah, I’m talking about the big news that Alejandro Valverde has signed a three year extension with... Surprise! Movistar. The club whose kit he wore during his year away from the sport, the last time he was maybe kind of without contract.

And, as if there were still some room left in the Davide Rebellin Club for Aging Ardennes Guys, Joaquim Rodriguez ended his brief retirement by signing his own three year deal with the newly-forming Bahrain-Merida team, where Purito will ride for one last, last, (did I say last?) season before becoming a sports director for two additional years. Now, there are some important differences at work in these two stories:

  • Valverde and Rebellin can swap stories of their unplanned vacations from cycling, whereas Purito, true to his name, has never been the subject of doping discussion. [Though having come up through ONCE, I’m sure he knows a thing or two about the subject.]
  • Valverde, like Rebellin, wasn’t expected to go anywhere after this season, while Rodriguez’ return is a big surprise. Purito climbed off his bike at the Olympics expecting to be done with the sport. However, Bahrain-Merida came to him with a unique chance, as he puts it, to be sort of an on-bike mentor to younger riders.

Which begs the question, which younger riders? It’s a relative term, so I suppose that could mean just about anyone, including standard-bearer Vincenzo Nibali. But although this will be a pretty old team in general, they probably were referring to Ivan Garcia, Jon Insausti, Tsgabu Grmay, and Luka Pibernik, and whoever else comes along in the next few months.

What all this means, with Philippe Gilbert headed to Etixx-Quick Step for some added support, is that the lineups for the Ardennes Classics will look very familiar once again. The climbers’ classics peloton has enjoyed a bit of a talent influx, but Michal Kwiatkowski’s win in Amstel is the sole victory by a rider under 25 in any of those three races (Amstel-Fleche-Liege) since Andy Schleck’s Liege win in 2009. La Fleche Wallonne hasn’t gone to someone besides an aging Spaniard since 2011. Of course, the cobbled classics haven’t seen too many young winners besides Peter Sagan and John Degenkolb in the last few years either, but with the retirements of Cancellara (done) and Boonen (imminent) change is a bit more clearly on the way.

Oh, and speaking of refreshing changes, Alberto Contador just announced that in 2017 he will focus on... the Tour de France. He hasn’t been on the podium since 2010, but hope springs eternal for the spry, 34-year-old Madrileno.

Cycling - Road - Olympics: Day 2
Vos in Rio
Photo by Eric Gaillard-Pool/Getty Images

Changes for La Course

Shifting gears, I didn’t want to wait too long before adding a comment on the Tour de France’s announcement that La Course, its women’s event, would switch to the Alps in 2017. The decision to hold a 66km stage on the Col d’Izoard has been roundly criticized and showered with derision and disappointment. It’s nothing more than shape-shifting, said Kathryn Bertine of Cylance. The 66km distance is a shame, said Marianne Vos, since it stops 4km short of the lunar landscape where the men’s race goes. Vos was otherwise supportive of the change in venue, saying that the Paris crit had been done enough, but remained as hopeful as the rest of the women’s peloton that the Tour would eventually hold a multi-day event for the women.

I’m going to give the optimistic spin and say that, although the single day format is a missed chance, the change in venue is a positive one. Yes, the crowds in Paris are huge, but my understanding is that it’s not terribly intense, more like a parade (as is the race), and for the peloton to go by a few times leading to a brief sprint isn’t exactly the way to change hearts and minds about the greatness of women’s cycling. Sending them up an Alp, surrounded by the sport’s craziest fans, doing battle in a discernible way at a slow speed while the shouts of thousands descend on them... that’s a scene straight out of the best that cycling has to offer. Compared to another round on the Champs Elysees, this is an improvement.

Could ASO have been a little less patronizing and had them finish at the top? Probably, though perhaps there’s a logistical excuse out there. Could the stage be longer? Obviously. Could they then add a time trial on the penultimate day and a sprint in Paris too? Sure. Maybe in 2018.

But this is almost surely about money, and if women’s cycling is forever asking for a chance to show that it can pay its bills, having an Alps stage is a good way to show that, to continue the ASO “experiment” with a women’s Tour event. The most important thing now isn’t necessarily to expand, but to keep going, and to build on what’s been done. Changing attitudes takes time, so the proof ASO is looking for may take time to show up. Keep the race going, keep it fresh and keep the pressure on ASO to stick with the ladies.

I’m not the biggest supporter of incremental change when it comes to women’s equality. The fact that my country took 240 years to elect a woman president (yes, I’m saying it’s over) is not cool. But in cycling races teeter on the brink of extinction, for both men and women, and the one thing we can’t have here is for La Course to go away. Meanwhile, ASO can’t be condemned too loudly, having announced a Women’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege for 2017, another incremental step of note. More races increase the value of team sponsorship, which grows teams so they can race more. It’s sort of happening — slowly, and we’ve seen enough set-backs to lack confidence, but there is definite reason for hope and La Course isn’t headed in the wrong direction.