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Adieu Criterium International

An historic race yields to modern times

2014 Criterium International -  Stage Three Photo by Bryn Lennon - Velo/Getty Images

It’s not every day we lose a race that dates back to the 1930s — virtually without interruption — but today is one such day, as ASO have announced the demise of the Criterium International. It had 85 editions, including during World War II when, instead of canceling like so many other great races, including the Tour de France, it actually staged two races, one in Vichy France and and the other in the occupied north of the country. Although it excluded foreign riders until 1979, the Criterium International was something of a legend to the French, and because of that it became a hotly-contested prize to foreigners once they were let in on the fun. The Palmares list is a who’s who of French Tour de France legends, including Raymond Poulidor, whose five wins places him in a tie for best-ever, making this one of the few races in existence where he got the better of Jacques Anquetil (four wins).

And now it’s dead. But really, it died a while ago.

There are a couple defining characteristics of the race:

  • its two-day format, with a day of a sprint stage and short ITT, followed by a second day with a climbing stage that tends to decide the outcome;
  • its vagabond nature, where it can pick up and move almost anywhere, including Algeria; and
  • its attraction to Tour de France hopefuls looking for something to do in late March.

The vagabond thing is both a challenge and an opportunity. In tough times, the race could up and move someplace where the economics worked. But after 85 editions there isn’t a town or region that can’t stand to see it killed off.

The format for the race is interesting enough, but an anachronism now since almost nobody has days with two stages anymore. I’m old enough to remember when even the Tour had double-stage days, but Nairo Quintana isn’t. So while it’s a nice enough thing to watch, it has no real connection to what the Tour guys are looking for.

And that’s the biggest factor. It survived because the stars of the Tour would show up and race, and that’s always compelling TV. But those guys want races that mimic the Tour, with things like varied terrain, multiple days to test both strength and recovery, and some other things like nice weather and World Tour points also factor in. Well, Criterium International happens right at the tail end of the Volta a Catalunya, and a week before the Vuelta al Pais Vasco, with the Settimana Coppi e Bartali in between. Tour hopefuls aren’t going to skip a five-to-seven day race with WT points on offer for a goofy two-day, three stage event that’s rated lower and does nothing to inform them on their true stage-racing progress.

I see over at INRNG that Tro Bro Leon may want to move into the end-of-March slot vacated by C-I, but it’s not clear to me what that does for them, since clearly everyone classicly-inclined will be at E3 Prijs and Gent-Wevelgem. There is such a thing as too many races, because the calendar has real limitations, even if people’s imagination about what a cool race looks like maybe doesn’t. So stay tuned on that.