Is it Day 1 of the 2018 Cycling season? A case for yes goes like this: the Tour is now completely behind us; the transfers are becoming official today; and the remaining races have as much to do about next year as they do in the moment. Sure, cycling uses a calendar year, but psychologically there’s a part of the sport that is now turning the page, as a de facto fiscal year ending.
The reason for this is that the Vuelta a España isn’t so much on par with the Giro d’Italia or Tour de France, however exciting it may be, but that lack of stature gives riders an opening to build their own stature, or their form, for 2018. A Vuelta victory looks good on your shelf, but looks even better on your race calendar for the subsequent year, when you can parlay that performance into team support and maybe some say in your primary targets. First you win the Vuelta, then you get the power, then you get the
women team support.
Or not, who knows, but that’s what it seems like. There are some remaining goals for 2017 that live only in the moment, like Lombardia and the other fall Italian races, or the Canadian classics, or Paris-Tours. There’s still the renamed ENECO Tour (BinckBank or some nonsense). But World Tour points are for padding your 2018 status. Even the Rainbow Jersey is a prize to be displayed next year.
Anyway, back to the hills. Both races are underway already, and if you want to talk about opening sprint stages, be my guest. But here’s the meat in the sandwich.
Vuelta a Burgos
We are two stages in and not much has happened in the GC battle, as you might expect, with a couple monster stages on tap. To wit:
Stage 3 (Thursday):
This is easily the hardest day on the schedule. The steady accumulation of altitude is one thing, but the Picon Blanco is another. That’s 730 meters of gain in about 8km, making a 9% average, with ramps up to 17% and steady double digits.
Apparently the main attraction is an abandoned military base at the summit, which is a great place for a press room.
Stage 5 (Saturday):
It’s not impossible for someone to have kept his powder dry for the final event of the race, the climb to the little glacial lakes in the Burgos national park. Covering Spanish racing has been a dose of humility for any American who thinks we have some sort of monopoly on amazing national parks. Spain has so many that it’s a wonder how they squeeze in the population centers, football stadiums and bullfighting. Anyway, this is a 14km climb with about 11km of futzing around and 3km of serious suffering.
Thanks to Altimetrias.com for the images! The roster of obvious contenders is short and headed up by Mikel Landa of Sky, who has a reasonable amount of support and apparently a bottomless well of energy. He could face an Astana threat in the form of Miguel Angel Lopez, or perhaps more plausible pressure from Julian Alaphilippe of Quick Step. Movistar are throwing spaghetti at the wall and hoping a piece (Dani Moreno? Carlos Barbero?) sticks. Caja Rural head up a long list of pro-conti teams with David Arroyo and Sergio Pardilla heading up the charge.
Tour of Utah
I’m so old I can remember Larry Miller naming this race after himself. Now “Tour of Utah” seems to be the official moniker, but Larry is still a sponsor, and I’m sure that means something to people in the Beehive State.
Like Burgos, we are underway with a couple amuse bouche stages in the books, but things get down to business, like, now.
Stage 3 (Wednesday/today):
It’s an uphill time trial! The gradients aren’t much, 400 meters or so in over 9km, but the altitude will make this seem harder than it looks.
Stage 6 (Saturday):
A must-see every year, the stage to Snowbird is an exception to the rule in Rocky Mountain racing (e.g. Tour of Colorado) that climbs are long, high up and not very steep. The last 800 meters gained happen in 10km (8% average) and with ramps of 12%. Not deadly until you add in the altitude, length of the stage, climb that’s already in their legs, and heat of the Utah desert. Unlike Burgos, I definitely think people will have kept their powder dry for this. With nothing but a circuit race in Salt Lake City left, this is essentially the end of the GC battle.
All eyes will be on Brent Bookwalter of BMC, the only World Tour team in attendance, but Jelly Belly, Axeon Hagens Berman and United Healthcare will be feisty. Also you’ve got the Europeans in the form of Caja Rural (big week for them), CSF Bardiani and Amore e Vita. And finally, what the Israel Cycling Academy lack in top talent, they will recoup in their ability to enjoy the weather (if not the altitude).
OK, get ready, here we go...