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5 Eds Rank and Chat: Is Strade Bianche the 6th Monument?

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Strade Bianche Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

The first of a new series of posts: the Eds rank and chat the World Tour races. We first thought of doing this series after coming across a fun post written by Mike Franchetti at Just Pro Cycling: Ranking all 37 World Tour Events. Hey! What if we did the same? But make it a little more involved. So Chris, Andrew, Conor, Jens and myself came up with five criteria to rank the World Tour races:

  1. Calendar position. When the race in question happens is important.
  2. Peloton. Typically how good is the field that lines up for this race? How deep? Does it include al types of riders or just a few?
  3. Fan Experience. How interesting/exciting is this race for the viewer in person and on TV?
  4. Layout. Is the course conducive to a great race?
  5. Prestige.
ursula’s tools

We took each race and gave them a ranking between 1-10 for each of the criteria, then added up the numbers to get an overall ranking with 50 points being the perfect race. Pretty simple, yet it produced some interesting results. You can see the results on this Google doc right here. (Note that on that Google Doc there are four pages, two of them without the Prestige category, and two of them the races are organized by calendar year rather than by total score.)

Then we started a series of chats based on one or a couple of races and what each of us thinks of them. Knives were pulled. Shivs were wielded. Tears were shed. Families torn asunder. Fun!

The first topic, as you can see from the title is: Strade Bianche- the 6th Monument? Let’s take a peek at what was said....

ursula Let’s start off discussing this Saturday’s race, Strade Bianche. There’s some controversy around how we individually have ranked this race:

- It is easily the highest ranked non-monument race on the calendar. Skip (aka ursula) in fact has it ranked higher than both LBL and MSR while Jens has it tied with LBL and higher than Il Lombardia. Wow! Is this a New Monument? Answer that after a few more observations:

- Of the non monument single day races on the calendar only Conor has any other single day race ranked higher than this new kid on the block. Conor has Omloop, Gent-Wevelgem, E3 and *gasp* even La Fleche Wallone all ranked higher-something that even Chris doesn’t even come close to doing. Shocking! Oh wait- Jens has E3 ranked higher too.

So what’s it gonna be? Strade Bianche- the new 6th Monument? Just another Classic? An upstart that will surely burn out in a few years once the Hammer Series gets going?

Chris It’s like an hors d’oeuvre that gets you excited because for a moment you think it can be as good as a meal! Then you eat it, and you realize it was an hors d’oeuvre all along. Tasty though.

ursula As the SB Apologist here let me say:

- Chris is right in that the race happens too early. Definitely take off points for that.

- Otherwise its got the best finale of all one day races, bar none including every Monument except for P-R. First, SB has the most beautiful finale going into the old part of Sienna as opposed to some cookie cutter if not dreary suburb (LBL especially but Flanders too).

- Beyond being gorgeous, SB like all the other Monuments, is a war of attrition but unlike the others the race is up for grabs for the survivors until the last 100 meters. There is no bunch sprint to fall back on. A rider can have 30+ seconds on everyone else halfway up the final climb and still lose. There’s nothing like that in any other Monument where if the riders come into the end together they wait up for the small bunch sprint. SB is much more cutthroat. LBL loses points because it no longer knows how to finish its race. It keeps adding hills, tinkering with the ending-and it gets more and more boring. Flanders is chasing $$$$ to the detriment of the course. Lombardy switches around its ending, providing variety, but you’d think with its location they could find a beautiful setting or two for its finale. Roubaix is iconic in its ending so points there and its the only ending that is arguably better than SB.

- SB also has the widest range of riders who can win the thing, easy.

Ask GVA and he’d say the same.

Okay- fight me!

Andrew Let’s start off with the biggest red herring - distance. I know it makes a difference to the cyclists, and I know they have softened legs and are in the saddle longer. But nobody ever says, of MSR, “man, that first 60km was popping”. If Strade Bianche is a monument with an extra 40km, tack them on and let’s do this.

That’s not it, though. This is why I keep falling back on prestige. If you look at Cance’s palmares, to pick a recent retiree, you say six monument wins and nine podiums, 3 olympic medals two golds, four world TT medals, seven tour stages and wore yellow, and won multiple classics like 3 E3s and 2 Strades. Until it moves out of the last clause and forwards, it isn’t a monument.

All that said - as a fan, it is extraordinary. That’s why I rated it so highly, and Skip covers it - yes, gorgeous, yes, varied winners, yes, instant classic photos.

Is it a downside that the first image I have of Strade is actually a Giro stage? Possibly, but I’m hoping that gets fixed on Saturday.

Conor Yeah, no, this is a great race and I’m really looking forward to it, but I don’t think it’s a new Monument just yet. It’s a bit too early in the season, for one thing. It cuts across Paris-Nice, for another, which can tend to cut down on potential people to ride it, which loses it marks on calendar position. And yeah, a lot of guys can win it, but there aren’t a terribly large amount of ways to win it. Especially if it’s dry, you’re always pretty sure that a small group will get away on one of the hard hills about twenty-five kilometres out and then do an uphill sprint in Siena.

The actual enjoyment of the race in and of itself is greater than Flèche, but the ranking system we’re using definitely works against it. Before I started, I predicted Strade scoring lower than perhaps it ought to, which somehow only happened in my ranking, so it may have been a subconscious self-fulfilling prophecy on my part.

Mind you, I certainly don’t see how it beats E3 or Omloop. Give me a cobbled classic any day. Don’t get me wrong, I love that Sagan cracks on the final climb every year. It’s truly a delight to watch. A Sisyphean highlight of the season, if you will. But beating the cobbles? I think Cuddles would like a word...

Jens I find it very difficult to find a single fault with SB. It has a few minor things going against it but they are minor quibbles

- The position on the calendar. I don’t mind it being early, it gives it fresh expectations just like Omloop and it adds a bit of toughness (maybe weighing up for a few more kms if someone has issues with length). It does clash problematically with P-N though, shortening the startlist a bit. How bad this is depends a little on what type of course P-N has in any given year and how riders have chosen between PN/TA.

- The finale is beautiful but I can’t decide if it is perfect or flawed? It does have a bit of a dull-ish stretch from the last sterrato to the final climb but that’s not huge, sometimes it gives us good tactical scenarios. The power climb is great but then I can’t decide what I think. The maze-race through the narrow streets isn’t great, any overtaking almost has to come from some semi-risky maneuver. You can basically only overtake after the hill if you are willing to risk crashing yourself and the opponent out and I don’t like a scenario that favors the dumbest hothead (Löfkvist’s loss to Ig-fuckingfuckhead-linsky in nooooo waaay whatsoever colors this opinion). And there can’t really be a sprint in the square. OTOH this gives us a cool clear winner shot rolling alone across the line guaranteed.

- My ranking of E3 slightly higher pretty much comes down to the fact that everyone who can compete in that race is on the startline.

- The diversity of winners is remarkable, especially knowing that steep farging hill is there in the finale but still the race is pretty much wide open. That is a huge plus in my book.

ursula This is great stuff! I want to take this particular thread on a tangent, one that came to me from what Andrew wrote. Monuments are distinguished from other one day races by their length-among other things but I want to focus on the length aspect. I am beginning to think that for these races their length is starting to work against them, at least a little and I want to know what you think. A couple of personal observations:

- We are seeing a trend in Grand Tours for shorter mountain stages. The Vuelta really gets into this but all three Grand Tours are doing this at least some of the time. The idea is that these stages are more exciting than long mountainous stages and I think that idea overall is true. And they are more exciting because the riders aren’t on a death march up mountain after mountain, that tactics can come into play more etc. I like this trend though I don’t think every mountain stage has to be short.

Anyways back to one day races and I am here comparing the recent history of LBL with San Seb. To me LBL has lost its plot in a big way. Its a long hard slog that ASO no longer understands how to end. They keep tweaking the end, overall making it harder, but what has resulted is riders being fearful to attack because the small remaining pack will-guaranteed-reel them back in until the last half a kilometer or less. Its like MSR, except more boring in part because most of the riders don’t have a fast finish and you have no out and out sprinters who know how to line up a finish line. To me the race has become nails on chalkboard annoying and I doubt I’ll watch it this year.

In contrast San Seb has gotten better and better over the last decade and that’s entirely due to putting in a couple late climbs. It sparkles to me. Yes the real final attacks come after passing the finish line for the first time but there’s an uncertainty about the last climb when the race winning attack will come exactly and if that attack will actually stick. The final decent is fun cause crashes can occur. The riders are on their limit in a good way. Maybe you don’t like the race as much as I do (and Txirla) but it has seemed to improve.

And to me the main difference between LBL and San Seb is the length. San Seb’s riders are fresher because they have ridden fewer klicks, so they can do more-like with the shorter Grand Tour mountain stages. That makes me ask you guys are there other races like this: non-Monument races that are really hidden gems that don’t get full recognition because they aren’t the traditional Monuments? E3 for instance? That’s always a fun race. I have hopes that the new course for Frankfurt is more exciting…anyways:

Thoughts?

Chris I guess the question is, sure making it longer makes it a more demanding race, but is that good? For the first weekend in March, I would say no. If you want Strade Bianche to function as a monument, you’d have to move it on the calendar. I doubt the riders would race it the way they race Flanders on March 3 or whatever. And the flip side is, if you want riders to be excited about a race and to choose aggressive tactics, you have to give them a reason, so San Sebastian keeps it short and spicy because they know they can’t get away with a 260km course. Liege will be great again once Valverde retires, or is poisoned, which might have just happened.

Conor Not that I necessarily disagree with any of this, but I don’t quite believe that any race’s route to success is becoming more like San Sebastian. Then again, there’s a race that really suffers from calendar position. Yes, race length is an issue, but I do think the monuments are expected to be more of a slog than other races, and part of that probably has to do with harking back to older days where you’d do a 300 kilometre race thanks to your trusty bottle of strychnine and then head out for a criterium and an all-night drinking session. All of which you would associate more with monuments than other races. I don’t think even LBL gains anything by dropping fifty kilometres, to be honest it’s in a sticky situation whatever it does — it can’t really drop the hard finish because then Sagan would probably win it, and I don’t think the identity it’s forged for itself really blends well with Sagan beating Colbrelli and Matthews. To keep the hard finish, on the other hand, means that we get two hundred and forty-whatever fairly boring kilometres as one hundred and fifty kilograms of cyclist, otherwise known as a nine-man breakaway, make a futile effort to get a gap before Valverde beats Martin in the last fifty metres. Meh. It’s a monument, therefore it’s a valuable race, that’s how it works by this point.

ursula Oh makes sense what all of you are saying about how important Monuments are because of calendar position and how the size of the arace is more important than how its used and traditio...

DID YOU JUST SEE STRADE BIANCHE!!!????!!!!! THAT’S THE SIXTH MONUMENT RIGHT THERE!!!!

(That yelling right above here was edited just a tad.)

That race besides being probably better than any Monument this year, just shows how badly pro cycling is organized. There’s so much bending over to tradition when for most of the calendar there’s just one uninspired race course after another. Along comes Strade Bianche and BAM look what a little innovation does; a little thought and inspiration does.

And really I’ll go back on what I said before: you all can just throw the “race calendar” argument out the window. These days the season doesn’t start at Omloop: its starts in freakin’ Australia and picks up in South America and the Middle East and Spain. These riders have been riding for a good month now, two if you are an Aussie. Please throw out that argument against this race. If it helps that the new calendar helps Omloop too because no longer do riders use that race for training purposes at the start of the season.

Chris I’ve been thinking a lot about what a monument even is now. Ewoud even went and asked Benjo Maso on Facebook about the subject, since it’s been in the air all week, and he replied with some history of monument designations coming and going. [My proficiency in Dutch is stuck at the “get the gist as long as it’s about cycling” level.] This shows that the nature of a monument is perception, not institution. Once people stop calling the thing a monument, it isn’t one anymore.

Three of the monuments are in one category and two in another. The three are LBL, Lombardia and MSR. It’s not unthinkable to imagine the Monument label being rescinded from them. I doubt it will happen, although Lombardia being in the fall and constantly changing makes me worry a bit. LBL will be great again if Valverde ever retires. MSR is too unique and set in its historical ways for it to fade away. But you never know.

Flanders and Roubaix cannot stop being considered monuments, as long as these places are inhabited by humans on bikes. Flanders is THE representative event of arguably the sport’s most important subset of fans. Like Red Sox/Yankees, Barcelona, Man Utd or other franchises tied to a sport’s cornernerstone, you can’t untether it. The experience of Flanders is too much of what people enjoy about the sport for it to fade. And it won’t be bumped by one of its imitators either.

Roubaix is different, it belongs to the world rather than one place. The action itself is what elevates the race; it’s a challenge like nothing else in the sport. Every rough-surface race is a pale imitator of Paris-Roubaix: Tro Bro Leon, all the Flemish races, Strade Bianche, etc. Everybody perceives Paris-Roubaix as the ultimate challenge in this regard, and until we start building even shittier roads it’s not possible for this race to lose its crown. Add in 100 years, the world war stuff, the proximity to Belgium, etc., and you have an unbeatable formula. Except for the lack of porta-johns at the Forest of Arenberg. That’s a disgrace… but fixable.

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As this is getting toward other topics, let’s just end this chat about SB here and revisit where Chris is getting to in next week’s thread. You folks have anything to add about SB? Think we are off our rockers?