Reflections: what to make of pro-racing’s new taste for adventure?

There’s not going to be a normal race left on the calendar at this rate. Just this month we’ve heard of two more pro riders gone bikepacking, Paris-Tours introducing gravel sectors and new kit sponsors Rapha proposing an alternative calendar of 22 endurance and adventure races for EF Education First’s riders.

You can’t blame anyone for doing these things. Tim Wellens and Thomas de Gendt said they’d already planned their 1,000km ride home from the Tour of Lombardy before Conor and Larry spontaneously set off on their hugely popular NoGo Tour in September. Going touring has always been a fun thing to do, and now it’s been repackaged as hashtag friendly bikepacking, it ticks a few industry-pleasing boxes too.

If any long-standing event needed a facelift, it was Paris-Tours. Once a key event on the calendar, the ‘sprinter’s classic’ had become a drag of an end-of-season race that was hard to get excited about. It’s most interesting facets: the annual photographs of hunters watching the race pass; the remarkable straightness of the roads in the Loire Valley; which sprinters had actually bothered to turn up.

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As for teams sending riders to cult races like the Three Peaks cyclo-cross or the Transcontinental, it was only a matter of time. Lawson Craddock has already put his hand up for Leadville 100 mountain bike marathon, citing it as one of his bucket list entries.

The implication is clear: the traditional road racing model is just not grabbing enough attention any more. Once upon a time it was plenty for a team to stick a rider in the break and let the TV cameras do the work for the sponsors. From the first races being put on to sell newspapers, cycle racing has always been fuelled by publicity drives.

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But in this day and age of creating constant narrative, riders, teams and races are toeing around the conventional margins of the sport to test where the gimmicks are. And look! We’re talking about it here, aren’t we?

Going touring is maverick, taking road bikes off tarmac is subversive, racing up and down Yorkshire fells is gritty. At least for now. But if this a trend: trendlines slope. What next? A steeper world’s climb? An even more remote stage finish? A Grand Tour start in a war zone? A World Tour team ripping up the local church bike ride? A trans-Siberian training camp? A glacier descent off Alpe d’Huez?

Or is it us who’s getting carried away?

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Pro-cycling has a strong history of policing overzealous promoters prepared to exploit spectacle at the expense of the rider’s respect, health and safety.

When there’s been too many, too long stages in the Tour, a dangerous gravelly descent in the Giro or racing in 40 degree desert heat, the bunch -even in its ever dissolving unity– has protested and forced rethinking.

Paris-Tours 2018

While some riders apparently enjoyed another road race being pebble-dashed this year, after the restyled but puncture ridden Paris-Tours, Quick Step and Arnaud Démare were reportedly up in arms.

However, pro-cycling’s land grab of lower-rent cycling realms like bikepacking and adventure racing risks carrying with it the associated ills of gentrification.

Although the big buck point of view only sees good in bringing money and corporate brands into these communities, for inhabitants already there, the pros with their power, entourages and need for attention may make for disruptive and unwelcome neighbours.

 

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