This updated article was originally published in 2017.
Imagine if UEFA forced the two sides that contested the Champions League Final to play a game of five-a-side the following day. The outcome might be irrelevant, but if they refused to participate the previous evening’s result wouldn’t count, with the winner forced to concede the whole thing.
How about if, the Monday after Wimbledon, we dragged out the champion and runner-up to serve and volley for an hour and a half? Or if, after The Open, we obliged the entire field to return for a game of pitch and putt?
The fans wouldn’t tune in and the players wouldn’t try. We journalists would produce our copy from the airport. A beer in one hand, Twitter feed in the other.
Yet, when we oblige cyclists to participate in glorified criteriums on the streets of Madrid, Milan or Paris on the final days of the respective Grand Tours, that is effectively what we are asking of them. Incorporating 100+km of de facto neutralisation, these stages are a waste of everyone’s time, an insult to the notion of sporting spectacle. It’s high time we were rid of them.
This is not to be understood as a petition for the elimination of city centre stages altogether. Rather it is a call for them to take place within a rotation of finales, catering to each type of rider: flat stages, sure, but also high mountains for the best climbers; maybe a medium-sized col for the puncheurs, rounding out the quadrennium with a 25-mile TT.
By altering the format, such stages would end up being raced competitively from kilometre zero, with the GC just as vulnerable on the final day as on any other.
Instead of diminishing the importance of Paris or Madrid, racing there less frequently will make it that much more special for any rider who wins. What’s more, the race, when it does return to the Champs-Élysées, will have its relevance restored.
It feels odd to be making the case for the time-trial. In normal circumstances, I subscribe to the view that it’s the sole cycling discipline to benefit from a failure of the live TV signal. When I can get away with it – don’t tell my editor – I’ll use it as an extra rest day: head out for a ride, perhaps catch a matinee. I’ll check in with the result when I get home and be no less wise. I already know how it unfolded.
Still, transpose the exact same stage to the actual, race calendar final day and I’m on the edge of my seat from the first rider off the ramp to when the last rolls over the line.
For with no tomorrow, there’s no reason to imagine each and every rider is not giving his all. The race of truth living up to its label.
Take the 2017 Giro d’Italia. While some might argue it was less that it took place on the final day that made it exciting, and more that it was competitive, with Dumoulin coming from behind to overhaul Quintana, it nonetheless meant more because the race was over when it actually finished (or vice versa).
Conversely, consider that powerful image of Romain Bardet slumped against the wall after the second time trial at the same year’s Tour de France. That picture was the personification of the brutality of all-or-nothing competition. It ought to have been the residing impression we were left with.
Instead he was obliged to hop on a plane and come back the next day for an undignified ceremonial encore. As if the previous day’s defeat meant nothing.
Then we had Mikel Landa’s feint off the front of the bunch, a wry nod to the idea he might target the bonus seconds he needed to dislodge Bardet from the podium. It only served to highlight what we were missing: actual competition. The joke was on us, the idiots who bothered to tune in, instead of doing literally anything else.
No, they wouldn’t all be like that Giro, or the Tour in 1989, when LeMond overcame a 50 second deficit to Laurent Fignon to win by eight. But when the final day actually is the final day, at least the possibility is there.
The 2017 Vuelta had even less for the sprinters than usual. To finish with a bunch sprint seems the height of futility. We always knew Saturday’s summit of the Angliru would witness the climax of the race, where it would be all or nothing for the contenders and Contador’s last hurrah. So why did it not end there?
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