Roundtable: Do longer, six-hour stages belong in modern grand tours?

Can Primož Roglič hang on to win the Vuelta a España? What lessons did cycling learn in 2020? Let's dig in.

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Another long stage at the Vuelta a España upset a tired and weary pack. The Vuelta GC hangs in the balance. And what lessons can cycling take out of its COVID season? The 2020 racing season is winding down — let’s roundtable!

Thursday’s Vuelta stage saw another long stage fraught with tension; do longer stages of 225km or more still have a place in modern grand tour racing?

James Startt: Well they should! And I am glad to see a 248-kilometer stage making its way back to the next year’s Tour de France. Long stages are like the third week of the grand tour. They push riders into a different state of fatigue and are important to the endurance aspect of bike racing. Short, punchy stages are great for aggressive riding, but if grand tours only become a series of short stages, then the event will start to resemble a criterium series. A grand tour needs a well-balanced mix of stages. And a long stage — especially in the final week of racing — certainly has its place.

Jim Cotton: The Giro stage and yesterday’s ride at the Vuelta were rendered more complicated by bad weather, but even on a day of blue skies and high temperatures, I don’t see the point of a six- to seven-hour stage. Riders always say that a long stage just kills off the action – rather than four hours of hard racing, you get five hours of “tappy-tappy” and an hour of hard riding. There is the argument that long stages add to the attrition and wear and tear over three weeks, and there is some weight behind that, but a shorter, harder stage is going to be just as fatiguing as pointless kilometers in the saddle. I’m not advocating 21 days of 120km stages, but I’d say 200km is a reasonable ceiling for a grand tour stage.

Andrew Hood: In a normal year, yes. The occasional long stage is part of the texture of a grand tour, and it’s often on those long, grueling stages in the middle part of a grand tour that caused the wheels to come off in such dramatic fashion in the final week. But 2020 was far from normal. With pandemic conditions and riders worried about their health, I think they could have whacked some kilometers off those longer stages, and the outcome would have been exactly the same.

The Vuelta enters its final weekend tightly wound up on GC — who do you see winning the Vuelta, and why?

Cotton: As a Brit, I would love it to be Hugh Carthy for his dark-horse status and quirky character. But I’d say this one is for Rog. Sure, he lost a few seconds on the Angliru, but his time trial on stage 13 proved there’s still plenty of gas in the tank. Plus he has Sepp by his side! But in all seriousness, with Kuss, Robert Gesink, and Jonas Vingegaard to see him through the final mountain stages, he’s going to be well looked-after. Carapaz is dangerous, but I don’t think he has enough kick to really do enough damage given he has a relatively weak team. I can almost see Carthy being more of a threat to Roglič than Carapaz (sorry, Richie).

Hood: On paper, Roglič should have a lock on this one. Backed by the strongest team in the race, Roglič should see the likes of Sepp Kuss chaperoning him up the final climb on La Covatilla. Of course, it ain’t over until it’s over, and no one knows that better than Roglič. It’s a testament to how tightly this race is wound up that Roglič has won four stages, but still might lose the overall race. I don’t see Carapaz having the legs to gap Roglič and bounce into first. The spoiler here could be Carthy. He’s emerged as the strongest climber in the race, and with his hold on the podium looking pretty solid, he might throw caution to the wind, and try to blow up the finale. The hardest part of the climb is at the bottom, with the top more exposed to the wind, and that should favor Roglič, especially if he has teammates.

Startt: Well, I love the underdog element of Hugh Carthy, but I think Roglic and his team have the experience going into the final weekend.

As the altered 2020 season winds down, what are the most important lessons the peloton has learned that the key stakeholders can carry into 2021 and what’s likely to be another challenging season?

Hood: First, hat’s off to everyone in cycling for pulling off as much racing as we saw in 2020. Things were looking very bleak, and then just as quick pretty positive. The Tour got lucky, but seeing how the Giro and Vuelta manage their respective races against the backdrop of worsening health conditions will be encouraging for the coming season. COVID is already reaching into 2021, with the cancelation of several key races in Australia, but races like the Vuelta have proven that racing can be organized in a safe and transparent way without being a danger to the riders and staffers, or to the larger population.

Cotton: I think this year has proven the need for clearer communication pathways and the ability for better dialogue between riders, race organizers, and the UCI. From Jakobsen’s crash at Tour of Poland after previous complaints about the use of that downhill sprint to riders’ concerns over COVID protocol at the Giro’s opening stages and then the protest over the 260km marathon stage, there have been several flashpoints this season that could have been avoided or improved with a better channel for riders to approach cycling’s top brass. The newly-formed Riders Union marks a half step in the right direction, but we need to see it in operation before jumping to conclusions. And on another note, all other race organizers need to take a photocopy of the Vuelta’s COVID protocols and policies, because Guillén & Co. nailed it.

Startt: I don’t know that they have learned any. But if you are referring to the rider strike before the start of the third week of the Giro then I think that the real lesson is that, if the riders have an issue with a race route, it should be discussed well before the race even starts. The Giro organizers may well have agreed to shorten that stage weeks or months before the race started, but not 10 minutes before. That is the central lesson to be learned there. And regarding COVID: I think cycling can really commend itself. We managed to carry out virtually all of the major races. In a very short time frame and the entire cycling family learned how to be very flexible. That will be invaluable in the months and maybe even years ahead.

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