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‘Hillification’ over diversification?

Wheelbase Cabtech Castelli rider Joe Reilly makes the case for diversifying National Road Series race routes

In the third contribution to our ‘Future of Road Racing‘ series, Wheelbase Cabtech Castelli rider Joe Reilly makes the case for diversifying the race routes featured in the HSBC UK | National Road Series.

Races don’t need to be super hilly to be exciting, they don’t need to be technical to make a thriller

HSBC UK National Road Series – Bristol GP – Bristol, England – Canyon DHB’s Rory Townsend wins the Circuit of the Mendips. Photo: Simon Wilkinson/SWpix.com

Take a look at the routes for the 2019 HSBC UK | National Road Series and you will spot a common trend: designing extremely difficult parcours. It’s a trend we see on all levels of professional cycling, organisers trying to make the race exciting as possible, desperately wanting their race to be a spectacle for people watching on the road or at home. But does it actually work?

We’re almost at the end of the 2019 National Road Series, with just one event left, and it would appear that 7 of the 9 races so far have played out the same scenario.

The Klondike GP, Lincoln GP, Lancaster GP, Circuit of the Mendips, Beaumont Trophy and stages 1 and 2 of the Tour of the Reservoir were all similar races with similar outcomes: a break forms and goes away, people continue to drop off the back because of the repeated hills, the reduced peloton catch the breakaway and there is a flurry of counter-attacks, a small group breaks clear and comes to the finish for a small group sprint – often won by a rider who can get over the hills and packs a punch to finish the job.

HSBC UK Men’s National Road Series – Tour of the Reservoir, County Durham, England – James Shaw of SwiftCarbon wins ahead of Madison Genesis’ Matt Holmes. Photo: Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com

Whilst the design of these races is meant to cause a show, it could be argued that it is doing the opposite, providing predictable and arguably boring races.

Before I go any further, some basic facts of finishing numbers could set the scene.

RaceNumber of FinishersFinish TypeTime Gap to 20thTime Gap to Last Place
Klondike GP79/137(50 crossed the line)Sprint of 3 -R. Townsend Winner+ 2:10(50th) + 20:35
Lincoln GP 76/150Sprint up Michael Gate – T. Stewart Winner+ 0:32(76th) + 7:00
Lancaster GP66/115Sprint of 6 -I. Bibby Winner+ 5:20(66th) + 23:31
Circuit of the Mendips78/134Sprint of 7 –R. Townsend Winner+ 0:31(78th) + 14:54
Tour of the Reservoir, stage 197/104Sprint of 22 – O.Wood Winnern/a(97th) + 15.09
Tour of the Reservoir, stage 240/97Sprint of 6 –J. Shaw Winner+ 2:50 (40th) + 20:49 
Beaumont Trophy96/129Sprint of 6 –R. Townsend Winner+ 0:24(96th) + 10:21
South Coast Classic21/113Individual Solo –J. Scott Winner+ 7:19(21st) + 7:19
Manx International,stage 442/78Individual Solo  –M. Holmes Winner+ 2:32(42nd) + 12:24 

I’ve highlighted the time gap to 20thin this table as being in the first twenty of any of these races is an accolade in itself. But it’s clear the riders from 10th position onwards rarely have an impact on the race.

A couple of the British races which have ended in a solo rider – the National Road Championships road race and the Stockton GP – were arguably two of the most nail-biting and exciting races of the year. Yet both of them were as close to flat as you could get. Surely logic would dictate they’d be boring. So why then were they so exciting?

To start, with the course being “easier” on a flat course, it means that more riders are in the mix. Instead of 10 riders on a climb fighting it out, you suddenly have 100 riders all attacking. The speed tends to be higher, making it harder to break away and easier to get caught. This means breakaways are constantly coming and going, creating a greater element of luck about who eventually does go away. Like we saw at the National Road Championships, groups and riders were attacking and getting caught all day long, even in the final few hundred metres.

HSBC UK National Road Series Stockton GP Men’s Race John Archibald
Photo: Craig Zadoroznyj/SWpix.com

In a flatter race, as it approaches the finale, there would be a battle of the lead-out trains wanting to control the race and riders trying to break away. This could make for an exciting spectacle with the smaller UK teams and the lack of a clear lead out dominance – like we saw at Stockton GP with John Archibald holding the bunch off by just six seconds.

This phenomenon is not exclusive to the British road races, the National Criterium Series is also in a similar situation.

A perfect example of a simple, non-technical circuit would be that of the Otley GP. Two lanes wide, 5 corners (but only one which requires any braking) along a 2.3km circuit. The field this year was oversubscribed with 100 riders signed on and a full reserve list – it also isn’t uncommon for World Tour riders to make an appearance. Current thinking is that courses must be hard and technical to be exciting. But Otley disproves this. It has one of the most straightforward circuits of the series. So how is it then the outright rider’s favourite event? It is because more riders are in contention, the speeds are higher and it’s always a battle between breakaway and bunch sprint.

Course parcours don’t just impact on the race, they also impact the teams

The new Newcastle Crit is the complete opposite to Otley: 8 corners on an 850m circuit, all 90 degrees or more, a single lane wide course with a stretch of cobbles. By all accounts on paper this should be an exciting race. Yet during the event, 2 riders distanced the field very early on, 16 riders didn’t get lapped and only 18 finished out of 63 starters, due to so many riders getting lapped on the short course. This left a very sour taste in the mouth of the majority of the field.

Course parcours don’t just impact on the race, they also impact the teams. With such difficult terrain, half the field rarely finish or impact the race in any way, often 10 minutes down the road just riding in. When this is happening week in week out it can seriously affect the morale of any particular team. Take an Elite team, for example. In most National Road Series events, only a few Elite riders will in the Top 20, the majority in the Top 60 and half won’t finish. The Tour of the Reservoir left Elite teams with not a huge amount of change out of £1500, only for 2 Elite riders to finish (discounting Saint Piran which are clearly punching above their weight thanks to their rider/manager Steve Lampier). That left just 2 out of 10 Elite teams with a rider finishing the race overall (both teams only had 1 rider finish).

Joe Reilly at the Aberdeen Tour Series 2019. Photo: SWPix.com

When this is happening week in and week out it drives down the team morale quicker than the peloton descending Snaefell at the Manx International. It gives every team manager and sponsors an excuse to pull out and fold the team which would be terrible long term as most Elite teams are filled with riders under the age of 23 who will likely go onto Continental contracts in a few seasons. With more competitive race routes, we’d see more young Elite riders in contention which could lead to more revelation performances – which we all love to see – and consequently boosts the morale of elite riders, meaning they’re more likely to chase the professional dream for a few more years.

However, with so many ‘DNFs’, the attrition rate skyrockets, with the risk of young riders quitting due to not being able to see a clear pathway to the top. This increases the likelihood of more Elite teams folding, which would also diminish the opportunities for younger riders to race – thus stifling the development of the sport and the UK racing scene as a whole.

I wholly admire what British Cycling is trying to create with the National Road Series, with rumours of more UCI one-day and stage races to come in the following years, and I believe they’re on the right track to developing the professional racing scene. So, this is in no way written to lobby race organisers to make every race flat.

It is written as an open letter to say that races don’t need to be super hilly to be exciting, they don’t need to be technical to make a thriller, they don’t even need to make the route all that exciting. This is because, in the world of independence and individualism, it’s the riders make the race and not the race parcours. Which is a sentence worth noting for all organisers.

Featured photo: Simon Wilkinson/SWpix.com – 16/06/19 – Cycling – HSBC UK National Road Series – Bristol GP – Bristol, England – Canyon DHB’s Rory Townsend wins the HSBC UK National Road Series Circuit of the Mendips

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