“What do you think about when you are riding?” people ask. Mostly, nothing at all, and that’s the joy of it, because thought – strategising, hypothesising, categorising and comparing, the ego-laden auditing of cost and benefit, the endless repetition – is all very well, but it only goes so far.
Remember Fuente Dé? At the foot of the penultimate climb, 51km from the finish in stage 17 of the 2012 Vuelta – in a move no one would ever see, with the TV motos yet to rendezvous with the peloton – Contador attacked. Over the preceding stages, he had tried everything, but failed to worry race leader Purito Rodríguez. Still, by attacking with so far to go in the stage, as Purito later reflected: “For a second, I didn’t know what to do.” In that split second, the best chance of Purito’s career to win a Grand Tour slipped through his fingers.
Which brings us to the perennial springtime quandary: stage racing, or one-day – if you had to choose?
The best Grand Tours leave space for a second chance: LeMond leads, (Fignon leads), LeMond, (Fignon)… LEMOND! Or, to be a bit more contemporary, Hesjedal, (Purito), Hesjedal, (Purito)… HESJEDAL! Mesmeric: a gigantic novel – a long series of gigantic novels – piling cliffhanger on question mark, and setting up camp in the imagination.
For something so physically challenging, Grand Tour racing is also shockingly cerebral. It is an exercise in intellectual tightrope walking, balancing the potential in any given race situation against the larger scenario of month-long energy management.
There can be dull passages, stages largely meaningless to the whole; long periods spent waiting for the decisive move that, often as not, never comes. These days, ninety hours of racing are as often as not decided by one, at most two, meticulously rehearsed attacks, calibrated to the nearest Watt or ten by boffins a short-haul flight or two away.
One-day racing is something else completely, involving a radically different skills set. Depending on the race, the necessary physical attributes can be poles apart. In the cobbled Classics, the champions lack the capacity for overnight recovery of the stage race specialists, who fall far short of the absolute power generation of the one-day behemoths.
One-day racing, it seems to me, requires the use of a very different part of the brain: not the careful, calculating left hemisphere but the instinctive, impulsive right. There is no time for thinking. There are no second chances.
It’s absolutely brilliant.
That said, the spring Classics season is a kind of Grand Tour too. The hellish cobbles are followed by the hilly Ardennes events, and not every Ardennes Classics rider is a spritely climber. Gerrans, Valverde, Dan Martin and the rest need the big riders to shield them from the wind, so Imanol Erviti, Bram Tankink, Mathew Hayman and the like ride the cobbles because they can, and the three Ardennes week races – Amstel, Flèche and Liège – because they have to.
Bundling together Dwars Door Vlaanderen, Harelbeke, Ghent-Wevelgem, the Ronde and Paris-Roubaix, the 2016 Paris-Roubaix champion has started no less than 57 of them, but he has also ridden seven straight Amstel Golds. Erviti has ridden 35 cobbled classics, but also 18 Ardennes week races. Bram Tankink has started 33 cobbled classics and no less than 35 Ardennes week events.
It means a very long time away from home, and the schedule is every bit as intense as any stage race. No wonder Adam Hansen prefers three Grand Tours a year.
A Belgian newspaper man once told me that he, too, found spring more gruelling than summer. After all, the Tour is three weeks long. Five weeks separate Dwars Door Vlaanderen from Liège-Bastogne-Liège. He had to fill four pages a day or more – and all that, while living at home with his wife and children. At least in July, he was away, with nothing but work and no need to get up in the morning and be nice to anyone…
Of course, the opposite is also the case: stage races are long successions of one-day races too, each suiting riders with different characteristics. Hence the commentator’s cliché of the race within a race.
Perhaps the apotheosis of cycling is when circumstances force the stage race contenders to race like one-day racers. Perhaps this captures Contador’s greatness as a racer. Let’s end with a word about Formigal.
Contador started stage 15 of the 2016 Vuelta sixth in GC and way off the pace. It was all or nothing for him. Within five kilometres of the stage start, he saw a gap, switched into one-day mode and attacked. The riders who went with him, including race leader Nairo Quintana, acted equally on impulse. Froome, having missed the split, looked round for his team-mates, heavy-legged after the Aubisque the previous day. The king of the Tour de France was still on stage-race settings – and, left-hemisphered, weighed down by all the weighing up, lost in thought, he lost the Vuelta.
From issue 17.2 of Rouleur