The Amgen Tour of California is slow. I love watching bike racing, but when I see the racers on wide roads, rolling through towns on eight-lane highways, even most finishing stretches, it always looks like the race is dawdling along.
I can see the average speeds; I know the people riding it have fitness I can never imagine. I’ve even ridden some of the roads the race has taken in. I know the race is fast.
But when you put bike racers in settings where they’re dwarfed by the road or have no vegetation or buildings or spectators as points of reference, the racing doesn’t look impressive. Every day, it seems that the race goes through farmland on straight, wide roads. I hate when the broadcast cuts to the helicopter shot. The race looks like it has come to a standstill.
And unless there’s a crosswind, racing on interminably straight, flat roads, is just a way to get to the next place, and is a bore for everybody. I’m sure some WorldTour pros don’t mind; it’s an easy, relatively safe way to get in the miles and build fitness for bigger events in the near future. But the racing isn’t for them; it’s for the spectators.
Even the climbs have this issue. On Monday’s stage to Lake Tahoe, the main climb was both impressive and a yawn. The road was wide. The grade steady, the curves gentle. It was a drag. Nothing much to see, few physical feats to enjoy. About the only way we knew it was hard was watching riders get dropped. In the final kilometers, the road seemed to get narrower, but it was still pretty wide, and seeing crowd control fencing without people furthers the impression that nothing is going on.
Tuesday’s stage mixed wide roads with narrow. The race seemed exciting on the back roads. But once the edge of Morgan Hill was reached, the roads got straight and wide and again racing crept along, even as the solo winner, Remi Cavagna was down in the drops, clearly putting out a big effort. When Simon Geschke and Ben King rolled by Alex Hoehn, it looked like anyone could jump on their wheel. Even when the race turned into a crosswind and echelons formed, the race still looked like it was poking along.
On Wednesday’s stage to Morro Bay, the organizers seemed to figure out that narrower roads make for better racing, and narrowed the finishing streets by putting fencing on both sides well inside the road’s limits.
This problem also afflicts televised pro bike racing in Colorado. Wide roads, straight roads, steady grades, lots of empty space between the roads and something else. No towns, no people.
European bike racing looks more impressive because the roads are narrower, have more turns, more variation, and the hills aren’t steady or predictable. Fans cheering at the roadside gives perspective in two ways. One, it’s a cue that we’re observing something important. And it also demonstrates a contrast between the spectators and the racers.
I wish big-time stage racing would come to the east coast. Narrow roads, turns, unpredictable gradients, keeping the racers on their toes and spectators unsure of what’s going to happen next. In the meantime, Tour of California should take the race off the big, straight roads as much as possible. The racing will be better and more fun.