TREVISO, Italy (VN) — Some people look back at the 2004 Giro d’Italia as the shining example of why the Italian grand tour desperately needed to change.
Recently retired sprinter Alessandro Petacchi won nine out of 21 stages that year, an astonishing statistic that revealed how much the Italian dominated the pack in his heyday as well as how uninspiring that year’s Giro course truly was.
Since 2005, the Giro has jazzed itself up, pumping new life into the corsa rosa with daring climbs and interesting finishing circuits as part of a push to shake up what a modern grand tour could look like.
Most have embraced the changes, reaffirming the notion that no stage can be overlooked. Hilltop towns, technical finishing circuits, and late-stage climbs have all been thrown into the mix to add zest to what typically were the kind of sprinter-friendly stages that Petacchi used to gobble up at will.
It’s a trend that the other grand tours have also picked up on. Both the Tour de France and Vuelta a España have seen their respective parcours become progressively more difficult and challenging over the past decade. This year’s Vuelta features no less than 12 uphill finales.
Most people agree that the racing is more lively and unpredictable than ever; everyone, that is, except the sprinters.
The mass-gallop specialists have been grumbling over the past few seasons as grand tours have generally become more climber-friendly and less oriented toward mass sprints.
A decade ago, there could be as many as 10 sprints, sometimes even more, over the course of a three-week grand tour. In sharp contrast, this year’s Giro might see five or six traditional bunch sprints.
That trend certainly hasn’t gone unnoticed among today’s generation of sprinters.
Matt Goss (Orica-GreenEdge) is one of the fastest sprinters on the road, yet he admits he’s seeing less sprints than he’d like to. A winner of Milano-San Remo and runner-up to the world title, Goss said the sprinters deserve more chances.
Speaking to VeloNews, the Aussie fast man said as grand tours have gotten progressively harder, sprinters like him are getting squeezed out.
“Grand tours are definitely harder. In 2004, Petacchi won nine stages and other guys won stages [Robbie McEwen and Fred Rodriguez]. The grand tours are just getting harder and harder,” Goss said. “Even here, a lot of the stages are not really sprints. There are three or four actual flat sprint stages. It’s tough to come here to race. Sometimes you wonder why you come here, to ride around the mountains for three weeks to get caned.”
After listening to rider comments about how hard the Giro had become, race organizers actually slackened up the parcours a bit this year to give the sprinters more chances. There will be clear opportunities for the sprinters both Thursday and Friday, and two more in the final week, including the return of the closing-day sprint stage instead of a final-day time trial that’s been the norm over the past few years.
Nasty weather and still-challenging courses, however, have meant that the sprinters have had few chances up to now.
So far, through 11 stages, there have been three bunch sprints. Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) has won two and John Degenkolb (Argos-Shimano) won the other.
The other stages have included two time trials and one true mountaintop finale. The remainder have been “medium mountain” stages that have delivered exciting, grueling racing, with breakaway efforts making it to the line and the GC favorites having to show their colors early.
Part of the reason behind the push for ever-harder courses is simple economics.
Race organizers are under pressure to keep the interest of TV audiences and one way they believe they can do that is to provide interesting racecourses that deliver lively action.
That means more chances for breakaway riders and attackers, and more pressure on GC riders, but fewer for sprinters and their specialized trains that control the tempo of the stage to set up the fast and thrilling mass gallop to the line.
Even Cavendish, today’s most prolific sprinter, is seeing his productivity slip, not because he’s slowing down, but because there are simply not as many sprint opportunities in grand tours.
In his best season, in 2009, he won three stages in the Giro before pulling out, and then six stages at the Tour. In that Tour, he won nearly every sprint stage that was on the menu.
“I don’t want it to be a flat race, of course not, but you’d like to come to the Giro to have some real opportunities,” Goss said. “You’d always like a few more chances for a sprint.”
Gone are the days when sprinters like Petacchi and Erik Zabel could rack up 20-plus-win seasons in a row.
In 2003, Petacchi won 15 stages across all three grand tours in just one season, more than most of today’s sprinters will win in a career.
Others, like André Greipel (Lotto-Belisol), seem to search out races where there are more chances for sprints. Rather than race the Giro, Greipel instead chose the Tour of Turkey and the Tour of Belgium.
That’s partly due to sponsorship pressures because Lotto wants him racing on home roads, but it’s also because Greipel knows he might only get two or three shots at a sprint over the course of three weeks of racing, while he can win more with less days of racing at other events.
Goss said diminishing chances for bunch sprints in grand tours also means that riders are taking more risks because they know they have few chances to try to win.
With more sprint stages, there was a bit more of give and take among the sprinters. If they lost one day, they’d have a chance the next. Now, if they miss a shot at a sprint, there might not be another one for a week.
“You see such hectic finishes here at the Giro, because there are so few opportunities and they’re so desperate. If they don’t do erratic moves and dangerous stuff, that’s one of their four or five chances gone,” Goss said. “A few more chances for us would make a big difference for us sprinters.”
Orica brought its team largely built around Goss and Leigh Howard in the sprints. Goss has his share of bad luck, including some crashes in the few stages set up for the sprinters.
“The next couple of stages are bit friendlier for us. [Thursday] is a bit shorter, but the Friday finish is a bit better for my style of sprinter,” he said. “I hope to have a go.”
Gone, too, are the days when sprinters would collect a few trophies and pull the parachute chord as soon as the real climbs began.
Under pressure to win a stage, Goss knows he will have to suffer through the climbs if he hopes to deliver a win.
“At this point, I am planning going all the way to Brescia. I would like to get at least one win,” he said. “We have a few more stages that we’re targeting and hopefully achieve our goal of what we came here for.”
Worlds unlikely for Goss
Goss also confirmed he’s likely not going back to the world championships.
“The world’s course is a bit too hard for me. From what I heard, it’s quite brutal,” Goss said. “Unless I am suddenly going really well, I think the course suits some of the Aussie guys a bit better.”
With another climber’s course on tap for 2014 in Spain, it might be awhile before Goss and the sprinters have another shot at the rainbow jersey.