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Are super-short road stages pro cycling’s next big evolution?

'No harm trialing' pocket-size parcours, says Ineos director after La Route d’Occitanie stage shortened to 35km due to extreme heat.

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If it’s not COVID-19 affecting this week’s bike races, it’s the scorching summer weather.

With temperatures topping 40 degrees Celsius (104F) in the south-western Tarn department of France, the regional authorities banned the passage of today’s second stage of La Route d’Occitanie through the territory.

The race started over the regional border in the Aveyron town of Belmont-sur-Rance, shortening the stage from 154.6 to 34.5 kilometers. This was surely the shortest road stage of every competitor’s professional career; critériums and some time trials tend to be longer.

“The riders were pretty happy. It’s one of those where it’s the same attitude you take when it’s really bad weather, whether that’s rain, cold or wind. Then you look for the opportunities within these scenarios,” Ineos Grenadiers sport director Oli Cookson said.

Also read: Démare continues his hot streak at Route d’Occitanie

It led to a tweak in tactics and a totally different dynamic: full-bore racing, up and over a categorized hill before an uphill bunch sprint.

For the rider, there is much less accumulated fatigue and time spent in the dry heat, lending to fresher legs and more contenders for the finish.

As for the viewer, with the race gone in a relative blink of an eye, there’s no need to take your eyes off the screen. It’s ideal for the average 21st-century attention span, a world away from the race’s opening stage, which winner Arnaud Démare likened to “racing in slow motion.”

Less can be more

This is the kind of distance we’re used to seeing occasionally at Paris-Nice, when inclement weather has forced drastically-shortened stages.

Whistlestop days have popped up in recent years by design too: the 2018 Tour de France experimented with a 65km stage between Bagnères de Luchon and Saint-Lary-Soulan and a grid start, neither of which captured the imagination.

There’s no guarantee of action, but less can be more.

Arguably the most exciting racing at the recent Giro d’Italia came on its shortest road day, the 147km of stage 14 between Santena and Turin, won by Simon Yates.

Pre-planned stages with shorter distances can have a triple espresso effect on a race, shaking up its formula and offering a different tactical challenge to teams and riders.

So, should there be more super-short road stages (say, 50 to 100km) in grand tours?

“It really depends on the parcours, the point you have it in the race and the characteristics of the stage,” Cookson said. “I think it is exciting, and has to be done in the right way. One of the things about this sport is just how hard it is – that involves endurance as well and that’s one thing we shouldn’t forget.

“But we should always consider what can make it more appealing to the viewers and the sponsors. It’s about evolving the sport: if that’s short stages, within reason and done correctly, there’s no harm in trialing these.”

“It’s hard to judge from today because of the heat and the last-minute nature of it,” Cookson added. “We have plans in place, but we always need to be ready to adapt. It’s not ‘plug in and play’ like Formula 1, and that’s the beauty of this sport: how do you deliver elite performance in this kind of ever-changing environment?”

Equipo Kern Pharma rider Roger Adrià will no doubt welcome more stages like this.

He won La Route d’Occitanie’s breathless 34km second stage ahead of Michael Valgren (EF Education-EasyPost), moving into the race lead. His racing time in the saddle was just 42 minutes, 42 seconds.