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Commentary: Colorado Classic is the future of bike racing

The Colorado Classic felt like the future of professional cycling, for both better and worse.

Somewhere on the climb to Gap Road, high above Golden, Colorado, Lawson Craddock cracked.

“There are different types of hard,” Craddock later said, sitting under a pop-up tent as a thunderstorm raged outside, 24 hours after DNFing from the Colorado Classic. There’s a relentless hard, the type of hard that comes from accumulated fatigue, from long stages piled up back to back and from fields stacked with talent. Call it ‘grand tour’ hard. Craddock knows the type well; he’s finished a Tour de France and a Vuelta a Espana. Then there’s the sort of hard at the Colorado Classic: Short stages, small teams, and chaos. “One hundred kilometers full gas,” Craddock said. “For me, it was brutal. It was absolutely brutal.”

For a sport obsessed with its past, professional cycling has been spending quite a lot of time thinking about its future lately. The most fundamental question, to be answered before anything else, is which type of hard we want.

Even if one ignores some of the financial innovation (holding concerts at night, for example) and focuses solely on the racing, the Colorado Classic felt like the future of professional cycling, for both better and worse. It sat somewhere between the rampant innovation of the Hammer Series and the staid traditionalism of most European stage races. It had smaller teams (6 riders) and shorter stages (most barely over 100km). Its format forced teams to throw the usual breakaway-catch-sprint playbook out the window. The racing was more aggressive and less predictable, won by a relatively unknown rider, BMC’s Manuel Senni, because he wasn’t afraid to risk it all.

Isn’t that what we’ve all been asking for, sitting sleepily on couches through the month of July?

Compared to the old Pro Challenge, may it rest in peace, the Colorado Classic “was a much better test of who’s really racing well,” said Senni’s teammate Joey Rosskopf. That’s because there was more action, more of the time. Across the two key GC stages there was simply nowhere to hide. In Breck on Friday, riders dribbled across the line in twos and threes, utterly obliterated. The climb to Gap Road on Saturday, up to nearly 10,000 feet, proved decisive. The bonus seconds peppered throughout the course, seconds everyone thought would decide the overall, turned out to be irrelevant to overall victory. “We will talk about these stages for years to come,” Craddock said. “Everyone’s going to remember Colorado Classic of 2017. Everyone’s going to remember the Breck stage. We’re going to remember how much it hurt.”

Colorado is not alone in its more condensed structure, of course. Races like the Tour of Britain have been proving for years that smaller teams and punchier, shorter courses make for fantastic bike racing. All three grand tours have experimented with shorter days with great success. Compare compare one of the longest stages of this year’s Tour, stage 12, with one of the shortest, stage 13, to see which type of stage produces more exciting racing. Stage 12, to Peyragudes, saw just a single serious attack before the final kilometer. That’s 212 kilometers, more than six hours, of attrition. While attrition might have made for good l’Auto copy in 1903, it is bad television. Stage 13, to Foix, saw GC riders head up the road in the first 10 kilometers. That’s 90 kilometers of action. Two stages, two very different types of hard.

With any change, some good is left behind. The U.S. Pro Challenge was a more traditional tour of Colorado, very much in the mold of European stage races. Colorado Classic’s modified hub-and-spoke brought the race to fewer cities. Half its starts and finishes occurred on exactly the same block in Denver. It sold tickets. In a sport defined for a hundred years by the freedom to travel great distances and reach communities it does feel as if something is being lost.

“One of the beautiful things about cycling is seeing the amazing countryside and traversing huge amounts of land and going through multiple communities,” said Brent Bookwalter, second at the Pro Challenge in 2015. “That said, just because that’s what as a rider what I fell in love with, and what some fans fell in love with, that doesn’t mean it’s sustainable.”

As the ways in which cycling fans consume and therefore invest in their sport, so changes the definition of sustainable. The world has changed in the last 100 years, but bike racing mostly hasn’t. Events like the Hammer Series are a large leap (possibly forward, but maybe sideways or even backward), but introduces a level of complication that presents its own challenges to a fanbase used to one finish line and one winner. The Colorado Classic model, whether it proves to be a commercial success or not, is a more reasonable step forward. Short stages, hard stages, and small teams all make racing better. This is a new type of hard that is simply more compelling.