For cycling traditionalists, this week marks the period when real racing begins.
Everything up to now, at least in terms of stage racing, has been a preamble. Think spring training on two wheels.
Races across Spain and France in February are the tapas and hors d’oeuvres to the main dishes that are being dished up in delicious abundance this week at Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico.
And it’s time to enjoy the feast.
The sport’s biggest names are racing across France and Italy. And they’re amped up to win.
The coronavirus pandemic has run rough-shod across cycling for two years, but in an odd twist of fate, the world health crisis actually helped these two stalwarts on the international calendar.
With few international options available, teams and riders have returned to the core. And the two emblematic stage races are right at the heart of traditional European racing.
Back in the day, and we’re talking three decades now, it wasn’t until early March that the top pros even got their engines revved up. In the current every-race-counts mentality, this week sometimes can seem like just another one to squeeze out of the watts and grind out the results.
In today’s 24-7 news cycle and five-minute attention spans, races like Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico harken to a different time and another era.
Many of today’s younger fans or racers might not realize just how romantic and exotic these races once were. Today, the races might seem like just the next channel on the GCN+ app, but in cycling’s golden era, Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico were some of the biggest stops on the circuit.
This week is a chance to slow down, savor the racing, and celebrate the sport.
Prestige titles that all the big riders want to win
There was a pace and rhythm to racing that’s radically different today, and Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico were two essential rites of passage of any racing season. Sean Kelly won Paris-Nice a record seven times. All the big Milan-San Remo favorites used Tirreno to prepare their legs for the Via Roma.
Paris-Nice is France’s most important stage race behind the Tour. And the same for Tirreno-Adriatico after the Giro. These are big races, with important histories, and big winners.
In many ways, however, these one-week stage races used to mean a lot more than they seem to today.
With the rise of the spring classics, and the ever expanding gravitational pull of the Tour de France, some of cycling’s most important one-week races seem to be getting squeezed at the edges.
A busier early season calendar and more emphasis on altitude training camps also saw some of the big names step away from the more traditional approach to the season’s big dates.
Before say, 1995, with advent of the internet, simply finding out who won Paris-Nice or Tirreno-Adriatico belonged to the precious few. Unless you had a cousin or a college buddy living in Europe, you had to wait for you “Cycling Weekly” or “VeloNews” to pop up in the mail to read all about it.
Cycling was so niche it was rare for any English-language daily to include results beyond any race that wasn’t the Tour de France and perhaps the finales at Paris-Roubaix or the Giro d’Italia.
Can too much diminish the perceived value of some races?
Today, thankfully, we can watch and enjoy the splendor of these races literally from the palm of our hands. With 5G, anyone with a smart phone can tap into a subscription service, and watch every stage live.
With abundance sometimes comes apathy. With so much cycling on demand in our 24-7 news feeds, these races almost seem to get lost in the shuffle.
Paris-Nice or Tirreno-Adriatico might seem just like one more stop on the traveling circus. The next stop on the ever-turning wheel that starts in late January and ends in October.
Start lists at both races are stellar. Riders need to race, and with the calendar continuing to be impacted by COVID-19, the big names want a big, hard sustained stage race in their legs ahead of the classics.
In some ways, the world pandemic is bringing the focus back to Europe. Races in South America, Australia or the Middle East that chipped away at the edges of the early European calendar are canceled or rescheduled.
That’s putting the old-school calendar back into vogue, at least temporarily.
And both races are benefitting from that.
Yet with so much emphasis on every race and the never-ending obsession with the Tour de France, sometimes it seems races like Paris-Nice or Tirreno-Adriatico somehow get short-changed in today’s busy calendar.
They were starting to feel like they were a way-station to a larger destination.
Both races pack some of the biggest winners in the sport’s history, and thankfully, they’re back.
The big names want to win these races. Tadej Pogačar said defending his title at Tirreno-Adriatico this week is his biggest goal all spring. Primož Roglič is all-in to win Paris-Nice.
What also keeps these races very much alive, at least inside the peloton, are the big-value WorldTour points that are in play all week long.
These are WorldTour stage races with the biggest allotment of points on the line behind the grand tours. And the ongoing conversation about a possible relegation/demotion system for the top teams, every major WorldTour keeps pushing the gas when it comes to racing.
Also, two of the sport’s biggest promoters — ASO and RCS Sport, respeectively — keep both races fresh, relevant, and dialed in to today’s media pulse.
Some might not like the power and influence behind the major race organizers, but it’s thanks to ownership from these flagship groups that both races remain firmly on the calendar.
Paris-Nice was on the rocks until ASO came swooping in. By most accounts, neither race makes much money (if at all), but they’re important cogs of the larger wheelhouse and ecosystem that pumps excitement for the Giro and Tour later in the season.
It’s inevitable that both races have lost a bit of their mystery and allure simply by proximity. The movie stars of the 1950s seemed so much exotic in part because they were so elusive. Being too close to something often reduces it to common banality. Instead of Sofia Loren, today we get Jersey Shore.
Racing this week will be superb. Sunday’s wild opening stage at Paris-Nice reveals what’s at stake for the big teams and the big stars.
Grand tour champions can win these riding their pure class. A Tadej Pogačar at 85 percent is still better than 95 percent of the peloton at 100 percent. The same goes for Primož Roglič, the big favorite at Paris-Nice.
The “Race to the Sun” and the “Race Between Two Seas” are two of the most prestigious and most important races on the calendar, and they deserve our love.