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What we learned from the Hammer Series debut

Caley Fretz dissects the three days of racing that comprised the Hammer Series. How should this new racing format evolve?

When Tao Geoghegan Hart dropped his right shoulder into a Sunweb rider in the final moments of Sunday’s Hammer Chase, he also dropped into the history books. Pro cycling has never seen a team time trial head-butt before. Or a team time trial sprint, for that matter. Things like this can’t be unseen, and present an important question:

Is it Hammer time?

Geoghegan Hart’s aero bar bravery was one of many novelties that came along with the new Hammer Series, the three-day, team-centric race format dreamed up by team group Velon and Infront media and attended by most of the sports’ top teams last weekend. In just three days of racing, Hammer provided viewers with more pro cycling innovation than the last three decades of major grand tours. That’s great if you think cycling needs innovating.

If we’re honest, it probably does. So, let’s talk about Hammer. What went right, what went wrong, and what’s next.

The Hammer Series garnered 1.7 million views across its three days of racing, according to Velon. All these views came online, via livestreams on Velon’s homepage, VeloNews, the Global Cycling Network, and more. There was no TV broadcast. It was all free, with HD quality video and good commentary from Declan Quigley and Robbie McEwan. Opening up Velon’s app at the same time presented almost-real-time power, heart rate, and speed data. This data occasionally made its way to the online broadcast, too. So did onboard camera footage and video and audio from the team cars, including team radio calls. It was all very modern and cord-cutter friendly. 1.7 million is a lot, but those eyeballs are not enough to offset the cash Infront threw into hosting the event. Still, a successful first run.

We’re more interested in the racing, though. The format of the Hammer Series, for those not familiar, is two days of points races (one Climb day and one Sprint day) and one team time trial pursuit. There are no individual winners, though that didn’t stop Carlos Bentacur from sticking his hands up at the finish, perhaps out of habit. The team with the most points after the first two days sets off first on the third day, and the other teams try to chase, catch and pass them. The first team across the line on day three wins it all. On Sunday, that was Team Sky. Barely.

The Hammer Climb, day 1, was a slugfest. It played out as one would imagine if you put 11 finish lines in a single race, spaced 7km apart. Tom Dumoulin covered more attacks in 90 minutes than were thrown at him in three weeks at the Giro d’Italia. Movistar’s Carlos Betancur, in a miraculous return to his old world-beating form, monstered the course and earned his team 144.8 points. Even though it was only 77km long, it looked hard. Really hard. Actually, it looked a lot like a really fast amateur race. Uncontrollable and generally chaotic.

Which brings us to problem No. 1 with Hammer. I don’t know what 144.8 points means. Do you? Nor am I really sure how Movistar got there, or how Sunweb got 98.9 points, or what that means.

Now, let’s reject the argument that Hammer is too complicated. While that points system is definitely a bit funky, all sports are complicated. If you don’t watch baseball you don’t have any context for the Red Sox leading 8-6 at the top of the ninth, either. My British friends have tried to explain cricket to me at least 15 times and I still don’t get why it takes 17 days to finish a match, or game, or whatever you call it. Complication is fine, provided there are both a means and an incentive for fans to figure it all out.

So, problem No. 2: The broadcast for the Hammer Climb did not necessarily provide the means to understand what was happening on screen. Points totals were too infrequent; even a graphic noting how many laps to go was quite rare. If Hammer intends to turn cycling into a sport with points, then there has to be a scoreboard at all times. Every ball sport has one. Even cricket and baseball have one, when nothing appears to be happening.

The stats and graphics that were on the screen, including power and other rider data, weren’t all that compelling. In fact they provided evidence for a hypothesis we’ve thrown about the VeloNews office: live telemetry isn’t actually very exciting. For most viewers it exists entirely without context. I spent a solid decade of my life riding with a power meter and still don’t get all that much out of live power data other than a confirmation that yep, I couldn’t do that. This data needs to be put into perspective somehow. Maybe all the riders should have to give Velon their threshold figures…

But the greatest downfall of the Hammer Climb was simply that nobody, not the fans or the commentators or the sport directors or even the racers, knew how to race the thing yet. And, by extension, nobody knew whether an attack was a good attack or a dumb attack. We didn’t know whether a tactic was brilliant or suicidal or somewhere in between. It was impossible to build the tension upon which sport relies because of the lack of context. Our understanding of regular pro cycling only halfway applies to a race with 11 finish lines.

This isn’t necessarily a problem inherent in Hammer’s design. It’s just that we all need to see a few more of them before we figure it out. And we need a scoreboard.

The Hammer Sprint the following day was already a bit easier to follow. Maybe that’s because the flat circuit more closely resembled a really long track points race, or because we all learned a few things on Saturday.

Which bring us to the Hammer Chase, and problem No. 3:

Having been on my fair share of Boulder group rides infiltrated by triathletes on aero bars, I can tell you that nothing about the short clip above is a good idea.

Nonetheless, the Hammer Chase was by far the least worst team time trial in modern cycling history. This is usually an event characterized by massive physical difficulty for riders and epic naps for us. The Chase, though, was fantastic. Sky went off first, as the points leader following the first two stages, but was caught by Sunweb with a few kilometers remaining. Sky then re-passed Sunweb in the final kilometer, led by a charging Danny Van Poppell. We were then treated to the insane time trial bike sprint and that headbutt from Geoghegan Hart. It was thrilling, easily understood, and a great way to end a race. First team across the line wins. Easy.

How great would it be if a final-day TT in a grand tour was run in this manner? Imagine if Nairo Quintana started ahead of Dumoulin at the Giro and we got to watch Dumoulin slowly reel in his quarry, pass him, and leave him behind? This is a Hammer innovation that should spread.

But please, put them on regular road bikes next time.

There is much to be praised in the Hammer Series. The broadcast, while not perfect, was more dynamic and informative than anything we’ve seen in pro cycling. The rules are a bit difficult to parse, the points system is unnecessarily complicated, and the time trial bike sprints are downright terrifying, but the racing was aggressive and will eventually be better understood. Most importantly, it’s new and bold and willing to both push the envelope and, we hope, learn from its mistakes. Even if Hammer withers on the vine — given the cash behind it, this seems unlikely in the near term — its legacy won’t be for naught if just a few of its innovations make their way into the rest of the sport.

What else can Hammer do to be better? VeloNews readers (and even some pros) had a few ideas:

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