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Roundtable: What will pro racing look like in a post-coronavirus world?

Will we see some wacky racing when competition resumes? Is virtual racing here to stay? Does there need to be less dependence on the Tour de France? Let's roundtable!

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It’s time to turn our attention to what racing may look like in a post-coronavirus world in this week’s roundtable. While it’s still far from certain when the peloton will next get to race, the landscape of cycling could look very different when competition does eventually resume.

Will we see new names winning races after some riders have been stuck on indoor trainers for months while others have been free to train outside?

Does online racing deserve a permanent place in the cycling calendar?

Is the Tour de France too important to the financial prosperity of cycling?

How far could Mathieu van der Poel go over three weeks if he gets to ride a grand tour in 2020?

Let’s roundtable!

With differing states of lockdown across the globe, some of the peloton is only able to train indoors while some are free to hammer out the miles on open roads. Will we see different racing and different faces on post-coronavirus race podiums?

Mathieu van der Poel
When the season re-starts, who’s going to be winning races? Photo: James Startt

James Startt: This is a great question and a real unknown. Some riders are training full gas. Most of this is happening in countries where the current laws allow them to ride outside. But there’s riders doing over-the-top workouts indoors. Will they crush everybody once the racing starts or be burned out? Others are just trying to maintain fitness. Will they be undertrained, or will they come into form perfectly. Personally I am keeping my eyes on the Colombians, who are doing whatever they are doing in altitude. But really there are going to be a ton of surprises if the racing does in fact begin.

Andrew Hood (@eurohoody): First off, if there is racing in 2020 — and that’s far from a sure bet — it’s going to be completely unlike anything else we’ve seen. There won’t be high-altitude training camps, no peaking of form, and no tapering toward the third week. It’s going to be a big mess. But you know what? That could be a great thing to watch. If there’s racing this year, everyone should embrace it as a bolt of magic from the heavens. So let’s take the pressure off, and let the riders race for the pure joy of racing.

Jim Cotton (@jim_c_1985): Riders have said they need four to six weeks to reach peak condition, so we may see ‘normalcy’ toward the end of the year, but those early races could see a few surprises – and possibly a few mid-race mega-bonks like we saw from van der Poel at the worlds last year. If the Tour is the first race of the season and the route remains the same, that 16km climb on stage 2 could be interesting for sure. It would be great to see a season of surprises and underdog victories.

Another round of e-racing kicked off this week at the Digital Swiss, and a new project has been launched to bring the USAC Pro Road Tour to Zwift. Does online racing deserve a permanent place in the cycling calendar?

USAC Project Echelon Zwift
Is online racing now a permanent ‘thing’ for pro cycling? Image: USAC Project Echelon Zwift racing

Andrew: Virtual racing is here to stay. The COVID-19 racing-halt has opened up the virtual racing world to the larger cycling public. There are already online racing leagues and a soon-to-be world championships, so there is plenty of runway as a stand-alone discipline. There’s even talk it could become an Olympic sport. Professional cycling should embrace it.

James: No. It’s a great training tool and the different systems will get a real boost from the current situation, but I don’t see anyone seriously considering virtual racing as anything more than a diversion from the current void of real racing.

Jim: The coronavirus shutdown has revealed how great online racing and group rides are as a marketing and engagement tool for teams, and that won’t just disappear. While I’m not sure if the top-tier teams would want to commit riders’ energies to virtual events during a fully-stacked traditional race schedule, I can definitely see them continuing to use public events with marquee riders as a way of keeping sponsors and fans happy.

David Brailsford called for a more level spread of big races through the cycling season, with less reliance on the Tour de France. Should a post-coronavirus cycling world see less emphasis on the Tour?

Egan Bernal at the 2019 Tour de France
The Tour dominates the cycling season – should the calendar be de-centralized? Photo: James Startt

Andrew: Call me old-school, but I kind of dig the cycling calendar just the way it is. Everyone keeps talking about “narrative” and obsessing at not having races overlap. European cycling is a big plate of spaghetti — it’s messy, unruly, and sometimes hard to nibble on, but the final product is superb. The bottom line is that the Tour is king, and everything else is largely secondary. No amount of fiddling will change that. So why bother?

Jim: There’s no way that the Tour can be scaled back or reduced in importance, but something does need to be done to build a bit more stability into the sport. Rather than focussing purely on the financial distribution of races, I think that looking at the team sponsorship model could be just as important. It’s less than three years since Cannondale / EF nearly vanished after a last-minute sponsorship crisis, and who knows how many teams may survive through to 2021 after the financial impact of this season.

James: He can call for that, but such questions inevitably come down to sharing the profits from television rights, something the Tour de France wants no part of. If there is one event that will come out of the COVID-19 crisis in a stronger position, it is the Tour, as everybody sees it as the one event that could save the season.  The only other possible alternative I can see would be the strongest and most stable teams all putting a percentage of their budget into a WorldTour security box that could be used to help the poorer, less stable teams. But I don’t see that happening.

Mathieu van der Poel is hoping to do a Tour-Vuelta double this year, despite having never raced over three weeks before. How do you see his chances in grand tours?

Mathieu Van der Poel
Van der Poel seems to be able to do anything – but what about grand tours? Photo: Stephen Pond/Getty Images

James: Two grand tours for van der Poel? Well, if in fact we have two grand tours this year it could be logistically feasible, but not as a GC rider. The only grand tour that he could really do as a GC rider is the Tour de France because the climbs there are historically less steep and could play to a power-based rider like him. But this year is a learning year, one where he focuses on a couple of stages at best.

Andrew: I see van der Poel a bit like Peter Sagan. He’ll never be able to win a grand tour with his build — at least on paper — but he’ll be one of the top animators and fan favorites of any race he starts. MvdP will take it straight to Sagan for the points jersey, and what a battle that would be. I hope it happens in 2020.

Jim: I think contesting for GC may be one step too far for Mathieu, but I can easily see him scooping handfuls of stage wins. Like Hoody says, he could easily become the next green jersey king, if he chooses to play it that way. I’d love to just see him go gung-ho and try to capture as many stage victories as possible.