Higher Calling by Max Leonard

Higher Calling by Max Leonard

Author:Max Leonard
Language: eng
Format: epub
Publisher: Pegasus Books

Which, it seems to me, is saying that it’s anybody’s guess and that it’s going to be chaos.

It is a measure of the respect in which the veteran Spanish rider Rodriguez is held that he has been allowed to programme a stage of his home Grand Tour. As climbers go, he is at the other end of the spectrum from Joe. Short and steep are his thing, and he has won the hilly II Lombardia and the Flèche-Wallonne one-day races, the Tours of Catalunya and the Basque Country, as well as individual stages at all three Grand Tours, GC podium places and the Vuelta’s mountains jersey. His nickname, Purito, refers to a type of small cigar that looks like a little stick of dynamite, and by extension to his explosive style.

If every rider got to design a stage, what would they do? And, broadening that thought out, I begin to wonder about the art of designing stages in general.

How the peloton plays a Grand Tour stage is a product of many things: GC positions, the composition of the break, individual rivalries, who feels good on that particular day, the weather and many more factors less tangible than that. But beneath it all is the basic composition of the stage, and that is decided by the race’s directors and technical officials. Stage starts and finishes are often fixed long in advance and for commercial reasons, with towns paying large amounts of money for the prestige (and the boost to the local economy) that they bring. How the start and finish are connected is an art, one that relies on deep knowledge of bike racing, geography and local cycling contacts all around the country. These race directors are the spiritual heirs to Henri Desgrange and Alphonse Steinès, and their work is particularly in evidence during the mountain stages. Anyone who has ever ridden an Etape will understand that, at their best, mountain stages are not just a misshapen succession of random climbs: they are a carefully thought out sequence of challenges with an inbuilt rhythm and logic. If the race directors programme the stages well, there will be ebbs and flows, interweaving melodies and harmonies and moments of drama, from the Grand Tour’s overture to the coda of the final ceremonial stage. Get it wrong and the symphony will sound flat, and the orchestra’s soloists won’t be able to show their virtuosity.

The mountains make a difference. That is to say, in cycling the characteristics of the venue itself substantially affect the contest, but in this the sport is not unique. Trail running, rally driving and other races that take place in the real world rather than a stadium also ‘feature’ the course, and even in a marathon the course can have a big bearing on finishing. But in road cycling, with its huge range of terrains and the collective nature of the race – the fact that, unlike in trail running, say, all the competitors stick together most of the time – the mountains assume the stature of an additional opponent.


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