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Utah versus Colorado Pt 2: Do Mountain-top Finishes Turn up the Heat?

September 20, 2011

This is Part 2 of a three-part story. For Part 1 on GC dynamics, click here.

San Juan Mts, Colorado (Mary Topping)

Many factors influence bike race outcomes, including the course. The course also contributes significantly to the level of excitement a race delivers. Certainly top five overall finish times within 53 seconds as well as the yellow jersey changeover from Leipheimer to Van Garderen and back again supplied thrills to USA Pro Cycling Challenge (UPCC) spectators.

But can a race truly be described as exciting when, as in Utah and the UPCC this year, a TT mid-way through determined the final GC and subsequently the leader’s team discouraged interesting breaks while the leader followed wheels for the remainder of the race? Lots of stage races play out like this. It’s difficult to design a route that draws spectators, motivates and challenges the riders, and delivers fiery performance from the field until the very last stage.

Sprint finishes, for example, usually do not sort out the GC outcome, but are exciting to watch –  the speed and roar of that train as it passes the finish line is thrilling, and if the course doesn’t entice teams with the possibility of a sprint finish near the end of a stage race, some sprinters, depending on the scoring for the points jersey, might quit during the race and go sight-seeing. Maybe that’s palatable if an exciting leader’s race is the course’s main objective.

Would the addition of a mountain-top finish to the UPCC craft a more competitive GC battle through the end of the race and motivate more riders to aim for a high GC result? According to the Denver Post, UPCC co-chairman Shawn Hunter recently said he wants a mountain-top finish for 2012 and mentioned Mount Evans which tops out at 14,240 feet (though the race could stop at Summit Lake, elevation 11,300 feet). Although it was short, the two mile, 4% uphill finish to Mount Crested Butte in stage one of the 2011 UPCC created some separation among the GC hopefuls: seven seconds from Leipheimer to Frank Schleck, Evans, Vande Velde and Van Garderen; ten seconds from Leipheimer to Gesink; and eighteen seconds between Danielson and Leipheimer.

Summit Lake on Road to Mt. Evans (Mary Topping)

Many have argued the UPCC will not be selective if it doesn’t include a true mountain-top finish. Peter Stetina of Team Garmin-Cervélo: “I am of the opinion that Colorado needs a real mountain top finish (and steeper, selective climbs to live up to it [being] the Rocky Mountain showcase). 5% climbs are not selective.” Using the definition that climbs steeper than 5% create selection, Mount Evans, with pitches of 2% – 6%, wouldn’t be sufficiently selective. I would believe that Peter, having grown up in Colorado, took altitude into consideration. According to the Mount Evans website: “The last 5 miles have grades of  2-5%, but because you are above 12,000 feet it will feel like 10-15% grade to top.”

Chris Horner on Sierra Grade, Tour of California 2011 (Ron Dell'Aquila)

Team RadioShack’s Chris Horner’s comments about summit finishes in the Tour of California apply to Colorado. He said the mountain-top stage finishes were one of the features that will keep the sport’s top talent coming back to the Tour of California. “Without the summit finishes, it made it hard to focus on the race. The time trial specialists like Levi [Leipheimer] and David Zabriskie would put so much time into us… With the summit finish it becomes a realistic goal.”

Lucas Euser of Team SpiderTech powered by C10 provided a view from an organizer’s perspective on the question of whether the Colorado race needs a mountain-top finish. He said, again during TourChats, “I don’t know. It was really aggressive this year, there was lots of good racing. I think eventually we’ll see a mountain-top finish but I think for the first year it was good they didn’t [have one] – nobody looked at the race and said, ‘Oh my God, this race is too hard, we’re not going to be able to do it.’ They played it right to where they attracted the right field and they made it a success.”

Is a mountain-top finish truly decisive in sorting out the GC? Again, it’s complex. One thing it depends on is the type of TT in the race. Thankfully the race organizers for the Tour of Utah and the UPCC didn’t select longer TTs.

In yet another dinnertime bike racing conversation, my husband pointed out that if a mountain-top finish happens early in the race with the TT at the end, favorites can still follow wheels to the mountain-top finish – unless it is super steep – if they think they can make up enough time in the TT. Time bonuses at a summit finish could make potential leaders more aggressive. The riding styles of the favorites and the degree of risk they are willing to take can also determine if a mountain-top finish delivers time gaps between the GC hopefuls. Many pieces of the procycling puzzle need to align.

One thing seems clear, however: the road to the summit needs to rise steeply. This might nix the Mount Evans idea, and spread cheer among the mountain goats.

Mountain Goats near Summit Lake, Mt. Evans (Mary Topping)

Next up in Part 3: What the Tours of Utah and California Teach Us About Mountain-top Finishes

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