Disastrous Start to Vuelta; Rwanda Worlds in Question? How Much Difference Did "Unchained" Make? Maryland Classic Set for Second Running; Younger and Younger Riders
● Vuelta Off to Disastrous Start
● Not Clear that “Unchained” Had Much Effect on TV Audience
● Rwanda 2025 World Championships in Question?
● Maryland Cycling Classic Set for Sunday
● Riccitello Edged Out at Tour de l’Avenir
The final, and potentially the most exciting grand tour of the 2023 season – La Vuelta a España – kicked off on Saturday in central Barcelona with a 14.8-kilometer team time trial which started far too late in the evening and was hit by torrential thunderstorms. Unfortunately, rather than keeping focus on what could be an historically competitive GC battle, the conversation instead centered around the event’s incredibly poor planning. Team DSM–Firmenich arguably won due to being the earliest starters and having the safety of daylight, while virtually every other team with a top GC contender was forced to race in the dark (reigning champion Remco Evenepoel’s Soudal-QuickStep team rolled out at 8:19 pm). It was extraordinarily unsafe for teams to race virtually blind at 40 mph through a tight city circuit, negating the sporting and broadcasting value of the opening stage of one of the biggest races of the season. Even with prior gimmicks like a TTT starting over planks along a sandy beach (2015), we can’t imagine what the Vuelta organizers were thinking this time around – you can’t control the weather, but you do know when the sun sets and an earlier start time with shorter intervals between teams would have left plenty of buffer and protected more riders.
Adding injury to insult, the uncontrolled chaos continued into stage two. Riders protested the “unsafe” conditions caused by heavy rains and flooding in Barcelona earlier in the day. The ASO event organizers – probably reacting to the onslaught of criticism for their decisions on stage 1 (with Evenepoel himself leading the charge) – inexplicably neutralized the final nine kilometers of the stage (after initially neutralizing the final four kilometers), but not the two time bonus sprints inside the final four kilometers. Therefore, when the race finally passed through, the rain had ceased, and the streets had dried considerably – creating an odd scene of all the GC contenders sitting up to coast in while the stage hunters contested the win minutes ahead. While it may have ultimately been the best decision for the race, it continued the odd precedent of rain cancellations set earlier in the season by stage 13 of the 2023 Giro d’Italia – well outside of the UCI Extreme Weather Protocol (rule 2.2.029 bis), although ironically, stage 1’s TTT was clearly in violation.
Adding to the mess, race officials were apparently unable to correctly tabulate the results of the bonus second sprint atop the Montjuic climb with 3 kilometers to go and were apparently forced to solicit video footage and advice from the roadside spectators in order to determine how to award the bonus seconds. These kinds of errors are inexcusable in one of the top events of the sport, and to top things off, race leader Evenepoel collided with a spectator in the press corps immediately following his victory on stage 3; although apparently not seriously injured, he left the scene with blood dripping from his head. Hopefully, the organizers will get their act together and the race will settle down over the next few days.
For the last year, there has been rampant speculation about the potential impact of the Netflix Unchained series, and what impact it might have on television viewership of bike racing. Particularly given the wild success of the earlier Drive to Survive series, and its explosive impact on Formula 1 racing audiences, the hope was that the cycling show might lead to a quantum leap in popularity for road cycling. However, early reports are suggesting that the impact has been less than dramatic. Viewership for the entire race in France was reported to be 42 million people – only about a 2% increase over last year. Live coverage of the Tour de France in the U.S. averaged 311,000 viewers on NBCSN through the first week, up about 15% from the average of previous years. One key source indicated only a mild 8% increase in streaming activity during the Tour, with an even smaller 2 percent hike in total playtime, and an actual decrease in total unique users. Interestingly, however, the final stage of the race, into Paris, did show a notable increase in viewership. As we have often reported, it is very difficult to accurately and consistently measure and compare cycling TV audiences, but it appears that the Netflix series has had only a marginal impact on viewership, at best.
The second running of the Maryland Cycling Classic – America’s highest-rated UCI road race – is scheduled for next Sunday, September 3 in and around Baltimore, MD. After twice being delayed by COVID, the inaugural version last year featured a fast-paced and close race won by Sep Vanmarcke. The race is expanding to include six WT teams this year – Israel-Premier Tech, Lidl-Trek, Astana, EF Education First (including Neilson Powless), Jayco (including Simon Yates) and Cofidis – with Victor Lafay, and fresh off of two Tour de France victories. The 120-mile course will feature about 110 racers from 25 different countries and will finish in downtown Baltimore’s historic Inner Harbor. The event includes a three-day weekend community celebration of healthy lifestyle and living with participatory events, festivals and interactive exhibits. At a time when most of the primary American road races have died (Tour of California, US Pro Challenge, Tour of Utah, Tour of the Gila, etc.) and when the attention of many American cyclists and cycling fans is turning more toward gravel events, the MCC is now the largest race in the country after only two years.
Rwandan cycling is back in the news, but unfortunately not for the results of its riders. The once highly regarded African federation and cycling program seems to be regressing and is now completely overshadowed by Eritrea and Ethiopia – and a recent investigative article laid bare many of the reasons why. Setting aside the widely-discussed sportswashing issues around Rwanda hosting the 2025 UCI World Road Championships, longstanding corruption in its national cycling federation has caused a collapse in development funding. Many talented riders who were inspired by their countrymen in the documentary Rising From the Ashes have been left to wither on the vine – with poor equipment, coaching, and logistical support. A critical question is whether the overall state and readiness of Rwandan cycling may simply be too fractured and underprepared to handle the scheduled upcoming Worlds, such that the event could be forced to reschedule at a new venue. The UCI would be loathe to take such a financial hit and organizational black eye, but there seem to be several reasons why the world championships may end up moving from Central Africa to a more stable part of the world.
Back in May, we highlighted the overall poor outcomes when sports are used as a vehicle to defuse international and regional conflicts, including those like the simmering unrest in and around Rwanda. In fact, a UN report highlights the role Rwanda has played in supplying and directly supporting rebels in key mining regions over its border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, and this assertion is backed by a surprising financial discovery: Rwanda has mysteriously become the world’s third largest exporter of Coltan minerals, despite having no industrial scale mines or infrastructure for extracting the electronics-critical material within its borders. At least half a million people in the eastern DRC have already been displaced by renewed rebel aggression, and the last time a conflict occurred inside the DRC, over a million people died. Given the likelihood of further political destabilization in the region and the fact that the international community is beginning to recognize that Rwanda profits by influencing it, the poor state of Rwandan cycling may be the least of the UCI’s event planning worries.
Matthew Riccitello, the 21-year-old American sensation who races for the Israel-Premier Tech team, appeared to be on the verge of becoming the first American since Greg Lemond to win the highly prestigious Tour de l'Avenir – more commonly known as the under-23 Tour de France – heading into Sunday’s final stage. However, he was upset in spectacular fashion by 19-year-old Isaac del Toro, who currently races for a Mexican development team, after a long-range raid that successfully overturned his 54-second deficit to Riccitello on the 100-kilometer final stage. This is a major development for Mexican cycling, which has never won l’Avenir – a bellwether event for announcing the arrival of superstars like Egan Bernal (2017), Tadej Pogačar (2018), and Tobias Foss (2019), each of whom went on to win either the Tour de France or a World Championship in the immediate future. Additionally, while U.S. cycling might have lost out on the win, they can take solace in the fact that they appear to have yet another up-and-coming star in Riccitello, who can count himself among the world’s best in his generation.
However, It was somewhat odd to watch Riccitello – who has already competed and produced results in major WT races like the recent Giro d’Italia – race in what has traditionally been a semi-amateur event. This may be another reflection of the prevailing trend for riders to rapidly progress within a program, go pro and achieve success at increasingly younger ages. Indeed, three of the four top finishers this weekend are already on second-division teams (I-PT, Eolo, Green Project-Bardiani CSF). Del Toro was talented enough to compete and win against riders who have access to top-level equipment, training/nutrition staff and pro-level salaries, but there were certainly many others in the race who didn’t have such access to such excellent support. As a result, those under-supported riders may not be discovered and/or signed by professional teams in a timely manner, and may be considered too old to sign by the time they are able to start producing results at top races. The current arms race of riders getting into professional programs at younger and younger ages will likely escalate. The situation could begin to resemble the soccer model, where riders often have to make a decision to join a professional academy in their pre-teen years – foregoing valuable education and formative peer experiences – or risk missing out entirely on a pro racing career.