Words: Joe Hall | Date:
Throughout the 2014 season, Rapha are celebrating some of Team Sky’s biggest competitions with special edition t-shirts inspired by the defining moments of each race, those key elements of the parcours and race environment that must be conquered to stand a chance of victory. Here, we discuss each the importance of these factors to the season ahead. Each t-shirt will be released shortly before the race it celebrates.
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King of Willunga
The first event of the UCI WorldTour calendar is known for its high temperatures but not for its climbs. The six-stage race travels around the city of Adelaide on the south coast of Australia with an undulating course that sees most days end in bunch sprints. However, the penultimate stage features one of the only parts of the parcours that allow the race to be blown apart.
The two laps of Willunaga Hill, a 3km climb with an 8% average are seen as the climax to the race, with the first rider over the hill after the second lap standing a good chance of getting to the top step of the podium. Not only this but the crowd on Willunga Hill is always large, loud and frenzied, adding to the importance of this rise in the road. Added to that is the stifling heat, with temperatures sometimes exceeding 40C.
In 2010, Cadel Evans and Alejandro Valverde went head-to-head on the climb in an explosive duel, with Valverde taking the spoils for the stage to put him level on GC with home rider Simon Gerrans. In 2014, Team Sky’s Aussie rider, Richie Porte, made the fans go wild with the attack on Willunga Hill that saw him claim the King of Willunga Hill crown and fourth place overall.
Racing on the Arabian Peninsula, as many WorldTour teams do in the earliest part of the season, is almost always fraught with the perils of crosswinds. The UCI Asia Tour throws up tough conditions, which means teamwork is just as important as it is in the more ‘popular’ races in Europe and North America.
The windswept deserts of Arabia generate crosswinds which, coupled with the wide and exposed roads the race travels upon, makes formation and tactics very important. Fighting to get the best position in the echelons that form in windy conditions takes strength and concentration, where riders jostle for protection to stay in the main bunch. If you end up in the gutter or worse, dropped into no man’s land, that could be your race over.
There’s only so much space across the road, a moment’s indecision in the maw of the crosswind can cost dearly. But canny riders and teams exploit them. A great example was Mark Cavendish at last summer’s Tour, given a hand-sling across to the group when Saxo Bank kicked up the pace. He won the stage. Over the six stages on the south-east Arabian Peninsula, the team who can keep it together in these conditions can help their leader claim the red jersey.
The Trouée d’Arenberg in France (real name Drève des Boules d’Hérin) is the most notorious ‘secteur’ at the Queen of the Classics, raced between Compiègne and Roubaix Velodrome. Each sector is made up of cobbled roads, called pavé. The pavé in northern France is made up of very large cobblestones, making the riding surface difficult to master, and incredibly draining on body and bike. But the Arenberg sector is regarded as the worst of these stretches of road. Whilst the pavé is cleaned before the race every April due to moss, grass, leaves and so forth, the cracks, edges, ruts, potholes and ditches make Arenberg a key section. With each section categorised according to difficulty, the Arenberg section has the highest ranking of five stars.
It’s difficult and dangerous, not least because the race hits this section usually travelling at something like 70kmph. As it’s important to remain in the main group here, a bunch sprint ensues before the race hits the cobbles. This is because along this straight 2.4km stretch of bone shaking paving there’s no bridging or overtaking to be done. The favourites need to stamp their authority here, so champions of the cobbles like Roger De Vlaeminck, Franco Ballerini and Fabian Cancellara know how important it is to be up front on Arenberg. First included in 1968 – the year Jacques Goddet went in search of more cobbles to breath life back into the race – fittingly this hellish road sits on top of a disused coal mine.
Due in: March.
California’s eight-stage race always gets interesting on the testing slopes of Mt. Diablo. The ‘Devil Mountain’ isn’t necessarily the toughest of climbs to be found on America’s west coast, but in the context of the race, it’s a crucial part of the course.
Towering above the landscape around the town of Livermore and taking riders 4000ft high, the 17kms of Diablo, lined by thousands of supporters, ensure the race remains interesting all the way to the finish. Even if the men at the top of GC start the climb in good shape, anything can happen as the altitude rises and the race heats up. If you can get up the mountain in good time, a podium spot could be waiting for you at the top.
Due in: April.
Italy is known for the passion of its people , and to witness the intensity of Italian racing fans is an experience for both supporters and the athletes alike. As with any race on native soil, the home advantage is always with the homegrown riders. From being pushed on the climbs to the loudest claps and cheers of ‘vai vai’ and ‘forza’, these things should not be underestimated in a sport where even the smallest mental lift can make all the difference. But the tifosi, the fanatical support that make Italy’s biggest stage race so special, are notoriously biased and benevolent to their fellow Italians. However, there are even factions within the tifosi, as local allegiances are still very important in Italian society. It’s about identity and aligining yourself with your community, your rider, and the flags and colours that represent this.
For a non-Italian to win the Tour of Italy is difficult enough, and the tifosi ensure that this remains the case. In the first 50 years of the race, only six non-Italians won the pink jersey. Before the most partisan fans in cycling (bar the Belgians), if you can win over the crowd and win the pink jersey, you’ll be floating on grappa-scented air. Lose the crowd and the ‘Cima Coppi’ of Italian racing seems a distant dream.
Due in: April.
Contre La Montre
The time trial – against the stopwatch – is the perfect expression of effort. A single rider against themselves and time, with no bunch or team mates to hide within. No wonder it’s called the ‘Race of Truth’. These days the big stage races are often decided by the Contre La Montre, especially the one we all tune into in France each summer.
It’s not always the most exciting stage to watch, but for the rider it’s the critical time where they must perform on the world’s biggest stage. Everything is measured to the millisecond, concentrating carefully on the time, the turns, the gears, the position, the cadence, the power; giving everything physically and mentally. To win one of the biggest stage races hinges on how you perform against the clock.
Due in: May.
Racing in Great Britain is often defined by the rain. It’s a sad fact that precipitation is an ever-present threat on the Sceptered Isle, so anyone who wants to succeed in September’s stage race here should be prepared to get soggy. It can change things in an instant, whether it’s punctures, crashes or clouded sunglasses. It’s about experience and mental fortitude in the wet. Stay confident, reduce tyre pressure by 10psi, don’t touch the brakes in corners, make sure you’ve a cap under your helmet and get down to work. Stiff upper lip and all that, old bean.
Due in: July.