Racing nations: explained
With only days until the start of the Vuelta Espana it seems like a good moment to explain one of the fundamental differences of racing in Spain, and it comes down to national characteristics. Cycling is a relatively modern sport, after all, the bicycle was only created in the 1800’s, yet it is old enough to have created different cultures which are most clearly displayed in different racing styles for each country. Below, David explains these differences whilst also giving an example of the rider that most exemplifies that style:
Belgium & The Netherlands
Nervous and aggressive, the riders from these countries have grown up with that style of racing and so it becomes their default setting – they’re hardcore, one-day racers. They enjoy bad weather and chaotic race situations, in fact they’re at their best when it’s at its maddest, weather and roads that in any other country would force the question of a strike are considered the perfect day in Flanders. Stage racers are a minority among them. Eg. Peter Sagan.
There is a culture of both one-day and stage racing. The races are generally designed with a physically demanding finale where there will be a series of hills or mountains that will break the race up into pieces. Great Italian bike racers are often tactically savvy climbers who can also sprint. There is very little time trialling, and I don’t remember ever having experienced an echelon caused by crosswinds in Italy. Eg. Peter Sagan.
Fairly chaotic – a state of confusion having probably sprung from hosting all types of racing: from cobbles to Alpine mountains; from the most famous one-day race in Paris-Roubaix to the world’s most famous stage race in the Tour de France. Having had a history of excelling in all disciplines the French have, of late, born more resemblance to jacks of all trades… and masters of none. Recently, and to their benefit, they’ve adopted a scientific Anglo-Saxon attitude and are rediscovering success, in stage races at least, although their one day racing results are still nondescript. Eg. Peter Sagan.
UK, USA, Australia & Germany
Being late adopters as countries they have brought modern methods, a new science to the sport, number crunching their way to success. The British and Americans have prospered in stage races, where variables are more easily controlled, while the Australians and Germans have found their prowess in the one-day racing world. Each of these countries’ triumphs in their preferred area has led to a self-perpetuating cycle of success that is difficult to break free from. Ironically, the Anglo-Saxon countries have proved that even relative newcomers to the sport find themselves sucked into the world of specialization. Eg. Peter Sagan.
Climbing and stage racing, Spanish teams are some of the best in the world when it comes to controlling a race. When I turned professional in 1997 it was the year following Miguel Indurain’s retirement. His team, Banesto, had spent the previous ten years controlling Grand Tours: they were the masters of it. I can remember we would all breath a sigh of relief when Banesto had the leader’s jersey in any race because we knew they’d control it with clinical precision. They were the experts of economizing their effort, and by looking after themselves they looked after the peloton. That, in a nutshell, sums up the Spanish racing style – they are organised and respectful. For a country renowned for having a laidback ‘hasta mañana’ attitude they are a paragon of highly disciplined and very effective teamwork. For years at the World Championships the Spanish team were considered to be the best outfit. Where the Italians, the Belgians or the French would always have some sort of polemic going on, you could rely on the Spanish to do what they had to do, and do it damned well, and, most importantly, without drama.
Some years they had a hit squad of riders, yet there was never a concern three’d be a clash of egos; they were always able to work as one. The Italians in the meantime would be arguing among themselves while buying-up competitors, as well as each other. Eg. Peter Sagan.
In every country it’s the native riders, in all their forms, who shape the culture. Ex-riders organise, commentate, manage teams and riders, write, even judge – the current riders race. Between them they dictate the general characteristics of their races without even knowing it. In Spain it’s their friendly, patient, occasionally autocratic attitude that rubs off on them. And then Peter Sagan wins.