Race design challenge - v3

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Race 4: Rund um Gera
Distance: 171.5 km
Category: 1.1



(disclaimer: it's East Germany, so there might be a cobbled road hidden somewhere on the route that I haven't been able to find due to the absence of Streetview - if so, it's unintentional)

One of the most detrimental effects of Operación Puerto was the complete collapse of the German calendar. The downfall of various big German names, of course most notably Jan Ullrich, prompted the national public broadcasters to pull all coverage, sponsor money to evaporate and, as a consequence, the end of almost every German race. And in spite of the ARD airing the race again since 2015 and the huge success of German cyclists in the 2010s, the men's professional peloton still barely races in Germany, the total for this year coming to just nine race days (excluding NCs). We have two of the worst WorldTour races in Frankfurt and Hamburg, two smaller one-day races in Rund um Köln and the Münsterland Giro, and then just one stage race in the ASO mini-version of the Deutschland Tour, consisting of five stages this year. Compare to 2006, the year Ullrich got popped, when the national race had nine race days on its own and there were no less than 14 other men's professional races, and it's clear just how far things have fallen - and things aren't much better for the women or younger age groups either.

Therefore, it was a must for me to include a German race in my quintet for this challenge. While I could have revived another defunct race like I did with the Subida a Urkiola, there was one major shortcoming in the calendar at the start of the century: almost all of the races were west of the old Iron Curtain, when so much of the nation's cycling heritage, and indeed to this day so many of its most successful cyclists, is rooted in the former DDR. Worse, still, when the Deutschland Tour doesn't go there, not a single men's professional race is held in the East all year.

However, one part of Eastern Germany has still held out when it comes to pro cycling. While the men's calendar is gone completely, the women still travel every year to contest the Thüringen Rundfahrt - the 35th edition was held just last week. As much as the race bypasses most of the available terrain - little of the mid-mountain and hilly options, none of the cobbles - it's still an extremely valuable event in a former heartland where the professional scene has fallen this far. And so it makes sense to relaunch men's professional racing in the East here as well.

The location of choice is Gera. It's a city of just under 100.000 inhabitants, originally founded in the 10th century, that really started to develop as a base for the textile industry from the 15th century onwards, finally reaching its peak around 1900. However, it hasn't had the happiest of histories - it was mostly destroyed by war in 1450, by fire in 1686 and again in 1780, before being one of many German cities to be bombed near the end of the Second World War. The post-reunification period wasn't kind to the city either: it lost the administrative functions it had had as the capital of the DDR-imposed District of Gera due to the restoration of Thuringia, and the industrial sector was almost completely shut down. This caused the city's population to fall by almost a third in the 1990s, and has only partially recovered since.


Evidently, history and cityscape were not my reasons to choose Gera to host this race. It is an annual host of the Thüringen Rundfahrt, always with disappointingly easy routes, but that isn't the main reason either. Because if there's one thing Gera is famous for, it's its sons and daughters. I will limit myself to cycling here, because the city has been quite the hotbed over the years.

The first rider from Gera I want to discuss here is Olaf Ludwig. In 1980, he debuted in the Peace Race, aged just 20, and immediately made a name for himself as he won four stages, held the leader's jersey for some time, and eventually finished third overall. Ludwig quickly cemented his position as one of the strongest riders east of the Iron Curtain and won the Peace Race in 1982 and again in 1986, eventually amassing a record 38 stage victories, before taking the Olympic title (the penultimate edition without professional riders) in 1988. The fall of the Iron Curtain allowed him to pursue a professional career in 1990, when he might otherwise have retired; this was an instant success, as he won a stage and the points classification at the Tour de France on debut. After a year full of second and third places in 1991, when his biggest victory was the E3 Prijs, 1992 would turn out to be arguably his finest as a professional, taking home the World Cup at the end of the season off the back of, amongst other things, winning the Amstel Gold Race and coming second in Roubaix, whilst adding a second final Tour stage to his palmares on the Champs-Élysées. In 1993, he took a final Tour stage as well as third places in Roubaix and at the Worlds, Age started to catch up with him after that, although he did win Rund um den Henninger Turm in 1994, and he eventually retired in 1996.

Ludwig being interviewed after one of his many wins on DDR soil.

In his wake, more Gera-born cyclists followed. The first of these was Jens Heppner, who, although less than five years Ludwig's junior, only rose to prominence post-reunification and achieved his greatest results - a Tour de France stage win and a Deutschland Tour - right at the end of the 90s, in his mid-30s. Heppner would continue all the way until age 40, still managing ten days in pink at the 2002 Giro, but would later be implicated in the doping affairs of this era.

On the subject of cyclists who raced into their 40s, it's impossible to ignore Hanka Kupfernagel. While she grew up in nearby Neustadt an der Orla, she, too, was born in Gera. Her greatest successes were in cyclocross, becoming the inaugural women's world champion in 2000 before taking the title another three times (in addition to three seconds and a third). Her exploits on the road were less consistent as these were not always her primary focus, especially after the introduction of the women's CX Worlds, but in spite of this she still has a time trial world championship, Olympic silver, two Emakumeen Biras, a Flèche Wallonne and her home Thüringen Rundfahrt to her name.

Kupfernagel in the prologue of the 2012 Thüringen Rundfahrt, which was her final win on the road

As Kupfernagel was aging, it was back in the men's scene that another Gera-born rider rose to prominence - John Degenkolb. His achievements are recent enough that they shouldn't require introduction, but aged 26, Degenkolb was the reigning champion of both Milano-Sanremo and Paris-Roubaix, also had Gent-Wevelgem and Paris-Tours to his name, and had amassed ten stages at the Vuelta and one at the Giro. It's a formidable palmares, yet we will always wonder what have could have been had that awful training accident in early 2016 not happened, given that he never was the same rider after that, in spite of that beautiful Tour stage victory that's almost four years in the past by now.

Degenkolb after winning Paris-Roubaix.

So that's why I kind of had to go with Gera as the location for this race, now on to the actual route. It's a bit harder than the likes of Ludwig and Degenkolb would have liked - I think Amstel Gold Race is a decent analogy in terms of the hills I use - although the shorter length and the somewhat less narrow roads would mean they would still have (had) a shot here. I've positioned it two days after the (admittedly easier) Münsterland Giro, making for an end-of-season double-header to compliment the harder Italian races in the same week, although this race can also be combined with for example Paris-Tours.

As the name implies, the route circles Gera, first heading north for an easy start to the race, then passing west of the city to turn south. In this section, we use the only two climbs the Thüringen Rundfahrt has used on its most recent visits to Gera, Dürrenberg and Kaltenborn. From here on out, I've made sure to include climbs at regular intervals as I want the accumulation of hills to be felt. The next climbs are the relatively straightforward Großbocka and the short but steep ramp in the town of Weida. This is followed by two of the hardest climbs of the day: the Schömberg and a staple of the Thüringen Rundfahrt in the Hankaberg (no points for guessing who that's named after). I've allowed for some respite after that with only one climb in the next 35 kilometres, the easy climb to Wolfen, although there's a decent amount of uncategorised repechos here. We also reach the southernmost point of the race in Greiz in this section.

Heading back north, the next difficult duo isn't far away. The climbs to Waltersdorf and Markersdorf come inside the final 60 kilometres, this is potentially where the real racing starts as the latter climb is harder than anything remaining after this. We head towards the decisive circuit through some rolling terrain, only the easy climb to Gauern has been categorised. Once on the circuit, we have the climbs to Lichtenberg, Grobsdorf, Thränitz and Kaimberg in short succession as we enter the finale of the race. The latter is easily the hardest of these final 50 kilometres and comes with just under 27 kilometres to go.

After this, there's some respite in the shape of a bit of valley road, then the next climb to Niebra is longer, but wider and more gradual. From here, we head back to the Lichtenberg-Grobsdorf-Thränitz climb, but at the bottom of the Kaimberg, we turn right instead of left to head onto the final hill, Collis. I could have gone for another lap here, bringing the distance up by 23.2 kilometres, but I think this is hard enough for a 1.1 race - of course the length and difficulty would likely be increased if the race were to grow. Of these four hills, Grobsdorf is the hardest, then again Collis comes with just 3.7k to go. However, it should be too short to create enough of a gap to hold off a reduced bunch on its own, hence I would expect the big moves to start coming a fair bit before it - it's much better suited for a decisive move from a smaller group. As we head back into Gera, there's one last surprise: the final 200 metres are uphill - only at about 4% average - as we finish on the Nicolaiberg off the back of a fairly technical final kilometre. This one should be tense all the way to the line, with a lot of possible outcomes, making for a great alternative to the Italian races for the kind of rider who prefers the hills to be a bit shorter.

And, who knows, maybe John Degenkolb can turn back the clock one last time if it does come down to a reduced bunch sprint. If so, there's no losing here as a viewer.
Race 5: Il Lombardia
Distance: 244.4 km
Category: 1.UWT



Link to the route

So, the final race of this challenge, and the one that needs at once the least and the most introduction. There is little need for going through the long and storied history of a monument, but this, of course, is the one monument where the historical development of the route does require some analysis here, as even the borders of Lombardy have not entirely limited the places where the race has been.

First held in 1905, Il Lombardia was originally a race going through the foothills of the Alps, not unlike many Italian fall races today like Coppa Bernocchi or Tre Valli Varesine, with the start and finish in its capital, Milan, as this race, much like the Giro, has always been organised by the Gazzetta dello Sport (and later through RCS, of course). The first major change came in 1919, when Madonna del Ghisallo was added to the route for the first time; this edition would be the first of three victories by Costante Girardengo. From then on, Ghisallo was always the main climb of the race, all the way until the end of the 1950s.

Then, everything changed from 1960 onwards. In that year, the Muro di Sormano was climbed for the first time. Suddenly, Ghisallo was no longer the hardest climb of the race, nor was it the final one. And while Muro di Sormano would disappear for half a century after 1962, the era of Lombardia being a race with one big climb was gone for good. Ghisallo would be the last climb of the race only once more, in 1985.

Profile of the 1985 edition.

The finish location changed in this era too. While Milan continued to host the start of the race, the finish was moved to Como in 1961 and would stay there until 1984. In this era, the route usually encircled Lake Como counterclockwise, relegating Ghisallo (often from its easy southern side) to the start of the race; San Fermo della Battaglia was introduced as the final hill in 1964. For the aforementioned 1985 edition, the route was reversed, however that year saw Sean Kelly take the win in a 15-rider sprint and hence Valcava would be the focal point of the race thereafter. In 1990, the start moved back to Milan with the finish now being in nearby Monza, one year after, the Valcava route was abandoned and Ghisallo returned to the fore as the last longer climb before a finale over the foothills with Colle Brianza as the main climb after Ghisallo.

This situation would not last either, and for the 1995 edition the finish was moved back to the edge of the Alps for good, this time in Bergamo. This was a year of drastic changes: not only was Ghisallo relegated to early climb status once more, the race also said farewell to Milan; the start would be in Varese for the next years, with the final two editions of this Bergamo era starting in Cantù and Como respectively. RCS could not settle on a finale at all, first opting for Colle Gallo as the final climb, then adding Bergamo Alta (the only constant of subsequent Bergamo finishes) in 1998 and moving first to Forcella di Bura and then Berbenno for the preceding climb.

In 2004, the finish returned to Como, and here the finale was more fixed: Ghisallo, then directly to Civiglio for its easy side and finally San Fermo. The start of the race continued to vary: first it was the Swiss town of Mendrisio, then it returned to Varese and finally, in 2010, to its old home of Milan. This year also saw the finale change again, with Colma di Sormano (not via the wall) after Ghisallo and then only San Fermo after that. The next year, the finish was moved to Lecco for the awful Villa Vergano finale; Muro di Sormano was reintroduced the year after as the start moved to Bergamo, which was the finish location in 2014 as the old finale with Berbenno was unsuccessfully reintroduced. This year marked the start of Como and Bergamo alternating as start and finish locations.

It was only in the next year, just seven years ago, that what we think of now as the 'usual' route via Ghisallo, Muro di Sormano, Civiglio from the proper side and San Fermo into Como made its debut. In 2016, Bergamo got the finish again for the brutal and beautiful 2016 edition, then the next four years would see the 2015 route reused (minus the one-off forced bypass of San Fermo), before last year's edition in Bergamo with Passo di Ganda as the last big climb.

So, how do we link this disjointed past together? I can't incorporate all the start locations and historic climbs, but I can return the focus to the central parts of the race's history by doing the following:
  • Visiting all five historical finish locations
  • Restoring Madonna del Ghisallo as the focal point of the race
  • As a result, keeping the finish in Como as it's in the most suitable spot and one of the two most historic finishes
  • And therefore starting from the other most historic location - back to the race's roots in Milan
As a consequence, Madonna del Ghisallo will be the last major climb of the race, only for the second time since the start of the 1960s and the first time since 1985. Moreover, it will be climbed twice for the first time in the race's history - although it isn't the first time Ghisallo is passed twice in the same edition, this was already done in 1991. The final passage comes at a distance from the finish similar to Ganda this year, and while I don't have a Bergamo Alta-sized climb in the finale, there are some hills to make late moves. I know there's a risk involved in this, but I have a lot more faith in the current generation to make it work with aggressive racing than I would have had ten years ago.

The start of the race, as stated previously, is in Milan, naturally in front of the Duomo. For me, restoring Milan was an obligatory decision, not only because of the racing history associated with it, but also because the race of Lombardy should visit its capital. Milan was already the regional capital in antiquity and eventually became the imperial seat of the Western Roman Empire between 276 and 402. In this time, the Edict of Milan was issued, legalising Christianity. In the 5th and 6th century, much like the rest of the region, Milan was sacked on multiple occasions; eventually the Lombards conquered the then Byzantine-held area in 569. The Lombards established a kingdom encompassing the majority of Italy, but did so from Pavia; hence the importance of Milan declined, something that continued after the collapse of the Lombard kingdom at the hands of Charlemagne. Eventually, Milan (and the other Lombard city-states) became autonomous of the Holy Roman Empire in the late 12th century and prospered in spite of repeated internal strife, becoming one of the centres of the Renaissance.

At the end of the 15th century, France started an invasion of Italy, at least in part due to the encouragement by the Duke of Milan. This backfired spectacularly: not only would Italy spend most of the next 65 years at war, significantly contributing to the economic decline of the city-states as economic dominance shifted to other parts of Europe, but the Duchy was quickly annexed by the French kings. While they would not maintain this position, independence would not return, as control passed to the Habsburgs, first the Spanish and later the Austrian branch. Milan's downturn was worsened by the Black Death wiping out almost half the population in the early 17th century and only truly rose again following Italian unification in the second half of the 19th century, when it became the financial and industrial capital of the country, as is still the case today. Milan is also the start and end point of Italian fascism: Mussolini's Blackshirts rallied here for the first time and the March on Rome coup departed from here; however it was also the place where Mussolini and his cronies were hanged at the end of WWII. Despite extensive damage from bombing, Milan prospered again after the war and, as the heavy industry declined, it slowly found other ways to be successful, such as its famous fashion industry.

The cathedral.

From the start, we quickly pass through the second of the five historic finishes in Monza, famous for its racing circuit, then traverse the Po Valley towards the third finish of Bergamo as we leave the Milanese suburbs behind us. There's no ascent of Bergamo Alta as we are heading in the wrong direction, however we do pass through Sedrina, birthplace of the late, great Felice Gimondi. Even his two victories at this race would make this visit worthwhile, however Gimondi is of course much more famous for being one of seven riders to win all three Grand Tours, with three Giri, a Tour and a Vuelta to his name, in addition to a world title, Paris-Roubaix and Milano-Sanremo.

Gimondi in the pink jersey in 1967.

Shortly after this, the climbing starts with the ascent to Berbenno, final climb before Bergamo Alta on five occasions. Here, of course, it shouldn't mean much.

The next climb of the day, Valcava, is the longest. This is not the more difficult western side, which will make for a technical descent instead, but this will definitely hurt, especially as the day goes on. This northeastern side of Valcava is the only 'new' climb I'm using.

There's a fair bit of respite after this as we head through Lecco, the fourth historic finish location, and then along the shores of Lake Como to reach the start of Madonna del Ghisallo. As mentioned previously, we are climbing it twice; the first time, we skip the first 700 metres of the profile below, the second time, this initial ramp is done as well.

This part of the race, of course, really doesn't need much introduction. Immediately after the descent of Ghisallo, we hit Muro di Sormano, I expect the first big moves of the race to come on the actual wall even though it comes with 70k to go.

After the notoriously technical descent, we have 14 flattish kilometres on the shore back to Madonna del Ghisallo, this final ascent comes with 34k to go. Once the descent is over, there are still a few short, but comparatively narrow and often irregular hills to climb, the first one is clearly the hardest though. At the summit of the final hill in Albavilla, there are 11.5 kilometres to race. We pick up the descent of Civiglio halfway through, then head directly to the finish on a similar route to the 2019 Giro stage. I know leaving out San Fermo della Battaglia is controversial, but I fear it would block the race too much, just like Villa Vergano did in the Lecco editions or more recently like the old Liège and Amstel finales.

The hills after Ghisallo.

I think this design succeeds at doing two things at once: leaning much more strongly into the race's rich history, allowing for the key moves to be made where the likes of Coppi, Binda, Bartali and Girardengo used to do exactly the same, while also extending the finale. The existing route into Como is pretty good, but I think this design has the edge in all aspects. Now, all we need is for Pogacar to not ride everyone into oblivion and make the changes irrelevant - as good a tribute to the legends of old as that would be!

Sacred cycling grounds - literally.
Scores for Race 4:
Devil's elbow: Rund um Gera, 171 km
Libertine Seguros: Paris-Bruxelle, 243 km

Judge 1:

Devil's elbow:
TR: 7, CR: 4
I like the concept and the idea. The profile looks quite similar to AGR and the route is close to being really good, but just almost. IMO it looks a bit short and easy for being a true hilly classic if that is the intention, and it seems a bit too fitting for the most explosive hilly classic riders. Would have benifitted on either length and more climb of the same type or somewhat steeper/longer climbs. Fairly good scores for cultural rating on the same basis as lemon cheese cake. It's about time with more big races in Germany and your explanation for location is good.

Libertine Seguros:
TR: 9, CR: 5
Great way to make PB classic important a again with proper cobbled classic. The design of the last 50 km is just great. Cobbled sectors incl. climbs, narrow roads and tarmac climbs in addition. Nice points to attack on the cobbles within a very suitable distance from the finish (44, 34 and 25 km left) and the shorter and steeper climbs closer to the finish shoudn't deter the riders from earlier attacks. This race would provide some good action within the last 50km or so. The historical importance of the race is undeniable and it is one of the most important cycling regions in the world, so the cultural ratings is top.

Judge 2:
Devil's elbow:
TR: 6, CR: 4
This route isn’t the best, but certainly gives its own character. Giving Germany a race with serious potential is nice, but unfortunately it does not stand out to my eyes. However, the cultural level of Germany and especially Eastern Germany being revived here with this race gives you high marks in those regards.

Libertine Seguros:
TR: 9, CR: 5
Ah, great choice for your race. Using the cobbles in this very manner is welcome, especially as a target for the cobbled riders for the waning months of the season. Bring back one of the oldest races in cycling in a better manner than recent times is also greatly appreciated by myself.

Libertine Seguros: 72 + 28 = 100
Devil's elbow: 75 + 51 = 96
lemon cheese cake: 42 + 23 = 65 (DNF)

We'll post ratings for the last race and the overall rating when Libertine has posted his Il Lombardia.
I could also list my own plan for races if I had competed. This RDC is because I think the last third of the race calendar is somewhat underwhelming and that I want to see more important one day classics also after the Worlds, so I already had some ideas how that could pan out.

Race 1: Le Samyn lengthened and moved to the fall. ~230 km.
Race 2: Paris - Tours in a similar manner as both @Libertine ad @Devil's Elbow designed. ~230-250 km.
Race 3: A new race in southern France, preferably Provence. Sterrato and/or hills. I could have moved if not finding proper sterrato sections. At least 220-230 km.
Race 4: Milano - Torino with a similar finish as this year's Giro. I had actually designed a version before the Giro did which contained Superga, the last 2 km to Maddalena and short climb after that before descending and finishing in Torino. ~200 km (midweek before Lombardia).
Reactions: lemon cheese cake