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Race Design Thread

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@Red Rick

Yo Dawg, I heard you like short mountain stages that finish on a steep gravel extension of a climb, so I designed a stage that finishes on a steep gravel extension of a climb that could feature after another stage that finishes on a steep gravel extension of a climb. (After exploring a few options, I thought I might as well publish this one)

Actually I had never thought about climbing Stelvio from Prato and descending via Umbrail before.
 
World Championships RR: Calgary, Canada

My first trip to North America for one of these Worlds courses sees me looking at something that sort of fits in with the wintersport theme that I’ve gone back to the well on frequently, but doesn’t continue with the Nordic Series because we may be in a Winter Olympic city, but the Nordic events were held over at Canmore, not within Calgary itself, whereas I’ve put the World Championships in the city.

Just because I’ve put the World Championships in the city rather than the outlying venues doesn’t mean that I’ve not taken the 1988 Winter Olympics into account when designing the race. Far from it, in fact.

It’s also probably the most ‘classic’ World Championships route I’ve put in yet, with a punchy but not too difficult climb early in the circuit and a secondary obstacle, easier and not threatening in its own right, on a circuit layout. While the placement of said obstacles on the lap, and the difficulty of said obstacles may vary, this format is a very common World Championships trope, with examples such as Zürich 1946 (a 700m climb at the start of the lap and a longer but shallower climb at the end), Solingen 1954, the second Reims-Gueux route in 1958 (a very good facsimile for this course in fact); Salò di Garda 1962; Imola 1968, Gap 1972, the later Valkenburg circuit used in 1979, 1998 and 2012, Villach 1987, Utsonomiya 1990, Oslo 1993, Lisbon 2001, Hamilton 2003, Geelong 2010 and Ponferrada 2014 all demonstrating characteristics of this kind, while the “main ascent early in the circuit and then a gradual downward sauntering” approach also crops up in Varese 1951, Lugano 1953, Karl-Marx-Stadt (Sachsenring) 1960, Montello 1985, and perhaps to an extent Bergen 2017.

Calgary-winter-city-1.jpg


Home to just under 1,5 million people, Calgary is the third largest city in Canada, and is ranked the most liveable city in North America, bolstered in its reputation by the largest proportion of millionaires per capita in the country. This area has been inhabited for some 11.000 years, but the modern city’s history is much younger; the first white settler was a cartographer and fur trader who overwintered here in 1783, and 90 years after him came the first European settlers, who used the nearby bend in the Elbow River as a stopping point, and shortly afterwards a mountie station was established to regulate the fur trade and American bootlegging. As the government started to promote cattle ranching in Alberta, the convenient location at the bend in the river made Calgary a burgeoning centre for trading and as a destination point for travelling into the Albertan interior. The rapid expansion was also supported by legislation requiring houses to be built from sandstone, which in turn supported quarrying interests in the area. The association with cattle was continued by the inauguration in 1912 of the Calgary Stampede, one of the world’s most famous rodeos and horse racing festivals, now grown into a huge annual event that is well ingrained into the city’s culture.

Calgary_stampede_1218910.jpg


The Stampede is referenced alongside the city in many of its sporting endeavours; the city’s CFL franchise is called the Calgary Stampeders, while from the 50s through to the end of the 80s when the Territory days ended for good, Calgary supported arguably (because Montréal and Lutte Internationale could make a case) the strongest and best known wrestling territory in Canada. Back in the days before globalisation, different regions had favoured styles of wrestling and wrestlers would often train in one and then journey from region to region to make money and gain experience. The American northeast enjoyed the OTT pageantry that we nowadays associate the sport with, the South - especially the Memphis territory - liked brawlers and blood feuds, and the west coast liked Mexican-influenced gymnastics and fast-paced action. The Canadians, however? They became associated primarily with sound, amateur wrestling-inspired bouts that were lower on showmanship and higher on technical skills, telling stories more through moves and holds.

Calgary’s main wrestling promotion was Stampede Wrestling, established by catch-as-catch-can wizard Stu Hart, and serving as an NWA affiliate north of the border. It became renowned more, however, for the Hart Family Dungeon, a wrestling school in the basement of an old army hospital and led by Hart alongside Japanese wrestler Mr. Hito. Stu Hart was notorious for using legit wrestling stretches to punish students with sadistic glee, and the wrestlers that graduated it tended to come with reputations as strong and technically gifted fighters. The most obvious graduates would be Stu’s two sons, Bret “The Hitman” Hart - a future WWF World Champion - and Owen Hart, but other graduates would include “Superstar” Billy Graham, Greg “The Hammer” Valentine, Davey Boy Smith and The Dynamite Kid (a tag team of British origin known as The British Bulldogs, with Davey Boy later known simply as The British Bulldog after Dynamite Kid was forced into retirement by injuries), Chris Jericho, Edge and Christian and, if I can be serious for a minute, Lance Storm. There’s also Chris Benoit, but he has rather been airbrushed out due to his crimes. As well as the two best known sons of Stu Hart, the family’s tendrils extend further into the annals of wrestling; in total Stu and Helen Hart had 12 children. Diana, one of the youngest, married Davey Boy Smith rendering the Bulldog an in-law of Bret and Owen; her older sister Ellie married Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart, thus creating the best known version of the faction “The Hart Foundation”. Their daughter Nattie, her partner Tyson Kidd, and Davey and Diana’s son Harry Smith, founded a “New Hart Foundation” team in the late 2000s and came to WWE as “The Hart Dynasty”. Dynamite Kid and Brian Pillman are also considered, though they are not directly related by blood or marriage, to be close affiliates of the Harts, and the latter was the only wrestler not connected by either of those two means to Stu Hart to compete with the Hart Foundation. In addition to this, the father of “Macho Man” Randy Savage was a well known wrestler in the 50s and 60s, and Savage’s younger brother Lanny Poffo was born in Calgary while his father was working for Stampede Wrestling.

kNLzggsOOOXW41ICgXwalYxPQH36nSmqOw2X1sL_Kow.jpg

No Kayfabe needed

Calgary has been used in pro cycling a couple of times; whereas most cycling interest in terms of racing has been in Ontario and Quebec, the highest profile stage race touring an actual Canadian province was here in Alberta, running from 2013 to 2017, and the first edition finished with a short sprint stage from Okotoks to Calgary which was won by Peter Sagan. The following year the direction of travel was reversed, so instead of running Edmonton to Calgary, they ran Calgary to Edmonton, with the former hosting a prologue and the latter the final sprint. The 2014 edition’s prologue in Calgary was won by Tom Dumoulin but after this the city faded from use with Edmonton taking centre stage. But for the most part it is for other sports that the city is known.

Nowadays oil and gas have replaced ranching as major commodity industries in the area, and it was this interest that saw the rapid expansion of the city to its present day size, as well as attracting an NHL franchise, as the Atlanta Flames were relocated to Alberta to form one of the most storied rivalries in the sport, the Battle of Alberta between the Calgary Flames and the Edmonton Oilers. Their feeder team, the Wranglers, moved into the city in 2022 after previously being based in Stockton (then known as the Heat, they adopted the Wranglers name from a defunct WHL team from the 70s and 80s), and a junior team, the Calgary Hitmen, also use the city as their home (their name inspired by their original bankroller, the aforementioned Bret “The Hitman” Hart). And perhaps more crucially, it brought the Winter Olympics in 1988.

xlarge-1024x791.jpg


17-02-27-021_xgaplus.jpg

Winsport Canada Olympic Park today. Note the service road for the bobsleigh and ski jumps in the foreground.

The Canada Olympic Park hosted the bobsleigh/luge, some of the arena sports (especially the curling, which is commonly held at the top level here to this day) and the ski jumping as well as the Nordic Combined (to avoid having to build two complexes or having the athletes transfer to Canmore between sections of competition) and the freestyle skiing (which at the time consisted of two disciplines, Aerials and - no, really - Ski Ballet) at the 1988 Games and is now sponsored by WinSport, the successor to the Calgary Olympic Development Association, serving as a centre for development of Canadian wintersport athletes, introducing some smaller alpine runs, halfpipes and a terrain park for moguls and other X Games type disciplines. However, of perhaps more interest to us will be that the park, in summer, is converted for XCO and downhill mountain bike disciplines, where it is a popular competition spot on the North American and domestic calendars.

As you might expect as a result of this, most of Calgary’s sporting sons and daughters not related by blood or marriage to the Hart family (I know, definition of ‘sport’ and all that) are wintersport athletes, such as recent ski jumping world champion Alexandria Loutitt, hockey players Bill Gadsby, Taylor Hall, Cale Makar, Jaret Anderson-Dolan, Jay Beagle, Jake Bean, Dany Heatley, Tim Hunter, Jarome Iginla, Larry Kwong, Tyler Myers, William Nylander, Jim Peplinski, Brayden Point, Jason Smith and Mike Vernon, freestyle skier Brady Leman, figure skater Jamie Salé (an Olympic champion), curlers Ben Hebert, Cori Morris, Cheryl Bernard, Amy Nixon and Julie Skinner, lugers Sam Edney and Alex Gough, speed-skater Gilmore Junio, Paralympic cross-country skier and biathlete Brian McKeever, regular biathlete Nathan Smith, and ski-crosser Aleisha Cline, but there are others such as NFL veteran Nate Burleson, former Washington Redskins quarterback Mark Rypien, who won two Superbowls - one of which as MVP - for the team, English footballer Owen Hargreaves (born in Canada to English and German parents), swimmer Curtis Myden, Olympic champion swimmer Mark Tewksbury and Olympic gold medallist gymnast Kyle Shewfelt.

No cyclists though. So let’s try and inspire some.

x68OTGxo_o.png


2iDG8rDK_o.png


The circuit here is 16,9km in length so I’m looking at 9 laps for the women (152,1km), 11 for the U23 men (185,9km), and 16 for the elite men (270,4km), as a pure circuit race Worlds.

05-34-scaled.jpg

Winsport Arena and Park from the west. Finishing straight in foreground in front of Winsport Arena.

The above picture shows the start and finish of each lap. We will take the left curve and then 90º subsequent left at the car park at the start of each lap, before the sharp right and the snaking bobsleigh service road up the hill. With seven snaking corners of varying difficulties, it’s a pretty classic Worlds-style obstacle, totalling 1,7km at 6,2%, but after a short run-up leaving the arena complex, it’s 1,2km at 7,6% before flattening out again at the summit. The summit coming so soon in the circuit also means it is over 14km from the line, which sprinters will like, so long as they can handle the many laps they will be taking.



This is the main climb of the circuit; it is followed by around 4km of flat and false flat around the Cougar Ridge hilltop district, before descending through Patterson Heights and back up Coach Hill on Patina Drive SW - this is 1,1km at just over 4% so it’s an option for an attack in a small group, but it isn’t going to automatically drop anybody; it’s exactly 8km from the line at the summit, so there is the chance to break away and make a move if the group is fairly small, but you aren’t going to easily drop an organised péloton here.

20-06-08-0327_xgaplus.jpg

Patina Drive SW, which we descend and then climb, is the perimeter road of this development

We then descend back down on the highway road. We then turn left onto Na’a Drive and head directly back to the WinSport Arena. I originally preferred to extend the circuit into Bowness to make the climbs a bit further from the finish, but after reviewing I think this route will be superior, as it enables us to create a somewhat more interesting and challenging finale that will make this less likely to be a regular sprint and enable some intrigue in the final few kilometres, whereas the original, slightly longer (18,9km) circuit featured a very straight and slightly uphill (2-3%) drag before crossing Canadian Highway 1 and then having the same final couple of corners and finishing straight as we have here.

Instead, it’s a left-hander at the freeway junction roundabout, before a tricky penultimate kilometre which takes us past the new Trinity Hills development; we pass a retail park before a left-hand sweeper at 1,9km from the finish, which takes us to a 250m at 7% climb, then a couple of light bends (one right, one left), and then a right hand sweeper which finishes the uphill section here, at 1200m to go. The overall for this climb is 700m at 5%, which is just about enough to potentially be decisive, but that 1200m remaining mean it’s not just about that uphill. That right-handed is fairly significantly sweeping, but with a very broad radius. We then cross two roundabouts - one at 1100m from home and the second at 900m. The interesting thing here is that we have gone from one freeway junction where we have exited a road which passes underneath the freeway, along a road running parallel to the freeway to an adjacent junction where the lesser road actually bridges over the freeway. There’s then those two sweeping corners you can see on the picture above, 750m and 450m from the line respectively, but not technical at all and I don’t think that other than the roundabouts no corners in the last few kilometres will be a crash risk.

The climbs on this route make it comparable to, say, Bergen, or an easier version of Montréal, but for me the difficulty is more akin to Madrid or Hamilton, and the layout is perhaps more similar to Lisbon. Obviously the Montréal Worlds on the updated course have yet to happen (although the GP Montréal can be used as examples), but looking at those precedents, we can look at likely outcomes. Lisbon ended with Óscar Freire winning a sprint from a group of 45; Igor Astarloa won solo in Hamilton ahead of a small group largely comprising puncheurs, then a group of just under 40 finished 12” behind him; Tom Boonen won a sprint from a group of 27 in Madrid; while Bergen ended up with an almost identical scenario, Peter Sagan winning a sprint of just under 30. I think this will probably be similar - the tricky run-in is not enough to make it a puncheur thing (especially given the last kilometre favours the chasers), but it’s enough to offer some potential for breaking out of the bunch if it’s not organised around a sprint, for example if there are no teams with coherent leadouts prepared.
 
World Championships RR: Calgary, Canada

My first trip to North America for one of these Worlds courses sees me looking at something that sort of fits in with the wintersport theme that I’ve gone back to the well on frequently, but doesn’t continue with the Nordic Series because we may be in a Winter Olympic city, but the Nordic events were held over at Canmore, not within Calgary itself, whereas I’ve put the World Championships in the city.

Just because I’ve put the World Championships in the city rather than the outlying venues doesn’t mean that I’ve not taken the 1988 Winter Olympics into account when designing the race. Far from it, in fact.

It’s also probably the most ‘classic’ World Championships route I’ve put in yet, with a punchy but not too difficult climb early in the circuit and a secondary obstacle, easier and not threatening in its own right, on a circuit layout. While the placement of said obstacles on the lap, and the difficulty of said obstacles may vary, this format is a very common World Championships trope, with examples such as Zürich 1946 (a 700m climb at the start of the lap and a longer but shallower climb at the end), Solingen 1954, the second Reims-Gueux route in 1958 (a very good facsimile for this course in fact); Salò di Garda 1962; Imola 1968, Gap 1972, the later Valkenburg circuit used in 1979, 1998 and 2012, Villach 1987, Utsonomiya 1990, Oslo 1993, Lisbon 2001, Hamilton 2003, Geelong 2010 and Ponferrada 2014 all demonstrating characteristics of this kind, while the “main ascent early in the circuit and then a gradual downward sauntering” approach also crops up in Varese 1951, Lugano 1953, Karl-Marx-Stadt (Sachsenring) 1960, Montello 1985, and perhaps to an extent Bergen 2017.

Calgary-winter-city-1.jpg


Home to just under 1,5 million people, Calgary is the third largest city in Canada, and is ranked the most liveable city in North America, bolstered in its reputation by the largest proportion of millionaires per capita in the country. This area has been inhabited for some 11.000 years, but the modern city’s history is much younger; the first white settler was a cartographer and fur trader who overwintered here in 1783, and 90 years after him came the first European settlers, who used the nearby bend in the Elbow River as a stopping point, and shortly afterwards a mountie station was established to regulate the fur trade and American bootlegging. As the government started to promote cattle ranching in Alberta, the convenient location at the bend in the river made Calgary a burgeoning centre for trading and as a destination point for travelling into the Albertan interior. The rapid expansion was also supported by legislation requiring houses to be built from sandstone, which in turn supported quarrying interests in the area. The association with cattle was continued by the inauguration in 1912 of the Calgary Stampede, one of the world’s most famous rodeos and horse racing festivals, now grown into a huge annual event that is well ingrained into the city’s culture.

Calgary_stampede_1218910.jpg


The Stampede is referenced alongside the city in many of its sporting endeavours; the city’s CFL franchise is called the Calgary Stampeders, while from the 50s through to the end of the 80s when the Territory days ended for good, Calgary supported arguably (because Montréal and Lutte Internationale could make a case) the strongest and best known wrestling territory in Canada. Back in the days before globalisation, different regions had favoured styles of wrestling and wrestlers would often train in one and then journey from region to region to make money and gain experience. The American northeast enjoyed the OTT pageantry that we nowadays associate the sport with, the South - especially the Memphis territory - liked brawlers and blood feuds, and the west coast liked Mexican-influenced gymnastics and fast-paced action. The Canadians, however? They became associated primarily with sound, amateur wrestling-inspired bouts that were lower on showmanship and higher on technical skills, telling stories more through moves and holds.

Calgary’s main wrestling promotion was Stampede Wrestling, established by catch-as-catch-can wizard Stu Hart, and serving as an NWA affiliate north of the border. It became renowned more, however, for the Hart Family Dungeon, a wrestling school in the basement of an old army hospital and led by Hart alongside Japanese wrestler Mr. Hito. Stu Hart was notorious for using legit wrestling stretches to punish students with sadistic glee, and the wrestlers that graduated it tended to come with reputations as strong and technically gifted fighters. The most obvious graduates would be Stu’s two sons, Bret “The Hitman” Hart - a future WWF World Champion - and Owen Hart, but other graduates would include “Superstar” Billy Graham, Greg “The Hammer” Valentine, Davey Boy Smith and The Dynamite Kid (a tag team of British origin known as The British Bulldogs, with Davey Boy later known simply as The British Bulldog after Dynamite Kid was forced into retirement by injuries), Chris Jericho, Edge and Christian and, if I can be serious for a minute, Lance Storm. There’s also Chris Benoit, but he has rather been airbrushed out due to his crimes. As well as the two best known sons of Stu Hart, the family’s tendrils extend further into the annals of wrestling; in total Stu and Helen Hart had 12 children. Diana, one of the youngest, married Davey Boy Smith rendering the Bulldog an in-law of Bret and Owen; her older sister Ellie married Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart, thus creating the best known version of the faction “The Hart Foundation”. Their daughter Nattie, her partner Tyson Kidd, and Davey and Diana’s son Harry Smith, founded a “New Hart Foundation” team in the late 2000s and came to WWE as “The Hart Dynasty”. Dynamite Kid and Brian Pillman are also considered, though they are not directly related by blood or marriage, to be close affiliates of the Harts, and the latter was the only wrestler not connected by either of those two means to Stu Hart to compete with the Hart Foundation. In addition to this, the father of “Macho Man” Randy Savage was a well known wrestler in the 50s and 60s, and Savage’s younger brother Lanny Poffo was born in Calgary while his father was working for Stampede Wrestling.

kNLzggsOOOXW41ICgXwalYxPQH36nSmqOw2X1sL_Kow.jpg

No Kayfabe needed

Calgary has been used in pro cycling a couple of times; whereas most cycling interest in terms of racing has been in Ontario and Quebec, the highest profile stage race touring an actual Canadian province was here in Alberta, running from 2013 to 2017, and the first edition finished with a short sprint stage from Okotoks to Calgary which was won by Peter Sagan. The following year the direction of travel was reversed, so instead of running Edmonton to Calgary, they ran Calgary to Edmonton, with the former hosting a prologue and the latter the final sprint. The 2014 edition’s prologue in Calgary was won by Tom Dumoulin but after this the city faded from use with Edmonton taking centre stage. But for the most part it is for other sports that the city is known.

Nowadays oil and gas have replaced ranching as major commodity industries in the area, and it was this interest that saw the rapid expansion of the city to its present day size, as well as attracting an NHL franchise, as the Atlanta Flames were relocated to Alberta to form one of the most storied rivalries in the sport, the Battle of Alberta between the Calgary Flames and the Edmonton Oilers. Their feeder team, the Wranglers, moved into the city in 2022 after previously being based in Stockton (then known as the Heat, they adopted the Wranglers name from a defunct WHL team from the 70s and 80s), and a junior team, the Calgary Hitmen, also use the city as their home (their name inspired by their original bankroller, the aforementioned Bret “The Hitman” Hart). And perhaps more crucially, it brought the Winter Olympics in 1988.

xlarge-1024x791.jpg


17-02-27-021_xgaplus.jpg

Winsport Canada Olympic Park today. Note the service road for the bobsleigh and ski jumps in the foreground.

The Canada Olympic Park hosted the bobsleigh/luge, some of the arena sports (especially the curling, which is commonly held at the top level here to this day) and the ski jumping as well as the Nordic Combined (to avoid having to build two complexes or having the athletes transfer to Canmore between sections of competition) and the freestyle skiing (which at the time consisted of two disciplines, Aerials and - no, really - Ski Ballet) at the 1988 Games and is now sponsored by WinSport, the successor to the Calgary Olympic Development Association, serving as a centre for development of Canadian wintersport athletes, introducing some smaller alpine runs, halfpipes and a terrain park for moguls and other X Games type disciplines. However, of perhaps more interest to us will be that the park, in summer, is converted for XCO and downhill mountain bike disciplines, where it is a popular competition spot on the North American and domestic calendars.

As you might expect as a result of this, most of Calgary’s sporting sons and daughters not related by blood or marriage to the Hart family (I know, definition of ‘sport’ and all that) are wintersport athletes, such as recent ski jumping world champion Alexandria Loutitt, hockey players Bill Gadsby, Taylor Hall, Cale Makar, Jaret Anderson-Dolan, Jay Beagle, Jake Bean, Dany Heatley, Tim Hunter, Jarome Iginla, Larry Kwong, Tyler Myers, William Nylander, Jim Peplinski, Brayden Point, Jason Smith and Mike Vernon, freestyle skier Brady Leman, figure skater Jamie Salé (an Olympic champion), curlers Ben Hebert, Cori Morris, Cheryl Bernard, Amy Nixon and Julie Skinner, lugers Sam Edney and Alex Gough, speed-skater Gilmore Junio, Paralympic cross-country skier and biathlete Brian McKeever, regular biathlete Nathan Smith, and ski-crosser Aleisha Cline, but there are others such as NFL veteran Nate Burleson, former Washington Redskins quarterback Mark Rypien, who won two Superbowls - one of which as MVP - for the team, English footballer Owen Hargreaves (born in Canada to English and German parents), swimmer Curtis Myden, Olympic champion swimmer Mark Tewksbury and Olympic gold medallist gymnast Kyle Shewfelt.

No cyclists though. So let’s try and inspire some.

x68OTGxo_o.png


2iDG8rDK_o.png


The circuit here is 16,9km in length so I’m looking at 9 laps for the women (152,1km), 11 for the U23 men (185,9km), and 16 for the elite men (270,4km), as a pure circuit race Worlds.

05-34-scaled.jpg

Winsport Arena and Park from the west. Finishing straight in foreground in front of Winsport Arena.

The above picture shows the start and finish of each lap. We will take the left curve and then 90º subsequent left at the car park at the start of each lap, before the sharp right and the snaking bobsleigh service road up the hill. With seven snaking corners of varying difficulties, it’s a pretty classic Worlds-style obstacle, totalling 1,7km at 6,2%, but after a short run-up leaving the arena complex, it’s 1,2km at 7,6% before flattening out again at the summit. The summit coming so soon in the circuit also means it is over 14km from the line, which sprinters will like, so long as they can handle the many laps they will be taking.



This is the main climb of the circuit; it is followed by around 4km of flat and false flat around the Cougar Ridge hilltop district, before descending through Patterson Heights and back up Coach Hill on Patina Drive SW - this is 1,1km at just over 4% so it’s an option for an attack in a small group, but it isn’t going to automatically drop anybody; it’s exactly 8km from the line at the summit, so there is the chance to break away and make a move if the group is fairly small, but you aren’t going to easily drop an organised péloton here.

20-06-08-0327_xgaplus.jpg

Patina Drive SW, which we descend and then climb, is the perimeter road of this development

We then descend back down on the highway road. We then turn left onto Na’a Drive and head directly back to the WinSport Arena. I originally preferred to extend the circuit into Bowness to make the climbs a bit further from the finish, but after reviewing I think this route will be superior, as it enables us to create a somewhat more interesting and challenging finale that will make this less likely to be a regular sprint and enable some intrigue in the final few kilometres, whereas the original, slightly longer (18,9km) circuit featured a very straight and slightly uphill (2-3%) drag before crossing Canadian Highway 1 and then having the same final couple of corners and finishing straight as we have here.

Instead, it’s a left-hander at the freeway junction roundabout, before a tricky penultimate kilometre which takes us past the new Trinity Hills development; we pass a retail park before a left-hand sweeper at 1,9km from the finish, which takes us to a 250m at 7% climb, then a couple of light bends (one right, one left), and then a right hand sweeper which finishes the uphill section here, at 1200m to go. The overall for this climb is 700m at 5%, which is just about enough to potentially be decisive, but that 1200m remaining mean it’s not just about that uphill. That right-handed is fairly significantly sweeping, but with a very broad radius. We then cross two roundabouts - one at 1100m from home and the second at 900m. The interesting thing here is that we have gone from one freeway junction where we have exited a road which passes underneath the freeway, along a road running parallel to the freeway to an adjacent junction where the lesser road actually bridges over the freeway. There’s then those two sweeping corners you can see on the picture above, 750m and 450m from the line respectively, but not technical at all and I don’t think that other than the roundabouts no corners in the last few kilometres will be a crash risk.

The climbs on this route make it comparable to, say, Bergen, or an easier version of Montréal, but for me the difficulty is more akin to Madrid or Hamilton, and the layout is perhaps more similar to Lisbon. Obviously the Montréal Worlds on the updated course have yet to happen (although the GP Montréal can be used as examples), but looking at those precedents, we can look at likely outcomes. Lisbon ended with Óscar Freire winning a sprint from a group of 45; Igor Astarloa won solo in Hamilton ahead of a small group largely comprising puncheurs, then a group of just under 40 finished 12” behind him; Tom Boonen won a sprint from a group of 27 in Madrid; while Bergen ended up with an almost identical scenario, Peter Sagan winning a sprint of just under 30. I think this will probably be similar - the tricky run-in is not enough to make it a puncheur thing (especially given the last kilometre favours the chasers), but it’s enough to offer some potential for breaking out of the bunch if it’s not organised around a sprint, for example if there are no teams with coherent leadouts prepared.
As someone who lives in Calgary and has spent a fair bit of time over the years plotting out imaginary world championships courses around the city, it’s rather surreal to see this popping up here all of a sudden!
 
So the winter sports season starts, and immediately I’m whisked off into a merry world of imagining fanciful routes around the range of places we see coated in cold white coverings for the next four months as I get a little break from whinging about the fanboying of the sycophants in the GCN studio cheerleading people I don’t like, which I usually use to whinge about the fanboying of Eurosport International’s sycophants cheerleading people I don’t like. Plus ça change, as they say. Obviously over the years I’ve done many a Nordic Series entry, along with things like a Tour of Norway that was heavily influenced by the Nordic sports, utilising Holmenkollen, Beitostølen, Lillehammer and other such places; a Tour of Finland that was inspired by a love for the navel-gazer nation brought about in part because of my love for the Nordic sports; a Giro del Trentino that consisted solely of stages between Nordic skiing venues; and a multitude of stage hosts in countless races over the years in this thread being cribbed from wintersport. Candanchú in a Vuelta, Oberhof in Peace Races and Deutschlandtours; Hochfilzen, Obertilliach and Seefeld in an Österreichrundfahrt; Nové Město in a Peace Race; Valcartier in my Tour de Quebec, Pokljuka in Tours de Slovénie, the list goes on. The fact I love wintersport is well entrenched in this thread even for those that don’t venture off to the XC skiing threads to see me contributing (often grumpily and wordily as ever) there too.

This is a race which was somewhat inspired by wintersport likewise, but is not set entirely to wintersport venues - at least not the ones you’ll have come to expect from me - but instead more focused around, you know, cycling. The country I have chosen to design this race around sees precious little UCI racing, despite some history with the sport. But, my reason for picking this particular country as one to investigate for the Race Design Thread is heavily influenced by some cult favourites in the wintersport world. This country is Latvia.

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A wide but not especially tall coastal country in northeastern Europe, Latvia is, like its fellow Baltic States, mostly flat, meaning we have some challenge in finding creative ways to make a challenging race here, which is of course part of the fun. It’s also not super northern, so it doesn’t have the most reliable snow, at least in the west closer to the sea. Further inland you do have more reliable winters and this is where the main wintersport venues are. Like many flatter cold countries, however, the country doesn’t really excel in the field of Alpine skiing, snowboarding or such sports, so relies heavily on sliding sports (which have a very strong presence in Latvia), and the endurance-rich Nordic disciplines, although with its limited population and team budgets, the team can seldom be especially competitive with the juggernauts of the Nordic sports. When they can be competitive, however, they seem to be disproportionately keenly felt in my affections.

There are probably at present three high profile Latvians in the Nordic discipline… and I am a big supporter of all three. Biathlon has Baiba Bendika, who has a few top 10s and is a popular figure who breaks in among the bigger nations frequently, and a major cult hero within the sport, Andrejs Rastorgujevs. Andrejs has managed a couple of podiums in a career of over a decade (even bearing in mind the year he spent on the shelf for whereabouts violations) but has picked up a few flower ceremonies or bombed his way to the top 10 from deep in the field, often swashbuckling from deep in the field, only to then blow it completely at the final shoot, or taking the opening leg of a relay and serving as a premier disruptor, forcing pace to get his sponsors some airtime and pressing the pace. It’s just what he does. And in the cross-country, you have exciting up-and-comer Patricija Eiduka, who has been edging ever further forward and, because she is cool, scores her results primarily on distance races. She’s actually one of the youngest of a large family who have all started out in biathlon, but she has been the most successful of the siblings and even won Latvian Sportswoman of the Year in 2020. Big daddy Inguss Eiduks, who coached them all, sadly passed away during the pandemic so he sadly isn’t there in person to see his daughter finally reward him for all his hard work. But we’re not here to talk about skiing, I know.

Stage 1: Liepaja - Talsi, 149km

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So, first thing’s first, as you can see I’ve rather exaggerated the y-axis so that you can actually see some kind of topography here, since the area is rather flat, and this stage, being the one that takes place in the Kurzeme region, better known in English as Courland. The highest point in Courland is barely over 200m above sea level, so you know full well that this is not going to be a climber’s stage, but we are going to try to create some time gaps nevertheless.

The stage starts in Liepāja, the largest city in the region and the overall third-largest city in the country - although given the relatively low population of Latvia relative to many neighbouring countries, that does still leave it at just 67.000 inhabitants. It came to prominence as a valuable ice-free port on the Baltic, founded possibly on the site of an earlier poorly-attested village called Līva, by the Teutonic Knights, who called their village on the site Libau, which grew significantly after being granted city rights in the 17th Century. This was accelerated in the 19th Century after the province fell under Russian control; the fact it was an ice-free port relatively close to St. Petersburg made its position advantageous during the expansion of the railways, and this gave it strategic importance that led to its being fortified against German recapture. This lasted until 1915 when the Germans overran the Russian Empire on the Eastern Front, and from 1918 to 1940 it was a key city in independent Latvia. It was initially captured by the Bolsheviks, but the Nazis then took it, and it was a bastion of the “Courland pocket”, an isolated corner of lands held by the Nazis but cut off entirely by the Red Army for an entire year.

Once the Soviets established control, the city became a key naval base and was eventually cut off from commercial shipping entirely in 1967, and eventually became a closed city, such that permits were required for entry. After liberation in 1990, the city has pivoted back to commercial port status, and the proximity to an existing city structure has helped the former military facilities avoid the same fate as places like Paldiski in Estonia as Soviet ghost towns, with the military districts repurposed as - albeit somewhat spartan and utilitarian - suburbs. Liepāja is also Latvia’s music capital, being home to the oldest symphony orchestra in the Baltic States as well as being the hometown of Līvi, an important band in the development of rock music in Latvia. It also houses one of the strongest ice hockey teams in the country.

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Early in the stage we pass through Grobina, another Teutonic settlement but on the site of an earlier battlefield when the Swedes had controlled the area, and onward we head, largely in a northeastern direction crossing the Courland region. The next landmark is Aizpute, formerly Hasenputh, a Livonian Order castle town built on the site of an old Curonian hillfort, and which hosts our first intermediate sprint. Little happens until we reach the second such sprint, in Kuldīga which, despite barely being 1/5 the size of Liepāja, is the official capital of Courland, possibly owing to its history within the Hanseatic League and its UNESCO-inscribed architecture. Located where the Venta meets the Daugava rivers, it was founded in the 13th Century and was where the independent duchies of Courland and Semigallia (i.e. Kurzeme and Zemgale today) were founded. There is also the widest waterfall in Europe here, although given the width is 275m and the height is barely 2m, it doesn’t really resemble what most people envision when they think of a waterfall. Its central library is also notable, as this was a former synagogue, surprisingly left unaffected by the Nazis, although they did use it to trap Jews in and once they had been barricaded in and summarily executed, the building was used as a grain store before being converted under the Soviets to a cinema. The city is also the hometown of Krists Neilands, arguably the most prominent Latvian in the current péloton, a winner of the Tour of Hungary, the GP de Wallonie, a number of national titles and two combativity awards in the Tour de France, as well as somewhat miraculously being able to stay with thermonuclear Raúl Alarcón and Amaro Antunes almost all the way to the line in that 2017 Volta a Portugal stage when they accidentally did a Tabriz Petrochemical Team in Europe.

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Historic centre of Kuldīga

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Waterfall

Around 20km after the city, however, comes the beginning of the obstacles which are designed to give us the possibility of selectivity, and if you know much about the Baltic States and cycling there, you’re probably aware of what that means: sterrato. And lots of it. Sector 1 - the main body of the challenge on this stage - begins at 39km from the line… but it lasts a grand total of 17,5km, so that’s a pretty severe and long, long stretch of gravel for the riders to deal with. Hell, maybe we’re heading into the UCI’s interpretation of “gravel racing” territory. The sections are pretty nice, though - this long section is included in the European Rally Championships’ Rally Talsi, for example.

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Rally Talsi

This first sector is, if we’re honest, the most likely to cause any serious gaps by anything other than tactics. The rest of the time it will be about placement and racing decisions and brains; the sheer length of this sector however means that attrition comes into it. Plus of course the luck factor; I don’t think that the surface here will be too bad in terms of mechanicals, but the fact it’s stage 1 so there is no race leader to wait for should hopefully mean that the hammer stays down. There are around 4km of tarmac after the end of this herculean sterrato stretch before sector 2 which is 1400m in length, and then another 4,6km of tarmac before a final 1800m on the unsealed roads, meaning the final sterrato sector ends just a mere 9,2km from the line as we approach our finishing town of Talsi.

The site of an ancient hill fort and named after a Livonian word meaning “isolated place”, Talsi is home to just under 10.000 people today and until the end of the 18th Century it was dominated by Baltic Germans, although a Jewish shtetl developed during the ensuing 100 years, although it was largely spared the holocaust by a Russian pogrom at the time of WWI - though those that returned would fall foul of the Nazis later - one of whom was kept hidden by a local farmer for over three years before her eventual capture and murder. I largely selected it as a stage town, however, for being the birthplace of probably the most prominent Latvian cyclist (or at least of those that always competed for Latvia, seeing as Piotr Ugrumov vacillated between the USSR, Latvia and post-Communist Russia), Romāns Vainšteins.

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Vainšteins trades the national colours for rainbow bands at Plouay in 2000

Obviously best known for his 2000 World Championships Road Race win, Romāns Vainšteins is kind of treated nowadays as something of a poster boy for the ‘out of nowhere’ winner, an example of an unheralded rank outsider who somehow won the rainbow jersey. The brevity of his career - he only had eight pro seasons and retired in his early 30s - also helps this perception. But it isn’t quite right, and in reality at the time he was far less out of nowhere than his predecessor; subsequent events have meant Óscar Freire’s 1999 win is kind of accepted as just kind of there, but at the time it occurred it was well out of left field. Vainšteins by contrast had been highly prominent in the year 2000 and the issue with him as a candidate for victory was more to do with the lack of support that the Latvian team could give him relative to other stronger nations, no different to what we would later see in respect of riders like Alexandre Vinokourov or Peter Sagan, and they did alright for themselves in high profile one-day races in national teams too.

All of his best results are crammed in a three year period from 1999 to 2001, but in the context of these, he seems far less of an anomaly as a winner of the World Championships Road Race; he was adept in a sprint and best in one after a hillier route that got rid of some of the fastest men. He’d won two stages of Tirreno-Adriatico and one of the Giro in 1999, and his Classics record was strong in this period - albeit with Paris-Bruxelles and Coppa Bernocchi the biggest wins, but he had managed to podium the Ronde van Vlaanderen, Milano-Sanremo, Paris-Roubaix, Cyclassics and Clásica San Sebastián, and score top 5s in Amstel Gold, Paris-Tours, Omloop, Gent-Wevelgem and Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne during that period. You name the one-dayer, he was a threat in more or less any route short of Lombardia. However, after leaving Dome-Farm Frites for 2003 and returning to Vini Caldirola where he’d first broken out, he rapidly declined and achieved little in his last two seasons before retiring prematurely. In that respect he’s something of a throwback to the Ostbloc Russian racers of yesteryear, burning brightly but briefly, and also overtraining, overworking and, yes, doping, as he would later hint, answering a simple “yes/no” question of whether he had doped with an evasive “that’s my own personal business”.

Our route around Talsi is an interesting one - a bit like Viljandi in Estonia, its potential is known for cycling but frustratingly its best cycling roads are parallel so including them both in a circuit is hard. No fear then - we’ll just use one, loop around and use the other, but use them each just once because it’s only stage 1. Neither obstacle is especially challenging, especially for pros, but they’re something. The official stats of the Kalna Iela climb are 320m at 5,9% - but according to the Strava profile it has 100m at 12% in the middle. The current KOM is Toms Flaksis, a former pro who spent a year with La Pomme Marseille (later Delko) back in the early 2010s. It crests just 3,8km from the line so there’s the possibility to do something with it. Oh… and it’s cobbled. This is enough for it to get the nod as our one categorised climb for the day.

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Kalna Iela

It is crucial that although the cobbles continue straight on in front of us, we turn left at the top of this climb onto Laidzes Iela. This enables us to avoid the crossroads where the finish will be in only a few kilometres’ time. Instead we loop around Talsu Ezers, or Talsi Lake (eagle-eyed linguist viewers will spot the similarity of Ezers “lake” to Slavic, from which it is likely borrowed). This allows us to go up to a roundabout and keep our run-in mostly on wide and safe roads. I could have shortened this section but for safety’s sakes I took a couple of extra roundabouts out to make the turning onto the final road of the day shallower, rather than having a tight 90º right at 800m from the line; instead we have a sweeping 50º or so right with a wide radius onto Lielās Ielas. This road includes a kink to the right and then a final kink to the left only 150m or so from the line - however this last 340m is at 4,7% with the last 150m at around 8% as it gradually steepens.

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Approaching final corner

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Finishing straight and final corner
 
Stage 2: Jelgava - Jekabpils, 210km

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The longest stage of the Tour of Latvia is the second, as we head through Semigallia (Zemgale) province and into the southeast of the country. Jelgava, south of Riga, is the largest city in Zemgale with a population of 55.000 and is a logical host therefore. The Latvian name is a regional variation on “jālgab” or “town on the river”, but for most of its history it has been known as Mitau, the name originally given to it by the crusading Livonian Knights and reflected in the Yiddish name (Mitave) and the Polish (Mitawa). It has also come under siege several times, most notably during the wars between the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Sweden. Although it changed hands during the partitions of Poland it largely survived intact, unfortunately however the same could not be said of World War I where it was badly damaged, although its defence by Home Guard battalions led to the formation of the Latvian Rifles division. It suffered more in the immediate aftermath however, as the Soviets fought Latvian freedom fighters and depleted German loyalists through 1919 before the establishment of independent Latvia and the renaming of the city to its present name. In July and August 1941 it was the scene of some of the least ceremonious massacres of the Nazi era, as the Gestapo and Latvian auxiliary police went around gunning down ‘undesirables’ indiscriminately until a specific weekend date when any survivors were taken to a rifle range, forced to dig a pit, and then massacred in waves, with estimates ranging from 1500 to 2000 murdered across the course of two days. Following Soviet occupation the city was rebuilt in typical fashion of the day, but since Latvian independence a lot of the Baltic German era architecture has been restored and given the city back a bit of its tourist interest. It has a small amount of cycling heritage, being the hometown of Dzintars Lācis, a member of the USSR Team Pursuit teams at the 1964 and 1968 Olympics, and also hosting the start of two stages of the Baltic Chain Tour, in 2017 and 2022, both finishing in Sigulda. The winners of those stages were ex-Astana, IPT and Human Powered Health pro Benjamin Perry and ex-Bora and Astana man Martin Laas respectively.

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This stage is pretty flat, but it is also the most sterrato that we will see in a single stage, with a total of 45,9km across 8 sectors in the course of the stage. These are mostly divided into two sections, with four early - should be in the first hour and a half of racing - and four later on which should be more decisive for the bunch. The first landmark is Iecava, known in German as Großeckau, the scene of a battle during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, and then after that it’s a veritable diet of dirt roads. The first sector into Misa is 6,3km in length, starting just under 35km into the stage, and then there’s around 2km tarmac before sector 2, which is the shortest at 1200m. 3,6km tarmac follows before another 1500m, and then we have just 1500m of tarmac before almost 18 kilometres of unabridged, unabated gravel. This will sort out the men from the boys. We’re still like 140km from the line at the end of this so I am not expecting significant moves, but it should tail off some also-rans, allow breaks to form, and give riders an idea of what to expect later.

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Sector 3, road from Vecumnieki to Ķegums, as far as Ligieri

This section ends shortly before we reach the banks of the Daugava, and we then follow its southern banks for around 35km before we cross the river into Aizkraukle. Originally known as Ascherade by the Baltic Germans and, until 1990, Stučka by the Soviets, it is also home of an intermediate sprint and the local ski club of the Eiduks family, where Ingus Eiduks previously coached prior to his death during the Covid-19 pandemic. The Eiduks family - from nearby Koknese, which also hosts an intermediate sprint - consists of Ingus, his widow Anita, and at least six children who have gone into winter sport; Valts Eiduks (b.1986) went to the Turin Olympics and also competed in the Junior and U23 Worlds and the Universiade in cross-country; Krists (b.1988) entered the IBU Cup as a biathlete in 2006-7 after making 6th in the Junior Worlds, and also competed at the equivalent level as a cross-country skier; Elina Eiduka (b.1989) did biathlon on the IBU Cup at the same time but retired early - a bit of a shame as she seemed decently promising looking at the results in a vacuum; Ralfs (b.1997) competed in cross-country at the European Youth Olympic Festival; Patricija (b.2000) is the most successful, having abandoned biathlon after struggling with shooting at the Junior Worlds and focused on cross-country, where she is a mainstay of the World Cup and the reigning U23 World Cup overall winner; finally, Edijs Eiduks (b.2003) has been seen at the Junior Worlds and EYOF and is angling for a World Cup debut this season.

We now follow along the north bank of the Daugava, as far as Pļaviņas, which is home to the largest hydroelectric power plant in the European Union, the construction of which was controversial and aroused almost unprecedented levels of protest in Latvia against the Soviet government. This was due to the implications of the construction, which would result in flooding historical sites and landmarks; among those to be submerged were the ruins of Koknese’s historic castle, and the scenic Staburags cliff, a rock face and waterfall which created a whirlpool and would freeze in winter, and was the subject of many local myths and legends. The main myth surrounds the rock and waterfall being the personification of a mourning girl of legend whose lover drowned on the site and she remained fixed in place in mourning until she was turned into rock, and another version appearing in the Lāčplēsis, the national epic of Latvia, written in the late 19th Century by Andrejs Pumpurs to collect folk tales and myths in epic poem form, similar to the Kalevala in Finland or the Kalevipoeg in Estonia. According to the myth, our titular hero (his name meaning “bear slayer”) observes a plot of the witch Spīdala at Aizkraukle castle, who catches him and tries to drown him by throwing him into the whirlpool, only for the goddess Staburadze (many of the characters have names personifying cities, towns and landmarks in the region, with Aizkrauklis and Koknesis two other such figures) to rescue him by pulling her down to the crystal castle she lives in beneath the waves. The Staburags have disappeared from the map thanks to the power plant, and they now reside around 6,5m below the surface of the Daugava, this famous and culturally significant site to Latvians now reduced to a curio visited by divers and small submersibles only.

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Staburags prior to its submersion in 1958

After passing through Pļaviņas it’s time to leave the river behind and enter our second set of sterrato sections. The first of these commences at 49km from the line and lasts for 5,8km, heading into the village of Varieši. 1,6km of tarmac through the village ensues before we hit another 6,6km stretch. The key thing about this is that 4km into the stretch there is a T-junction we approach in a hamlet called Sprukti; we turn right, and this takes us onto a final circuit that is 30,3km in length and we are doing one-and-a-bit laps of it. The end of this section is a mere 4,3km from the finishing line in Jēkabpils, but the first time around this is just an intermediate sprint, not the actual finish of course.

A fast and straight tarmac route out of town via Zīlāni characterises the first part of the circuit, something of a respite from the gravel and dirt roads. However, at 17km from the finish we turn left and head onto an uphill road which is also gravel, and the final run for home begins. I mean, it’s barely perceptible as a climb, being only around 3,5% for 1,2km, but it’s the high point of the stage so I figured I’d give out some mountains points. As such while it may look like there’s a descent on the profile, again it’s mere false flat so the fact it’s on sterrato doesn’t seem like much of an issue; the Giro’s sterrato stages and Strade Bianche routinely risk more. This overall sector is 5,2km in length and ends at 12,3km from the line, then we ride along 5,4km of tarmac before the T-junction in Sprukti where we join the sector we did in full earlier, completing the final 2,6km of it on our way to the finish.

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Strictly speaking, we aren’t finishing in Jēkabpils at all but in Krustpils on the opposite side of the river. Historically, these were two separate cities, each side of the Daugava, with Jēkabpils being in Selonia and Krustpils in Latgale, but they were linked into one municipality by the Soviets in 1962. This extends back to their founding by the Baltic Germans, with Jēkabpils being known as Jakobstadt and Krustpils as Kreutzburg. Krustpils is actually older, the area having been settled owing to its convenient location at a bend in the river since at least 1000BC, but the present inhabitation having been founded around its scenic medieval castle, which we actually pass close to, at the final left hand curve around a kilometre from the line.

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The south bank of the river started to be settled in the 17th Century when Russian Old Believers displaced during the Raskol arrived in the area, and Poles and Lithuanians in the ailing days of the Commonwealth settled in the town in order to access trade with the Latgale towns. It was a major battleground during the Great Northern War, and after rebuilding a ferry was established between the two towns across the river which improved the connectivity and cooperation between the two, until finally in 1936 a bridge was inaugurated. The modern population of the city is about 30.000, 2/3 of which is in Jēkabpils with the remainder in Krustpils, although it is apparently reducing somewhat as Latvia experiences a bit of a brain drain. Around 2/3 the population are Latvians with around 1/4, so most of the remainder, being Russians who had largely moved here during the Soviet era, many to service the Jēkabpils Air Base, from which tactical military reconnaissance aircraft would be tested and flown. Now largely disused, it hit the news in 2004 when one of its buildings was found to be a hive of illicit material, mostly cigarettes, being smuggled into the EU from Russia and Belarus. Our finish should be much more scenic and serene than a rundown airfield though, passing the castle after a couple of roundabouts, and then a long straight finish into the old town.
 
Stage 3: Rēzekne - Alūksne, 163km

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Our third stage starts in Rēzekne, the seventh largest city in Latvia with around 26.000 inhabitants. Originally known from Germans as Rositten, and then by the Russians as Rezhitsa (from which the Yiddish name, Rezhitze, derived), it was originally a Latgalian hill fort upon which the German crusaders built a fortress of stone to mark and protect their eastern frontier. Over the eras it would change hands between the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Russian Empire, and during the 19th Century it became an important shtetl, a centre of the Jewish community, and over half of the population were Jews when surveyed during this period. Although this proportion declined in the early 20th Century after Latvian independence, the driving out of the Jews during the Nazi occupation still reduced the population from about 13.000 to a mere 5.000. The Soviets extensively repopulated the city with ethnic Russians, and for much of the Soviet period it was a majority-Russian city, but many repatriated back into Russia following Latvian independence; the population reached a peak of 43.000 at the end of the USSR but has shrunk considerably for this reason since. It is famous for the Latgales Māra statue, commemorating liberation from the Red Army in 1920. It was rather predictably destroyed when the Soviets marched in in 1940, reinstated under German occupation, re-removed in 1950, and then reconstructed from old photographs in the 1990s.

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We’re heading along the eastern borderlands of Latvia here, so close to the Russian border. It’s mostly a flat and straightforward stage in all honesty, but it also includes probably the biggest shock to any of you in the race: I didn’t detour through Madona, home of the country’s main biathlon and cross-country skiing facilities! Don’t worry though, my beloved ski-shooting sport will make an appearance today.

In fact, for the first 120km or so very little of significance is likely to happen; it’s tarmac roads but through fairly sparsely populated areas. The most significant point of the first 3/4 of the stage is passing through Gulbene, a village which grew exponentially since the 1920s as it stood on a railway junction, and where I host an intermediate sprint, and then Stameriena, home of one of the most impressive castles in Latvia. After all, race coverage most places pines to be like the Tour de France, and the Tour de France coverage doesn’t half love to liven up a dull flat stage by showcasing France itself, an underrated star of the show, by highlighting a few vineyards and châteaux. Latvia mightn’t be the first place you think of for mighty châteaux, but it has its own charm to offer.

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The main body of this stage from a GC-relevant perspective is the two laps of ~17,5km we undertake once arriving in Alūksne, our finishing town. Home to a little over 6.000 people, the town was settled since antiquity by ancestors of the Finns and Estonians, before Latgalian Balts moved in and settled the area from the 8th Century. The location on the shores of Lake Alūksne (from which the town obviously derives its name) along with the rarefied air (semi-joking - Alūksne is the highest altitude town in Latvia, at a herculean height of 217m above sea level). In 1284 the Teutonic Knights arrived, and Marienburg fortress was constructed on an island in the lake. The nearby village of Volyst expanded around the fortifications and became known as Marienburg likewise. Although historically settled by Latgalians, the town was in the Vidzeme area, and Ernst Glück, a German clergyman from the town, became a key figure in Latvian cultural history by deciding that in order to spread the word of God he needed the townsfolk to understand it, translating the Bible into Latvian and opening up Latvian-language schools in order to improve literacy of the populace.

As with many such towns and cities in the Baltic region, successive incorporations into Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union have ravaged much of its historical sites, but an outdoor theatre has been set up at the ruins of the former castle, while the Neue Schloß has been reconstructed in the neogothic style after damage in WWII, with monuments to the fallen erected both during Soviet times and following independence.

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But let’s be honest, you know the drill, it’s me. Alūksne has a small biathlon club - not even one which has a stadium that can host events, just a range and tracks and a small hut for preparations and changing rooms for competitors - but this small biathlon club has been at the heart of Latvian biathlon for many years. Kristaps Lībietis competed periodically on the World Cup and IBU Cup (or its predecessor the European Cup) for a decade from 2000, retiring after the Vancouver Olympics, with just one points-scoring World Cup performance to his name; Gints Rozenbergs competed in 20 World Cup events - largely sprints and relays - from 2005 to 2010; Aleksandris Sverčkovs was a reasonably successful junior who however never rose above the IBU Cup level. But, the town also gave the nation the man, the myth, the legend, Andrejs Rastorgujevs. I gave Andrejs a cursory rundown in the pre-amble so I shan’t repeat myself too much, but since his World Cup debut in 2009, Rastorgujevs has very much carried the flag for Latvia, being by far and away their most notable talent since Edgars Piksons and has a personal best of 13th on the overall World Cup, with three podiums at the highest level to his name - two 2nd places individually, in a sprint and a mass start, and a Single Mixed Relay alongside Baiba Bendika; this goes alongside 43 top 10s, 5 medals (two gold, one silver and two bronze) at the European Championships, and one IBU Cup win. He’s also a veteran of three Olympics, and Beijing would have made it four had he not fallen foul of ADAMS regulations. Even despite the suspension, however, he remains a popular figure on the circuit as an outsider and a rebel flying the flag for outsider nations to possibly the greatest success of anybody on the circuit in the last decade, at least on the men’s side. In recent years the Buliņa twins, Sandra and Sanita, have joined him as Alūksne natives on the World Cup; they are still in their formative years (being 2001 births) but at time of writing Sanita is the more successful, arriving on the World Cup two years earlier and having achieved three points finishes.

In addition to these, the same sports club has given the world former world champion orienteer Edgars Bertuks, and the town is also home to former national road race (2014) and time trial (2020) cycling champion Andris Vosekalns, who spent a few years racing rather uninspiring-looking parcours races in the Baltic States, Belarus and Poland with Rietumu Bank before finding a niche for himself in China; he has been on the books of Hengxiang Cycling Team since 2018, but those national titles remain his greatest achievements.

The final circuit consists essentially of circling around Lake Alūksne, which is a flat-to-rolling loop. But not so fast! The dirt roads are back, I’m afraid (well, I’m not, I’m not sorry for it at all) - only one sector here, but it is 9,2km in length so accounts for over half of the circuit. The far point of the circuit - at the end of the sterrato section - is Lāzberģis, a small village famous for its abandoned castle, the shell of which stands tall and proud against the lake and provides an impressive backdrop for the closing stages.

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However, as I am kind, the sterrato ends 8km from the line so if the sprinters can survive it - and it is flat so some at least should - this is their chance, that thing that looks like a repecho on the profile is 1km at 3%, so really not going to make this one for the puncheurs. The final significant corner is at 1500m from the line, after that there are only a couple of curves, first to the right and then to the left, before we finish at the museum with it on our left and the city park on our right, with the lake as our backdrop. This will be a scenic finish if it’s just going to be a sprint stage, at least. And bonus seconds could be crucial in this race with its short nature and mostly flat terrain, so there’s that too.
 
Stage 4: Valmiera - Sigulda, 166km

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Ah, it’s time for the Queen stage. Patterned after similar mostly-flat stage races that can offer a hilly circuit to build their race around - such as, for example, the Mont Cassel stage in the Quatre Jours de Dunkerque, the Old Willunga Hill stage in the Tour Down Under, or the Huskvarna stage in the old Tour of Sweden (which is probably the most obvious and direct comparable for this stage for those that remember it). Not a super long stage, but a challenging enough one that takes advantage of the few terrain opportunities that Latvia offers in order to establish some broken up GC and, if the race was to be televised, notably something to offer on the penultimate day of the race, which for a regular Wednesday-to-Sunday schedule for a five day race, would mean broadcasting on a Saturday.

With a population of 27.000, Valmiera, our stage start for the day, is the largest city and cultural centre of the Vidzeme region. It is a major stopping point on the northwestern of the two parallel historical trade routes from Riga to St Petersburg, running each side of Lake Peipus. This route, north of the Gauja river, heads through Valmiera and Valga to Tartu in Estonia, then on toward Narva and then along the Gulf of Finland, as opposed to the other which enters Russia via Pskov and Luga. One of the oldest inhabited locations in the country, like many Latvian towns and cities it traces its modern history to a German castle, called Volmar. This is believed to be a reflection in the local Baltic German dialect of the given name Waldemar, analogous to Vladimir, so sharing its name with the Golden Circle city of Russia. It was highly prosperous in its early development, thanks to the benefits brought from trading as part of the Hanseatic League. However, successive destructions in the Livonian War in the late 16th Century and the Great Northern War of the early 18th left it a city in decline. Bridging the Gauja and the establishment of rail traffic along the old Riga-St Petersburg trade routes helped arrest the decline, but it was also one of the worst affected cities in Latvia during World War II, with almost the entire centre razed to the ground. As a result it was rebuilt almost from scratch in the Soviet era, although unlike many cities there was at least some attempt to preserve the aesthetic of the old city in the reconstruction.

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Valmiera is also an important sporting city in Latvia’s history, having been home to Jānis Daliņš, a race walker who became the first Olympic medalist for the nation in 1932, winning silver in the 50km, an event he would also become European Champion in two years later. The athletic stadium in the city was named for him in 1938 and over time facilities have expanded to accommodate several other sports, most notably BMX, which Latvia have become something of a power in. This centred around Ivo Lakučs, who was a double Olympian, entering as part of the Team Pursuit in 2000 and in 2008 in his preferred BMX, a discipline he had 6 European Championship medals in, one of which was gold. He went on to coach three more Valmiera natives who would go on to represent the country at the Olympics in the sport, Edžus Treimanis, Rihards Veide and, most notably, Māris Štrombergs, who won gold in both Beijing and London in the BMX, as well as two world titles in 2008 and 2010, and three European titles in 2008, 2013 and 2014.

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Štrombergs is not the only Olympic medallist from Valmiera, though; while I may have focused so far on Nordic skiers and biathletes, Latvia’s interest in winter sports tends to revolve more around ice than snow; they are a decent if unspectacular ice hockey nation, but more importantly, they love them some sliding sports. Luge, skeleton and in particular bobsleigh are popular disciplines that the Latvians are always competitive in, and Oskars Melbārdis, from Valmiera, is the most successful Latvian ever in bobsleigh, having won an Olympic gold in 2014, a World gold in 2016, and European championships in 2008 and 2015 in the four-man bob, plus scoring a further two World bronzes and two European bronzes in the same discipline, plus a further two Olympic bronzes in 2014 and 2018, and World and European silvers in 2015, in the two-man bob.

The Gauja river valley carves a gorge several metres deep and this gives us a more bumpy ride than in the previous stages, even before we cross the river. Our first stop-off of note is Cēsis, a former hill fort site controlled by the Livonian Brothers of the Sword, formerly known as Wenden under German rule and the site of a decisive battle in the Latvian War of Independence where Estonian and Latvian forces defeated the Germans to expel them from the region. More recently it has been developed as a spa town and health resort, with access to scenic hiking and natural park areas in the Gauja valley. It has also seen a major sports centre opened up at Priekuli on its outskirts; Luger Ingrīda Amantova, who won the USSR’s only women’s Olympic medal in the sport when she took bronze in the Lake Placid 1980 Games, and the biathletes Gerda Krūmiņa and current cult favourite Baiba Bendika, are among those who have benefited from these facilities.

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Cēsis castle

After this we loop around north of the Gauja, through the national park, and rejoin the Valmiera to Riga road for a bit before making a beeline for Turaida, whereupon we descend down to the Gauja river once more and head into the city of Sigulda, a famous one for Latvian sport. Due to steep rock formations and caves, this small city of 15.000 people has nevertheless earned a reputation as a beauty spot, and due to its relative proximity (being ~50km by car) to Riga, it has become a popular getaway for people from the capital in search of space, fresh air, scenery or adventure.

Probably the most famous tourist site in Sigulda is Gutmanis Cave, the largest, widest and highest cave in the Baltic States, and a place of both ancient worship and centuries-old tourism, with inscriptions and coats of arms placed there from the 17th Century. The cave is also the home of the legend of the Rose of Turaida; the story goes that after the Swedes captured Turaida Castle, its keeper found a living infant girl among the slain bodies and took her in, and when she grew she became betrothed to a gardener who would meet her at the cave. She was tricked into meeting with a Polish deserter who had become infatuated with her and tried to seize her by force; she in turn tricked him through a tale of a magic scarf into killing her so that she could avoid shame. Her fiancé was tried for murder after losing his axe when trying to save her, but an accomplice of the would-be kidnapper then revealed the truth. The people in the legend have been confirmed to have existed and the final resting place of Maija, Rose of Turaida is now marked in the cemetery at Turaida; obviously it is likely the tale has been embellished in the retelling (similarities to the plots of Romeo and Juliet and Akutagawa’s “In a Thicket”, the inspiration for Kurosawa’s “Rashomon”, are clear).

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Gutmanis caves

Crossing the river here, it is an uphill ramp up to the top of the cliffs to enter the town. This has meant it has become a crucial part of stage races around this part of the world, and features regularly in the Baltic Chain Tour. Winners in the city include near-20-year veteran Slovak Patrik Tybor, former Israel Cycling Academy and Astana man Benjamin Perry, Trek and now DSM mainstay Emīls Liepiņš (then riding for the Latvian national team), and former Bora and Astana man Martin Laas (riding for the Estonian national team). The city also hosted the national championships in 2020, with Viesturs Lukševics winning the road race and Andris Vosekalns the time trial. The final ramp up into the town from this side (not always used but has been seen more often than not) is 1,1km at 7,1%. But we’re not taking that side. In fact, we’re now joining a circuit we have 9,5 laps of, meaning ten times up the slightly different climb that we’re taking, because we are going to take advantage of the one thing Sigulda is famous for beyond the borders of the Baltic States: sliding sports. Sigulda’s most famous landmark is its bobsleigh/luge run. And helpfully for us, said run has a service road which runs alongside it. And which gets pretty steep.

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While this is not exactly the most arduous or imposing climb in the world, you may have guessed that if I am taking this as an alternative to the ramp already known to the sport of cycling that this is possibly more challenging, or steeper, or something similar. And you would be right. The climb up the service road for the luge and bobsleigh run amounts to 690m at 11,6% and can be seen on Strava here; max gradient appears to be 15,6% according to that profile, so that’s not inconsiderable. The current KOM for the climb is held by Ēriks Toms Gavars, a retired pro who had a stint as an espoir with Rietumu and Amore e Vita, held jointly with Māris Bogdanovičs, a veteran of the Latvian scene who is currently racing in China. Their time is under 2 minutes, so it’s not like this is some major obstacle, but the circuit that we are undertaking is only 9,2km in duration, so we will be seeing plenty of the climb, and the fact we ascend it 10 times will only serve to extend the importance to the GC.

The final ascent of the climb will be with just 5,5km remaining, but this also shows that the line is not so close to the climb as to make this just a puncheur’s finale either, you will have to race this from a bit further out if you want to make significant enough gaps. The original idea for a Sigulda circuit was much older, and was built around a longer circuit for a Worlds or European Championship course, but this hit against problems because there is a train line running through the city that only has one bridged/tunnelled crossing, the rest are level crossings and while it’s not unusual to see these in a bike race, seeing them on a circuit is somewhat rarer. We therefore take a couple of chicanes out of the sliding facility to return to public roads, before we continue along the ridge to Sigulda’s premier skiing area, probably Latvia’s best known training area for downhill skiing as well as having a network of XC trails, Fischer Slēpošanas Centrs Siguldā.

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This enables us to use a bit of the A2/E77 highway, which flattens the course out and enables us to pass over the train tracks without incident and then use the one inner city traversal of the railway lines that does not entail crossing the tracks themselves, via a series of shallow curves and relatively undemanding corners that culminate in the final turn at 800m from the line at the railway station, taking us northwards for a final straight that passes a park with a pump track and skate park, up on Raina Iela to a finish at the Monument to the Latvian Cyclists, because, you know, cycling and all.

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This is the same finish used at the Baltic Chain Tour in 2023, only we’re coming from the opposite direction, so after the first time we cross the line, with 83km remaining, the road immediately starts to become downhill false flat and then eventually a proper downhill until we reach the Gauja once more. With 9 more laps of the circuit, the hills should start to play a role. And let’s be honest: being in the break in this stage is probably - almost certainly I would say - going to settle the GPM, unless the GC contenders go wild early and start duking out the bobsleigh run climb more than 5 laps from the finish. But if they wanted to do that? I’m all for it.
 
Stage 5: Biķernieki - Riga, 13,9km (ITT)

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And so we finish with this, a short-to-mid-length ITT in and around the nation’s capital, which you will probably have expected seeing the direction we were headed. It makes sense to utilise the capital city and take the race to the people, especially in a nation which is relatively sparsely populated like Latvia, and besides, the fact remains that with 660.000 inhabitants in the city itself and 900.000 in the metropolitan area, Riga completely and utterly dwarfs every other city in the country so it would be a major omission if the nation was to set up a proper short tour like this. It’s not like it’s some gargantuan country where you can stay away from the capital city and still link major metropoles. It’s by far the most famous, most important and strongest city in the country, and home to by far the largest number of notable alumni in the country.

Its name etymology is disputed; it likely either derives from an Old Livonian word for a loop in the river which has given it its natural harbour, or from the German word for the Rīdzene river, a tributary of the Daugava. This natural harbour has been a boon for the city which grew in early middle age times, as the Vikings used it as part of their trade route to Byzantium, before German traders arrived in the 12th Century, bringing Christianity first by peaceful means, and then when this saw limited success, by force by way of a crusade at the end of the century. After some time of dispute, the city joined the Hanseatic League in 1282 and became a strong and established mercantile city, swiftly outgrowing and coming to dominate all other cities in the region.

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As the power of the Hansa declined, the city became a free Imperial City in the Holy Roman Empire briefly, before being passed to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1581. It was then taken by Sweden forty years later, and was in fact one of the strongest and largest Swedish cities until 1710, when the Russians captured it. The battles in the Great Northern War continued until eventually the city was formally ceded to the Russian Empire eleven years later, a status it would keep until Latvian independence in the 20th Century, due primarily to German capitulation in the West after the Russians were forced to cede the Baltic States as part of the peace treaty on the Eastern front. After a brief period of independence the city was seized by the Soviets in 1940, holding rigged elections, arresting and deporting scores of politicians and individuals and opening “the corner house”, the KGB’s largest headquarters in the Baltic region, which is now a museum. When the Nazis arrived the following year, a concentration camp was set up in the northern suburb of Ķeizarmežs (Kaiserwald), but not before over 24.000 Jews were systematically murdered in the Rumbula forest, the second largest atrocity committed under that regime before the establishment of the extermination camps. The historical centre was heavily damaged by the Soviet battle to reclaim the city, and although much was rebuilt as close to its original look as possible, it was not until 1995 with the rebuilding of the House of the Blackheads that the pre-war skyline of Riga returned.

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House of the Blackheads, one of Germany’s lasting legacies in Riga

The city was a European Capital of Culture in 2014 and recent history has largely been about asserting the nation’s sovereignty and rejecting evidence of the former Russian hegemony. This has accelerated in the last two years, with Russian activity in Ukraine largely catalysing a pro-Europe swing in the country. Soviet-era immigrants were not automatically entitled to Latvian citizenship (earlier ones were), and the population has swung more toward ethnic Latvians in the last 30 years - however it is still only around half of the city. This historic population does, however, include a large number of Latvia’s most well-known great and good - even though many of the most famous or important Riga natives are remnants of its more cosmopolitan times; these include legendary and visionary film director Sergei Eisenstein, whose Battleship Potemkin remains one of the most important milestones in cinema; Jākobs Jufess, who would emigrate to America, take the name Jacob W Davis and be the inventor of modern denim jeans; surgery pioneer Ernst von Bergmann; Wilhelm Ostwald, a Nobel Prize-Winning chemist; Turing Award-winning computer scientist Juris Hartmanis, and social and political theorist Isaiah Berlin.

Sports-wise, a large proportion of Latvia’s best-known athletes come from Riga as you may expect. Rīgas ASK are just about the most successful European basketball team in history, and in 1960 TTT Riga won the women’s European title making the first time both awards went to the same city. Dinamo Riga were a prominent and important ice hockey team playing in the Soviet league and later the KHL, but withdrew in protest at the invasion of Ukraine, as did all of the overseas teams in the KHL bar Barys Astana and Kunlun Red Star (who have been playing in Russia since the pandemic anyway) and are now re-establishing themselves aiming to join the Finnish league in order to keep Latvian ice hockey at a strong level as the domestic league is small; with players like Teodors Bļugers (anglicised as “Teddy Blueger”), Zemgus Girgensons and Elvis Merzļikins in the NHL (and formerly Sandis Ozoliņš, arguably the best ever Latvian ice hockey player, as well as Matīss Kivlenieks, who died in his prime in 2021 after an accident involving a fireworks display) the sport is one of the most popular in the country. Riga has also given the world success in the world of chess, always popular in the Soviet times, with Mikhail Tal the best-known Grandmaster of Riga, and more recently the tennis player Jeļena Ostapenko, arguably the most likely answer that the man in the street will give when asked to name a Latvian sportsperson (unless they’re a major ice hockey fan), who won the 2017 French Open.

The city also briefly held its own one-day race, as well as appearing a few times in the Tour de l’URSS. It is hard to find too much detail on the old versions of this race, at least until the late 70s when they rebranded it the “national championships in stage racing” and based it out of Crimea, but early versions would start in St Petersburg and run through the Baltic States where the sport was popular before arcing back to Moscow. The GP Riga was a largely flat affair whose most famous winner is probably the Italian sprinter Francesco Chicchi in 2013, though a case may be made for Gatis Smukulis in 2007 during its UCI phase; Toms Skujiņš did win a non-UCI-ranked edition in 2010 at the age of 19, however.

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The time trial starts at the Biķernieki racing circuit, the only FIA-homologated motor racing circuit in the country (and one of very few in the Baltic States as a whole that are capable of holding decent sized events, with the likes of Kloostimestra and the mad Palanga circuit being temporary). Designed in 1962, it weaves through the forest and largely hosts junior formulae in open wheel and touring cars, as well as for a period the European Rallycross Championship and even briefly the World Championship in the same discipline. In the winter these paths, tracks and even the circuit itself, like those of the Finnish Ahvenistö circuit, are used as a cross-country skiing complex. The Biķernieki forest is also home to Latvia’s main war memorial, as the forest here, owing to its proximity to the capital, saw a huge number of killings, and there are at least 55 marked burial sites with upward of 20.000 victims in the forest. The memorial was proposed and planned in 1986, but delayed by the fall of the Soviet Union and revived by the German War Graves Commission in 2000.

We head south to the Dreiliņkalns hill which we head around the outside of and then take a right and then it’s a long straight line until we reach Daugavas Stadions, constructed in 1927 as the main sporting centre of independent Latvia, a role which it has reacquired since the secession from the Soviet Union, with a recent renovation increasing the capacity to around 10.500 and rising once complete. The stadium deals with football and athletics, but the complex once complete will also include a national ice arena and a basketball/handball/volleyball arena. After this another left takes us to the Centra Sporta Kvartāls, another sporting centre, although apart from the Riga University athletics track and soccer/rugby stadium, the remainder is more for outdoor games like tennis and also BMX and a skate park.

The final part of the circuit takes us around Riga old town, and after around 10km of very few corners and mostly power, suddenly in the final 3km or so, there are a lot of corners and technical challenges to change up the tempo a bit. The final section is down to the Freedom Monument, and then circling to the north of the city centre to the riverside; past Rigas Pils, the city’s castle which now serves as the President’s residence.

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Finally, we hook a left into the cobbled stretches through the middle of town until we get to the finish, which will be in front of the cathedral on Doma Laukums, the central square. This will give us a Mont Cassel-like backdrop, but with more scenic city centre and less hill. But that’s fine, as this is a time trial. After the dirt and cobbles of the first three days and then the relentless punchy hills of stage 4, this will be a nice way to finish off the short stage race.

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So this one is actually a race I’d been trying not to do. I’ve had a couple of goes but never been happy, and in the end it kind of just fell together. With some of the discussions we’ve had about the calendar, the UCI points system and the way the second tier teams are dropping away, one of the ideas I’ve had for a while of how to revamp that second tier was to have a couple of sort of lower-tier long-form stage races that would serve as kind of the Grand Tours of the below World Tour level, with a couple such races per continent, or per continent as defined by the UCI at least. We already have a pseudo-level like that on the Asia Tour with Langkawi and Qinghai Lake both being 2.HC races for many years (although if they could be two weeks, then maybe the two Tour of China races that ran pre-pandemic back to back could be put back into a single race for this purpose to offer more variety in parcours than Qinghai Lake has to offer) - so I thought, what would be the logical races to do for that? I mean, Portugal is kind of a no-brainer for Europe, but the second would be harder to figure out - Germany would be the most logical (and of course in my mind I would most love a Peace Race) but perhaps some kind of race in Scandinavia or the Balkans would also be an option. Greece too, perhaps, but they are very peripheral to cycling even if they have the geography for it. For Africa, the Tour du Maroc or Tour d’Algérie would be the logical offering for a North African race, and then perhaps a second race in East Africa where the cycling interest is (Ethiopia would be most likely given infrastructure, population size and geographical diversity) or in South Africa. And for the Americas? I figured one in South America (probably the Vuelta a Colombia) and one in North America.

And that was what led me to this. An idea I’ve been attached to for a while in this kind of role was a sort of ‘Great American Road Race’. You couldn’t really have a ‘Tour of the USA’, it’s far too big to cover with even three weeks, let alone two; but only touring one part of the country à la the Tour of California would make it not seem a big enough race to merit the status. So I had this idea of a kind of travelling circus of a race that would be bid on by regions year on year, giving it different characteristics. One year it could be in the Pacific North West, in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. One year it could be in the South and feature the mountains of Tennessee, Georgia and the Carolinas. One year it could be in the Rockies. And the main area I was trying to investigate, the East, with stages around the major cities in college country, hockey country and the likes, in New England, around the line of major cities down from New York to Washington DC and then inland to Ohio and Pennsylvania.

But the problem for me was, those left me with a lack of cycling history. To incept such a race, you’d need history, right? The couple of editions of the Tour de Trump didn’t really give me enough to work with. And so I kept on circling back to the old USA Pro Cycling Challenge, figuring that was sort of meant to be the same thing, but it was in reality just a Tour of Colorado. But that’s OK, seeing as Colorado is like the cradle of all endurance sport in the US thanks to its high altitude and its sporting facilities, and the USA Pro Cycling Challenge was only a one week race, as opposed to its spiritual predecessor, the Red Zinger Race/Coors Classic. However, I hit upon a secondary problem: the main thing that had annoyed me about the USAPCC was partly to do with its bluster, similar to the Tour of California, but instead of being about promising something it could not deliver and trying to buy tradition and history instead like Messick had, the USAPCC team had all that history on their doorstep from America’s best known and best loved bike race… and they’d squandered it by not honouring it and giving the fans that had been around for it the first time around that nostalgia pop that could have got traditionalists out in numbers and helped sell the race. So I set to work on rectifying that, giving a Rocky Mountains edition of my planned race that would hit all the notes and play the hits - much as when I went insane and rewrote 30 years of political history to create a Peace Race that would embody the spirit of the original but adapted to modern cycling, I wanted to do likewise with the Coors Classic, adapting the original’s traditions and history but with stages adapted to what the péloton does now - and be fit for the péloton that would take it on. And of course, by the time I was done… I’d basically put the whole race in Colorado, so decided to scrap much of it and make it a Colorado-only race for ease of organisation, binning the whole plan and turning it into a longer USAPCC. Go figure.

My thinking was that as this race would take the old USAPCC slot in August, there would be stagiares in teams so you could get a pretty good startlist for a “ProContinental Grand Tour” type race here. Teams like EF and Trek with US interests could bring secondary teams for young prospects and stagiares, obviously at the ProTeam level you have over the last few years had Human Powered Health, Novo Nordisk and Israel-PremierTech with obvious North American interest, plus a few others with Anglophone (eg Black Spoke) or American (eg Q36.5) riders; and then at the Continental level there would be the domestic teams like Project Echelon and also the likes of Team Medellín, GW-Shimano, Canel’s, Petrolike with their mix of Mexican and Colombian riders, the Canadian teams and then potentially a US national team with the best riders not on pro teams, such as Alex Hoehn, as well as perhaps the occasional American who is out there on Continental teams unlikely to enter in and of themselves, like Keegan Swirbul.

Maybe in time if I have another go I can turn this more into what it originally was meant to be, covering multiple states in a region, in the Northeast, or the South, or the Pacific Northwest, or whatever. But for the time being… here’s my Coors Classic revival / Tour of Colorado.

Stage 1: Durango - Telluride, 192km

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GPM:
Hesperus (cat.3) 3,5km @ 6,1%
Sunshine Mountain (Alta)(cat.3) 2,5km @ 4,7%

So in my original design plans for this race I went East-West, but as the race plans developed, we ended up going the opposite way to try to be a bit more faithful to the old Coors Classic traditions, and that meant starting in the city that had originally been earmarked for the finale. Durango, Colorado is, like its Mexican counterpart, named for the Basque town at the foot of the Urkiola and sits amid small to mid range mountains likewise. However, unlike Durango, Mexico, it has not outgrown its original namesake, being home to around 20.000 people. It was originally established as a railroad town to try to connect Eastern Colorado and New Mexico to the Silverton mining area, north of here. The history of the city for its first century was largely shaped by the comings and goings of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, but after this started to falter the city started to move toward tourism, with the scenery of this part of the route having untapped appeal. With the old Durango to Silverton line now being a narrow gauge heritage railroad and ski resorts opened up in the mountains north of the city, it has fully transitioned its economy accordingly, aided significantly by extensive use of the city and its surroundings as a setting for many Western movies, with the dramatic scenery, frontier mining town areas and heritage railroad giving an authentic touch.

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Strangely enough, Durango was a rare host of the old Coors Classic; the stage race tended to use large transfers and stages that started and finished in the same place, and apart from the old Tour of the Moon stages in Grand Junction, this side of the state was underrepresented. However, Durango has developed a reputation for cycling, with the proximity of several climbs and its high altitude serving as a useful training area. The first Durango native to make it big in pro cycling was Bob Roll, who was originally from California but spent most of his career residing in Durango. He is now known as a shill of a presenter of the sport on US television, but before that he spent eight seasons as a pro, mostly with the 7-Eleven team, in the 80s and 90s. Most of his successes were in the US, but he did win a stage of the Tour de Romandie and enter three Giri and three Tours; his most memorable cycling achievement, however, is probably being part of the crew that domestiqued Andy Hampsten’s 1988 Giro win. The city is more known for mountain biking, with no fewer than three Mountain Bike Hall of Fame inductees based out of the city - downhill and trials specialist Greg Herbold, former World Champion downhiller (turned drugs trafficker) Melissa Giove and Ned Overend, the inaugural XCO World Champion (another transplant, having been born in Taiwan but moving to Durango at the start of his career). Further national champions in the field from the area include Todd Wells (cyclocross) and Howard Grotts (XCO).

Strangely, then, apart from the opening stage of the 2012 edition of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, an attempt at reviving the feel of the Coors Classic, this is where the trail for cycling runs dry in Durango, until Quinn Simmons’ arrival on the scene. Simmons is a highly talented young rider with Lidl-Trek who made it to the top level young; although physically able to deal with the World Tour level, perhaps psychologically it was a little soon - like a few other, shall we say more ‘sheltered’ American riders like Chloe Dygert, Simmons was perhaps not aware that the sport’s demographic in Europe is a little different to that in North America, and some of his political viewpoints - and his way of expressing them - have made him a figure of controversy; he has however successfully got his head down and put some of these controversies behind him and hopefully will be able to make these a forgotten part of his career by the time he’s done.

Oh yea, there’s also a very famous cyclotourist from Durango, but since we’re talking about a bike race, he need not detain us here.

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The man flying the flag for Durango in today's races

Originally, I had a much more challenging opening stage here, a medium mountain stage which would have gone over Coalbank Pass (33km at 3,5%), Molas Pass (5,6km @ 5,5%), Red Mountain Pass (16km @ 3%), and Dallas Divide (7km @ 5,5%) before a slight riser and a flat run in to Telluride. Because neither Black Bear Pass nor Imogene Pass are paved, we would have to loop around using Dallas Divide to get there, or continue on to put the finish in Montrose which would leave us with a very dull stage with around 70km from the final climb to the line - the very kind of stage I moaned baout 2009-10 era ASO and the early editions of the May version of the Tour of California, so Telluride was chosen. However, as the race plans developed it became clear to me that although this would be a far more interesting introduction to the race, it would also imbalance the race badly; in order to keep a balanced route AND include all the historical spots I felt essential, this was the easiest casualty.

In the end, despite my best intentions, I ended up with something very closely resembling that 2012 USAPCC stage. Given there were going to be a few other nods to other historic races later in the design I was reluctant to utilise a copycat-style stage here. But unfortunately… there just aren’t that many roads out in this wilderness. Large areas around this neck of the woods are mountainous and towns and cities are many miles apart, so alternative roads are few. That 2012 stage was in fact slightly longer than mine, as it included an extra loop around Durango at the start to give some extra KOM points out - but there’s no wanting for KOMs in my race so I will not bother with this. Even with the additional climb, there was no stopping it being sprinted out, with Tyler Farrar victorious - but the combination of altitude and the hills within the stage led to an intriguing mix of a sprint field, with Damiano Caruso 3rd ahead of ‘Fast’ Freddy Rodríguez (albeit many years past his prime and riding on a domestic Continental team by then) and even Chris Horner in the top 10. This is the only time in recent memory that either town has hosted pro (road) cycling.


Again because of the lack of paved passes to the east and south of Telluride, a direct route is not possible, so you either have to go north and loop around like a spiral to arrive there, as in my original proposal, or you have to start by heading almost due west as we do here. This takes us over an early climb - so early that the break might not have formed so if anybody has designs on the KOM from the GC mix like Pinot at the 2023 Giro then they might try to keep it together for that. Otherwise, we then head west until we reach Cortez, a town of just under 10.000 that I at one point was aiming at using in place of Durango to avoid having to mention The Cyclotourist, but Durango’s extensive other cycling history won out. Used as an access point for Mesa Verde Natural Park and Monument Valley, it is home to Motocross star Eli Tomac, and basketball Chuck Nevitt, one of the tallest men to ever play the game that is built around being tall. Here we just have an intermediate sprint.

The second intermediate sprint follows shortly after, after a gradual period of false flat. This takes place in Dove Creek, the county seat of Dolores County, named for the river valley it flows through. This also leads us to an absurd amount of uphill - although little of it of any significance - up to Lizard Head Pass. We will be riding uphill for no fewer than 78km - that’s seventy-eight - but in that time we only actually ascend 1000 vertical metres so it’s not what you’d really call climbing. Lizard Head Pass is named for the dramatic peak that overlooks it, renowned as one of America’s toughest climbing summits, but this isn’t something that the road climb can match; it is known as one of the more beautiful drives in the region, but challenging it is not; PJamm Cycling records the actual climbing part of it as being 19,5km at 2,2% so where they draw the line of where it ceases to be false flat and starts to be a climb is beyond my grasp; either way, apart from that 1 kilometre of 7,4% there isn’t anything that even approaches middling gradients, so in fact I haven’t categorised it at all.

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Instead, I decided to look at the north side of the climb and borrow a bit of a Spanish trait, categorising the second summit even though it’s lower than the first, and give the points at the scenic mirador where the old gravel road up to the former mining community of Alta and the lakes that overlook it lie. Alta is now a ghost town so the road is little used and only accessible in summer, but this road to Telluride is open continuously and even if the climb is not exactly stellar in nature, it does at least have some sustained enough length coming off the back of the neighbouring summit (we’re riding this from right to left so the green section is the climb).

This summit is 14km from home, so Lizard Head Pass is around 25km out accordingly. The run-in after the descent that you see in that profile (which weaves past parts of the ski resort) is pan flat however, and the run-in after the 90º right hander at the highway junction 5,6km from the line is almost completely straight; just gentle curves this way and that as the road follows the valley into Telluride. Originally founded under the name Columbia to mine silver, gold was found in 1875 and the isolated community grew into a town and was named after the mineral - the most common means of finding gold in Colorado - a few years later. Ironically enough, the gold found in Telluride does not come from the eponymous mineral. Its earliest claim to fame would be as the site of infamous outlaw Butch Cassidy’s first recorded crime, when he robbed the Telluride bank; as the mining industry receded, however, it became more of a retreat for hippies and counter-culture, as well as a common site for smugglers and drug dealers due to its difficult to reach location and groups shipping drugs in from Mexico using it as a drop point. Since the establishment of the skiing industry this reputation has in turn both been diminished and reinforced, and the facilities surrounding the ski resorts have opened up the rest of the mountainside to hikers, mountain bikers and other thrill seekers and turned the small city of 3.000 into a burgeoning retreat town all year round. And in a nice callback to the Westerns being filmed in the Durango area in the 50s and 60s, we finish in the town used for filming many sequences in Quentin Tarantino’s throwback The Hateful Eight.

Reduced sprint likely? Yea, reduced sprint likely.

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In Colorado's rugged peaks he roams,
Sepp Kuss, a rider brave,
Through valleys deep and mountain homes,
Where echoes of the past still crave.

In Tour of Colorado's winding trails,
His spirit soars, his pedals fly,
With every climb, his passion hails,
A testament beneath the sky.

Amongst the pines, where shadows play,
He weaves through turns with grace untold,
Each switchback conquered, come what may,
In Kuss, a story to unfold.

With every ascent, a dance of will,
A symphony of strength and might,
In his veins, the mountain's thrill,
Guiding him through day and night.

The road ahead, a winding quest,
In Kuss, the heart of Colorado beats,
Each summit reached, a sacred crest,
A journey etched in mountain feats.

So let us cheer for Sepp Kuss bold,
In Tour of Colorado's grand embrace,
Where stories of the mountains are told,
And his legend finds its rightful place.
 
I think we have to balance things out with some light poetry.

There once was a kid from Durango,
who could climb better than José Azevedo
(David Blanco works better for the rhyme, but not in the context)
Through no fault of his own,
he ended atop of the throne,
cause three's one too many to tango
Hmmm. Not sure I agree Quinn Simmons is a better climber than Ace.
 
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Stage 2: Montrose - Grand Junction, 160km

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GPM:
Colorado National Monument (Ute Canyon)(cat.2) 13,4km @ 4,0%

The riders will head north from Telluride, over Dallas Divide, to get to the departure point for stage 2, the city of Montrose. This is again as they did in 2012, but where that stage went immediately eastward to finish at Mount Crested Butte (with a two-up sprint between Tejay van Garderen and Christian Vande Velde, neither exactly renowned for their lightning finish, being won by the younger of the two), whereas we are still enjoying a bit of West Colorado since I am a bit of a sop to tradition.

Home to just over 20.000 people, Montrose is the second largest city in western Colorado, outsized only by our destination for the stage. It is named for the Scottish city, albeit indirectly, being named for the Walter Scott novel that namecheck it. Like many of these towns and cities it grew out of a stop on the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, but nowadays it is more of a manufacturing hub that also serves as a gateway to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Like Durango, the scenery around here has seen it appear in many westerns, including True Grit and How The West Was Won, and it is also the site of the fictional prison in which Saul Goodman is incarcerated in Better Call Saul.

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Montrose

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Black Canyon

The first part of the stage is very flat; there are few sizeable settlements in this area as almost the whole population has crystallised around the railroad stops. As a result we have an early intermediate sprint in Delta after just 30 kilometres of racing; a trading post for colonists to deal with the local Ute population, it has a population of around 9.000 which makes it one of the larger settlements we travel through, and which serves for parts of the year as a pseudo-theme park with people demonstrating the lifestyles of trappers and speculators from the days of the establishment of the town. We actually arrive in Grand Junction, our finishing town, after just 95km - so we could have done a semitappe.

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With some 65.000 inhabitants and growing (up by almost 50% in the last 25 years), Grand Junction is by far the biggest city in this part of the state - three times the size of Montrose - and was essentially created out of colonialism, when the Ute Indian Territory was abolished and they were forced onto reservations in order to open the land up. Let no American ever tell you that they were a driving force against the days of Empire, the very size of their homeland is the product of colonisation, similar to Russia in that respect. Anyway; the area became popular for viticulture and a number of wineries are based out of the Grand Junction area. Fruit cultivation and, on a different tangent, uranium mining are also major breadwinners for the city, but it also benefited greatly from oil shale reserves in the 70s and early 80s, but this was brought to an abrupt halt in 1982 by Exxon’s withdrawal. A similar problem was felt to a lesser extent in the late 2000s economic downturn, leading the city to aggressively attempt to diversify its industries and make itself less dependent on fossil fuels economically.

But I didn’t pick Grand Junction as a stage host for its economics, or even for its status as an urban centre of such size that dwarfs its neighbouring towns and cities. I selected it for racing purposes, because Grand Junction used to host bike racing regularly, and it used to host one of the most iconic stages in the history of American cycling. Now long forgotten by pro racing but immortalised in celluloid as part of American Flyers and one of the most popular Gran Fondos in America, Grand Junction plays host to a ride and former stage known for its spectacular scenery, snaking through the Colorado National Monument, as the Tour of the Moon.

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Tour of the Moon climb road

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Colorado National Monument scenery

The old traditional Tour of the Moon stage was around 134-135km in length and would be what we would nowadays call a medium mountain stage; starting and ending in Grand Junction it would loop up and down the massif a couple of times but feature a reasonably long run-in after the climb that would mean that it would be less conducive to racing as a route in modern cycling than it did back in the 80s. Winners of the Tour of the Moon stage during the heyday of the Coors Classic include Olaf Jentzsch, Adrie van der Poel and Andrew Hampsten. They would start in Grand Junction, then enter two laps of a circuit that went up to the Colorado National Monument, back down it, and then followed through the vineyards at the foothills, before returning from whence it had come. The final year it ran, 1988, it was shortened slightly because of relocating the finish, but apart from that the stage remained a consistent, and constant, spectacle in America’s greatest bike race.

My stage isn’t quite a true Tour of the Moon, since it doesn’t start and finish in Grand Junction, but then given the lengthy run-in from the final summit - some 45km - and that it’s only stage 2, I really don’t see it being especially conducive to major racing from distance in today’s cycling, so given the TV coverage would pick up all the best of the scenery at least. My aim was to produce something akin to a traditional Vuelta a España stage to Córdoba using San Jerónimo or the Alto del 14%. The climb here is further from the finish but is longer and tougher. And it does in fact share something of the shape of the San Jerónimo climb, consisting of a main body of the climb followed by some flat with some slighter uphill ramps until eventually reaching the high point of the road.

The Ute Canyon Road side of the climb is the one that we are taking, as you can see from that profile, the first part is the main body of the climb, gradually steepening to a final 4km at 7% in the first 8km of the climb. This would in and of itself be worthy of cat.2 I feel, around 7,5km at 5,5%, but then there’s a kilometre of downhill false flat. Because PJAMM only puts the climb markers each kilometre, it makes the second part of the climb, the last 4,5km or so, look like it’s all false flat (it only averages a little under 3%) but in reality there are a few ramps and repechos between flat steps, culminating in a final 600m at 8%. I don’t feel this is enough to bump the categorisation up from 2nd to 1st category, at least not given what we have to come in this race, so I’ve stuck with cat.2.

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View from Ute Canyon Overlook, where the crest of the ascent is

We now have 7-8km of pseudo-flat to a secondary summit which is the other side of the climb, at the Highland View Overlook, sometimes called the ‘Black Ridge’ side of the Colorado National Monument. This takes us across the historic and scenic Rim Rock Drive, one of the most breathtaking roads in the entire US. This video shows the various overlooks and viewpoints that fill the route; they are heading from north to south, so the opposite direction to us - but it means you can see more of what we have to look at in the flat and descent.


The body of the descent is broken up similarly to the ascent, three sections with the middle one being just false flat; but the two other parts are only at around 4,5 - 5% themselves, lending this a long but gradual 17km at 3,4% toward Fruita. We don’t actually get as far as Fruita however, before we turn right and head along the base of the range, by the Monument Canyon Trailhead, to return to Grand Junction for the stage finish. With around 7km between our summit and the Black Ridge Road summit, and then around 17km of descending, we are left with a final flat stretch of 20km for any dropped riders to wrestle their way back on; I think the sustained nature of the climb means that a lot of sprinters will be dropped and given the type of péloton we will have for a race like this, probably a group of 20-30 being close enough to the front of the main bunch over the summit, which will probably double on the descent, and then it will come down to what kind of gaps have been produced and how far back various fast finishers are as to whether they push on or if the dropped riders can race back on. The finish will be at Lincoln Park in Grand Junction, in accordance with history.
 
Stage 3: Rifle - Aspen, 151km

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GPM:
Owl Creek Road (cat.3) 1,3km @ 7,0%
Owl Creek Road (cat.3) 1,3km @ 7,0%

The third stage of the Tour of Colorado sees us heading from the west of the state into its central mountains for the first time, although despite what that might suggest, this is in fact a purely transitional flat-to-hilly stage ahead of the first weekend of the race (since we’re working to the Volta a Portugal formula here).

We start in the city of Rifle, around 70km east of Grand Junction and home to around 10.000 people. It is a major cattle ranching centre, settled on former Ute Nation lands after this was confiscated in the wake of the Meeker Massacre, when Nathan Meeker, the director of the White River Ute Agency, was killed along with some of his employees by the natives in retribution for them settling and ploughing under important pasture land sacred to the tribe. For a while this was the terminus of the east-west railroad and grew into a new city, largely built around agriculture, although discoveries of oil shale in the Piceance Basin have seen the city become more heavily reliant on fuel reserves. It’s also home - appropriately enough given the city’s name is a type of firearm - to the controversial Congresswoman Lauren Boebert, a prominent opposer of gun control who previously ran a restaurant themed around firearms where staff members packed heat as part of standard operating procedures and is one of the supporters of Donald Trump’s stolen election conspiracy as well as an alleged QAnon adherent and having had historic ties to the Three Percenters. But for the most part, it’s a quiet, unassuming small city that, as far as I can tell, has never hosted pro bike racing.

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Here, it was chosen more for convenient location than anything else. I guess I could have had an extra lap in Aspen and moved the start to the similarly-sized Glenwood Springs, a former frontier town previously called Defiance and known for gunslingers, gamblers and all the good stuff that makes a good Western movie, but that would have been a longer transfer. Instead, that town - now repurposed as a spa town - will host the first intermediate sprint, before we turn off of the main east-west route through the Western Slope part of Colorado along the eponymous river, and instead head up the valley of the Roaring Fork river, which entails a long and sloooooow uphill false flat - yes, it’s a flat stage where we are finishing at some 800m above where we started.

This isn’t a unique design by any stretch of the imagination of course, this kind of thing is fairly common in other races that take place at high altitudes or where you have to climb up onto a plateau - Vuelta stages climbing from sea level on to the meseta in the southeast follow this formula (as opposed to in Andalucía or in España Verde where mountain ranges would mean sustained climbs early on in the stage, such as the 2008 stage out of Ponferrada or the 2011 Vitória-Gasteiz one), and you see it in places like Qinghai Lake too.

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Roaring Fork Valley

Probably the most interesting place we go through on the drag up here is Basalt, home to the Swirbul family, cyclist Keegan (a once-promising climber now riding for Efapel after being dropped by Human Powered Health) and his cross-country skiing sister Hailey (who has now retired but represented the US, especially in relays, at a number of World Championship and Olympic events where her at least relative proficiency in Classic technique, which the American team has long had a technical deficit in, had made her a very useful opening leg). After we get to Woody Creek we enter a lap and around 2/3 of a 33km circuit. This takes us onto the “hilly” part of the circuit, as we take in one of the popular ski resorts around Aspen, the Snowmass resort. To get from the main road to the bottom end of Snowmass village is 6km at 2,5%; here the Brush Creek river forks in two; following the east fork would cut off this next part of the circuit; we follow the west fork which takes us up 2,4km at 4% into Snowmass Village proper, the main body of the resort, although we don’t take any of the ‘real’ climbing to the various accommodation and chalets etc.; instead we hang left and head back down toward the creek of the east fork of the river, and then take on the short punchy uphill of Owl Creek Road. This is 1300m at 7% and doesn’t get especially steep, so I doubt it will be particularly decisive, coming at 43km to go. Maybe the second time over the climb at 10km to go will see some speculative attempts, but it’s a wide open road, and the run-in is largely very straight so I expect this will suit the chasers more.

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Snowmass Village in summer. We folllow the road in the foreground, from right to left.

The “descent” from Snowmass takes us to the west side of the runway of Aspen/Pitkin County Airport, the busiest ski resort airport in the United States with regular service from Denver supplemented by flights from as far afield as Chicago and Los Angeles in winter. Not bad considering the challenging terrain and limited room meaning there is non-standard separation of runway and taxiway and therefore larger aircraft are forbidden from using the airport. We then pass Buttermilk Resort, another of Aspen’s outlying resorts, before heading into the city of Aspen itself.

Originally founded as a mining camp during the Colorado Silver Boom, the city was a hard-to-reach outpost after that initial boom subsided, until the mid-20the Century when the skiing industry took off, with the 1950 FIS Alpine Skiing World Championships being awarded to Aspen and accelerating the progress of development of the infrastructure in the city. Although its population even today is only 7.000, it is well established in the minds of Americans and beyond for its winter wonderland nature, its sports heritage and so on. It also enjoyed a period of cultural importance after the likes of Hunter S. Thompson and John Denver settled there; the latter of whom has a museum dedicated to his memory in the town; although originally from New Mexico, Denver made Colorado his home (the surname coinciding with the state capital being coincidental) and his song Rocky Mountain High was adopted as the official state song. Unfortunately, once popular with counter-culture types, artists and hippies, it has now become heavily gentrified, with skyrocketing property values meaning most of the city is full of largely empty holiday homes and second- or third-homes for wealthy investors and the jet set. For a couple of weeks each year that counterculture vibe returns, though, for each year since 2002 the city has hosted the Winter X Games, where all the crappy concourse sports that don’t belong in the Winter Olympics but keep getting foisted on us, where sounding rad and wearing baggy sallies are more important than being faster, better, stronger, can take centre stage.

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While the small size makes for typically few celebrities being from Aspen, many have made it their home, as you can probably imagine from the description in the last paragraph. Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn have lived here for most of the last 40 years, for example. Those that have spent their whole lives in Aspen, however, tend to be sportspeople. A lot of these are winter sports stars, for reasons which should be obvious - such as Alex Ferreira, a snowboarder, and Jeremy Abbott, a figure skater, who have won silver and bronze Olympic medals respectively. Strangely though, the only Olympic gold medallist to be an Aspen native (Chris Klug is from Denver originally) is a summer Olympian… and somebody that is more relevant to us here: Alexi Grewal.

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One of the great icons of that initial American cycling heyday, where the Coors Classic was at its zenith, Grewal came to prominence in the early 1980s as an amateur, winning the Mount Evans Hillclimb and Cascade Cycling Classic as well as two stages of the 1983 Coors Classic and one of the Tour de l’Avenir that year; and twice finishing on the podium of the Vuelta de Chile. He stayed amateur for 1984 to have a chance at the Olympics, seeing as it was a pretty strong opportunity with the Eastern Bloc riders all staying home and a partisan crowd in LA to cheer the stars and stripes. Grewal escaped with a little over 20km remaining, but Steve Bauer caught him at around 10km to go, leading the two to battle all the way through the rest of the race to leave the other behind, both failing and having to take on a two-up sprint which the American won to become the first road cycling gold for his country. He turned pro for 1985 and would bounce between teams before finding a home at Coors, but by and large his successes were confined to races at home; he finished 3rd overall in the Tour de l’Avenir in 1986, but this was the time when the likes of Laurent Fignon were winning it when already a two-time Tour de France winner; Grewal was 26 at the time so hardly a rider for ‘l’Avenir’ so to speak; he only attempted one GT in his nine pro seasons, the 1986 Tour de France, which he was forced to abandon in week 3. Nevertheless, his continued dominion over the American calendar and his status for winning that Olympic medal made him a key figure in this era of the sport and a rightful early inductee to the American cycling Hall of Fame.

An Aspen stage was an almost ever-present in the heyday of the Coors Classic; often just a criterium or a circuit race in the city (the race did have a bit of an HTV Cup-esque love for the crit, although let’s be fair, it is a key featured part of American road cycling and their inclusion did at least give the race a certain uniquely American character that many of the subsequent attempts to introduce long-form stage racing back to America have failed to truly encapsulate), it would also sometimes be a loop of a longer circuit similar to, if not identical to, mine here. In 1982 there were even two stages, a circuit race of 48km around Snowmass Resort won by Julio Alberto Rubiano as the Colombian team dominated and did a 1-2-3, followed by a 13km ITT from Snowmass back into the city which was won by Mexican Ignacio Mosquera. Niki Rüttimann, a TdF stage winner and early winner of the Clásica San Sebastián, evergreen beast of the US scene Thurlow Rogers, first Mexican maillot jaune Raúl Alcalá, and twice Davis “Taylor’s dad” Phinney can be added to the list of winners here in Aspen back in the Coors Classic.

No surprise, then, that subsequent attempts to revive the spirit of, if not outright the existence of, the Coors Classic have seen Aspen prominently featured. In 2011’s inaugural edition, stage 2 ran from Gunnison to Aspen over the easy side of two major climbs, with George Hincapie winning a 6-man sprint for the stage against Tejay van Garderen (whose wife, former pro Jessica Phillips, is also from Aspen) and Tom Danielson; this stage was repeated the following year on stage 3, Danielson holding off the chasing pack by just 2 seconds. 2013 saw the first introduction of a circuit race where something very closely approximating my circuit - but run in the opposite direction - was introduced.

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Tragically that stage was won by Peter Sagan, but thankfully he was not there to give it another go the following year when Kiel Reijnen won on the same course. These stages were also only around the 100km mark, so very short - neither short enough to fit the old crit/circuit category of days of yore, nor long enough to be a real tester, more like a semitappe just waiting for a second part. In both years the subsequent stage would also start in Aspen; in 2015 a more full stage was brought back, with the climb of the easy side of Independence Pass brought back; it didn’t change anything as Reijnen won a sprint again. There was also a women’s stage race in Aspen in 2011 - although bearing in mind it consisted of a flat ITT and two crits, it seems it was part of the drive to get Kristin Armstrong qualified for the Olympics again after her first return from retirement.

This one should be good for the sprinters, at least the durable ones but I think this will end in a sprint.
 
Stage 4: Aspen - Beaver Creek, 175km

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GPM:
Independence Pass (cat.1) 25,4km @ 4,8%
Battle Mountain (cat.3) 2,3km @ 5,8%
Bachelor Gulch (cat.2) 8,6km @ 6,8%
Beaver Creek (cat.3) 3,7km @ 5,2%

Stage 4 and we have a sort of mountain stage? Not sure whether to class as high mountain or medium mountains, because the only cat.1 climb is at the start of the stage, but with this high altitude and the climbing going on, this will have some potential GC relevance above a transitional type stage. And to make things a bit easier on the riders, no transfer at all after yesterday’s stage - we’re starting from Aspen exactly where we finished yesterday. Aren’t I nice? For once.

Not that the riders will have long to thank me, because this stage starts heading uphill almost immediately, as we head over one of the race’s predecessors’ traditional ceilings straight from the gun, starting the 25km grind up to Independence Pass only 3-4 kilometres into the stage’s distance. This is the toughest climb of the day, so it isn’t like we’re going on some high mountain odyssey, but it will certainly guarantee that whatever breakaway we get will be strong.

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This sweeping ascent is a classic of the Coors Classic and the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, although it is more frequently taken from its easier eastern face; that side is 25km in length but only 3,5%, however, whereas the western side is a more solid 25km at 4,8%. This is broken up into 12km or so at 5,5%, then around 5km of false flat before gradually increasing in gradient until a final 4km at 6%. Nothing especially steep, and mostly tempo grinding. This puts it into the same kind of ballpark as steady but never-ending climbs like Port d’Envalira or Petit-Saint-Bernard - both climbs whose overall stats put them at borderline HC category, but that both are typically given cat.1 when the Tour chooses to use them due to the tempo-climb nature of them. One thing that Independence Pass has over those, however, is its altitude. Those are only at around 2000m altitude, whereas Independence Pass is almost double that, topping out at 3687m, which makes it the second highest pass in the Continental Divide, after its southern neighbour Cottonwood Pass, and the fourth highest paved road in Colorado. For this reason, in the 2013 and 2015 editions of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, it was the ceiling of the race; 2012 saw the stage in which it was featured - from the east - also including Cottonwood Pass. 2012 and 2015 saw the climb seen from both sides, with the stage into Aspen approaching over the eastern side, and the subsequent stage starting from Aspen as I do and heading west over the climb once more. In 2013 this route out of Aspen was also used but the stage before did not use Independence Pass; likewise in 2014 the race started in Aspen but stage 2 set off in the opposite direction en route to Mount Crested Butte.

Descending from Independence Pass takes us into Twin Lakes, a popular scenic camping spot, and then it’s a flat altiplano road to take us to Leadville, the county seat of Lakes County and, despite a small population of just under 3.000, a well established name in the sport of cycling - and indeed others. As with many of these towns and cities in the Colorado uplands it’s a former silver mining town that was once one of the most lawless places in all of the Wild West and where all of those gunslinger stereotypes we see in Western movies came to genuine fruition - the gambling, moonshine-running, sheriff-assassinating world of legend, and associates and colleagues of both Wyatt Earp and Buffalo Bill Cody set up shop in Leadville - but has now earned some repute as the “last affordable town” for workers of the various resorts in this part of the world to live in. It is now better known as a base for ultra-endurance sportsmen and women, with the Leadville 100 trail running and endurance mountain bike events attracting people the world over in summer, and the skijoring festival attracting a crowd in the winter. It is now the base from which former - temporary - Tour de France winner Floyd Landis has based his cannabis company, which briefly also sponsored a domestic pro team in 2019.

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Leadville hosts an intermediate sprint at the end of a bunch of uphill false flat; there is then a short descent and then some gradual - non-categorised - uphill to Tennessee Pass. All told its 5,5km but only averages about 2,6% so not really worth categorising, and then there is a long and similarly but slightly more severe downhill, broken up by a short 2-3km dig up to Battle Mountain for a cat. 3 climb, before descending on towards Vail, or more accurately Eagle-Vail, an outlying part of that ski resort town, which has been a long-time host of the races in this part of the world, with often Vail to Vail circuit races prevailing or mountain stages from the eastern plateau going through passes like Loveland Pass, Hoosier Pass and indeed Vail Pass, winners here including the likes of Noël Dejonckheere, Patrocinio Jiménez, Davis Phinney, Teun van Vliet, Andy Hampsten, and some all-time legends too in Lucho Herrera and even Bernard Hinault. Vail to Vail Pass ITTs were a regular feature of the revived USA Pro Cycling Challenge in the 2010s, Levi Leipheimer winning in the inaugural edition, then Tejay van Gardener winning back to back in 2013 and 2014. Gavin Mannion won the same stage in the 2018 Colorado Cycling Classic.

We are heading west from Eagle-Vail however, to Avon, where we take on a couple more challenges. Without this little detour, we are more or less copying wholesale the 2012 stage which followed from Aspen to Beaver Creek on stage 4 and was won by Jens Voigt solo by almost three minutes, with race leader Tejay van Garderen ignoring the veteran baroudeur and focusing more on GC threats like Andreas Klöden and Levi Leipheimer and ensuring they didn’t gain time.

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2012 Aspen - Beaver Creek stage

However, the following year Beaver Creek appeared again, with riders arriving from the north this time after a rare departure for the race into north Central Colorado and the city of Steamboat Springs. This featured an interesting loop around Beaver Creek using the roads above the ski resort and added something more of a challenge that would allow for some GC action more realistically achievable than on the 2012 version, by looping up and around to an ascent called Bachelor Gulch.

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2013 Steamboat Springs - Beaver Creek stage

I believe that Bachelor Gulch was cat.1 that day, I have given it cat.2 but it’s on the borderline. But having given cat.1 to Independence Pass I couldn’t realistically reasonably claim them equals. Bachelor Gulch is steeper - averaging 6,8% - but is only a third the length. The last 4km average almost 9% however so these will give a good chance to attack. Tomorrow’s stage may deter it (sadly pacing was hard to achieve here while including all sites I wanted to) but with the summit being just 15km from home - much of which is the descent - this would clearly give an opportunity to work from. That day Lachlan Morton was in the leader’s jersey but the climb saw a group of five break away. While the less-heralded Gregory Brenes was despatched and only just held off the heads of state, BMC had two - Tejay van Garderen and Matthias Fränk - along with Tom Danielson and, on a domestic team and already buoyed by results in California, Janier Acevedo. Acevedo would prove strongest, winning the stage but with van Garderen taking the lead of the race which he would keep to the end.

Bachelor Gulch is an outlying resort village of the overall Beaver Creek resort, and so descending its other side takes us back to Avon where we have our final intermediate sprint, before looping back up the first - gradual - part of the climb again, before continuing on onto the main centre of Beaver Creek resort afterward. Inhabiting a valley first settled in the 1880s, the resort was first proposed in the 1950s and then funded in the 1970s with the intent of Denver hosting the Winter Olympics in 1976. While this bid fell through and Innsbruck stepped in once more, the Vail resort’s owners sold up to an oil tycoon who went ahead with the development anyway; it was sold on in 1985 and rapidly developed afterward, becoming a fixture on the FIS Alpine Skiing World Cup and hosting the World Championships in Alpine skiing in 1989, 1999 and 2015. It was introduced to the World Cup in 1997 and regularly hosts prominent downhill events, sometimes the first in that discipline in the season, in events known as the “Birds of Prey” after the course on which it is run.

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Beaver Creek in summer

Of course, unlike many of the European resorts that are located at the top of large mountain passes or dead ends such as Alpe d’Huez, Montecampione, Tignes, Hochsölden and so many others, there isn’t really the need to ascend up to the top of the mountain here in Colorado; Avon in the base of the valley is already at almost 2300m. Beaver Creek therefore is only a short climb from there, averaging 5,2% for 3,7 kilometres and ending at a little under 2500m. This climb in and of itself isn’t hard enough to create particularly large gaps, so my hope is that there will be attacks earlier. I suspect that the following day’s course may deter this, but the last few kilometres of Bachelor Gulch being inside 20km from the line and much of that being descent gives me hope.
 
This sweeping ascent is a classic of the Coors Classic and the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, although it is more frequently taken from its easier eastern face; that side is 25km in length but only 3,5%, however, whereas the western side is a more solid 25km at 4,8%. This is broken up into 12km or so at 5,5%, then around 5km of false flat before gradually increasing in gradient until a final 4km at 6%. Nothing especially steep, and mostly tempo grinding. This puts it into the same kind of ballpark as steady but never-ending climbs like Port d’Envalira or Petit-Saint-Bernard - both climbs whose overall stats put them at borderline HC category, but that both are typically given cat.1 when the Tour chooses to use them due to the tempo-climb nature of them. One thing that Independence Pass has over those, however, is its altitude. Those are only at around 2000m altitude, whereas Independence Pass is almost double that, topping out at 3687m, which makes it the second highest pass in the Continental Divide, after its southern neighbour Cottonwood Pass, and the fourth highest paved road in Colorado. For this reason, in the 2013 and 2015 editions of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, it was the ceiling of the race; 2012 saw the stage in which it was featured - from the east - also including Cottonwood Pass. 2012 and 2015 saw the climb seen from both sides, with the stage into Aspen approaching over the eastern side, and the subsequent stage starting from Aspen as I do and heading west over the climb once more. In 2013 this route out of Aspen was also used but the stage before did not use Independence Pass; likewise in 2014 the race started in Aspen but stage 2 set off in the opposite direction en route to Mount Crested Butte.
Is it also the ceiling of your race? In that case, have you considered inaugurating a prize for the first rider over it - perhaps naming such a prize after the most mythical Coloradan climber?