Too hard, or not hard enough? Depending on who you talk to about the Amgen Tour of California the answers vary.
One thing's for sure, the race was far from easy. This was the toughest course and the most competitive field we've had, and the riders all rose to the occasion. It was a race right to the finish for every stage this year.Any suggestion that tougher is necessarily equivalent to better however should be tempered. We saw at the 2011 Giro d'Italia that sprinkling in mountain top finishes like hundreds and thousands, doesn't add to the spectacle of the race. Anthony Tan put it best in a blog earlier this year when he said:
"La Corsa Rosa turned into a freak show, as the race took on an increasingly farcical nature to meet the megalomaniacal standards of Zomegnan."
Harder is fine, but it shouldn't be relied upon to make a race more interesting or entertaining; lets leave the Dr Zomegnan freak shows to the circus.
This year's Tour of California leaned on making every stage of the race incrementally harder, each day sprinkled with more elevation, to make the race as a whole a tougher affair. But a similar effect could have been achieved by bulking up a couple of key stages.
Both approaches are valid, but I would argue the spectacle of a race is reliant on the diversity of the stages, and thus organisers need to be erring away from making a course more generally difficult and focus their efforts on things like making the Baldy stage longer, or the Big Bear Lake stage a mountain top finish.
The lesson from this year's race was that when you set almost carbon-copy stages four days in a row you will produce carbon-copy results, and carbon-copy performances, and that's something organisers will no doubt be looking at addressing when they draft up next year's parcours.
It wasn't surprising that Peter Sagan, a strong all-round rider, won the opening four days of the Tour with than in mind.
Each day was selective, but the downhill run-ins at the finish meant bunch sprints were always likely. On average, less than 60 per cent of riders were present to compete at the stage finishes of stages one through four, an ideal situation for a Peter Sagan or Heinrich Haussler, with bulkier sprinters like Marcel Kittel unable to make the finish.
On an out-and-out sprint stage at say the Tour or Giro or even the final stage of Cali, that proportion is closer to 90 per cent.
"I think there needs to be a bit more variety, like an "actual flat stage", a short uphill finish etc. The course has dished up the same thing everyday. I think that's a little disappointing to see for the spectators and the riders," said Robbie McEwen after stage four.
Now Robbie has a bit of a penchant for being vocal when things aren't to his liking, and Sagan may have won the first four stages no matter how easy or hard, but the now-retired Australian has a point.
There is a place for a pancake flat day, or an easy day that ends in a short punchy climb. Not only for the point of difference that these days make to the race, but to the sporting element, which is often underestimated.
The Grand Tours historically have easy days to keep the riders fresh for the battles that unfold when the race approaches the pointy end. The same is true for a short stage race, like the Amgen Tour of California.
Of course, you're limited by the country you're racing in, and the towns you want to pass through, but that hopefully doesn't dictate the course in totality.
The Amgen Tour of California was defined by Sagan and the Mount Baldy stage, which in my reckoning was one of the contests of the year. But considering the general classification battle was unaffected by Stage 1-4, why make them so hard?
This year's race was excellent, make no mistake, but organisers need not be seduced by the in-vogue mantra that harder is better.