Velon and InFront Media (owned by Wanda Dalian Sports Group and run by Sepp Blatter’s nephew Phillipe Blatter) are the new players in the world of cycling, bringing the world a brave new format for racing on two wheels. It certainly fitted the remit and provided exciting racing, reinvigorating the occasionally staid normal run-of-the-mill racing that we see at the World Tour level.
Gone were the long periods of peloton ‘chasing’ the break, where you are fully aware nothing is going to happen, replaced by regular sprints accruing points towards the team’s final position. The re-imagining of the team trial with the first-past-the-post system on the final day of the race was as brilliant as it was deeply flawed.
It was certainly great to see the overall race come down to a sprint to the line between Tao Geoghan Hart and the three Sunweb riders, even if was decidedly against the rules of drafting and in a normal case would have seen both teams disqualified, especially when Geoghan Hart dropped his head in a classic sprinting move to nudge a Sunweb rider.
Perhaps the biggest mistake was calling it a team time trial. That brings with a series of rules that people already understand, equipment that isn’t meant for banging handlebars in a sprint and an understanding that riders from other teams aren’t allowed to interact.
Those rules were thrown out the window, with a ‘peloton’ of six teams forming at the back of the race, with no one, including the commissaires, having any idea what to do. Teams couldn’t get away because they would just be drafted by other teams and really the race was saved by the fact that the two teams out front were the ones fighting it out for the win, rather than the bunch.
Riders are simply too competitive to not draft, try and block other teams or gain a competitive advantage and that team trial squeeze quite simply will never be fair unless you can put the teams in lanes on roads as wide as an airport's runway.
Put them on road bikes next time, just make it a handicap race, first across the line wins and we should see just as interesting a spectacle without all the confusion and headaches with regards to drafting and gaining unfair competitive advantage. No non-cycling fan would have been watching the race and have the faintest clue what was going on with commentators talking about drafting and commissaires frantically waving arms around.
Which brings me to the larger point. Will this bring new people to the sport? Judging from this first broadcast, it’s a definite no. Bringing technology, rider metrics and live information is all very good, but if viewers don’t know what is going on in the actual competition you may as well throw all the fancy tech out the window because it doesn’t have any meaning for the layman trying to follow who is winning.
The points tally during the first two days, the Hammer Climb and the Hammer Sprint, should be regularly present, and update immediately as the riders go over the line, with teams jumping above each other. Too often the information on who finished where on the sprints would only filter through just before the next sprint was getting underway, giving no time for the viewer to comprehend what was happening in the battle between the teams for points.
Secondly, the organisers seemed to forget about what makes the sport great. The catharsis of seeing Team Sky fight back and cross the line first to take the win was a great tweak to the time-trial format. Was that present at any other stage of the race? Not really.
Sep Vanmarcke (Cannondale-Drapac) claimed the ‘win’ on the final lap of the Hammer Sprint and saluted but it felt hollow, his team finished third on the day. Carlos Betancur (Movistar) surged clear on the final lap to cap off a dominant display by himself and the team on Stage 1, he deservedly saluted, but the points he claimed at the top were meaningless as Movistar had already sewn up the win.
The way winners were decided was by some impenetrable number crunching that ended up with teams on scores like 70.7 vs 60.9 vs 59.6. What did that mean? Sure, you go back through and work out that X out-sprinted Y there and so grabbed the crucial extra point but that was entirely obscured by the opaque scoring system and lack of information in the broadcast.
Certainly, The Hammer Series is supposed to be about the performance of the team, but the more you get away from the first rider across the line winning the more it gets away from the layman understanding what is going on in the race.
What can cycling take from the Hammer Series? The overall format is a bit too different to pick up and shift it into most races but we can cherry-pick a few aspects out. The traditional team’s classification is old, boring and nobody currently cares about it at all.
Why don’t World Tour races look at implementing a more holistic point-scoring system for the teams classification (including sprint, mountain points and team trial results) and making it a prestigious award, rather than the one won by a team with a decent number of GC contenders?
Could we do something like the Hammer Chase format with the top 10 riders on GC in the final time-trial of a Grand Tour? Policing drafting with single riders will be a lot easier than with teams and what a spectacle the recent Giro would have been. Imagine a rampant Tom Dumoulin tearing past three riders to win the Giro d’Italia, it takes the action away from split screens and time checks, putting it as a battle on the road, where cycling should be.
So will the Hammer Series replace cycling as we know it? No. In the same way one-day and Twenty20 cricket didn’t kill Test cricket, futsal and beach soccer didn’t kill football, the Super League quickly re-joined rugby league and Fast4 tennis lasted about as long as one of its matches.
The Hammer Series will continue, it has enough money behind it and the 11 Velon teams are supporting it, so we will see it happen on a grander scale next season. I'm excited to see if it can overcome the issues that marred the core concept of the racing and evolve to include other formats.
What if each time a rider wins a lap it means his team has qualified another rider for the final day race? How about a team relay time-trial on the final stage? It's not traditional cycling that has to conform to established rules and regulations, so why not shake it up even more?
What if, revolutionary as it may sound, there was a womens race included as well to run alongside the mens? The shorter format lends itself to a double dose and there should be little debate now about the excitement level provided by womens cycling. Of course Velon is a mens team initiative, with only Orica-Scott and Sunweb with sister teams in the womens peloton. Showcasing the women would show it as much about growing the sport as finding alternative revenue streams outside the Tour de France and ASO.
Meanwhille, cycling event organisers and the UCI should be paying close attention to what is happening in this space. Working out what elements of the Hammer Series can work for cycling as a whole to grow the sport and become a bit more relevant to your average TV watcher.