Geraint Thomas’s long-range attack at Sunday’s RideLondon Classic may ultimately have been unsuccessful, but it sure was entertaining to watch, and contributed to what was another thrilling edition of Britain’s biggest one-day Classic.
Now four years old, RideLondon has established itself as one of the most intriguing, well-balanced and unpredictable races on the calendar.
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No set formula as to how the race unfolds has been established. On each occasion there has been a hard-fought battle between breakaway riders and the peloton, but to varying results.
The former coming out on top in 2014 and 2015 with victories for Adam Blythe and Jempy Drucker respectively, and the latter triumphing in 2013 and this year with Arnaud Démare and Tom Boonen winning bunch sprints.
Thomas’ attack this year also illustrates another of the race’s virtues – just how early the action kicks off.
He made his first attack alongside teammate Ian Stannard with a whopping 90km of the race still left to race before the finish, instigating an exciting chase between him and the peloton that went down to the wire.
There were some fascinating tactics at play, too. When the Sky pair reached the break up ahead they played a clever one-two ploy, with Thomas attacking solo with 50km to go, allowing Stannard to sit at the back of the group.
Meanwhile, BMC were caught in a predicament of whether to trust defending champion Drucker to win from the break, or to react to their numerical disadvantage and help chase to being the break back.
Compare all these complexities to Saturday’s WorldTour-ranked Clasica San Sebastian, and that race was a much more subdued affair for much of its 220km, only sparking to life on the final climb with 12km to go through attacks from the big names.
Sky had again tried to animate proceedings by sending riders on the attack in the early stages, but to little avail as teams like Movistar and Katusha worked together in the peloton to promptly bring them back.
Similarly, the Ardennes Classics earlier in the spring were all found wanting of entertainment value this spring, and have done for the last few years now.
Amstel Gold, La Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège have all lack committed moves by big names in the earlier stages, and have all fallen into a predictable blueprint where riders wait until as late as possible to make a move.
So what sets RideLondon apart, and makes the British race such a refreshing change from these other hilly classics?
The answer may lie in where its hills are situated. In the cases of Amstel Gold and La Flèche Wallonne, the most difficult and famous climbs – the Cauberg and the Mur de Huy – occur at the end of each race, prompting riders to hold back and save their energy before exerting all their effort on that crucial final ascent.
By contrast, all of the categorised climbs in RideLondon take place in the middle phase of the race, when the riders enter the Surrey Hills.
The five summits are all tackled within 75km of each other, with the last – Box Hill – crested with over 50km still to ride. As a result, any climbers (like Thomas) wanting to win the race have to make their move early, and give themselves enough leeway to survive the following lengthy chase.
The format has proved conducive to exciting racing, with the hilly early section of the race regularly featuring plenty of big attacks, and the flatter (but still undulating) final section playing host to both an exciting chase between breakaway and peloton, as well as internal attacks from within the break to determine the winner.
San Sebastian and Liège-Bastogne-Liège have a comparable structure, in the sense that the hills most synonymous with each race – the Jaizkibel and La Redoute respectively – are climbed relatively early on.
But those races feature similarly difficult ascents later on too, discouraging the riders from making moves.
In fact, the organisers even went as far as to add new, super-steep climbs (the Tontorra and the Côte de la Rue Naniot) for each race’s 2016 edition, yet further dampening the spectacle and producing races where the action was delayed until the final few minutes.
Of course, the fact that teams in RideLondon are restricted to just six riders each also plays a part in the race’s excitement, with the reduced number of domestiques making attacks more difficult to control.
With WorldTour status being touted as a possibility this number could in the future be increased, which would likely alter the dynamics of the racing and swing things in favour of slightly more conservative tactics.
Nevertheless, the front-loading of all the climbs has demonstrated how a one-day Classic can be hard and provide opportunities for climbers, without being attritional and dependent on obstacles occurring late in the race to force selections.
Rather than simply adding more climbs to their finales, the organisers of the current crop of hilly Classics included in the WorldTour ought to take note.