A moment of clarity while watching the USA Pro Challenge this week; could the US hold a ‘fourth’ grand tour? Let’s deal straight away with the Tour of California. Now VCSE doesn’t think that the TOC refers to itself any more as the ‘fourth grand tour’, but it was certainly touted as such when the race was born a few years back. Even the organisers (the ASO are heavily involved too) have realised that particular joke (they weren’t joking) isn’t funny anymore and the grand tour nomenclature has slipped quietly from view.
This isn’t to say that California doesn’t possess some great roads to race over. This years parcours was no exception and the decision to race from south to north in the state paid dividends as far as the weather was concerned too. For a race supposedly taking place in the sunshine state, previous editions run in the opposite direction have often been subject to the kind of weather we would expect in northern Europe.. in winter! Delusions of (literal) grandeur have not been the only thing stacked against the TOC ambitious marketing. An obvious issue is that the race is a week long only; perhaps more Paris Nice than Tour de France. The TOC could reasonably describe itself as the second ‘race to the sun’. The key point is that what makes a grand tour grand is its length and the distance involved predicates a route that covers a whole country rather than one US state. California as evidenced by its changing scenery is bigger than many countries, but the US is bigger still and this is what provides a challenge but also perhaps an opportunity for that fourth grand tour.
There are more stage races in the US than the two that appear on this years UCI World Calendar; the TOC and the USA Pro Challenge. The latter takes place days after another week long stage race the Tour of Utah. For the sake of argument lets say that a case could be made for combining the TOC on the west coast and the USAPC in Colarado. Both races currently take in mountain and sprint stages and can feature TT and summit finishes very easily. Run over two weeks rather than one or stretched into a third week with rest / transfer days and additional stages in each state it’s not such a great leap of imagination to see that of all places the US is best placed to deliver a genuine grand tour status event, rather than an over ambitious marketing claim.
From an infrastructure perspective it’s hard to imagine a country better equipped to transfer riders and teams from one state to another. While host TV coverage is often characterised by its hyperbole it has to be said that the timings and on screen information often exceeds that of the other races on the world tour (Tour of Poland time gaps anyone?). Provided there is no interference on the satellite feed (Tour of Utah is a good example of this) the HD quality of the US races is generally superb also.
The final ‘tick’ in the box for VCSE is the racing. The US continental teams at the TOC and the USAPC are always motivated to race and more importantly win. There was a genuine possibility of a US based team winning the TOC this year. OK, so having this and that team ‘presented by’ so and so doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, but these teams are producing riders who are capable of moving up to a world tour team. There a more riders like Joe Dombrowski, a Sky neo pro this year after riding with US conti outfit Bontrager last year than journeymen in the peloton. Even the US riders who for obvious reasons return home for these events are super motivated to race hard. If you hadn’t watched the US stage races this year you would have thought that the highlight of Tejay Van Garderen’s year was getting beaten on Alpe d’Huez in the Tour. At home he has looked if not super strong, then definitely the most consistent GC rider, although he totally buried himself to with the uphill TT in the USAPC last week.
Money is a huge consideration even looking at a week long event, but these US races are a marketeers dream for any bike manufacturer. The fans cannot get enough of riders like Jens Voight and Peter Sagan and it seems like a safe bet to suggest that a two week race would provide many more opportunities to promote your wares.
Timing could be the biggest stumbling block. The TOC overlaps with the Giro and the USAPC front ends the Vuelta. It feels like the right time to schedule a two week race would be around the time of the Tour of Utah / USAPC as this would at least guarantee the weather. ASO having a foot in both camps as far as the TOC and the Vuelta are concerned could actually turn out to be a good thing in terms of scheduling. Consider the riders not at the Vuelta who could have starred in a two week ‘Tour of the Wild West’. Froome, Porte, Sagan, Rogers, Millar, Schleck, Van Garderen and Voight. With proto grand tour status it’s hard to dispute that more world tour teams would be in attendance swelling the ranks of top pros further.
The somewhat fragile nature of cycling economics will probably mean it will never happen. VCSE would rather see additional investment from the likes of ASO and the teams going into funding expansion of women’s professional cycling. However this does feel like an idea that could take off purely on the marketing potential for the bike manufacturers and the chance for the US television networks to sustain the interest that spikes with the Tour in July. Will there be a fourth grand tour and will it be held in the US. Perhaps it’s not such a daft idea.