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Professional cycling is a sport in which there is rarely any mercy: long, torturous stages are a point of pride for most races, and the athletes themselves are expected to take a never-say-die attitude. So it was surprising when the riders called to the pre-race press conference of the 2014 USA Pro Challenge expressed seemingly unanimous support for the relatively short, punchy race, where the average stage length, including the 16.1km time trial, is only 120km. Is the professional peloton looking for something different for the future? Something that steers away from the very long stages that characterised the first Tour de France, and still persist to this day, where 200km and longer days are commonplace?
The organisers of the USA Pro Challenge - from race CEO Shawn Hunter to race director Jim Birrell (Medalist Sports) - have taken into close consideration the position of the race on the calendar, the high altitudes at which the race is held, and the condition of the teams after the Tour de France, where a large part of the peloton was affected by crashes in the first week, and created an action-packed week that throws just about everything at the riders, but with a touch of mercy.
"You have to take it all into consideration. you have to respect where we are in the calendar, you have to respect the altitude, the terrain," Birrell said. "With the difficulty of stages, and the depth of the field, I think every day you're going to see stronger racing action because of the [shorter] distance. [It is] going to create a much more compelling stage by stage performance."
Race organisers listening to riders is something that usually only happens as a concession, after bad weather has come in to make a particular stage too dangerous, but the riders expressed strong support for the USA Pro Challenge taking their needs into consideration.
"It's really smart what [Birrell] said," interjected Jens Voigt (Trek). "If you have a super hard, and long stage, really, the in the first hour nothing happens because everyone is terrified of the distance and the time out there. Shorter, harder stages make it more interesting racing. I'm really happy about the decision to not have ridiculously long stages. We don't need them. They're harder and more boring. Commentators don't know what to say because we're just busy eating and drinking in the first two hours. I think all of us are happy with this decision because it makes for better racing."
Voigt's teammate Fränk Schleck agreed, saying: "That's what we want to hear - that the organizers are thinking with the riders. He said it, [you have to take] into consideration the calendar, the altitude, the level of fitness after Tour crashes. That's what we want to see. That the organizers think and they go with the riders in the same direction."
Tinkoff-Saxo's Michael Rogers also supported the decision, coming off a busy season so far where he won two stages of the Giro d'Italia and a stage in the Tour de France. He sees the shorter days as something to consider for the future.
"Cycling has some quite unique challenges," Rogers said. "In my feeling, just as anyone from Commonwealth can tell you, we don't want cycling to become test cricket. We want more dynamic races. Obviously long stages are in our history, we have to abide by that. But on short stages, the barrier of being scared of distance falls away, and pure racing comes out. Thank you for making stages that aren't just test cricket," he said to the organisers. "We can only go so hard for so long, it makes for more dynamic racing."
Tour of Utah winner Tom Danielson (Garmin-Sharp) felt the race will still be one of the hardest editions of the USA Pro Challenge, and every day will test the overall contenders: they will need every skill in their book to succeed.
"It's the hardest the course the organisation has made, not only from the climbs but from the finishes - some are downhill, on circuits positioning will be important. There are short climbs, big climbs, and the time trial. You will have to be a complete cyclist."
The Tour de France also affected the quality of the field. Only five of the nine allowed WorldTour team spots were filled, something that Hunter also attributes to the Tour de France crashes. "We met with the teams at the Tour, and stayed in constant contact," Hunter said. "A few top teams couldn't bring eight healthy riders to compete at this elevation. A few who were here last year will return again in 2015."