"Sometimes you're the hammer, sometimes you're the nail"- Cillian Kelly
There are a lot of inexplicable things in the world of professional cycling, a lot. But there aren't many that are more bonkers than the professional cycling calendar. It is a maze of history, conflicts, contradictions and inconsistencies. You might be under the false impression that the very top tier of men's pro cycling is relatively simple. There is the Tour, Giro and Vuelta which form the stage racing pillars of the season and they are complemented by the five monument classics and the World championships. There they are, the biggest races in the world, simple.
But think about it for just a moment more and questions emerge with no real answers. Why are there five monuments? Why are they even called monuments? Why is one of them in October when the rest are in April? Why does France get one and Belgium and Italy both get two? Why does Spain or the Netherlands not have one at all? Why does the Tour de France, the absolute pinnacle of the sport, take place in the middle of the year, when in all other sports the climax comes at the end? Why is the World Championships not even at the end then?
And that's just the top tier which is supposed to be straight forward. Drop down a tier and the real madness begins. Races overlap and names don't make sense. You want to take part in all of the WorldTour events this year? Sorry, Mr. Cyclist, you can't. Paris-Nice overlaps with Tirreno-Adriatico. Het Niuewsblad takes place on the last day of the UAE Tour (yep that's a WorldTour race now, didn't you know?). The Volta a Catalunya is on in Spain while the Three Days of De Panne is on in Belgium. That's a WorldTour race now too and is a one-day race, obviously. Tour of California and the Giro, the Dauphiné and the Tour de Suisse, the Vuelta and the Canadian races. The clashes are everywhere.
But again, that's just the second tier of races. Drop down again and unpicking the season becomes almost impossible. There are sometimes four races taking place on a single day. But unpicking it is exactly what we had to do to produce The Road Book. We had to normalise the season and flatten it in such a way that it made sense when presented in a series of pages in a book.
What made sense to us was to include the Men's and Women's WorldTour races and then include as far down as the .1 category men's races. We needed a line and that's where we drew it. But even though that was clearly demarcated, I had doubts. The main one of which revolved around the Hammer Series.
It's there. It's in the book. Although I don't think anyone is sure yet what the best way is to present the results of a race like it. There are three winners on the final day of the final event. The fastest team on the day, the first team over the line and the winners of the overall series. None of which are wins for individual riders anyway. So do they even count as wins on a riders palmarés? A whole other can of worms.
They are UCI 2.1 ranked races, so there shouldn't have been any doubt that we included them in our record of the year. But if I was to have conferred with our editor Ned Boulting about whether to leave them out or not, they are the one set of races which I wouldn't have been sure what way Ned would have decided. And that in itself says something about the Hammer Series.
I've been very critical of them on social media as have many others. My criticism mainly revolves around the management speak bollocksology that comes out of the mouth of Graham Bartlett, the CEO of Velon, the group behind the organisation of the series. He has a way with words that leaves me with a headache and a misplaced animosity toward the races. I say misplaced because his words shouldn't be a reflection of whatever racing takes place when the riders get on their bikes.
But the racing actually does reflect those word salads. The points system (including decimal places) is convoluted and hard to follow. The format is supposed to encourage constant action in a short, digestible period of time. It's riders hoovering up points over imaginary finish lines for the entire race and at the end, nobody seems certain who 'won'. Is this what we really want? Is this why we are here?
The slow burning, gradual building of a day's racing on the road is why a lot of fans watch road racing. It doesn't need to be all action all of the time. It's OK to be watching a group of riders climb up a mountain for an hour, gauging form, watching faces for signs of fatigue, trying to catch a glimpse of which gear a rider is in. Was that a wince from one of the leaders? Always waiting and watching for what might happen next.
There's a scene in an episode of The West Wing where Vice President Hoynes is chatting to deputy communications director Sam Seaborn and they're talking about the difference between the various American sports. Hoynes says:
"I love sports, but I just can’t get next to hockey. See, I think Americans like to savor situations. One down, bottom of the ninth, one run game, first and third, left handed batter, right hand reliever, infield at double play depth, here’s the pitch. But scoring in hockey seems to come out of nowhere. The play-by-play guy is always shocked. LePeiter passes to Huckenchuck who skates past the blue line. Huckenchuck, of course, was traded from Winnipeg for a case of Labatts after sitting out last season with… 'Oh my God, he scores!'"
That's the difference between the Hammer Series and other forms of road racing. Scoring comes out of nowhere. Whereas cycling fans like to savour situations.
The Hammer Series is due to take place again this year, spread across Stavanger, Limburg and Hong Kong. They're all 2.1 catgeory races so they will be in The Road Book 2019. I love sports, I love cycling, but I just can't get next to them.