ASO has called time on the Critérium International, citing calendar congestion – a sign of the times?
In November, ASO announced that it was winding up the Critérium International, held at the end of March, forthwith. Local politicians in Corsica, the race’s last host region, decided not to enter into a new contract with ASO. And so homeless and impoverished, the race breathed its last, despite an 85-year history and a venerable winners’ list. ASO said in a statement: “The Critérium International’s peloton has seen a drop in density, due to the number of events taking place at this time of the season.”
We can be sad about the demise of one of the few races to be put on during World War 2 but we shouldn’t be surprised.
The news means FDJ’s Thibaut Pinot is now the last winner of the two-day, three -stage race. In its early years it was a oneday, French-only affair and contributed to the rich tapestry of the rivalry between Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor. After a series of concessions to foreign riders, and settling on the formula of a sprint stage, a TT and a mountain top finish, the race was fully opened to the international peloton in 1982 and the race entered its heyday. It was billed as a mini-Tour de France, aping the jersey colours for a time and building up a list of winners who excelled in July. It also kept moving around the country, unlike most races which are rooted in a region. The race was a test-bed for up and coming stars too – Laurent Fignon’s first professional win was in the Critérium International. The list of winners is full of the big names of the Tour: Bernard Hinault, Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche, Miguel Indurain and Laurent Jalabert all won.
So what has gone wrong? ASO cited calendar congestion and the subsequent adulteration of the field as the principal reason. That’s half the story. The 2.HC-ranked race was always squeezed into a tight spot in the weekend between MilanSan Remo and the Tour of Flanders. It was standard practice for the members of the more omnivorous 1980s peloton to rush to Nice airport (when the race was held in nearby Antibes) in their skinsuits to catch a plane back to Belgium to make the build-up to Flanders. But now, as ASO points out, the race is up against WorldTour opposition in the form of E3
Harelbeke, held the day before and, more directly since it was moved from a midweek slot to the Sunday in 2010, Gent-Wevelgem. Crucially, media interest in minor stage racing is burnt out by the clamour for the Classics.
And what accounts for the Critérium’s threadbare peloton is the Tour of Catalonia. Since 2010, the Spanish race has also finished on the same weekend. In terms of attention, the Catalan stage race is perilously close to the Critérium’s position but at least it offers cycling’s current lifeblood: WorldTour points.
The news of the Critérium’s termination came a few days after Marc Madiot, FDJ’s team manager, head of the Ligue Nationale du Cyclisme and de facto guardian of French racing against the forces of globalisation, said smaller races faced existential danger from the WorldTour – but then he probably knew what was coming down the tracks.
The rest of the story is raw economics. ASO is in the business of putting on bike races, which is expensive. And whatever Christian Prudhomme and the Amaury family say about their reverence of cycling’s history, profit comes first. Of ASO’s 13 men’s bike races, discounting its growing portfolio of criteriums and Étapes, just five are in France. Only two of those, Paris-Roubaix and the Tour, make serious money. ASO divested itself of the Tour de Picardie in 2014 which has limped on for two years with local subsidies. They’ve dried up now and the race is off next year. Picardie had a history almost as long as the Critérium’s.
ASO is not entirely without blame either. It’s stuck with the same format that boiled the race down to the final climb year in, year out. It exiled the race to Corsica for seven years, which is a logistical headache for teams and spectators alike. The race there has never been overwhelmed by fans. The climb up the Col de l’Ospedale looks – looked – lovely, though.
There are a few hard lessons – all relearned - from the demise of the race. The WorldTour calendar kills off prestigious lower-ranked races. ASO isn't interested in sacred cows. The future of cycling is in new markets.
Next for the chop: Paris-Tours?
ASO is not entirely without blame. It exiled the race to Corsica, which is a logistical headache for teams and spectators alike
Thibaut Pinot dominated the 2016 edition and will be the race's last winner
ASO chief Christian Prudhomme, thinking about canceling Christmas, perhaps