ASO has called time on the Critérium In­ter­na­tional, cit­ing cal­en­dar con­ges­tion – a sign of the times?

Procycling - - Prologue -

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

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