The Shanghai Criterium was a Great Reminder that Off-Season Cycling is Really Weird

For us layman, off-season cycling means dusting off the cross bike or moving back to the basement training dungeon. For professional cyclists, especially winners of big races like the Tour de France, the off-season is pretty weird.

This weirdness was on full display last weekend at the Shanghai Criterium and it started before anyone even got on a bike.  The odd spectacle, really just a photo op, lasted only 23 seconds as Chris Froome and Marcel Kittel clasped their right hands together for an arm wrestling match. Behind them cycling VIPs like Alberto Contador conveniently came into frame as  the four-time Tour de France champion and the German sprinter began. Kittel outweighs Froome by a good 45 pounds, after a little screwing around  Froome’s hand met the table.

The silly and obviously staged moment by the ASO, the organization that long has run the Tour de France and now organizes the Shanghai Skoda Criterium, quickly went viral. From bogus arm wrestling match Saturday night the event quickly moved to the totally bogus bike race the following day. The inaugural Shanghai Skoda Criterium – an event ASO bills as the 22nd stage of the Tour.

Froome punches his fist into the air after sprinting for the win

According to the hilarious  race reports for the day,  Froome out-sprinted two breakaway companions, Rigoberto Uran and Warren Burguil to take the win.

A victory that tastes more like a gift to the Chinese fans who gathered massively to celebrate the first Tour de France winner to come to China… Marcel Kittel got the green, Barguil the polka dot and Contador the most aggressive rider award for his last appearance as a pro. Like a symbol.

You can watch the “breakaway” and “sprint” for yourself here:

I especially enjoy Uran’s acting as he hangs his head in defeat following a narrow loss. What an odd spectacle.

Recap: A break loaded with big names. Contador, in his last “professional” race. Three kilometers to go and  Barguil give it a half-hearted acceleration. Only Uran and Froome can follow.  Greg van Avermaet and Edvald Boasson Hagen and Contador all pretend they can’t hold the wheel. Then Froome “sprints” for the win.

Nothing here is new. The criteriums that have taken place around Europe after the Tour de France have long been merely ceremonial, but they were never publicized outside of the location hosting them. This international spectacle, a completely fabricated bike race purporting to be a part of the Tour de France, was just a bit too weird for my taste.  And watching Contador in his last “race,” which was ostensibly a business trip to Shanghai, feels a little sad given his legacy.

But, maybe I’m just being pedantic. Professional sports are just entertainment after-all. Bringing new fans to the sport of cycling by way of a scripted race probably isn’t too high a price. But, I’ll be damned if it isn’t all a bit strange.