The winner of the inaugural Tour de France Prudential Singapore Criterium is the sport of cycling. This new ‘race’ offered a reminder of how popular bike riding is in this part of south-east Asia.
The 2022 TDF champion Jonas Vingegaard was the first rider to cross the finish line of the elite criterium – the feature event on Sunday afternoon – and it was quite obviously a predetermined result… but that didn’t mean the public was robbed of a spectacle.
– Part of a series about cycling in Singapore, by Rob Arnold
In typical social media style some observers from afar couldn’t resist the impulse to offer a negative comment on the result of the Prudential Singapore Criterium. “Set-up,” declared Danny in a comment on a slo-mo reel of Jonas Vingegaard arriving at the finish ahead of two other former Tour de France winners, Chris Froome and the retiring Vincenzo Nibali.
The criterium was billed as a ‘race’ but there is more to it than who stood on the spectacular podium positioned over the water near Singapore’s celebrated harbourside Formula One circuit.
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This was a full weekend of activations created to expose cycling to the people of Singapore and surrounds. It was more tourism than sport, and that’s perfectly fine. It was fun and – ultimately – a successful promotion.
It might have seemed an obtuse result for a flat 57km circuit race and those who understand cycling realise it wasn’t the podium it would have been if it was a truly serious competition. Despite the pedigree of some riders in the peloton – many of whom are rivals during the real racing season – the priority was to make it a spectacle. And that’s exactly what the day-long carnival of cycling became.
It was a promotion, an opportunity to bring bike racing to town and to provide committed fans and newbies alike the chance to see some of the sport’s stars in action.
The “set-up” comment is obvious enough and I understand Danny’s sentiment; it’s easy to be negative about something on social media, and he wasn’t the only one. Others would later chime in – sometimes with an understanding of the situation, sometimes with what seemed like genuine outrage.
“Was this a real race or just a show for a few spectators?” asked Jorge Sandoval, a race promoter in New Zealand who has a long history in cycling. “Forty-four riders, TV coverage around the world, soft racing, a very expensive promotion if everyone knew who the winner will be.”
It seems odd to me that someone who has been involved in the sport for so long felt compelled to criticise the new event – while even adding a reference to global live coverage to his critique. Cycling and a city, exposed!? How dare this happen?
It did happen… and maybe, just maybe it will grow into something bigger.
That the criterium was also supported by the government and cycling’s biggest brand is the icing on a cake that is just beginning to be prepared.
All events have to start somewhere. Remember the original concept of the Tour itself? It was a bold initiative in 1903, and yet it has grown into something that now captures global attention.
Pro cycling’s criterium circus
Pre-determined results in criterium racing is nothing new for cycling. It’s a tradition that is part of the sport’s long and curious history. James Stout once wrote about it in RIDE Cycling Review back in 2012 while considering the post-Tour crits that are such a feature of the European summer.
As Stout explained about these showcase races, it isn’t necessarily the result that matters.
“These races aren’t ‘competitive’,” wrote Stout 10 years ago about events that continue to attract huge crowds in Europe even though everyone knows they are contrived, with the winner decided before the race even begins. “They’re not UCI regulated and they run to a carefully penned script… This is concert cycling, spectacular, but not entirely believable.”
It does seem slightly naff that a climber like Jonas Vingegaard would beat a sprint maestro like Mark Cavendish on a flat circuit on a hot afternoon late in the 2022 season. One star is rising, the other still shines brightly and these days Cav’s appeal is largely because of his long list of impressive achievements and, when it comes to the Tour de France in 2022, the lure of breaking what long seemed like an unbreakable record.
In an ‘ordinary’ bike race on the kind of terrain used for the criterium on Sunday in Singapore, Cav’ would always finish ahead of Ving’. Anyone reading this site knows that, and so too do many who were on the roadside on that hot, sunny and humid October afternoon.
You don’t need to be an afficionado to know that the result of the first edition of this showcase of cycling was fixed. Similarly, it only takes one glance at the photos or footage of Vingegaard crossing the finish line in front of The Float @ Marina Bay to realise that his Cervélo bike was hardly set up for a rider of his pedigree.
No, it wasn’t a ‘real’ race. There weren’t any UCI points on offer. And it was largely an event built for a bit of entertainment, to allow Singaporeans, tourists and the visiting media alike to see some of cycling’s most famous riders in action.
Let’s also recognise the timing of the event. It didn’t just happen late in the season, it happened late in the off-season.
These days cycling’s true professionals are already thinking of building form for next year by the time November rolls around. And so it’s obvious that a race on the final weekend of October featuring the likes of Vingegaard, Cavendish, Chris Froome, Simon Geschke, Simon Clarke, Hugo Houle – all (real) TDF stage winners – wasn’t going to be contested in the same manner as other races when it’s Business Time during the season proper.
Entertainment and exposure
Pro cycling is a funny old beast. It can entertain and frustrate in equal measure but there’s no need to poke fun at the ‘winner’ in Singapore and chastise the peloton for allowing Jonas to salute the crowd as he crossed the finish line.
It was a show, yet the pace was sufficiently high to eliminate any ambitious attempted challenges by some of the local riders. It was also a chance for the likes of Boon Kiak Yeo, the Singapore road race champion, to show himself on a fabulous circuit in front of an appreciative crowd.
There was attacking and sprinting and chasing and captures. The riders at the head of the race switched around numerous times and although there may have been a script for how it would end, it was enjoyable enough to watch. The riders put on a show even if, in the end, it all became awkwardly contrived when Vingegaard, Froome and Nibali found themselves in the lead group ready to sprint it out for ‘victory’.
Still, that’s what happened and although it’s difficult to report on, I’m glad I was there along with a few thousand others – including a good portion of the growing Singaporean cycling community as well as plenty of visitors from nearby countries lured in by the pull of the stars of the pro peloton willing to race in Asia. There was also a crowd of curious onlookers who were probably only there because it was wonderful weather on a Sunday afternoon and the loud PA system insisted that they couldn’t just walk on by and ignore all that was unfolding near the central harbour.
In the hour that followed the ‘race’, I walked the streets, surveyed the scene and considered the vibe that was created while also trying to get an understanding of what those who had come to watch some cycling felt about the event. Occasionally I’d ask someone if they were in town to watch “the bike race”.
Most replied “yes” – and they did so with a broad, satisfied smile.
One told me “no”… but that he was happy to have stayed to see what all the fuss was about.
All were happy to talk about what they’d seen and keen to offer their thoughts on what they’d witnessed. None of them were negative with their appraisal, even the ones who recognised that it was indeed a set-up.
The consensus from those I spoke to just after the race was that it was a good day of sport as entertainment. And, to be clear, the elite criterium was only one element of a larger festival of cycling that included community engagement with mass participation rides, displays of vintage bikes, and a trade expo to showcase what has become of cycling in 2022.
When Geschke lined up wearing a polka-dot jersey from the Tour de France, a prize he cherished wearing during the race last July but never actually won, it was already obvious that this was a spectacle rather than a serious competition. That doesn’t make it naff. It’s a bit of theatre that doubles as something of an homage to the stars of a sport that is growing in popularity rapidly in Singapore.
It was predictable. It was also a bit of a shame – some said – that the set-up saw a climber beat a rider of repute who has thrived on flat terrain. But was Cav upset to be beaten by Ving? Not at all.
The veteran sprinter played along with the game and entertained the crowd. He raced for points of intermediate sprints and threw his bike at the line in dramatic style; usually he got first place but, once in a while, someone got the better of him. He expressed frustration when beaten. But then made amends when he lined up for the subsequent sprint. He oscillated between satisfied and agitated. He was willing to attack and sprint… but at times he also found himself at the back of the peloton. He raced with a mix of speed and off-season form.
The fans on the roadside enjoyed the afternoon of racing even if there wasn’t the urgency or tension that often exists in the middle of the season. Still, it seemed authentic enough even if many understood the script, and that the winner may not have actually been the best criterium rider in the bunch. As Sean, one Singaporean cycling enthusiast I spoke to shortly afterwards, explained: “It was just great to see those guys in action.”
He smiled, almost wanting to add: but I knew it was fixed… but he showed some restraint with his appraisal because he was also thrilled to have seen these Tour de France stars riding bikes on the roads he rides most weekends.
Like many, Sean has come to cycling in recent years. He’s discovered the joy or riding and also the thrill of watching a race like the Tour de France, and he and his girlfriend were excited just to see Vingegaard, Cavendish et al doing what they do, albeit in the off-season when there’s little stress and no true prestige (or UCI points) on the line.
“We know it’s a show,” said Sean, “but that’s okay. They still rode faster than I ever have on those roads… and I’ve never ridden in that kind of heat in the afternoon.”
The winner’s bike: a fantastic souvenir
Jonas Vingegaard raced on a bike borrowed from a local bike shop. He rode with a compromised position, with the fork steerer that hadn’t been cut to his sizing requirements. It wasn’t ideal, but it did the job and allowed him to do his ‘work’ at a time when he really was on holiday.
When the TDF champion of 2022 hands that Cervélo back to the shop after his visit, it’s likely to be on-sold to a customer who will forever tell their mates, “And this is the bike Vingegaard raced on when he was in Singapore.”
That bike will serve the real owner well. It will carry them around the city, the country and maybe even beyond Singapore. It will inspire them and provide a sense of pride. It might have been a bike Vingegaard borrowed for a few weeks while he was in town, and not a genuine Jumbo-Visma team-issue race machine, but the eventual owner won’t care about that.
Whoever ends up with that bike will surely get the fit right and cut the fork to the right size. They’ll drop the stack height and find their optimal position. They’ll ride it as hard and as fast as they can. They’ll savour every moment on it and likely remember the day that the winner of the Tour de France rode it to ‘victory’ in a race that was a set-up.
Will they care that the winner was predetermined? I doubt it. They’ll be thrilled to own something Jonas once ‘raced’. They might even find that they push themselves that little bit harder on their next ride. And who knows, they might even use that extra motivation to race on it, maybe that’ll be in Singapore – or it might be somewhere beyond the borders of this small country in Asia.
It will be special for all the right reasons. And they won’t care about the arranged finale that saw a trio of TDF champions on the podium of a criterium in Singapore. The bike will surely become a prized possession and it could make a positive impact on the eventual owner’s cycling life.
The race and the winner’s bike might not have been truly professional on that last Sunday of October 2022 but that doesn’t mean these things are naff.
The Prudential Singapore Criterium is over now. The professional riders have left town; some have flown onwards to Japan and another criterium ‘showdown’ in Saitama next weekend, others have returned home, and all have fond memories of time spent in a country where cycling is on the up and up.
The race on Sunday heralds the beginning of something special, an event that exposed a country with little bike racing heritage to the stars of cycling’s biggest race, and it was a triumph Singaporeans can be proud of.
– By Rob Arnold