This week saw the route for the 2015 Tour de France unveiled (see here and here). The general consensus is that the race will be won by one of the top climbers like 2014 Grand Tour winners Vincenzo Nibali (Tour de France), Alberto Contador (Vuelta Espana) and Nairo Quintana (Giro d’Italia), as well as 2013 TdeF winner Chris Froome. This year’s event was won easily by Nibali, undoubtedly helped by the fact that Froome and Contador crashed out early and that Quintana did not participate at all.
Traditionally, the Tour contains 8-9 mountain stages, 8-9 relatively flat stages that usually end in sprint finishes and 2-3 time trials. In 2012 and 2013, a mini-trend had started to develop whereby the winner was the one that did exceptionally well in both the individual time trials. The overall winners in this period were Bradley Wiggins in 2012 and Froome in 2013. Prior to this, from 2009-2011, there was only one individual time trial outside of the opening, very short, individual prologue.
Perhaps not coincidentally, both Wiggins and Froome are members of Team Sky, many of whom, at both rider and management level, have a background in track racing. If there is one element of road racing that can benefit from performance spillovers from the track, it is undoubtedly the time-trial, where the aerodynamic properties of the bike, rider sitting position and even the cycling suit can shave significant amounts off a rider’s time. Such benefits are magnified in time trials as riders are not able to ‘draft’ the rider in front as happens in all other stages, though less so in the mountains given that speeds are lower.
In 2012, Bradley Wiggins was the overall winner by 3.21 from Froome, 6.19 from Nibali, 10.15 from Van den Broeck and 11.04 from Van Garderen, despite not winning any mountain stage. That year, Wiggins won two stages, both of the time trials. In these, Wiggins gained 1.41 over Froome, 5.45 over Nibali, 7.31 over van den Broeck and 3.40 over van Garderen. Wiggins also benefitted from having Froome as one of his ‘domestiques’, ensuring that he had support on the toughest mountain stages without having to fear an attack by Froome.
In 2013, Froome was much more impressive than Wiggins was in the mountains, famously winning on Mont Ventoux. Overall, Froome won by 4.20 from Quintana, 5.04 from Rodriguez, 6.27 from Contador and 7.27 from Kreuziger. As with Wiggins in 2012, Froome’s performances in the two time-trials were hugely impressive, gaining 4.27 from Quintana, 3.27 from Rodriguez, 2.11 from Contador and 2.29 from Kreuziger.
The organisers of the Tour seem to have taken this trend into account in setting the route for future Tours. In 2014, there was only one time trial and it occurred on the second last stage. For 2015, there will be only be one individual time trial covering just 14km and it will be the first stage. This is the least distance covered in individual time trials since 1947. The only other time riders are against the clock is in a team time-trial on stage 9 covering 28km. In response to this, Chris Froome has hinted that he may give the Tour a miss and focus on winning both the Giro and Veulta which take place either side of the Tour.
One may wonder why the organisers have gone down this route. Is it felt that climbing ability should be the dominant factor in determining the overall winner? Is there a bias against the newcomers from Sky? Do cycling chiefs fear that cycling is going the way of other sports such as golf and motor racing where technology is having a greater impact on outcomes and that this is the only way to react in order to make the overall outcome more indicative of natural cycling ability? Is there a fear that fan interest may be impacted if the Tour is effectively decided by the time trials?
I don’t know the answer but am really looking forward to next July.