So far, we have covered the different competitions that comprise the Tour de France, the composition of the team, and the different types of riders. Today, we will talk about the the different types of courses the riders will face.
Stage types – The TdF is really a measure of the best all-around cyclist. Or, at least who has the strongest or most tactically savvy team. To make sure that the race is more than just a test for the climbers or a tribute to the sprinters, the race organizers include a variety of different types of stages to attempt to create the most exciting race as possible. In fact, the organizers seem to alter the course each year to make it more competitive. Seriously, If a very good time trialist wins the Tour for a year or two in a row, the organizers reduce the amount of time trial kilometers the next year and increase the summit finishes or climbing kilometers. Likewise, the organization sometimes adds longer time trials and team time trials to mitigate the strengths of the pure climbers. The goal is to not have a race that is effectively over with a week remaining. That gets kind of boring.
Time Trial – The time trial, or TT, is often called the race of truth. In the TT, riders race a defined distance for the best time. Unless it is a team time trial, which I will cover shortly, the riders cannot draft other riders. Each rider departs the starting ramp individually, separated by a defined time gap normally between one and three minutes. If a rider catches the rider who started ahead of him, he must make the pass as quickly and safely as possible. The passed rider is not allowed to ride in the faster rider’s draft. There are three types of TTs that can be present in the Tour: the prologue, the team time trial, or TTT, and the standard time trial. If the Tour has a prologue, it is always the first day and is not technically considered Stage 1. The prologue must be less than eight kilometers long, and it does not usually favor the regular TT specialists due to the very short duration. In fact, some sprinters have been known to put in some very good prologue efforts. The TTT is just like a regular TT, but it is a team effort. During the TTT, teammates take turns at the front, pulling for the others. The team also shifts formation based on the wind direction to increase the aerodynamic advantage of the group. The clock stops when the fourth teammate crosses the finish line, so some riders will get dropped off of the back if they are not strong TT specialists and not the protected GC rider. However, the team does not want to jettison too many riders early, as it is easier to go faster with more people to help pull. The third type of TT is the regular TT. It can be anywhere from nine kilometers on up. It can be flat, technical, hilly, or mountainous. The terrain profile of the TT determines what kind of rider it favors. A flat but windy TT will favor the bigger riders who can just produce more power. The mountain TT favors the climbers. And, a technical TT (meaning that it has a lot of tricky turns) favors those with great bike-handling skills and the ability to get up to speed quickly. Time gaps on even a short TT can get pretty large, and they can be minutes for the TTs longer than 30 kilometers or on mountain TTs. The TT is generally the biggest limiting factor for a climber to transition to a GC contender. It’s boring as hell to watch, but it can also be very exciting if the TT is held at the end of the race. In the 1989 Tour, American Greg Lemond won the TT on the final day by 58 seconds over Frenchman Laurent Fignon That 58-second win gave Lemond his second Tour win by a margin of only 8 seconds. That was an exciting finish to watch.
Flat – The flat stages are normally the domain of the sprinters’ teams. Normally a breakaway gets up the road for most of the day only to be pulled back with about ten kilometers to go, as the sprinters’ teams begin lining up for the sprint. These aren’t the most exciting stages to watch from start to finish, but the last ten kilometers are exciting due to the very high speed of the peloton and the jockeying for position among the sprinters. Notice that I said normally. In certain areas of France and Belgium (yes, some Tour stages are held outside of France), the road is wide open to the wind. As the peloton takes the various turns along the route, the wind direction changes. Crosswinds can be the death of a GC contender’s chances. The reason is that the draft zone is very different in the crosswinds than in headwinds or tailwinds. The really smart teams take advantage of this, and the Belgian teams are absolutely the best at managing the crosswinds. Once a split happens, it is very difficult to close, and the time gaps can resemble those of the smaller mountain finishes. Generally, the Spanish teams always seem to be the ones that get caught out by the crosswinds and then complain about the other teams not playing fair. In my opinion, that’s karma coming back at Movistar for all of the shady things they do, so the complaints are falling on deaf ears. We’ll discuss the teams another day, though.
Hilly/Transition – These are the days for the breakaway. Normally, they occur just before or after a big mountain stage, and nobody really feels like chasing. The course profile usually has a fair amount of climbing but nothing significant enough to affect the GC standings. The sprinters’ teams aren’t interested because the amount of climbing means that the sprinters will probably not finish with the peloton. Thus, a breakaway comprised of riders who aren’t a threat to the GC riders will have a great chance of winning the stage. These days are similar to the flat stages regarding excitement, but that begins to build with about 50 kilometers to go. One of two things happens at that point. Either the break is so far ahead that the peloton has already given up the chase, or the peloton realizes that the possibility of catching the break is quickly slipping away and hits the gas. Either way, chaos ensues. If the peloton starts chasing, it usually comes down to a catch in the last 500 meters or the break winning with the peloton in sight. If the peloton stops chasing, the attacks in the break start flying. Then it becomes like two boxers just slugging it out. Those days normally end in some kind of epic effort by the eventual winner.
Mountain – These are the days for the GC contenders and the climbers. Yes, a breakaway survives in the mountains more often than on a flat stage, but almost nobody cares. During a mountain stage, the big names battle it out. Fortunes can be made or lost in the Alps or Pyrenees. To truly qualify as a mountain stage, the stage has to end on an HC or 1C (1st Category) climb or have multiple high-category climbs throughout the stage. Depending on the state of the GC, the excitement could come early or late. If riders need to make up a good deal of time, the attacks come early and often. If it is close, then the fireworks start much later on the last climb. Team strength also plays an important role on mountain stages. Team Sky and Movistar are known to put their climbing domestiques on the front to set an infernal pace. The high tempo discourages attacks and gets rid of those riders who may have a great capacity to surge but not hold a hard effort for an extended periods of time, relatively speaking of course. However it works out, the mountains are where legends are made and races are lost. All of the best stories come from the mountain stages.
The breakaway = the definition of insanity – At this point, it is necessary to explain the reasoning behind the breakaway. On flat stages, the chances of the breakaway winning are about the same as winning the lottery. So, why do they do it? Well, there are a lot of reasons. If your team does not have a big-time sprinter or GC rider, the only way to get some camera time for the team sponsors and have an opportunity to win the stage is the breakaway. Each year, 4 teams get invited to join the other 18 Pro Tour teams at the Tour de France. The invited teams are usually from the second tier of professional cycling, and they have no hope of winning the GC or really the sprint stages. The Tour organization expects those teams to “earn” their invitations by animating the race. The breakaway is a great way to do that. On a mountain stage, a team with a GC contender may send a rider in the break to be able to support the GC leader later in the race. It may be a rider who is not a strong climber, but the team wants to have his services at a point in the stage where that rider would normally have been dropped already. Plus, if a team has a rider in the rider in the break, it does not have to work to chase the break down. It is a great way to sacrifice one rider to let the other eight rest by sitting in the draft of the peloton. Likewise, if the rider in the break is there to support a later move of his GC teammate, he does not have to do much work in the break, saving his legs for the work later in the stage. Still, there are some days where the break has a high probability of success. The hilly and transition stages that fall late in the second week or in the third week are great targets for a breakaway win.
That is it for today. Next time, we will talk about the different teams in this year’s race. Thanks for joining, and let me know what you think of how the race is unfolding so far.