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Sunday, July 12, 2009

Tour de France 2009: Pyrenees are over

Pyrenees are completed - Tour bores its way over the mountains

The Pyrenees, mercifully, are over. I suspect one would have to go a long way back to find a Tour where the Pyrenees have been so inconsequential to the overall race. The days where the main contenders attacked one another to gain time in the Pyrenees are a distant memory, because the 2009 Tour trundled over some legendary climbs today in what resembled a transit-leg, rather than a bike race.

The long and short of it is that Rinaldo Nocentini holds onto the yellow jersey, 6 seconds ahead of Alberto Contador, with Lance Armstrong two seconds further back. A great deal of buzz was generated by Contador's attack on the slopes of Arcalis on Friday, the move which saw him jump Armstrong into role of Astana's team leader (in terms of time, anyway). Some chat rooms are filled with those who say Armstrong would have dominated the climb had it not been for team orders. Others are writing that he would not have kept up with Contador's acceleration even if he did try to.

It's difficult to pin down an objective opinion. Having read many of the articles, I will say that this one, from the Times, is the best piece written about the mountains so far. Well worth a read.

It makes the excellent point that Armstrong was quick to point out that Contador's move was not "to the plan", and how in his role as a team player, his "obligation is to the team", which is why he didn't respond. As valid as that may be, it's brought into focus by a comparison with what happened on stage 3 of the race, when Contador missed the split in the peloton. On this occasion, rather than show the obligation to the team leader who was losing time, it was Armstrong who sent team-mates to the front and himself drove the pace. Presumably "to the plan" is entirely contextual...

A similar opinion from the always excellent summary provided by Cycling Fans Anonymous site, which sums up the details of the days in the Pyrenees better than I would care to.

But, a very brief look at the Tourmalet climb today, and some numbers to put into context just how neutralized it was...

The 'non-event' of the Tourmalet

The Col du Tourmalet is one of the most famed climbs in cycling. At the top, a statue of Jacques Goddard (Tour director 1936 to 1987) welcomes riders to what is the highest road in the central Pyrenees. It has been climbed 47 times, and I dare say it has rarely been relegated to such an inconsequential role as it was by its placement in the stage today, so slow was the pace of the main field up its slopes.

The slowest ascent in years

How slow was the Tour today? Well, back in 1994, the peloton rode the final 12.6km of the Tourmalet in 46:00. For a man weighing about 78kg (including bike and other equipment), that corresponds to a power output of approximately 350W.

That stage in 1994 also featured the fastest climb ever of the Tourmalet to that point, by Marco Pantani. His time? 39:50, a power output of approximately 400W (normalized to 78kg total weight). In 2003, Jan Ullrich recorded the fastest ever ascent, 38:43, which is amazing considering his size compared to Pantani's, and also that Pantani, in 1994 when he set the previous record, was pretty much breaking all records in that Tour - he set the records up Alp d'Huez and Mont Ventoux in that tour (the Alp d'Huez record was broken by him the following year, the Ventoux one still stands!)

Jump to 2009: The peloton took 54:09 to reach the summit, though this time is measured from a different point and therefore measures the bottom slopes as well. Extrapolating is difficult, because the latter half is quite a bit steeper, but it's about 9 minutes longer, which means that the 2009 group rode the climb some 7 minutes slower than the record, and more in line with what the main peloton rides it. That it contained all the elite men of the Tour is a sign of the "truce" that existed today. Also, the break-away group was in fact FASTER than the main peloton, which is almost unheard of on the final climb of the day in a mountain stage, which tells you just how "shut down" the race was at the front. In terms of power outputs, this year's average is approximately 20% down on that of Pantani 15 years ago and Ullrich in 2003.

Note that this is a correction on the earlier post, thanks to the feedback from a commenter who pointed out the discrepancy in lengths between the climbs, which I initially missed

Now, many will point to this as an indication that doping is under control - we got a few emails and comments suggesting that after I pointed out how slow the Arcalis climb was the other day. That certainly may be part of it, and I've got some data from the history of the Tour to look at that particular question in some more detail. But that's for next week...

I don't think you can infer much from the climb today, because the peloton was completely disinterested in racing up the climb, it was a 'truce' day.

In fact, I would hazard a guess that this must be the slowest ascent of the Tourmalet in many, many years. Sadly, I don't have other numbers, so I don't know how fast Armstrong and Ullrich climbed it in 2003, or what the climbing time was in 2001 - if anyone has this, please let me know.

The stage profile, race route and eliminating the spectacle

However, it makes the point that this year the Tourmalet was neutralized, and the race was denied a real contest, thanks to the fact that there was an extra-ordinary 70km to go to the finish once the summit had been reached.

This, plus the fact that the Tour still has three Alpine stages (which are also pretty non-descript, it has to be said), one individual time-trial, and the climb up Mont Ventoux, meant that no serious riding was done, which is a great shame.

Not that I am blaming the riders, of course, I don't wish this to be criticism of their efforts. From the time this route was announced, this stage (and yesterday's) was always going to be controlled affairs. The Tour organizers take responsibility for that. As for Friday, which was an anti-climax of note, that was the result of the dull Astana tactics, helped along by a team time-trial which has all but eliminated four or five riders from being factors in this Tour.

Of course, the intention of the race organizers in creating this route was almost certainly to ensure that we will have a host of riders in close contact by the time the race hits Mont Ventoux. The "spectacle" of the yellow jersey on the line on the second last day was always the intention. I suspect that will fail anyway because of Astana's dominance and the team time-trial, which means the Tour has, from the point of view of excitement, dropped a notch this year.

And sadly, the desire for that spectacle has meant that the Pyrenees have hardly been a spectacle at all.

Next on the agenda

The race now enjoys a rest day, then a few flat stages where the focus will again be on breakaway riders, the sprinter's green jersey and maybe some time for more scientific posts about the typical Tour rider.

Join us then!


Unknown said...


Anonymous said...

You're right about the team time trial. It was/is absolutely ridiculous to have this in a race in which the individual result is so paramount. It has taken much interest out of the race and certain sponsors and teams must be screaming behind the scenes.

I doubt it will return any time soon under circumstances where one team can be stacked to the point where they not only have an advantage on the tour stages, but this is also enhanced in a team time trial.

And the 'bore' rolls on. Can the current directors survive all this? At least the radio restriction trial might make things interesting.


Aussie #2 said...

Great comment guys. It puts it in perspective with those power numbers. Less than I could do as an A grade amateur a couple of years ago (though I was 83kg w equipment). Much less than the elite U23 riders I coach. Admittedly, this is different, in a tour, on a six hour stage. But for the best guys in the world? Neutralised is spot on.

One thing I thought merited comment was Cadel's attempt to go away early the other day. Whilst he copped some heavy criticism, I thought that was a little shortsighted. Presumably the Schlecks would like to win the tour? And Kirchen? Hincapie and Cancellara could have put it on the line with Cadel in the move and Astana would have been put under pressure to chase. We saw on the Tourmalet that Popo and Rast aren't invincible. That would have meant putting one or two of the four 'real' GC guys (Klodi, Leip, Armstrong, Conta) in the front, then having much less left to cover on the climb. When Andy Schleck went, it seemed he had better legs than anyone. But without softening up Astana, and without a serious move to ride across to further up the rode, he was never going to do more than get his face on TV.

If this is going to get interesting, everyone needs to be willing to put it on the line for the win. Not just one rider. Playing to Astana's script won't help anyone else.

Oh, and the TTT... disappointing that it is SO easy to buy the tour now.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi all, responses below:

To Aussie:

Yeah, what a pity. The race directors will probably come under fire, but at this stage, only from the riders! I get the feeling the riders are the last of their concerns! If the media or sponsors revolted, then it would be another story, but one thing the Tour has done is provide a lot of French highlights, and also given a lot of teams a chance in the spotlight!

Therefore, I suspect they'll be happy, even though fans and riders are unhappy with it!

Great pity!

To Aussie 2

You're 100% right. It seems to me that these guys don't want to risk it to win the Tour. Maybe with two weeks to go that is understandable, and perhaps it's more difficult than we make it out to be. But for guys like Kirchen, Evans, Sastre, they're just making up the numbers right now.

Evans was brave to go for that, and it was a great pity that his fellow riders shut him down. I agree with you that they might have done some damage to Astana there - not necessarily to win the day, but to lay down a bit of work for later.

Astana's script is exactly right, that's what this Tour is becoming. It makes such a change from the last two years, where attacks were flying off on every stage, leads were changing, it was great racing. Now, with one dominant team, the whole race is under their thumb. Money talks it seems...


Derek said...

I havn'tread the other comments, so forgive me if it's been said, but maybe this stage was a "truce" stage, because the riders KNOW that every stage can't be raced hard in such a grueling race if you want to finish in one piece, unless you are on drugs. I personally feel that this is a "cleaner" race this year. That is why the race seems boring. We've become accostumed to what drugged riders produce in a race, and so when the first "clean" tour in many many years comes along, it pales in comparison. I've placed "clean" in quotations because i'm not convinced that it's time to shout victory on the doping front.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hello Derek

No problem, and no, it hasn't been said in those words yet. You make some good points.

I certainly agree that this was a "truce" stage. That will of course happen in the course of a three week race, I guess the problem is that you have the riders going over two of the most famed climbs in the Tour, especially the Tourmalet, and so it's really a waste to have a "truce" on this day. The big shame about it is that the usual suspense of the Pyrenees has been negated completely by this route - they've been turned into a side show, when they should be the stage for the great battles that determine the overall champion.

Where I think one must be careful is in saying that this "truce" was a result of doping. I don't think that is the case - this particular truce was the result of the climb coming 70km from the finish line, which is a complete waste of the climb. I think the organizers have decided that they want to keep the top 10 guys as close together, so that they have maximum tension in the final week. But they haven't realised how much it detracts from these days, which are really pretty boring.

As for the doping issue, I think the Tour is certainly LESS doped than before, but like you, I would not say it is clean. I'm actually trying to gather some data that would show this a little more clearly - as you might imagine, this is very difficult. But there are some interesting power numbers that suggest we're now under control, but not clean.

To me, the clearest sign that the playing fields are being levelled is the fact that no one rider can decimate the field on the climbs. That's been the case for the last 2 years, actually. We're accustomed to seeing men shoot off the front and create gaps of minutes over other riders. And then do it the next day, and the next and the next...

That is a sign of doping, and I think what the last few Tours have shown is that riders can no longer ride climbs so aggressively, and the natural (normal) gaps between riders is much smaller. If you think about it, if you have the ten best cyclists in the world, the gaps between them should be very small. You should not, in the absence of "assistance" be seeing gaps of 90 seconds in one climb. The other day on Arcalis, fifteen men were able to ride in the bunch, which I think is normal for the first week of the Tour.

You also see riders have good days and then bad days. Back in the Armstrong era, there were no bad days. Every day was exceptional. Again, that suggests (it doesn't prove, unfortunately) that the riders are "human" again.

Doping is coming under control, but it's not gone yet!

Thanks for the comments!


Vava said...

Enjoyed your analysis of the climb up Tourmalet, but am puzzled why you made no mention of weather conditions as perhaps affecting the time it took/takes to complete this stage? If one is to normalize the results for comparison I don't think environmental conditions can be ignored.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Vava

You are quite correct. Weather conditions will be important. That's one of the accepted limitations to any power comparison, and I should have acknowledged this.

However, I don't think it played a role on Sunday - I don't think I've ever seen the weather as pleasant as that on the Tourmalet. SO in writing the post, I was aware of the weather, but I think it played little role in the pace. You only need to look at the fact that the breakaway group of two riders actually INCREASED their lead on the climb. That tells you the peloton were in third gear, and supports that the power output was low for a reason.

That said, on Arcalis, there was wind, and so that might account for some of the difference between this year and the 1997 climb by Ullrich. Again, the fact that the breakaway rider (Feillu) lost only 45 seconds of his lead in the first 8km of the climb tells you that the pace in the peloton was not that high.

But you are correct, it's a factor. But minor, as I can tell, in this Tour!


Dirk said...

I'll stand up and defend the team time trial ;). IMO a TTT is pretty spectacular (~31 mph average speed on a fairly technical course is impressive), and it has been part of the Tour tradition for a long time.

Any mountain stage with 70km of flats after the final climb on the other hand is a major disincentive for any serious attack. Even if the big gains of team Astana in the TTT wouldn't have happened, I doubt any of the competition would have done a serious attack here.

With a stage profile like this, one should expect it to be boring, and hope that it proves to be an exception to the rule...

Marcos Apene do Amaral said...

Good reading! As always! From the brazilian reader and fan, Marcos!

Anonymous said...

To say that the TTT has no place in this event (because individual effort is paramount) is ludicrous. Do you think that any leader could make their attack in the last 10 km of the stage if their teammates didnt drag his butt around the thousands of kilometers leading up to it? This is a team race. Teammates lead out the sprinters. Teammates grab the water bottles. Teammates drag leaders back into the peleton after a mechanical. There is a reason that the winner doesnt keep any of the prize money, and instead split it amongst the teammates.

Anonymous said...

The time of Marco Pantani was taken from Gripp to the top of the Tourmalet, which means only 12.6 km of climbing. This years time is from the start of the 17.1 km climb. You can add 9 Minutes to Pantanis time to compare it.
Furthermore Ullrich set the fastest time from Gripp with 38.43 in 2003.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Anonymous

Thanks for that - thought it was a big difference...the main peloton's time of 46 min (the typical recorded time, as for the 1994 and 2001 ascents, is then also measured to Gripp, which is fair.

Amazing that Ullrich climbed it faster than Pantani (my records go up to 2001 only, so glad to get that figure, thanks). Pantani back in 1994 was supercharged - pretty much all the climbing records came that year including the 3rd best Alp d'Huez time and the Mont Ventoux record, so for Ullrich to be faster says a lot!

Thanks for that though, appreciate the correction!


Anonymous said...

Re the team trial, Anon said:

"This is a team race. Teammates lead out the sprinters. Teammates grab the water bottles . . ."

If it's a team race, no one has told the spectators, the media, and, most of all, the jersey holders.

You think Cancellara and Hushovd were worried about their teams when they gave Evans the finger the other day? Or that Armstrong and Contador don't care who wins?

Get real.


Derek said...

I havn'tread the other comments, so forgive me if it's been said, but maybe this stage was a "truce" stage, because the riders KNOW that every stage can't be raced hard in such a grueling race if you want to finish in one piece, unless you are on drugs. I personally feel that this is a "cleaner" race this year. That is why the race seems boring. We've become accostumed to what drugged riders produce in a race, and so when the first "clean" tour in many many years comes along, it pales in comparison. I've placed "clean" in quotations because i'm not convinced that it's time to shout victory on the doping front.