A Denver Post journalist, covering the Tour de France for the first time a few years back, famously said: “Why don’t they just have mountain stages instead of all these boring flat stages!” He was right, but not accurate. If grand tours were comprised of just mountain stages, the same guys would be winning every day and the race would, perhaps, be even more boring. So what about time trials? Don’t they reveal who are the best and the strongest riders? True. But a Tour made up of 21 time trials would be even more boring, wouldn’t it?
Well, the all-time-trials idea was sort of tested eight decades ago by the Tour’s founding father, Henri Desgrange. Like the Denver journo many years later, Desgrange was bored by long, flat stages without much action. As a result he decided that the 16 flat stages of the 1927 Tour would be run as team time trials, with the finish times of every rider being taken for the overall classification. In practice, most of the teams were too weak to keep all their riders together and so most of them were riding the equivalent of a 200-kilometer individual time trial every day! And that was pretty boring too….
After two Tours like that—both won by Luxembourger Nicolas Frantz, mainly due to gaining time in the team time trials with his powerful Alcyon squad—Desgrange went back to the usual race formula. Then, in 1934, the race director decided to insert a true individual time trial for the first time. Held two days from the finish, the 90-kilometer stage from La Roche-sur-Yon to Nantes was won easily by the race leader, Frenchman Antonin Magne, but it didn’t have much effect on the race.
Not convinced that this first time trial was a failure, Desgrange put three individual and three team time trials into the following year’s Tour. (He didn’t get to witness them because he had to quit the race after a day spent in pain, not recovered from prostate surgery, and he handed over his duties to Jacques Goddet.) The multiple time trials proved popular with the public, and by 1939, Goddet increased the number of individual races against the clock to five!
The overall winner that year, Sylvère Maes of Belgium, took only one of the time trials, and placed top 10 in the other four. But he really clinched the Tour in the Alps with a solo break over the Col d’Izoard into Briançon, where the longtime race leader and eventual runner-up, René Vietto, conceded 17 minutes and the yellow jersey.
The total distance of the five time trials in that 1939 Tour was 282.5 kilometers—which makes the 101.4 kilometers of time trials awaiting riders in the three time trials at this year’s Tour look like a walk in the park. Times have changed of course, and time trials usually play a bigger role in the modern Tour than they did in the past—mainly because there’s more parity between team leaders (and more of them!).
The Tour’s greatest multiple-win champions Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, Miguel Induráin and Lance Armstrong all excelled at time trialing, and they took most of their victories because of the time gained against the clock. But those superstars were also capable of winning mountains stages, and sometimes they were forced to excel as climbers to defend their race leadership. (The most recent example of that, of course, was Armstrong’s famous solo victory at Luz-Ardiden in 2003 after he was badly beaten by Jan Ullrich in that Tour’s first long time trial.)
So what can we expect at the 99th Tour de France in a month’s time? After Brad Wiggins’s winning demonstration in this week’s 53.5-kilometer time trial at the Critérium du Dauphiné, even longtime race insiders were predicting that Britain’s Team Sky leader will gain so much time in the time trials that he’ll be able to cruise in the mountains. But the upcoming Tour is far more complicated than that….
As Wiggins himself said on Thursday after putting 1:43 into defending Tour champ Cadel Evans, 2:12 into Belgian hope Jurgen Van den Broeck, 3:30 into Italian pretender Vincenzo Nibali, and 10:47 into a battered Andy Schleck (who crashed and flatted): “I don’t think you can read into it too much. It’s six weeks from now until the final TT at the Tour and that’s a long time—a lot can change….”
What Wiggins was saying was that the 53.5-kilometer time trial at the Tour is on the second-to-last day, when everyone is tired, the general classification is usually set, and the strongest time trialists don’t always gain as much time as they would earlier in the race. The other two TTs at the Tour are both in the first half of the Tour: a flat, 6.4-kilometer prologue in Liège, Belgium (on June 30), and a rolling 41.5-kilometer stage into Besançon (on July 9).
In such a short prologue, even if he wins, Wiggins is unlikely to gain more than 15 seconds on his main rivals, perhaps 30 seconds on Schleck and the pure climbers. As for the stage 9 time trial, this comes right after two semi-mountain stages, one with a steep summit finish where Schleck, Evans, Nibali and other challengers such as Robert Gesink could regain the time lost in the prologue. And the second time trial, which is constantly climbing and descending, twisting and turning between Arc-et-Senans and Besançon, suits Evans rather than Wiggins.
Evans showed on Thursday this week that he’s always competitive. Even though he lost 1:31 to Wiggins on the 22 kilometers of straighter, wider roads in the middle part of the Dauphiné time trial and came within 10 seconds of being caught by the tall Brit, the Aussie widened that gap to 17 seconds in the final 5 kilometers. That late effort by Evans showed two things: (1) he can ride strongly at the end of a long time trial, and (2) he is on target with his preparations to peak for the Tour.
So, if the above scenario through the Tour’s first two time trials plays out, there’s not going to be much time difference between the principal favorites when they reach the climbing stages in the Alps and Pyrénées—and that’s where the Tour will be won and lost. So the longest time trial of the Tour, 24 hours before the Champs-Élysées finale, may have less of an effect on the race than is presently imagined. And that’s just what it was like those 70-odd years ago when Maes won the Tour in the mountains despite the almost 300 kilometers of individual time trials.
The Tour is three weeks’ long and contains every type of terrain and racing. We don’t want to see time trials every day (as Desgrange almost prescribed), nor every stage to be in the mountains (like the Denver journo wanted). Instead, we want another Tour where climbing and time trialing both play their part, and the best man wins.