Every year, the Tour de France draws even casual sports fans to pay at least a passing glance at the sport of cycling. People who wouldn’t know their peloton from their pedal are bombarded on sports pages with at least a passing glance at the day’s events for three weeks every July. Here in the United States the phenomenon is largely thanks to the twin titans of American cycling, Greg LeMond and Lance Armstrong, who over a twenty-year span from 1986 to 2005 won half the Tour titles on offer. But worldwide the interest has ramped up, with successes from Australians and Danes and Colombians and South Africans and so many others in between.
Of course they won the main title of several on offer, the general classification. Fans see the yellow jersey, and it is easy enough to understand how it is awarded — add each rider’s accumulated time over the stages and see who finishes with the lowest overall time to cover the accrued distance. It is the oldest and truest way of measuring a man’s mettle through adverse conditions.
Then there is the green jersey, which keeps tally of the points awarded to riders for finishing in high daily placement in intermediate sprints and stage finishes. The man with the most points gets the green. Again, it is rather simple… whoever sprints fastest most frequently takes the spoils…*
Both are fairly straightforward. And then you have the white jersey, given to the best rider under 26 on overall time — basically an age-restricted GC for the youngsters, calculated just like the yellow but with a chronological caveat. This too is simple enough to understand.
The last of the four jerseys awarded is, on its face, as simple to understand as any of the other three. The distinctive large red polka-dots splashed on the white of the maillot à pois of the King of the Mountains has been awarded since 1933 to the man who reaches the summit of climbs ahead of the rest of the peloton. The award is tallied based on points on a sliding scale just like the green jersey, with harder climbs as adjudged by the organizers being awarded more points.
Again, like any of the other jerseys, we’re determining consistency — this time in staying at the front on the steep pathways of a mountain pass. Finish ahead of everyone else, take the points at the summit, accumulate the most and go down in history as the man in polka-dots on the Champs-Élysées…
(… and take the €25,000 prize that comes with it annually.)
But are we handing the wrong guy the cash and credit? Is the man first at the top the one we should seriously be rewarding in this era of technology? Are we giving the wrong guy the polka-dots?
This year Samuel Sanchez walked away with the polka dots upon reaching Paris. A classic climber from Asturias, Sanchez was one of my pre-race picks to end up King of the Mountains. So it isn’t like we had a bad choice this year.
But what are we really rewarding when the points go to the first people over the summit? Usually the last climb of any stage will feature the GC contenders prominently among the people in high placings at the summit. But often the intermediate summit points will be taken in breakaways, where the person to the top first is not necessarily the fastest.
Unfortunately, while a computer-chip sensor is used to calculate finishing times as riders cross the line at the end of each stage, at this point we have zero hard data of a rider’s time when he hits the base of a climb and when he hits the summit. Until such technology is put to more effective and varied use, we will never be able to completely fill such gaps in our knowledge.
That doesn’t mean, though, that we aren’t going to at least try to solve this riddle. Until I can either A) convince Amaury Sport Organization to start calculating the King of the Mountains as a timed event up each climb, or B) get to France one of these years with a crew and perch people at the base and summit of each categorized climb with satellite-calibrated timepieces to get accurate to-the-second readings for every rider, we’re going to have to find a different method.
Thus we will take a look at the 12th stage of the 2011 Tour de France, the first high-mountain stage of this year’s edition which took place on Bastille Day in the Pyrenees — and the stage where Sanchez won on the uphill finish to first pull on the polka-dots. Because the peloton swept up everyone in the breakaway after arriving together at the base of the mountain, we can reasonably eliminate the last climb to Luz-Ardiden from analysis.
So we need to look at the two climbs that preceded the summit finish: the Category 1 La Horquette d’Anzican and the hors-categorie (beyond category) Col du Tourmalet. By analyzing the times certain riders spent ascending from base to summit, we can see whether the fastest rider is really the guy earning the reward. But how do we get those numbers without somebody perched at the bottom and the top of each climb, or without a chip affixed on each person’s bike?
Well… unfortunately I also don’t have access to the direct live feeds from France that the networks get to splice together their coverage. So while the following analysis is inevitably a little less exact in its accuracy, it still illuminates some of the disparities between who crosses a summit first and who crosses a summit fastest.
I’ve talked about everything I don’t have to analyze this topic. But we’re still doing some analysis, so before we go any further let’s discuss the methods I did use to come up with the numbers that will follow.
The beauty of the internet is that you can easily acquire live coverage of events complete with date-stamped entries. Not only can you get a running commentary of what is happening, but you can find out to the second when it was posted. Naturally there will be a lag in communication… yet that lag will be more or less consistent throughout the course of a commentator’s posting.
Relying on just one source of live coverage would be inaccurate. But by triangulating the times from various sources, you can create a fairly representative timeline of events for each rider on the course.
I turned to several sources to corroborate the data. By using three different formats — the CoverItLive format utilized by VeloNews, the kilometer-based updates from Yahoo! Eurosport, and the fully date-stamped text updates from Cyclingnews — I came up with the figures. As I cannot say enough, this is inexact science; you could assume some of the numbers to be as much as 20-30 seconds off in any given direction where base and summit crossing times must be estimated from the time gaps between groups.
But in general what we’re looking for here is not a matter of gaining perfect data — we’ve already discussed the inhibitors at present to that goal. The purpose of the numbers is to see whether or not the person crossing first is the person crossing fastest. And they definitely do demonstrate a disparity in those numbers.
But that’s enough semantic rambling for now. Let’s dive into the data we did delve from the triangulated live coverage from the aforementioned websites and see what the stats say.
THE FIRST CLIMB: La Horquette d’Anzican (10km at 7.5%)
An early breakaway of six riders had gained two minutes’ advantage within the first twenty or so kilometers of racing. As they built their advantage minute by minute over the flat front section of the ride, drawing closer toward the first major Alpine stage of the Tour’s final week with each turn of the cranks, the peloton was content to leave them the early spoils. And so it was that the half-dozen off the front – Jose Ivan Gutierrez (Movistar), Blel Kadri (AG2R), Laurent Mangel (Saur-Sojasun), Ruben Perez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Jeremy Roy (FDJ) and Geraint Thomas (Sky) — arrived at the base of the climb in the village of Guchen with a seven-minute lead on the main field.
As they ascended the climb, we saw some dynamics emerge both in the breakaway and behind in the peloton. First, up front, we saw Gutierrez crack a bit and drift into the gap between the leaders and the chasers, drifting backward closer to being swept up by the pack. In the opposite direction, Johnny Hoogerland — the Rabobank rider bedecked in the polka-dots during the stage as the current KOM leader in the race — broke clear of the pack to try to bridge the gap and get some of the points on offer at the summit.
In response, two others riders were able to burst clear from the peloton without inciting a harder chase from the GC contenders, Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step) and Roman Kreuziger (Astana). They met up with Hoogerland and then passed the mountains leader, putting his jersey in jeopardy as they burst past and inched closer to the breakaway.
The race records show that Mangel earned the maximum points at the top of the climb, beating Perez, Kadri, Roy and Thomas to the line in that order. Gutierrez managed to stay ahead of Kreuziger and Chavanel for the last point issued for sixth place over the top. Did any of them deserve what they received?
The six-strong lead group hit the base of the climb all together, with the peloton coming together through Guchen about five minutes further back. Being a climb where the main contenders for the overall were content to mark one another and wait for the fireworks later in the day at Luz-Ardiden, we were bound to get a large control group of riders together in the main field.
Thus it is inevitable that Kreuziger, Chavanel and Hoogerland would be faster than that statistical norm presented by the field. What we needed to compare that to, though, was the time the six leaders at the front required to get up the same ten-kilometer stretch of climb.
What we find is that the lead group was faster than the peloton… but significantly slower than the guys chasing them. By the summit Chavanel and Kreuziger were less than two minutes from the fading Gutierrez, and only three minutes or so behind the four that remained on the front (after Geraint Thomas lost control twice on the descent).
Thus we find that it wasn’t Mangel and Perez that were most deserving of the top two KOM places, but Chavanel and Kreuziger that covered the same ground around a minute and a half faster. If we’re really looking to reward the ten points to the man who is truly the best climber, it should one of those two men who deserves them more than the group of guys further up the road that took ninety seconds longer to cover the distance from base to summit… shouldn’t it?
THE SECOND CLIMB: Col du Tourmalet (17.1km at 7.3%)
After the descent, we were left with a different dynamic at the beginning of the climb to up the Tourmalet. The lead group, dwindled to just four as Thomas, Gutierrez, Chavanel, Kreuziger and Hoogerland hovered in the no-man’s land between the breakaway and the peloton.
The quartet hit the start of the climb seven minutes ahead of the main field. And just as quickly as they started to hit the steeper sections of the climb, both the front group and the peloton began to fracture. Guys were dropping off the back, and the front of the race was being rearranged as the stronger climbers pressed forward and caught the weaker cyclists on the steeps.
As the last few kilometers coursed by, the riders surrounded by thousands of fans lining the roads of one of the Tour’s most mythic climbs, the deck was restacked so that it was Geraint Thomas making up his deficit and recapturing the front of the race. Jeremy Roy battled to catch back up at the summit, claiming the Jacques Goddet prize given to the rider to first summit the highest point of each year’s Tour (and the €5000 that comes with the honor).
Roy might have claimed the 20 points at the top of the Tourmalet, but it was Thomas who had covered the 17 kilometers in nearly a minute less time. Likewise we saw the pack behind charging up ever faster. Kadri and Perez, completing the climb in 54 minutes and change, managed to hold on to take 3rd and 4th at the summit; but soon after, Kreuziger came across fifth — having covered the distance from base to summit in an elapsed time nearly two and a half minutes faster than the valiant stragglers from the early breakaway.
Riding even faster still was Hoogerland, who in getting swept up by the remainder of the field was still faster than everyone he’d been chasing on the climb. It was still a minute slower than anybody that had merely sat in the large chase group and followed the pace of the contenders.
The fastest man, though, was Belgium’s Laurens Ten Dam (Rabobank). Ten Dam broke clear from the peloton on the climb to crest the high point by twenty seconds ahead of the rest of the main field. In the process he was, by my calculations, the fastest man up the climb, completing the Tourmalet in less than 49 minutes for a uphill pace of around 21 km/h (13 mph) over a course with maximum pitches in the double digits.
Of course, as has previously been mentioned ad nauseum over the preceding analysis, none of these numbers can be declared as completely and unequivocally accurate. But anybody who has observed the Tour de France in the past knows that time gaps can easily shrink and grow on climbs depending on skill.
What the analysis of Stage 12 offers is a small window into that disparity. We see that winning the King of the Mountains, at the Tour de France or any other stage race, is as much a matter of luck in getting into a breakaway as it is a matter of being the strongest climber in the race.
So perhaps there is some merit to the complaints of six-time Tour mountains champ Lucien Van Impe, who has argued that the jersey is hardly a measure these days of the guys who are truly the strongest climbers in the race. Over the past twenty years, we have seen guys wearing the polka-dots due to their diligent work cleaning up on the lower-rated climbs in the first week… and then falling further and further back once the guys who are truly the strongest in the race start to turn the screws in the Pyrenees and Alps.
Which is fine, if the organizers of the Tour are content to award based on the first over the line rather than the fastest over the line. But as Van Impe argues and the numbers support, the title of “King of the Mountains” is a misnomer that rewards aggressive attacks in the front, flatter half of the race at the expense of real competition for the jersey on the climbs that matter most.
Perhaps it is time that the Tour rethink the way it awards the maillot à pois. While the yellow jersey and the green jersey logically reward the people they were intended to reward, the guys who are truly earning the polka-dots are undervalued by a system that rewards fate more than form.