Tour de France 2012: Balancing the Route

Look forward to seeing this for another two weeks.

First of all, let me make one thing very clear. Congratulations to Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky, who are near certain to win the Tour this year unless some incredible bad luck or performance by another rider strikes them. Their performance, bar that of positioning Cavendish and some early placing of Wiggins, has been exceptional, and they deserve the win that now seems destined. I may not like them that much for their somewhat dry and sterile approach to the sport, but they’ve demonstrated why they’re probably the best team in the world at the moment.

However, it says something that people will now be looking forward to the Tour of Poland, which starts today, as there might actually be some excitment in it. For some comparison, at the same point in last years Tour, the three men who would stand on the podium had just 11 seconds between them, and the top 10 on GC, which had been stretched from just 30 seconds by a successful breakaway, were spread by 3’08. Cadel Evans would eventually win that Tour by 1’34. This year though, the top three are spread by 2’07, and the gap between 1st and 2nd is a gargantuan 1’53. The man in 10th place, Nicholas Roche, is an obscene 5’29 away in the distance. The Tour is essentially over as a race,with time gaps that already look like the end of the race – a worrying proposition given we’re only a week and a bit in. And we’ve only been up one mountain.

The culprit for this years boring race.

Perhaps though, this is the problem. The route this year was claimed to be balanced: a great swathe of time trials polarised by a smattering of very steep, short climbs on which the climbers could drop the Time Trial specialists. In theory, the climbers should have dropped Wiggins on the climbs, and he should have smashed back in the TT to pull it back level.

Except that this prediction ignored many of the developments that have befallen modern cycling. ‘Climbers’, as a breed, no longer seem to exist for instance, once you look past the Schlecks. There are no Rasmussens, no Virenques – and so no one charges up mountains anymore. The men best at blasting up short steep climbs are now the classics specialists, not the GC contenders the Tour seemed to think. Similarly, even if there were a Rasmussen round to dance away on the inclines, he barely has the opportunity.

For the Tour have, in recent years, seemed desperate to neuter the mountain stages by putting ridiulous descents and flat run ins to the finish after them. A case in point would be stage eight of this years tour, where, after seven categorised climbs, a 10 mile flat run in to the finish was bolted on to the end. Why?! All it meant was that everyone knew they’d regroup on the descent, so didn’t bother racing until the last climb to see if anyone was feeling bad. This years Tour barely offers any opportunity for the climbers, who have just 3 summit finishes to play with, which no doubt they’ll only attack with about 3 km to go on as per usual, as the majority of the ‘mountain’ stages have such long run ins after the climbs as to make the irrelevant. So we’ll probably get to the final time trial with the time gaps pretty much unchanged, and Wiggins can tharsh everyone a bit more.

Voeckler looking as bored as everyone else on the mountain stages

The problem is that Time  Trialling and Climbing are progressing at different levels. Time Trials are now the forefront of technological development, with skinsuits, endless variations of helmets, deep section wheels, tyres, frames and even brakes all moulded into a compelte package designed to cheat the wind and lower the power output a rider has to produce to achieve a certain speed. Thus, riders can now gain great chunks of time in even a short time trial.

Climbing, on the other hand, seems to have been affected by a disease, a disease called ‘fear.’ No one seems to bother attacking anymore. Now, I’ll be the first to get angry when people berate riders, saying ;why doesnt he just attack’ (usually with the response  ‘i’m sure it would be so easy for you’), but modern mountain stages go like this: there’s a breakaway. There’s a chase to the bottom of the final climb. The top eight or so riders all ride up at the same pace, looking at one another. Maybe a couple get dropped from the pace. The rest just keep looking at each other. Maybe two of three kilometres from the top, they’ll decide they should probably try to gain some time as they’ve just wasted the previous twenty. At best they gain about 20 seconds, then lose 2 minutes in the Time trial. Hmm.

Come back Andy, all is forgiven

It’s infuriatingly annoying to watch these great mountain passes being relegated to mere platforms for everyone to look at eachother, but it seems to be the way things go. It’s tricky to think of the last truely exciting mountain stage, if we exclude 2011’s Stage 19, which, when we take away Andy Schleck’s long range attack, saw everyone else charge up in a group as usual (even the Alpe d’Huez stage produced no real time gaps on the final climb).  Certainly, finding a stage where a GC contender took over a minute out of a rival is tricky: 2010 was the Contador/Schleck show, and they marked each other up each climb. 2009 was similar, with the final Ventoux stage a damp squib as everyone finished together again, having had abortive mountain stages to try and ensure the race would be decided there. 2008 saw Sastre’s Alpe d’Huez assault, but we have to go back to 2006/7 for truely exciting mountain stages, with multiple attacks, men being dropped, and leaders cracking. It looks like we’ll have to wait a while.

Attacks? In the Mountains? What is is madness?

And so we’re left with the 2012 Tour, which looks over as a competition due to the above. Unless some long range attacks break out, Wiggins will win. We’ll know by Thursday, with the La Touissure stage.

I’ll be putting my money where my mouth is at the end of the Tour and producing a route that I’d like to see, and I believe would produce a close, balanced race. Oh, and if some rider could prove me wrong about all this, that would be grand.


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