Defending the Crown: Retaining a Grand Tour Title.

As the Vuelta approaches, and we digest the news that no one has now officially defended their Tour de France title for 20 years (or 10 if you’re not into rewriting history), it’s worth a look to see just how often riders actually manage to defend a title. At first thought, the answer would seem rather often – Lance Armstrong won seven in a row, Indurain five, and Merckx four, but these are the cream of the elite rather than the “average” Tour winner, if there can be such a thing. So how often do people bother defending their crown, and how common is it?

Vincenzo Nibali didn't defend his 2014 Tour crown, but 4th place and a stage win wasn't a bad return.
Vincenzo Nibali didn’t defend his 2014 Tour crown, but 4th place and a stage win wasn’t a bad return.

It depends greatly, as you’d expect on the Grand Tour. In prestige terms, the Tour de France is obviously something people are keen to turn up to as defending champion, so you’d expect more winners to return to that then the Giro or the Vuelta. As a result, 25 riders have not turned up/been selected to defend their Tour de France title, which out of a possible 99 editions where this was possible (given the first edition and those after the two world Wars couldn’t have a defending champion), means 74.74% of riders defend the Tour de France.

Oscar Pereiro won in 2006 with no previous winners present
Oscar Pereiro won in 2006 with no previous winners present

Aside from the first edition, there have been five Tour de Frances without a previous winner in the field.
1927 – Ottavio Bottechia, who had won in 1924 and 1925, died in mysterious circumstances in the June of 1927, whilst 1926 winner Lucien Buysse did not enter, perhaps because his Daughter had died during the 1926 race.
1947 – The first edition of the race after World War Two meant many riders were simply not riding any more.
1956 – Perhaps aiding the previously unheralded Roger Walkowiak to victory
1999 – With Pantani in a post-Giro spiral and Ullrich injured, Armstrong walked into the vacant spot.
2006 – Armstrong had vacated the premises, and the only other man still riding to have won, Jan Ullrich, did not start due to Operacion Puerto.

At the Giro, which whilst it has “second string” status to the Tour has always been pretty close to it in terms of prestige, particularly among Italian riders, which perhaps explains why it has similar figures to the Tour – 24 riders haven’t defended a Giro Title, which with a slightly smaller number of editions possible (95) means that 74.736 (rounding neatly to 74.74%) of riders defend the Giro.

Ryder Hesjedal is one of just 2 riders in the last 7 years to defend his Giro win.
Ryder Hesjedal is one of just 2 riders in the last 7 years to defend his Giro win.

Interestingly, unlike the Tour, which last had no previous winner in 2006, the Giro has always had a previous winner of the race present all the way back to 1938. Whilst this is perhaps a consequence of the Tour being dominated for several years by someone who then retires, leaving voids, the Giro has also had multiple winners present – the last year where there was only one previous winner was 1981, whilst in the same time period, the Tour has had nine editions with only one defending champion present.

The Giro has thus had just four editions without any previous winners present.

Gino Bartali
Gino Bartali

1920 – The second post War Tour, with Italy in a bit of a mess what with the “mutilated victory” and all that.
1924 – Girardengo and Brunero, the recent multiple winners, didn’t start.
1930 – Alfredo Binda had just won three in a row, and the Gazzetta dello Sport was actually so peeved that they offered him 22,500 lire not to race in the Giro, bored of his dominance after he won eight stages in a row in 1929. Binda went to the Tour instead, won two stages, then dropped out.
1938 – Gino Bartali had won the previous two editions, but was “asked” (ie ordered) to ride the Tour de France by the Italian Fascist Government, so he went and promptly won that instead.

By comparison, the Vuelta is the runt of the litter. With just 69 editions (as of August 2015), just 31 riders out of the possible 64 runnings of the race chose to defend their Vuelta title. This equates to just 48.44%, some 25% down on the Giro and Tour. There have also been nine editions of the Vuelta without any previous winners present, including, incredibly, a three year run from 2006-2009 where there was no previous winner in the race.

Roberto Heras, who may or not be correct in the number of fingers he is holding up based on which court you believe
Roberto Heras, who may or not be correct in the number of fingers he is holding up based on which court you believe

The Vuelta also has the dubious honour of having had the longest periods in Grand Tours where no one came to defend their title. Whilst the Giro has had a couple of three year periods (1981-1983 and 2009-2011, with 2014-2016 also looking likely given Alberto Contador is unlikely to defend his title) and the Tour a four year gap from 1950-1953, the Vuelta has had two periods of five years where defending champions couldn’t be bothered to return – 1972-1976 and 2006-2010.

Vincenzo Nibali had a go at winning the Vuelta again in 2011, but his best moment was this early stage where Liquigas rode away to stage win for Peter Sagan, although they managed to mess up getting Nibali any bonus seconds.
Vincenzo Nibali had a go at winning the Vuelta again in 2011, but his best moment was this early stage where Liquigas rode away to stage win for Peter Sagan, although they managed to mess up getting Nibali any bonus seconds.

So for those who do decide to have a pop at winning the race again, how do they usually fare?

defence

On average, turning up to a grand Tour to defend it means you have a 1 in 4 chance of winning it again, although it depends which one, of course. The Tour is probably skewed by the number of five time winners and by the fact its the one the elite go to year on year – and also by riders like Indurain and Armstrong, who have 10 successful defenses between them. The startling figure for the Tour, however, is that 24% of those who defend their title don’t even finish the race.

Chris Froome joined a reasonably long and illustrious list of riders who have abandoned the Tour having won the previous year.
Chris Froome joined a reasonably long and illustrious list of riders who have abandoned the Tour having won the previous year.

Being a “DNF” on your Tour defense is actually a rare phenomenon in recent years however, with the last man to fall victim to that before Chris Froome in 2014 being Bernard Hinault in 1980. At the Giro and the Vuelta it has been more common in recent years – 4 of the 5 defending champions between 1998 and 2002 did not finish the Giro, and 3/5 didn’t finish the Vuelta between 1999 and 2003.

Another key metric is whether you’ll get on the podium – the above table is only for those who came second and third, and its interesting that 30% of those who attempt to defend the Giro come 2nd or 3rd. It still means you have a 50% chance of getting on any step of the podium at the Tour, 45% at the Giro, and a mere 35% at the Vuelta.

That said, the average positions of defending champions aren’t as high as you might expect.

Giro d’Italia – 5th
Tour de France – 4th
Vuelta a Espana – 8th

Vincenzo Nibali's 4th place at the Tour was the average for a defending Tour champion.
Vincenzo Nibali’s 4th place at the Tour was the average for a defending Tour champion.

Of course, these come with some caveats. The Tour is influenced by the many men who have won the event, which drags the average up, whilst the Vuelta has an somewhat anomalous result in its midst – the worst ever grand tour defence of Juan Jose Cobo, who, having won the 2011 Vuelta by just 13 seconds, came 67th the next year, over 2 hours down on winner Alberto Contador (for reference, the next worst defence is 31st by Andre Leducq at the 1933 Tour). Without this figure, the average for the Vuelta would be 6th.

stats

These statistics show the achievement rates of various defending champions over the years (obviously they do not include the DNEs). It is imperative that this is not mixed up with a future defending champions chances – this is not predictive, just reportive. As such, nearly a third of all defending champions have failed to get into the top 10 the following year, although 55% have at least managed a stage win.

Andy Schleck wore yellow in 2011, but ultimately did not win
Andy Schleck wore yellow in 2011, but ultimately did not win

Wearing the leader’s jersey, but not winning the race, is also not that common – 4 in 10 defending champions will usually do this, and when you consider that this includes those who ultimately defend their title, it isn’t very high. In fact, riders who wear the leaders jersey, but don’t  win overall (such as Eddy Merckx in the 1975 Tour, for instance), are even rarer, with that having happened on average to 18% of all defending champions.

Marco Pantani won 4 stages before being disqualified from the 1999 Giro
Marco Pantani won 4 stages before being disqualified from the 1999 Giro

There is also a marked difference between those that win and those that don’t in terms of stage wins. The overall average for a winner is 2.39 stage wins per Grand Tour (that’s every grand Tour ever), but if you successfully defend a grand Tour, it seems those who do so manage a higher than average number of stage wins, with nearly exactly 3. Even those who don’t win but win a stage end up with an average of 2 stage wins.

So looking at all this, what would the average Grand Tour defence end up as?
Based on the previous figures, they would probably come 6th, if they avoided being one of the on average 19% who did not finish, and they would likely win at least a stage, given 55% of riders have done so, and if the did, the likelihood of recording a second is high.

Worst defences

JJ Cobo went from winning the Vuelta to 67th overall
JJ Cobo went from winning the Vuelta to 67th overall

Vuelta a Espana
2012 – 2011 winner Juan Jose Cobo came 67th (best position 12th on stage 6 [did win opening TTT]
1988 – 1987 winner Luis Herrara came 20th.
1996 – 1995 winner Laurent Jalabert came 19th (but did win two stages and wear the gold jersey for 3 days)
1991 – 1990 winner Marco Giovanetti came 18th.
1986
– 1985 winner Pedro Delgado came 10th.

Clerici
Clerici


Giro d’Italia
1955 – 1954 winner Carlo Clerlici came 26th.
2000 – 1999 winner Ivan Gotti came 19th.
1979 – 1978 winner Johan De Muynck came 19th.
2005 – 2004 winner Damiano Cunego came 18th.
1959 – 1958 winner Ercole Baldini came 17th.
1940 – 1939 winner Giovanni Valetti came 17th.

Andre Leducq, more famed for having won 25 stages of the Tour
Andre Leducq, more famed for having won 25 stages of the Tour

Tour de France
1933 – 1932 winner Andre Leducq came 31st (but did win two stages)
2009 – 2008 winner Carlos Sastre came 16th.
1948 – 1947 winner Jean Robic came 16th.
1959 – 1958 winner Charly Gaul came 12th (winning one stage in the process)
1996 – 1995 winner Miguel Indurain came 11th.
1934 – 1933 winner Georges Speicher came 11th (Speicher did win four stages and wear the yellow jersey for a day though).

There are five winners of the Tour who won on their last entry to the race, and thus could perhaps technically claim they were “undefeated champions”, but this somewhat stretches the definition. The majority have pretty valid reasons for not turning up for their title however.

1906Rene Pottier. Pottier hung himself from a bike hook upon hearing the news that his wife had run away with another man. He was 27 years old.
1937Roger Laperbie – Being the first man to use a modern derailleur gear to win the Tour, but Laperbie paid the price by not being invited to defend his title by Henri Desgrange, who thought using a derailleur was a circumvention of the rules he had designed to make the event as hard as possible.
1939Sylvere Maes – School kids note the date – World War II was about to break out, and Maes became a bartender. He survived the war, and was invited to ride the 1947 Tour, the first post War event, and was even told he could wear the yellow jersey on the first stage to symbolise the continuation of the race. However, Maes declined, never riding the Tour again.
1952Fausto Coppi – The 1951 death of his brother Serse had not been kind to the Campionissimo, and whilst he continued to ride the Giro, winning it in 1953, the scandal of the “Woman in White” and his advancing age (for a cyclist) marked his decline.
2013Bradley Wiggins – After all those romantic, tragic tales, Wiggins goes down as a man who couldn’t defend his title, in the centenary edition of the Tour, because his ego and inability to work in a team meant his already awful relationship with Chris Froome wasn’t allowed to continue through to the next Tour.

At least the 2013 Giro went well for...oh, hang on. Still, why win the Tour when you can come 18th in what you proclaim to be the biggest race in the world (Paris Roubaix?)
At least the 2013 Giro went well for…oh, hang on. Still, why win the Tour when you can come 18th in what you proclaim to be the biggest race in the world (Paris Roubaix?)

So why is it seemingly so hard?

Officially, no one has defended the Tour de France since 1995 (20 years), the Giro since 1993 (22 years) and the Vuelta in a decade (2005). This is, as partially explained, partly due to rider choice – the hierarchy of the Grand Tours means that if you win the Vuelta, you move onto the Giro and if you win that you move onto the Tour, rather than trying to defend it. Similarly, the Vuelta’s new position at the back end of the season means it is a “season saver” rather than an established goal – you go to it to make up for a bad Tour, for instance, before returning to France next year.

Quintana turned his attention to the Tour rather than returning to the Giro
Quintana turned his attention to the Tour rather than returning to the Giro

Thus, the main reason no one has defended the Vuelta in so long is because no one has tried, whilst the Giro has had problems with attracting riders back, with the downside of attracting a higher calibre of rider (such as Contador, Quintana and Nibali – the last three winners) being that they would rather go back to the Tour the next year, treating the Giro as a quirky, hip way of showing how diverse they are.

Of course, one explanation is that their is a greater depth of GC contenders around these days, and thus that winning two years in a row is a substantially harder feat. Coupled with route planners who seem intent on setting up as many traps and pitfalls for GC men as possible, swearing by the “you can win/lose the race any day” motiff, the likelyhood of a rider surviving a Grand Tour is decreasing substantially, and thus they’re just less likely to win.

GC Contenders have suffered in the first week in recent years
GC Contenders have suffered in the first week in recent years

For the Tour, the oft bandied about answer is that winners simply get too stressed out and burnt out by the demands of the post-Tour circus, with sponsor request, meetings with dignitaries and a subsequent delay in their training making their next season too tricky, as does the subsequent pressure to match their achievement. This seems a little lazy, given it suggests highly professional athletes lapse their training. One thing to look at is the relative ages of the winners of the Tour in recent years. For instance, Cadel Evans and Carlos Sastre where 34 and 33 respectively, and winning the Tour was the culmination of their life’s, and they were living on borrowed time as overall contenders anyway.

A couple of recent winners have grasped the last chance of their careers
A couple of recent winners have grasped the last chance of their careers

Other then that, it has been circumstance and doping that have affected the Tour – Oscar Pereiro was unlikely to repeat his success, Alberto Contador wasn’t invited in 2008 and disqualified in 2010, and Bradley Wiggins wasn’t selected in 2013. Given Andy Schleck came 2nd in 2011 and Froome crashed out in 2014, it seems it was more just unfortunate circumstances then any particular difficulty in repeating success (Contador, after all, supposedly did so in 2010 anyway) that has caused the recent dirth in grand tour defences.

Who is the best at defending Grand Tours?

Those who cannot stand the sight of a certain Texan may want to avert thine eyes…

bestdef
Above is the list for the various Grand Tours, including a certain Madrid based man who has the ignominy of being the only person to be stripped of a defended title, and everyone’s favourite American cyclist (no, not you Chris Horner).

Collated into one list, “Mellow Johnny” is still out front:

Guess who?
Guess who?

overalldef

Indurain and Merckx are the only men to have defended two different grand Tours, and although Merckx is, as you’d expext the only man to have defended both twice. Yet another metric to laud him for…

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