Entertaining Grand Tours…by the numbers!

Nibali 16 Pink

Now that the hangover from the Miracle of Risoul has subsided somewhat, we can reflect on the 2016 Giro, and view it without the pink haze that surrounded Vincenzo Nibali’s incredible turn around to retrieve his second maglia rosa. In a cycling world where we seem to think races are being increasingly controlled and predictable, whether by radio or numbers, the Giro was quite a pleasant surprise in its topsy turvy, open warfare. Perhaps most importantly, the fact that the top few contenders all seemed fairly evenly matched made it a race of tactics and resource management rather then brute strength which seems to have categorised recent Tours de France.

An exciting race then. But can we quantify just how exciting the race was? Well, I’ll have a go.

Sadly, if you’re expecting crashes to count in this, they are not going to, you sadist.

Excitement is of course a personal concept. I get excited watching Lost. My dad falls asleep watching it. It is thus rather subjective, but I’ve tried to have a bit of a stab at trying to find some quantifiable ways of distinguishing “excitement” which aren’t subjective, but based on cold, hard numbers. This means that rather entertaining human elements, such as interteam feuds, rivalries and the like don’t really get included: this is purely a measure of the racing. It also doesn’t really work if there was one very exciting day of racing (Say, the penultimate stage of the 2005 Giro.) Still, everyone can have a moan about how wrong I am anyway…

So, for a cycling Grand Tour to be exciting and/or entertaining, it should possess three key qualities:

Dynamism – the race should not remain static, and should be in a constant state of upheaval.

Competition – the race should not be dominated by one individual, but see a close fought battle.

Tension – the race should keep us guessing, and ideally, come down to the wire.

In order to try and assess these, I came up with 36 (yes, thirty  six) different criteria to judge Grand Tours by. Now, they are by no means perfect: some overlap, and there are situations where they can be warped somewhat (such is the wondrous and unpredictable nature of cycling).

They are also heavily weighted towards the GC: I could include some extra measures for the points and mountains competitions, but that is a job for another day – they would be heavily complicated by the changing points structures over time for the competitions as well (not to mention different rules for different Tours – this already affects the rankings as is, thanks to the variation in time bonus rules over time.)

For the time being,however, the criteria are:

1.DWFTLDay the Winner Finally took the Lead

– The later this figure is, the more unpredictable, and tense, the race is likely to have been. They may have taken the lead before this point, but this is the point from which they didn’t relinquish their grip on it.

  1. TDinLTotal days in Lead

– The higher this figure is, the more likely the race was dominated by one individual rider.

  1. DFPDDay final podium decided

– Ideally this should be as late as possible, and this is based on positions, rather than time, so if the riders who end up 1-2-3 are stuck in those positions from stage 15, then the race did not change for a week, so it is likely to have had little tension.

  1. #10inLNumber of riders in the top 10 who led the race

– A competitive race would see many riders who eventually finish in the top 10 having held the lead at some point: this metric looks at that. If only one rider held the lead, it suggests the race wasn’t very interesting.

  1. #10onPNumber of riders in the top 10 who held podium places

– As above, except recognising that the battle for the podium can be a source of excitement. This thus looks at how many riders who finished in the top 10 occupied a podium spot at any point in the race.

  1. #LCNumber of lead changes during the race

– This counts the number of times the lead changed in the race, with more change being indicative of a more dynamic event.

  1. LCiLWLead changes in the last week of the race

– A dynamic and exciting race would see the lead change often, and with the last week of a grand tour now essentially a mountain week, this is the most exciting arena for this to happen in. Thus, extra credit for Tours that see the lead change often in that week.

  1. 2CiLWNumber of times second place changed in last week of the race

– Ditto above, except with second place. The podium battle can add interest, especially when first was decided ages ago…

  1. 3CiLWNumber of times third place changed in last week of the race

– As with 7 & 8, but for third place.

  1. SWb10Number of stage wins by riders who ultimately finished in the top 10

– If lots of riders who are in the top ten win stages, the surely the race is open, and not being dominated by one individual. Kudos for that.

  1. SWbPNumber of stage wins by riders who ultimately finished on the podium

– This gives credit for a close battle between the top two or three riders in the race.

  1. SWbWNumber of stage wins by the winner of the race

– Marked negatively, as lots of stage wins by the leader is a sign of domination, rather than competition. The ideal score for this category is, thus, zero.

  1. SWbWiLNumber of stage wins by the winner of the race whilst in the leader’s jersey

– Another negatively marked category, as winning in the leader’s jersey is another sign of domination.

  1. SWbAiLNumber of stage wins by any rider whilst wearing the leader’s jersey

– A bit of balance against the previous categories, this gives credit for the number of stages won by any rider whilst wearing yellow, as, as it turns out, this is quite a rare feat, and thus seeing is a plus.

  1. FWoL Furthest Winner was ever off the lead (seconds)

– For the race to have been exciting, you ideally want the leader to have been a long way off winning at some point, as this means there will have to have been some serious action to pull back the gap.

  1. FWoL(SF)The stage at which the winner was ever furthest off the lead

– Following on from the above, the later the stage where the winner was furthest behind, the more dramatic the comeback. This links with the lead changes in the last week to an extent.

  1. F2oL Furthest second place was ever off the lead (seconds)

– If the race was close throughout, this number should be small, and thus the smaller the number, the better.

  1. F2oL(SF)The stage at which second place was furthest off the lead

– Following on from before, except that you want the distance they were furthest off the lead to be earlier rather than later, as this infers they got closer as they went on. Being furthest away after 21 stages suggests you just got thumped all the way.

  1. WinMThe ultimate winning margin between first and second (seconds)

– Obviously, the closer the winning margin, the closer and more competitive the race.

  1. %TrFDPercentage of time removed from deficit: ie percentage of F2oL over WinM

– This represents how much of the “furthest off” time was taken off by the end of the race (the winning margin), and thus is representative of whether second place was making inroads into the lead or not.

  1. F3oLFurthest third place was ever off the lead (seconds)

– As with F2oL, but for 3rd

  1. F3oL(SF) The stage at which third place was furthest off the lead

– As with F2oL(SF), but for 3rd

  1. AveOLthe average time that the winner was off the lead, when they themselves were not in it

– Similar to the furthest the winner was off the lead, this averages their time gap to the lead in all the stages were they weren’t in it. This can be skewed by big breakaways, but in general, the further away they were on average, the better they, and be default the race had to be to overcome that.

  1. PoSpThe podium spread, ie the final time gap in seconds between first and third

– The gap between 1st and 3rd is another indicator of how close the race was.

  1. #dWThe number of different stage winners

– An exciting race has variety, and the same people winning over and over doesn’t equate with that. Thus, the more riders won stages, the more exciting the race was.

  1. MW1RThe highest number of wins taken by one rider

– This is marked negatively, as lots of wins for one rider marks domination, usually either by a sprinter or GC star. Thus, the lower the score here, the better.

  1. #MWRsThe number of riders who won multiple stages

– Marked positively as it shows competition between a few riders in theory, also helps balance out the previous two categories.

  1. #PTWNumber of previous Tour winners riding

– The more previous winners of the race riding, the greater the prestige of the race, and the more competitive it should be, in theory (doesn’t work when they last won 10 years ago…)

  1. #PT(W) Number of wins in that Tour by those winners

– Struggled whether to rank this positively or negatively, and went with positive: a high number of wins represents a strong field, although it also suggests that competition might be stifled. Still mulling this one.

  1. #PGTWNumber of previous Grand Tour winners riding

               – Another Prestige/Competition point, as a higher number shows a wealth of high-class performers.

  1. #PGT (W)number of wins in all Grand Tours by those winners

– A la 29, a struggle, but the same principle.

  1. AaSWaverage age of stage winners

This is based on the theory that younger riders are “new blood”, and that these riders winning is more exciting than the more established riders doing so.

  1. F1b2the furthest the person who eventually finished 1st was ever behind the person who finished second.

– If a rider had to overcome a big gap over second place to win, the race should have been more entertaining. If they were always ahead, well, not so entertaining.

  1. F1b2(S) – the stage the person who eventually finished 1st was furthest behind the second placed person.

– following on from the above, the later the stage they were furthest behind, the more tension and drama there should have been as they overcome that deficit.

  1. PPllFPosition the person who held the lead longest finished

– This tries to give credit for tours that saw a long-time leader overcome, as usually the number will be one, as the overall winner will have been in the jersey the most of any rider. However, if a rider who was in the lead for the longest falls to a lower position, it suggests a more interesting race. The problem is that on occasion there are two riders who share the honour, or the rider who held the lead longest eventually abandoned. In the first scenario, the average of their final placing is taken, and in the latter, the position they were in before they withdrew is taken.

  1. #oLnumber of different leaders though the race

               – More race leaders is generally better, as a few just suggest domination and not much dynamism.

To then judge which was the most entertaining race, the Grand Tours had to be compared against one another. Each race was thus ranked against all the others on each criterion, and also in individual subsets of Giro/Tour/Vuelta. The results, seen below, aren’t bad – they roughly correlate with how I personally enjoyed certain races, but I’d love to know what you think.

(Click to expand)


That probably makes little sense, though if you are particularly bored, you can see the score each Tour got for each criterion (although not the ranks, I’ve hidden those.) The overall rank, and highlighted top 10 is on the right hand side

The Top Ten Grand Tours…

  1. 2016 Giro d’Italia
    Nibali Risoul
    Probably not a popular choice, as Nibali isn’t exactly everyone’s favourite rider thanks to, well, the fact he rides for Astana and sounds off a bit (giving “fans” plenty of ammuntion for their holier-than-thou-armchair-doping-expert theories), but this was one competitive and dynamic grand tour, with the podium placing all changing at least twice in the last week, as the old guard of Nibali and Valverde won their respective battles over the new of Chaves and Kruijswick.

    After Nibali’s stage 19 assault, we had the top three separated by just under two minutes, yet still felt any of them could win. Whilst it wasn’t as amazing a penultimate stage as the previous, the whole rock and roll feel of the race ultimately bore out in the stats.

  2. 2006 Tour de France
    Landis 2006
    So, er, many people seem to have done what we now call a National Union of Students, which is to pretend this race (as with the seven before it) never happenned, because the result was just too unpalatable for their troubled little minds. But it did happen, and boy, was it a story. Obviously, Operacion Puerto and all that troublesome testosterone-epitestosterone buisness don’t get a score here, but the first post-Armstrong Tour and its resulting power vacumn threw up the most absurd Tour in years.

    T-Mobile screwed up again, and Landis allowed Oscar Pereiro to gain half an hour he had lost in the Pyrenees back, and almost lived to regret it after collapsing to a crawl on La Toussuire. His incredible ride into Morzine topped off an incredible race that saw the tactics we had thought Armstrong had imbedded as essential to win the race essentially abandoned in favour of madness. Shame it didn’t last.

  3. 2010 Giro d’Italia
    2010 Giro
    A course that included cross winds, super steep gradients, the mighty Zoncolan and the Mortitolo might have been theatre enough, but it was all topped by the 6th stage to Montalcino which reintroduced the world to the strade bianche, as Cadel Evans battled his way to victory in the World champions jersey as maglia rosa Nibali and half the field simply struggled to stay on their bikes.

    Then, an absurdly large and star studded break away gained half an hour into earthquake struck L’Aquila in the middle of a rain storm, and Caisse d’Epargne suddenly found themselves in another Oscar Pereiro position, as David Arroyo took pink. Sadly for him, he was hunted down by Ivan Basso and his teammate Nibali, with Basso making up for his questionable 2006 triumph in some style.

  4. 2012 Vuelta a Espana
    2012 vuelta
    In a year that Joaquim Rodriguez must be sick of being reminded of, this was the race that may come to some up his career: a good grand Tour rider, but just not quite capable of crossing the line to great. Having lost the Giro on the last day to Hesjedal, Rodriguez looked to have sewn up the Vuelta after distancing Valverde and Contador, who essentially battered each other every day through the race (“The Three Amigos”…), once Chris Froome had been distanced after a week, after a series of exhilarating finishes.

    It was not to be however, and the road to Fuente De saw Contador spring a tactical masterclass as Rodriguez floundered to third. Just to rub it in, Valverde poached the points jersey of him on the last day as well, meaning Purito went home having given the world great memories, but ultimately with nothing himself.

  5. 2008 Tour de France
    Sastre 2008
    A deeply underrated Tour, 2008 followed on from 2006-2007 by being slightly marred by doping scandals (Messrs Ricco and Schumacher), but the racing was tight, tactical, and up in the air. CSC-Saxobank had a hydra of riders in Frank Schleck, his debutant brother Andy, and the experienced Carlos Sastre, and all looked strong enough to win the Tour, although Sastre looked to have shipped too much time when the Alpe rolled around.

    In the first race since the rescinding of time bonuses, Cadel Evans, the overwhelming favourite, found himself a mere second ahead of Frank Schleck, but had to burn off his team completely to defend that. By the time of the Alpe, CSCs strength in numbers was enough to tire out the Australian, and leave him struggling to overturn what everyone assumed the night before would be an “easy” TT deficit to Sastre, who finally took a well deserved Grand Tour win.

  6. 2000 Giro d’Italia
    2000 Giro
    Coming into the final week, Stefano Garzelli and Gilberto Simoni both found themselves within a minute of maglia rosa Francesco Casagrande, and had begun to chip away at the big man’s lead by the penultimate mountain stage to Sestriere, which was a time trial.

    Finally alone, Garzelli was able to pop ahead of Casagrande, who managed to hold off Simoni by a mere 6 seconds. All three had traded stage wins during the race as well, and the 93 seonds that sepertated them on the podium looked to be one of the closest podium finishes at the Giro, until the 45 seconds that seperated everyone in 2005.

  7. 2001 Vuelta a Espana
    2001 vuelta.gif
    The Vuelta went though a period of last day wins in the early noughties, and this was arguably the best. Angel Casero, second the previous year, never wore the golden jersey, as it was then, on the road in 2001, having only taken it on the last day, overcoming a 25 second deficit to Oscar Sevilla, whilst Levi Leipheimer, in his one year at US Postal, moved from 5th to 3rd, past his own teammate and defending champion, Roberto Heras, to become the first American to reach the Vuelta podium.
    It wasn’t all about the last day though.Casero had been slowly closing his small deficit to Sevilla all race, whilst Heras and Juan Miguel Mercado had been swapping third place, only to both be pipped at the last.
  8. 2011 Tour de France
    2011 Tour
    I’m slightly surprised this race didn’t get higher up, as I would certainly have had it at least in the top 5, if not challenging for the overall win. From the first day where (the then still defending champion) Contador lost two minutes, through the heroics of Thor Hushovd, and the fact that it looked for a while the Thomas Voeckler, might actually win the Tour de France, it was an absolute masterclass in suspense and unpredictability.

    Andy Schleck lost the Tour descending into Gap, but his adacious attempt to win it back on the Queen stage, summiting the Tour’s highest ever finish atop the Galibier, was one of the most compelling drag races the sport will possibly ever witness. Arguably also the day Evans finally won the Tour, dragging himself back to a reasonable distance, it set up a compelling day at Alpe d Huez, even if the standings never changed much until Evans took the jersey for the one day that mattered in the TT: Paris.

  9. 2015 Vuelta a Espana
    2015 Vuelta
    A race that will ultimately be remembered for Tom Dumoulin almost winning and proving himself to be a bit of a beast, rather than for Fabio Aru actually winning, which was the case. Oh, and also for Vincenzo Nibali being disqualified for holding onto a car. The race began with five of the six riders who had finished on grand tour podiums that year on the start line, but they were all almost put to the sword by Dumoulin, who seemed unbreakable on steep uphills, long drags, and of course time trials.

    Even when Aru held himself three seconds behind the Dutchman in the time trial, the race seemed over going into the final mountain day as Dumoulin tore off into the citadel of Avila, but his dramatic collapse into Cercedilla, to sixth place, capped off a race that had turned our preconceptions of the strengths of various riders upside down. This was also the closest Joaquim Rodriguez had got to winning the Vuelta (after his token day in red) as well – and he briefly (albeit not very convincingly) looked like poaching the lead on the penultimate day as well. Still, in the end, the race belonged to Aru, even if it was Dumoulin’s in peoples hearts.

  10. 2010 Tour de France
    A race defined by “Chaingate”, and also one slighlty nullified by the fact Andy Schleck was awarded the win later anyway, 2010 was quite an exciting race in hindsight, with “Commissaire Cancellara” neutralising the race into Spa as he and Sylvain Chavanel traded yellow jerseys, before Schleck and Contador began to duel. Schleck’s lead was taken from him when he shipped his chain, and Contador declared he “hadn’t noticed”, despite having to dramatically swing his machine past the essentially stationary Luxembourger, who famously declared “my stomach is full of anger, and I will take my revenge”…

    That revenge never arrived on the race, but Schleck almost pulled it off, ultimately only losing by his exact margin on the Port de Bales, 39 seconds, as Contador laboured in the final time trial. It arrived in February 2012 though, when the clenbuterol case was finally settled.

…and the worst five

  1. 2003 Giro d’Italia
    Gilberto Simoni, came, saw and conquered. The podium never changed in the final week. Simoni won thrice in pink. Great for Simoni fans, and Alessandro Petacchi ones (he won nine – yes, nine stages), dull for everyone else.
  2. 1999 Tour de France
    Happily for those who have convulsions at the mere mention of “Le Texan”, Lance Armstrong’s Tour wins all rank fairly poorly on these statistics, but none more so than the “Tour of Renewal”, after the infamous Festina Tour, which  the returning-from-cancer Armstrong won by seven minutes with four stage wins. A great human story it was, but as an actual race, it was all done and dusted after the first week.

  3. 2006 Giro d’Italia
    Operacion Puerto was beginning to go through the gears, having gifted an extra one to Ivan Basso, who absolutely decimated an admittedly weak field to win by over nine minutes. The only crumb of hope for those waiting for the Tour showdown between him and Jan Ullrich was that the big German had won the time trial, but it was otherwise rather dull. Basso was a 90 seconds ahead by stage 8, and 5 minutes clear by stage 16. A bore.
  4. 2012 Tour de France
    Lauded by British fans (they did see seven British stage wins after all), but an incedibly dull race, which would have been livened up ten fold had Sky actually allowed Chris Froome off his leash. Wiggins was never lower than second place, or more than seven seconds off the lead, and took basically all his time in time trials, or through the misfortune of Froome getting a puncture. Great for wallowing in patriotism, dull otherwise.
  5. 2002 Tour de France
    Another Lance Tour, and actually one that almost saw him mess up by gifting a large breakaway a helluva lot of time. Still, he overcame it pretty quickly, racked up four wins, and was never challenged seriously be Joseba Beloki, who he beat by seven minutes.

The Three Best Giri

The stats suggest that the Giro has been improving in recent years, although the stats are not kind to the 2005 edition, which featured perhaps the stage of the Century up and down the Col de Finestre. Still, I think it comes out pretty well, recognising 2010 and 2012, as well as punishing 2006 for being a procession.


  1. 2016 Giro d’Italia (See above)
  2. 2010 Giro d’Italia (See above)
  3. 2012 Giro d’Italia
    Not actually that suspensful at the time, as everyone fully expected Hesjedal to be a joke candidate. But he stayed the course, and pipped Rodriguez cruelly on the last day. Kudos to Thomas De Gendt for getting onto the podium by blasting up his training cimb, the Stelvio, at such speed though.

And the Worst

2006 Giro d’Italia (See above)

The Five Three Tours

The post Armstrong gap emerges as the most exciting period for the Tour, with 2006-08 doing pretty well, and Lance’s Tours in general doing pretty poorly. 2010 is the best Tour in which he featured, though given he came 23rd, he was really just present rather than a main feature. Predictably, 2003, the year he almost lost to Ullrich, and 2004, when he almost (well, maybe not almost) let Voeckler win, come out best.

Worryingly though, the Tour generally looks to come out as pretty dull, with the last two editions pretty poor.All of the last four Tours have seen the man who would eventually win in yellow before the half way point, then not giving it up, as well as only one man in the top ten holding the race lead. Some more dynamism in the rankings will hopefully be present in 2016.

“But what about 1989 and 1986?” – well, if you can find me the finishing positions of every rider who finished in the top ten of the race, for every stage, then I will happily crunch the data. Otherwise, sorry.

Overall Tours

  1. 2006 Tour de France (See Above)
  2. 2011 Tour de France (See Above)
  3. 2010 Tour de France (See Above)

And the Worst

1999 Tour de France (See above)

The Three Best Vueltas

The Vuelta has always traditionally been the runt of the Grand Tour litter, but the stats show that ASO’s influence has improved it from the days it spent criss crossing the dull, dry plains. That said, the turn of the century was also a good time for the Tour that seems to consistently produce the closest finishes, before its recent run of strong Tours. Still not going to get close to be being the “second grand Tour” for a while though, although the days in the mid noughties where it was suggested it should be shortened, or overtaken by the conceived Tour of America, are long gone.


  1. 2015 Vuelta a Espana (See Above)
  2. 2013 Vuelta a Espana (See Above)
  3. 2003 Vuelta a Espana
    Curiously, when ranked against just the other Vueltas, 2003 trumps 2001, which made the top 10 overall (it actually falls behind 1998 as well). This a Roberto Heras triumph, and probably his most impressive – he overturned a five minute defecit to win the day before Madrid, after long time gold jersey Isidro Nozal had been extending his lead in the time trials. A young Alejandro Valverde also earned his first of currently eight grand Tour podium places.

And the Worst

2005 Vuelta a Espana

If 2003 was about Heras overcoming a defecit, this was about him building an impregnable lead. Denis Menchov briefly poached the lead, but Heras still won, before testing positive and losing the race to Menchov. Until he got it back again last year. Right. Makes sense.

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