It is one of the most iconic sights in cycling. The malliot jaune, astride a glittering, science fiction bicycle decked out in the finest aerodynamic garb, coursing through the fields of sunflowers to cement or defend their glory. It has now passed into cliché that the time trial is “the race of truth”, where one man and his machine do battle with the unstoppable tick of the clock, but it now seems as though this is a sight we will be seeing less and less of, if at all.
In 2015, there was just 13.8 kilometres of individual time trialling in the Tour de France, with the previous low figure being the 54 kilometres covered in 2014, a distance that will be repeated in 2016. However, the average from 1980 to 2016 has been a massive 106 kilometres, and even in the era of Christian Prudhomme, who has replaced the opening time trial with a road stage four times in nine years after it had previously enjoyed a run from 1967 to 2007, there have been an average of 58.9 kilometres. Prudhomme, it seems, has declared war on the chrono. But why has the supposed “ultimate test” of a cyclist’s ability become an increasingly bit part player?
“Very often, the time trial blocks the race,” said Prudhomme when questioned on the 2015 route’s lack of TT miles, “The general tendency is to reduce the number of time trials.” This however contrasts with another of the Tour supremo’s comments, namely that “A Tour de France winner has to be able to ride on every kind of road,” although that was in response to complaints from riders about cobbled stages. However, it seems like time trialling is increasingly seen as just another “kind of road”, a novelty to be briefly entertained, rather than the possibly Tour deciding test it has often been perceived to be.
The idea that the time trial decides the race has been long embedded into its identity. Twenty three editions of the Tour since 1980 have had their penultimate stage as a time trial, and only the editions in 2009 (Ventoux), 2013 (Semnoz) and 2015 (Alpe d’Huez) have seen a summit finish replace that tradition. The time trial’s reputation for deciding the race was arguably cemented by Greg Lemond’s 1989 final day effort which saw him overturn Laurent Fignon’s 50 second advantage. Oddly though, the lead has only changed three times (not including Lemond’s coup) thanks to the final time trial during this period – suggesting the race was already decided before the time trial on most occasions. Not that any of the summit finishes have changed the race lead either.
Of course, the next question to ask is whether the race was already decided because of other time trials or not. The best way of assessing this is by looking at what percentage of the winner’s overall margin of victory was secured over the course of the time trials. For instance, in the 2011 Tour, Cadel Evans gained 151 seconds over the second placed Andy Schleck in time trials, ultimately prevailing by 94 seconds. He thus took 161% of his winning margin in the tests. In this simplified model, if the figure is between 1% and 99%, then the time trial was not the ultimate deciding factor (although evidently the higher the figure, the more of an advantage was gained), if it is below 0%, then the rider had to make up time lost on the time trial elsewhere, and if it is over 100%, then the time trial had served to overcome losses incurred elsewhere or acted as a buffer against them.
The average percentage of the winning margin for the Tour between 1997 and 2015 has been 13.03%, but this is deceptive, as aside from the Armstrong years, the figures have all been rather extreme. For instance, Alberto Contador lost 2’30 to Cadel Evans in the 2007 time trials (NB: smaller winning margins invariably produce higher percentages) – 652% of his 23 second winning margin, and Floyd Landis took 415% of his final 57 second “winning” margin over Oscar Pereiro, nearly four minutes worth of time. Such huge percentages bely the fact that time trials, on average over the same period, have made up just 3.04% of the total tour distance. In essence, a large proportion of the time taken in deciding the race is decided in a tiny proportion of the race.
This is mildly unfair however, as if we look at the share of the Tour taken up by the combined distances of summit finishes in the race, we find it averages out at just 1.44% of the total route in the same period. However, the average percentage of the winner’s overall margin of victory is -59.93%, suggesting that the winner in the race is not the best climber. This figure is also hugely influenced by the anomalous 2006 Tour, where Floyd Landis put half an hour into Oscar Pereiro in the Pyrenees. Without that figure, the statistic would be -179.73%: truly suggesting that the time trial offsets the idea that the best climber in the race wins.
Indeed, in the last five editions, the winner has lost time to second place on summit finishes 3/5 times. This is a peculiar trend in an era where the amount of time trialling as compared to summit finishes is dropping off: of the three Tours that have a higher ratio of summit finish kilometres to time trial kilometres since 1997, all have been since 2010 (2011, 2014 & 2015). Previous to that, winners took an average of 261.18% of their winning margin on summit finishes.
Now, the difference, of course, is that the summit finishes are generally perceived as more exciting in their makeup, comprising a multitude of riders employing a myriad of tactics, attacks, the drama of a rider cracking, and the suspense of a chase, not to mention the gorgeous scenery that usually accompanies them. Compared to a lonely highway and waiting for time checks, a summit finish is significantly more interesting, predominately through their dynamism.
This notion has been fed by a general clamour for “more exciting” racing, led by the Velon collective and its idea of creating a “more exciting sport” for fans. This has fed the increasing number of “battleground stages” where the overall contenders can go to war, at the detriment of the sprinters, who have seen their traditional flat first week of a grand tour almost obliterated by the clamour for getting the GC men to come out to play as soon as possible. We also see increased attempts to see direct competition between top riders (Such as the “Big Four”), whether it be racing top events, or racing all three grand tours, the connecting strand is that they’re all in the picture at the same time. Time trials do not fit into this model, which is why the format has had to become increasingly innovative to survive.
Witness, for instance, the proliferation of uphill or hilly time trials that have proliferated the Giro and the Vuelta in recent years, or the introduction of “Photo-op” time trials such as the Tour’s centenary visit to Mont Saint Michel or the Giro’s trips through vineyards. It seems increasingly true that time trials need an aesthetic purpose, rather than just to be clinical and calculated tests. Prologue time trials are realistically about simply showing off a city (and collecting the related income from that city), rather than the actual racing.
Photo-op Time trials
Alpe d’ Huez – turning the most famous 21 hairpins in the world into the 2004 Tour’s queen stage created a crazy day, with sharpshooters protecting Lance Armstrong from the million fans who descended on the Hollywood climb for a show.
Rome – the Eternal City was the end point of the 2009 Centenary Giro. Denis Menchov fell off.
Plan de Corones – the horrific gravel climb was visited in the 2010 Giro, giving the winner a crown.
Pamplona – the 2012 Vuelta finished in the famous bullring.
Mont Saint-Michel – the 2013 Tour featured a stage to the monument, ending with the riders doing an about turn to get a shot of them with the abbey in the background. The race will return in 2016.
Chorges – a lumpy mountain TT for the Tour’s Centenary, an oddity for the race. Not as odd as the bike changes the long straight descent saw.
Barolo – the much hyped vineyard stage was blighted by rain at the 2014 Giro.
Santiago de Compostela – a pretty cathedral city for the end of the 2014 Vuelta, but finishing on wet cobbles didn’t go down so well.
Marbella – the opening stage of the 2015 Vuelta was neutralised for running along narrow bike paths and through sand, on what was clearly just an attempt to get some nice TV pictures.
Chianti – another Giro (2016) vineyard stage that saw the riders liberally watered.
And what of team time trials? Abandoned between 2006 and 2008, the format, which was a missing from just 4 editions in 26 from 1980 to 2005, with an average 67km distance, is now relegated to an every-other-year, under 30km stage. Even with the World Team Time Trial championships, the format, at the Tour at least, looks to be on the way out, perhaps because ASO are wary of the dominance of the “superteams”, given, to be cynical, the French teams have not traditionally seen the team event as their forte.
In 2016, it is likely we will see the yellow jersey wearer in a TT, albeit likely on a road bike as the Tour ascends to Megeve on stage 18. When will we again see a rider getting coronated amongst fields of sunflowers, as was once the norm? The Tour seems to have grown bored of this aesthetic touch point to the past for the Tour. Time trials, increasingly interested in innovation for innovations sake (bike changes seem to have become increasingly common), will become increasingly niche, and shorten as organisers worry about riders gaining too much time in the longer events. As their prevalence decreases, so will the understanding of their balancing effect in a race, of the tactical intrigue their coming can bring, and the extra dimension they can add to the race.
I blame Bradley Wiggins, personally. The 2012 Tour showed what too many time trials could do, ie make the race insufferably dull, and the effect seems to have been to negate them as much as possible. It is a great shame. But until the day they revive the final day, Champs Elysees TT (2019, the 30th anniversary of “8 seconds” perhaps?) it looks like we are in for more mountain slugfests. Still, at least they’re finishing downhill this year…
What does this mean for the 2016 Tour?
The 2016 Tour de France will see the joint second lowest amount of time trialling in the last 37 years: just 54km, the same as 2014, and beaten only by 2015’s paltry 41.8km. It also features 0.86km of summit finish for every kilometre of climbing, a ratio that is actually the best for time triallists for the last three years. Interestingly though, the smaller the ration of summit finishes to time trials, the closer the finishes have been (2007’s ratio was 0.43, 2008 0.6, and 2010 0.94). This suggests, based purely on these stats, which are obviously not indicative of Prudhomme’s more effusive routing, that this Tour will be closer than previous races.