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The 2014 Tour de France route and the slow death of the TT

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Tthistory_medium

(Time trial distance as percentage of total Tour de France distance, 1977-2013, with parabolic trendline)



OK, so it's a provocative title, but not entirely unjustified. Anyway, in a recent post, Jens said of the Tour parcours: "I'll leave the heavy lifting for the ones who are keen on calculating the numbers of meters ascended vs. the kilometres of timetrialing historically in the modern era of cycling since Lemond visavi the introduction of STI shifting and carbon materials and yada yada yada ........."; well, I'm afraid I don't know about the mechanical stuff, and I don't have any ascent stats either. But a couple of years ago I did do a big long post about TT stats from the Tour, and Jens' comments encouraged me to go back and update the spreadsheet. I'm not going to bother updating the entire post - people didn't find it that interesting the first time around, and adding a couple of years will hardly make it a must-read. But I did want to highlight a few things that really stood out...

1. 2013 saw the shortest longest TT since 1973 - the second shortest ever

To clarify: by 'shortest longest', I mean the longest TT of the Tour (let's call it the LTT) was shorter than (almost) ever before. And by 'ever', I obviously mean 'since 1934, plus maybe 1927-1929', since the ITT was only introduced in '34 (the three experimental years in the twenties saw large numbers of mega-TTTs).

1973, incidentally, had 5 TTs, to 2013's 3. And this 'second shortest' thing wasn't a close-run thing - there's only been a handful of other years that could even give 2013 a run for its money in this regard, and most of them were in the early 70s.

Now, this year we've gone back to what's been the (gradually shrinking) standard TT length. But, and this one really is a shocker:

2. 2014 will be only the fifth race ever to have only one TT - and the first since 1953

Over the years, some Tours have had only one medium or long ITT, some have had no short ITT, and some have had no TTT - but this is the first time since 1953 that all three of these things will be true in the same year. And of the four precedents, only 1953's 70km TT is even vaguely comparable... because the other three years saw ITTs of 90km, 139km, and 120km. And if you've noticed that 2014's solitary ITT isn't all that long either, you may not be surprised to learn that:

3. 2014 will have the lowest total TT distance in history

By some margin. 54km. The nearest competitors are 2010 and 2011, along with 1974 and 1938 - those are the only four years when the TT distance has been less than 70km. By the end of the 2014 Tour, 3 out of the 4 least TT-y races since the invention of the ITT will have occured within the last five editions. [At the opposite end, the most TT kilometres were seen in 1935 (360km), followed closely by the 342km of TTing that ensured Hinault's victory in '79). And this doesn't just reflect changing total race distances. Because in fact this year they've bucked the trend and given us a slightly longer Tour. So:

4. 2014 will have the third-lowest TT percentage distance in history - the lowest since 1967

This is even more remarkable, given how the Tour's total distance has plummeted over the years (in 1967, there were 4780km in total, compared to 2013's 3404km). In the whole of Tour history (in years where there have been TTs at all), there have been only 13 editions with under 2% TTing, and five of those were in consecutive years in the late '50s. There have only been two years with under 1.5% TTing, and 2014 will be the third. Compare with the eras of a few notable riders: Armstrong won when there was 5.4%; Indurain, 5.2%; LeMond, 5.8%; Hinault, 6.3%, and one year an insane 9.2%; Anquetil, 3.5%; Coppi, 4.8%. Only the eras of Bobet and Merckx come close to the current situation.

5. This is the largest year-on-year TT decline since 1996, the second largest since 1983, the fourth largest since 1947, and the sixth largest in history

Only six years have seen more dramatic declines in TT percentages (ignoring here the brief, bizarro experiment with TTTs the 1920s, when over 50% of the Tour was TTing) - one in the nineties at the end of the Indurain era, two in the early 1980s when ratcheting down from the record levels of 1979, and two in the thirties and forties when they hadn't worked out what to do with ITTs and their lengths varied dramatically from year to year. This year, by contrast, we're already at a historically low level of TTing.

So we have to ask: is TTing on the way to total extinction? Or, tantamount to the same, to being a one-day side-show put in for historic reasons and because it's a good day out for fans, but kept safely away from influencing the GC?

We can already see the difference the decline of TTing has made. Just to pick one example:

6. Tony Martin's 2013 Tour was the third-worst GC result of any LTT-winner ever

From 1947 to 2005, 12% of LTTs (longest TTs of each Tour) were won by TT specialists who came nowhere on GC. From 2005 to 2013, that figure leapt up to 62%. Only Cancellara in 2010 and Oosterbosch in 1983 had worse GC results than Martin did last year - and Cancellara at least at the excuse of helping to win his teammate the Tour at the same time, while Oosterbosch was unable to finish the race.

7. Cancellara might have been a GC contender if courses hadn't changed

This may seem absurd at first glance - what, the guy who ambles around and finishes an hour behind the winners might actually have been a contender? And, OK, it's a stretch. But if you look at the numbers, it's not as much of a stretch as you might imagine. Here's my scenario: what would have happened in 2010 if the course had been the same as in 1980? [Why 1980, and not 1979? Because 1979 was dominated by huge uphill ITTs, not by flat ones...] And because I'm interested in what could have happened rather than what would have happened, I've assumed that Cancellara wouldn't have been on Schleck's team, and would instead have been on another team with strong helpers. As regards the TTTs, I've in fact put Cancellara on the 2011 Garmin squad - unfair maybe to put him in the best team, but then 2011 Garmin didn't have Cancellara, so effectively I've just guessed that a good TTT team plus a dedicated Cancellara should at least equal to Garmin in 2011. I haven't stacked the deck against Schleck too much, though - I've assumed that he had a replacement of the same quality as Cancellara, and given him the TTT performance of his actual 2011 team.

So what happens? Well, I'm not quite certain of the time bonus rules from the second TTT in 1980, but I've tried to puzzle it out from the results, and, bearing everything in mind... I think that in the TTs, Cancellara would have gained 16 minutes on Schleck.

16 minutes? That's not much. Not when in reality he lost by an hour and a half. But wait! I'm not just putting 1980's TTs into the 2010 course, I'm taking the whole of the 1980 course.

What does that do? Well for a start, there were only four mountain stages. And only two were MTFs. And the awe-inspiring summit finishes were on... Pra Loup and Prapoutel.

How hard was the climbing that year? As my Cancellara-proxy, I've picked Bert Oosterbosch. This comparison does not flatter Cancellara. Oosterbosch in 1980 was a top-level trackie (1979 world individual pursuit champion) riding his first Tour de France. He was around 23, and in fact was riding more or less his first top flight season on the road, though he'd been competing in lesser events here and there. He was a world-class TTer, though not the best - he was a major threat at shorter prologues in particular, though he did sometimes win full-length TTs - and he was an occasional threat at the classics, too (he won E3 once), and at the shorter stage races thanks to his TTing (luxembourg, netherlands, dunkirk, de panne, etc). No track record on mountains whatsoever - he could get over some, sometimes, but that's about it. Probably not as good a climber as Cancellara. And in 1980, he was there to help out his teammate Zoetemelk, and try to make an impression on the TTs and maybe some of the sprint stages if things worked out.

Oosterbosch lost only around six minutes to Zoetemelk on Prapoutel, and half that on Pra Loup. These were not killer MTFs in the slightest. Oosterbosch ended 36th, just over an hour down - but half that time was lost on the third mountain stage, and the rest was lost, sometimes in large chunks, on flat stages. Oosterbosch wasn't trying for the win, in the slightest, he was just trying to survive. If Cancellara just had to survive one Pyreneen stage - without a summit finish - would he have lost half an hour? I really don't think he would have done - he regularly lost less than than on mountain stages where he was working flat-out for Sastre or the Schlecks, so I can't believe he'd have lost that much on a day he was working for himself.

Take the 16 minutes from TTs, and subtract Oosterbosch's 9 minutes lost on the MTFs, and that gives Cancellara a hypothetical 7 minutes to play with to survive two non-MTF mountain stages, with a team dedicated to helping him. And let's not forget what 1980 had instead of mountains: two massive cobbled stages in the north of france in horrific weather. Assuming that in this scenario, Cancellara wouldn't have shepherded Schleck over the cobbles, and that Schleck would instead have finished at best with the other favourites and at worst maybe alongside someone like JRod, that gives Cancellara at least another minute from the shorter of the two stages (comparing to the similar 2010 stage), and more from the longer stage. Let's say three extra minutes between the two stages, giving Cancellara ten minutes to lose in the mountains as a protected rider.

Could he do that? Could he have won in those circumstances?

Probably not. But I think he'd probably have been spoken of as a serious contender! [He'd have gained even more time, around 20 minutes, on Schleck on the '82 course, but '82 also had tougher mountain stages, working against him. Of course, if he really wants to win a GC he should just travel back in time to the 1930s. I calculate he'd have had a 23 minute head-start on Schleck from the TTs alone on the 1935 course - and in '35 there may have been a handful of nasty-sounding mountain stages, but there were no summit finishes at all!]

Of course, in reality:

8. With old-style courses Denis Menchov would have comfortably won the 2010 Tour de France

We don't have to debate too much on this one. With the TTs from 1980, Menchov would have won the 2010 Tour by over four minutes - and that's before you factor in the easier mountains. It would have been a crushing victory.

Incidentally, with old-style TTing, or even anything approaching it, Cadel Evans would have won in 2008, and probably in 2007 too. Realistically speaking, those victories, plus a far more inviting course, may well have kept Evans from straying to the Giro and ensured he gave his best to the Tour. It's hard to say whether this boost in confidence could have overcome his incomprehensibly bad form at the '09 Tour, or whether not riding the Giro may have helped him avoid his broken arm in '10, but "Cadel Evans, five-time consecutive Tour de France champion" would certainly have been a quite viable possibility in this scenario. Indeed, it's quite possible that an old-style course would have been enough to see him win in '06 too.

[Then again, I'm of the opinion that proper drug enforcement regimes would also have seen him win in '06, '07 and '08. Assuming he wasn't doping himself, of course]

And contrariwise:

9. With courses like 2014, Hinault may never have won

Again, this is pushing it, but not as far as you might think. Of course, Hinault was no mere chronoman, he was consistently one of the best climbers at the Tour. But... probably not the best. In the 1982 Tour, for instance, Hinault was consistently beaten by Beat Breu, who took victories on the summit finishes at Pla d'Adet and Alpe d'Huez. Breu ended up third in the mountain classification and an innocuous sixth on GC, a harmless thirteen minutes behind Hinault. But: Breu lost something like eighteen minutes to Hinault in the timetrials alone, not to mention another handful of minutes wasted in early flat stages. And it's not just Breu. Phil Anderson would have, by my back-of-envelope calculations, come somewhere between narrowly beating Hinault and losing by up to about a minute, if you took the TTs out, and likewise Johan Van de Velde. Zoetemelk would have cut his losses to a within-striking-distance couple of minutes. And at a glance it looks like there are probably bunches more beating-Hinault or almost-beating-Hinault stories from Hinault's other years (for a start, Hinault would certainly have lost to Zoetemelk in '78 with less TTing, which is probably why there was such an insane amount of TTing in '79). So if he'd been riding in the modern era, it's not all that unlikely that, just maybe, he'd never have won at all. Maybe, in fact, Hinault in 2010 would be... Cadel Evans.

Of course, you can't make any definite claims like that - maybe Hinault would just have stepped up a gear if guys like Breu, Anderson, Van de Velde and Zoetemelk were breathing down his neck. Or maybe he wouldn't have been able to. But my point isn't to devalue Hinault as a champion by saying he only won because of (by modern standards) bizarre courses, but to flag up fully and energetically just how much of what we think we know about the history of Tour champions, who was great and who wasn't, is a result of the decisions the race organisers made about what sort of course to set out. It's easy to shrug when we see the course each year, thinking that it's just a bit of tinkering around that they're doing, getting a bit more entertainment here or a little less there. But that tinkering may well be the only difference between Bernard Hinault, multiple Tour champion, and Beat Breu, multiple Tour champion, and between Fabian Cancellara, lowly domestique finishing #122, and Fabian Cancellara, perennial dark horse to win a GT.

9. TTs ain't what they used to be

Perhaps one reason why TTing has gone out of style is that TTing has become increasingly one-dimensional. Although there have been some experiments in recent years, we've all gotten used to the idea of TTs as being pan-flat individual events of somewhere around 40-60km.

But that's not how it used to be. Organisers used to be able to include more TTs without seeming to completely unbalance the race by having variety in their TTs. For a start, there were TTTs - with a variety of possible loss-limiting rules, sometimes with limited and unlimited TTTs in the same race. There was a wide range of distances to favour different types of rider - '79 saw TTs of 5, 24, 33, 49, 54, 87, and 90kms. There were almost always uphill TTs, or, otherwise, TTs with mountains in the way - '89, for instance, had a 39km ITT that somehow crammed in two 1er categorie mountains, despite not technically being a timed ascent. This variety meant a variety of winners - in 1989, for instance, in four ITTs and one TTT, there were three different individual winners and a team winner than did not contain any of those three individuals. This presumably made them all a lot less boring for observers - and let the organisers at least try to use one TT to partially offset another. The reduction of all TTs (barring prologues, when they still take place) to flat courses of approximately equal length must surely have played a big part in turning audiences off the format.

10. The asteroid that killed the TT - globalisation? The Look? Or just the reduction of the Tour to a sporting contest? Or the lack of a beloved hero?

The TT used to be what stage racing was all about - the race of truth, where champion fought champion without hiding behind teammates or gravity, and to the victor the spoils. Now, the TT is the stage that everyone grumbles about, everyone wants shortened, can't be bothered to watch, etc etc.

What the hell happened?

I have four ideas.

The first is globalisation. Over the years, the Tour has stopped being a massive French sporting event, and has become a massive global commercial phenomenon that happens to coincide with some guys riding bicycles in a place that happens to be France. This has meant that the perception of the event's primary stakeholder has changed. "The audience" is now no longer the Frenchman standing by the side of the road watching the publicity caravan, the French hotelier cramming in his foreign guests and making more money in one night than the whole of the rest of the year. Those people still matter, but they aren't the primary audience anymore. The primary audience is us - the people who watch on TV.

And this matters because the TT makes for a fantastic spectacle - for the guys on the side of the road, and the tourist industry than serves them. Pick your spot for the day - ideally easily accessible and near a populated area - and watch every one of your heros go past you, by themselves, identifiable, at top speed in aerodynamic posture, working hard, almost the apotheosis of what fast cycling should look like all distilled into a succession of moments, every few minutes, as the tension is ramped up by constant updates about who's beating who. It's a far better event than having your guys ride very slowly together in a bunch up a remote hillside somewhere where hardly any of the crowd can really get a good view of them, and nothing happens until right at the end.

But for the TV, what makes the TT great in person suddenly turns into a handicap, a problem. TV viewers aren't a captive audience - they can change channel. If you're stuck on the side of a road in France, you want a constant stream of stuff happening, to make your day out feel worthwhile, to stop you having to sit around being bored. But on TV, you want the opposite - you want the hope of one moment exciting enough to make it worth not watching whatever's on the other channel. And since you're probably watching the highlights, or just tuning in for the final climb, you don't mind having a bit of anticipation leading up to that moment. Meanwhile, one of the great advantages of a TT for the spectators - actually being able to tell what's going on - is kind of taken for granted by viewers in the age of twenty helicopters and two dozen camerabikes fixed permanently on every rider.

But maybe all that wouldn't matter, if not for that time that Lance Armstrong looked round into the face of Jan Ullrich before attacking. Not just that moment, of course, but moments like that. During the 1990s and the 2000s, our expectations of what good cycling should look like changed, became more distilled into these one-on-one gladiatorial contests, these killing blows - from Pantani through Armstrong to the duals between Rasmussen and Contador, to Sastre and to Ricco. It wasn't enough any more that there be a moment of victory, it had now to be a momentary moment, an instant, and it had to be delivered up close and personal, mano a mano. [Sure, there have always been these moments now and then, whether between Coppi and Bartoli or Anquetil and Poulidor or LeMond and Hinault, but they seem in the past to have been more rare, more peripheral, more just the icing rather than the cake itself]. The TT, unfortunately, just can't deliver that kodak moment - its excitements are spread over the whole course, and they're performed solo. You won't find racers "animating" ITTs...

But then again, maybe there's something underlying that too - the idea that cycling is a sport. Wait, no, the idea that cycling is a sport and that sport is a game. Games, you see, are all about winning and losing. The excitement of a game comes largely from not knowing who will win, or how. If you come to cycling with that mindset, you're likely to find that cycling has a lot of problems. There are too many winners - as 'modernising' proposals have recently stated, the average ignoramus just tuning in as a one-off doesn't immediately know who the 'winner' of that year's cycling is, who 'the best' is, and that's just not good enough in a game. But other times, the problem is the other way around - the winner is all too obvious, too predictable from the beginning. There's no point watching somebody play a game if you know who is going to win from the beginning!

But cycling - indeed, sport in general - wasn't always like that. Sport has often offered viewers not the chance to see an entertaining game with an unpredictable ending, but simply the chance to see men and women doing the impossible. People watched sport to see athletes being faster, stronger, going higher. It didn't matter if it was a crushing victory - you could still be enthralled by the manner of the victory. A manner of victory that was not usurped by, but was illuminated by, a backdrop of personal, individual stories - personal rivalries, private challenges, individual tragedies. And in exceptional cases, that's often still why people watch sport. People don't watch Usain Bolt to see whether he's going to win or not - they watch to see him win, to see him crush his opposition and the limits of human physicality. And it must presumably have been the same in '81, with Hinault. Hinault won four stages and the prologue that year, and wore the yellow jersey 20 times, and won on GC by over 14 minutes, and most astonishingly of all improved his GC position on 14 out of the 25 stages+prologues, only losing time (less than a minute in total) in the two team time trials... and for good measure, he came second in the mountains competition and third in the sprints. By the time the '82 Tour rolled around, the only thing that had ever managed to stop Hinault was his own gammy knee. And yet... people still tuned in for '82. There was no doubt about who would win, surely. I can't imagine there was too much concern about balancing the course to keep the result unknown until the last moment. Indeed, organisers did exactly the opposite, giving Hinault more TTing the next year, and keeping two new innovations that had been introduced to help him (TTTs for time bonuses (his team wasn't the best at that time) and time bonuses for stage winners). In this context, it didn't matter so much if TTs weren't the most exciting way to unveil the winner - they were there to let people awe and wonder and bask vicariously in the superhuman glory of Hinault. They were showcases.

Or maybe it's not so philosophical. Maybe it's just that since Armstrong left us, we haven't had a The Guy to dominate the sport. Maybe cycling - or at least the Tour - is just a creature with very low self-esteem that's constantly on the lookout for someone to bully and dominate it. Because how the Tour has generally worked is that when it finds someone who wins, it changes itself to make it even easier for them to win again. It likes to build up heroes. Sure, eventually it turns against them - when that keep-the-winner-hidden thing kicks in. But what it wants isn't a true free-for-all. What it wants is a Designated Hero, who faces seemingly-credible threats but in the end overcomes them - so once it finds a Hero, it helps him overcome his enemies, until the point where they cease to be credible. Whether it's by giving up relatively easy courses for Bobet and Merckx, or TT-revivals for Hinault, LeMond, and above all for the benefit of Armstrong, who the Tour may have hated to love, but certainly loved to hate [Indurain was poorly served by comparison, perhaps because being neither French nor representative of a great new market he just wasn't considered as important. Or maybe just because he looked impregnable enough on his own].

But now, there's nobody - and the same way TTing at the Tour was neglected after Indurain, so too it's been neglected in this long interregnum. So maybe it's that. Or maybe it's that the need for an exciting game has become bigger than the need for a hero - because, if anything, in recent years the Tour has turned on its paramours, biting their heads off with unhelpful courses and doping concerns. Then again, maybe that's just a personal psychological matter, with Prudhomme simply falling in love less easily than Leblanc and his predecessors.

Which I guess brings us back to 2014 (yes, this is a post about 2014, had you forgotten?... it's possible I had). Because I think we need to ask:

11. 2014 - the perfect Anti-Froome parcours?

I don't think people are seeing it this way. And I didn't either, at first. After all, Froome's only credible rival would seem to be Quintana, and Quintana is a climber, and this is hardly a climber's course.

But take another look. And start by looking at that TT. And the lack of other TTs. Because I don't think people have realised, as I've pointed out above, just how earth-shattering this course is in terms of the lack of TTing. Having only one TT, and a short TT at that, is throwing us back to the fifties. It literally hasn't been done in the last sixty years. And for those who are saying this is a long TT - no, it's not. It's within 3km either way of TTs held in 2012, 2010, 2008, 2007 (twice), 2006 (twice), 2005 and 2004 (before that, they were longer). And this is a historically dramatic reduction in TTing. And looking at the terrain where it's being held - well, there may not be any categorised climbs on the route, but I doubt it'll be flat, either.

That's not all a coincidence, I don't think. Prudhomme and company have intentionally reduced the TTing this year. Why? Well, just maybe it's because the dominant winner last year is completely dominant in TTing - the only guys who can challenge him in a TT appear to be guys who have no chance of winning the GC. Meanwhile, his rival, Quintana, has put in some good TTs on hilly terrain, but is relatively weak at the discipline compared to Froome. So, naturally enough, you minimise the TTing, and probably make it bumpy too.

But wait, there are no high mountains for Quintana to win on! Well no. Because what else is Froome really good at? Mountains. Stick a bunch of legendary summit finishes on this route, and you're as likely to be handing the Tour to Froome as to Quintana. So if you were designing a course for Quintana, what would you do?

Pretty much what they've done, I think. Concentrate on the short, steep climbs - Froome's shown enough to make it seem like he might be good at those as well, but we don't know for certain yet. Make days that are difficult to control by a big team, but where an aggressive team might be able to isolate him. Make key stages unusually short, make sure the pure climbers don't get worn out by a high pace, leave them something to attack with. And have the climactic summit finish on the Hautacam, a relatively short mountain famous for favouring light, specialised climbers, with its aggressive and rapidly-changing gradients. In fact, it's exactly the same mountain they turned to to stop Indurain in '94, the year they ran the 2014 TT in reverse. Of course, Indurain had magical powers that year, and destroyed the specialist climbers - nothing could have stopped Indurain that year (he caught and passed Pantani on the Hautacam, and put a minute into Virenque). But maybe, the organisers might be thinking, Froome might not quite be the natural-born climber Indurain was...

And finally:

12. 2013 was really, really fast.

This probably has nothing to do with TTing per se, but have you noticed how fast the Tour was last year? It was fast. It was the sixth-fastest Tour ever, and the fastest since 2006. Even though I don't remember it being all that easy a parcours.

Anyway, I thought I'd put this in graph form, since sometimes it's easier to understand things that way. I haven't bothered with numerical axes, since it's just the changes that interested me here and I wanted to keep it clear and clean - but in lieu of dates along the x-axis, I've marked a few semi-random historical context moments along the way. It's only since 1980; for context, the first two figures, 1980 and 1981, more or less the represent what had been the maximum and minimum speeds since about the mid-50s - before that there was stability early on, and then gradual growth from the mid-20s to the mid-50s.

Averagespeeds1_medium

(yes, technically Puerto came the year after Armstrong retired. However, both events occured between the end of the '05 Tour and the beginning of '06, so I've put them in the same place vis-a-vis Tour speeds...)

Well, that's all I've got right now. Hope somebody found at least some of that interesting...

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