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Is the Tour Won on the Alpe?

Alpedhuez_mediumThis is a little companion analysis to the book review I just posted. I won't run through all 24 past editions of the Alpe, but I do want to look at the most recent, relevant ones -- by relevant, I mean since the modern evolution of the race (yes, things have changed a bit since 1986), and without much thought given to the EPO years. And by analysis, I endeavor to determine how likely it is that the 2008 Tour will be won on the Alpe tomorrow.

The Alpe route rarely changes, certainly not in any consequential way: It's always at the end of a stage, and it's the same 21 hairpins in 15.5km each time. I don't think they even move the finish line anymore. So let's examine its place in the race from the editions since... oh, let's pick 1999. On the flip...


Stage Winner: Giuseppe Guerini
Winner of the Tour: Lance Armstrong
Maillot Jaune on the Alpe: Armstrong had seized control of the race on the previous day, and spent the Alpe matching wheels with all his main rivals... if you can call a group of guys trailing by over six minutes "rivals."
Parcours Placement: Stage 10, second of two huge days in the Alps.
Was the Tour won on the Alpe? Definitely not. It was won the day before in Sestriere, Italy. Armstrong went into cruise control from then on.


Stage Winner: Lance Armstrong
Winner of the Tour: Lance Armstrong
Maillot Jaune on the Alpe: Stuart O'Grady had begun the day in yellow, but quickly disappeared in the mountains and finished a half-hour down. Francois Simon claimed yellow that day and began his own heroic journey to hang on to the golden fleece as long as possible. Thanks to a massive breakaway in a prior stage, he still had a 20 minute GC lead over Lance after the Alpe. 
Parcours Placement: Stage 10, the first of five consecutive huge stages.
Was the Tour won on the Alpe? Arguably yes. Psychologically, for sure. Lance proceeded to win three of the five big stages and put time into Ullrich every day. The dramatic and very effective attack at the base of the Alpe fit well with the Postal scheme of ringing up a demoralizing win as early as possible -- in fact, it established the routine that we came to know and love for years.


Stage Winner: Iban Mayo
Winner of the Tour: Lance Armstrong
Maillot Jaune on the Alpe: The jersey began on the shoulders of Richard Virenque, but he proceeded to lose 9.29 to Mayo, owing largely to his customary maillot pois attack the previous day, and was defrocked in favor of Armstrong atop the Alpe. Lance, meanwhile, had a bit of a rough day and did well to match his rivals and finish in a group on the Alpe.
Parcours Placement: Eighth stage, only major Alps uphill finish.
Was the Tour won on the Alpe? Armstrong took the jersey that day and held it til Paris. So... yes? Almost nobody would analyze the dramatic 2003 Tour that way. He got the jersey from Virenque, but this had more to do with his team's performance in the TTT and some other smart riding in week 1. Lance then went on to struggle mightily until the final climb in the Pyrenees and the closing time trial, when Ullrich was vanquished for good. So, no. If anything, this was the first of several surprisingly weak days, by Lance standards.

2004* (ITT)

Stage Winner: Lance Armstrong
Winner of the Tour: Lance Armstrong
Maillot Jaune on the Alpe: Had it. Held it.
Parcours Placement: Second of three Alps stages, all in the third week.
Was the Tour won on the Alpe? No, Armstrong had blown up the field pretty convincingly in the Pyrenees, and his win on the Alpe ITT was the second of three straight stage wins. Arguably this was his most convincing of the three, but again, the damage was done the prior week.


Stage Winner: Fränk Schleck
Winner of the Tour: Floyd Landis/Oscar Pereiro (not going there)
Maillot Jaune on the Alpe: Landis made a huge move into yellow, finishing 1.10 behind Schleck and Damiano Cunego but ahead of all of his major competitors. He seized the maillot jaune from Oscar Pereiro that day by ten seconds, and held two minutes over everyone else. He and Andreas Klöden battled to a stalemate, which suited Landis well. Pereiro -- the then- and eventual maillot jaune -- limited his losses. If you expunge Landis, then Pereiro saw his absurd gap shrink to just under two minutes, though he held on OK.
Parcours Placement: First day in the Alps, third week. Before two other monster stages, all of which has gone down in history (for better or worse).
Was the Tour won on the Alpe? Not this time. There were two more days of chess to play, plus a final time trial. Clearly Landis did nothing more than position himself; if he won the Tour, it was on his monster escape and in the time trial. If Pereiro won, then this was the first of four final-week stages where he managed to not blow it.

If you needed to make generalizations about where the Tour is won, you should probably start with the final time trial. 2007, 2006, 2003 and several other editions all fall into that category, and 2008 may very well fit that pattern too. Alpe d'Huez doesn't occupy any special Tour-deciding place, regardless of where you put it in the parcours. Its greatest importance of the last decade was in 2001 when it came early, but usually the last great uphill finish helps decide the Tour if it hasn't been settled yet. So I'd give it a 50-50 chance of settling the current edition. If Evans cracks, the winner will benefit hugely from the day's action. And if he doesn't, he's going to seize the glory in Saturday's chrono.