Over on the Le Tour '08 thread, Chris posed the following observation/question:
...Gilbert falls into that category of well-heeled classics guys who you'd like to see win a Tour stage, but they rarely ever do. I'd like some inside dope on this -- do they draw too much attention in a breakaway? do the other breakaway riders resent famous intrusions on their one lone shot at glory? -- but suffice to say it's rare. In recent times, I can find two Filippo Pozzato wins that fall into this category; otherwise it's chronomen, sprinters, GC guys, failed GC guys who nobody bothers to chase, and domestiques set temporarily free.
Is there some rider agreement in the peloton, spoken or no, that stops the great classics riders from just tearing a hole in various stages at the Grand Tours? Or is/are there another explanation(s)? Why doesn't Gilbert or Fletcha or whoever win more stages when in the spring we se that they are superior? Outside of actually having riders talking about this we can only guess- and make silly pseudo-logical observations and thought experiments. I suppose one could further the understanding of this by designing a longitudinal analysis that defines who are the great classics riders down the years as well as what makes them so and see if their Grand Tour success has changed over the years. That would be good and this post here would be the right place to conduct such an analysis....
Nah. I'll stick to waving my arms around a bunch.
Honestly I only hope to further this discussion a bit in the hopes that you folks can see the holes in my arguments and in that way we can get a better feel of these monster races. Here goes.
Some definitions first.
What makes a great Classic rider and who are the great Classics riders these days? This is possibly where the first problem occurs. I think of a Classic rider as basically a great all-rounder but Chris in this great post seems to be looking at something more subtle. Maybe its someone who can go on a break and hold it. For instance Bettini is a great Classics rider; Hincapie isn't quite though he's a good all-rounder and Gilbert is currently in between those two. Nuyens is a good one, so in a way is Jens!.
But here's the thing. You have to exclude the more climby Grand Tour GC men even though several of them through the years have soloed to victories at the big Classics races, especially in certain Monuments like LBL and Lombardy. To me this isn't a small point because most solo Grand Tour stage wins happen on the stages where, like the Monuments, it comes down to a war of attrition and those wars of attrition in the Grand Tours, those super hard stages, are the mountain stages. So on one level the premise of the title of this post is wrong. Its not that uncommon for Great Classics winners do win a bunch of Grand Tour stages; its just that its the more climby of the Classics winners who do the breakaways and wins in the true mountains.
Reasons why the Classics guys fail on the flats
Okay. We're now setting aside the mountain stages and their climby G.C. LBL and Lombardy winners. What are some reasons (besides resentment in the peloton) why the remaining Classics winners don't win more often (except again in a bunch sprint as Boonen or Freire (and in the future I'll bet Benna) can do.
1) Pre-Mountains. When looking at the Grand Tours you need to separate out the pre mountain flat and flatish stages from the later stages. In general very few breaks by anyone stay away on these early stages. There's a couple reasons for this:
- Every rider and team is keyed up to win and fresh. Probably the most nervous of all cycling races are these pre-mountain Grand Tour stages where crashes are most common.
- The roads are highways. No cobbles. No super narrow paths. No short but steep inclines. In fact nothing at all to wear down these fresh and keyed up riders.
To sum, these pre-mountain stages are designed to be contests of the sprinters of all stripes and so there's nothing to stop them from all getting to the finish at the same time. Since by the end of these stages, we have teams of riders all pushing together so its not physically possible for even the strongest Classic rider to maintain a break like they can @ Flanders or Paris-Roubaix. So the only (very rare) breaks that do stay away do so only because the peloton misjudges its catch and that's a matter of luck not spite IMO. In that light I can imagine the great Classics guys telling themselves not to even bother trying to break because they will have a much better chance after the mountains when their greater individual endurance might stand a chance.
But here's one place (the pre-mountain stages) where the exclusion of race radios could really change things. Possibly more breaks could stay away. Something to do for the winter is to look way back to pre-radio days to se if more breaks do last in the pre-mountain stages and if more Classics riders populate those successful breaks. But my thinking is that between the strength of the peloton in the 1st week combined with the radios the Classics guys don't even bother to break.
2) Post-Mountains. Ah but things change after the mountains hit in the Grand Tours. Take a look at last year's Tour de France. After the Alps there were five flat stages, two of them after the Pyrenees:
-Stage 10, right after the Alps when riders should be tired, featured a successful break that featured all-rounders Casar, Jens!, and Albasini. All-rounders.
-Stage 11 was the bunch sprint finish that Hunter won. But the circumstances of why no Classics guy was able to break free is telling: this was the windy stage, the stage where the Vino-led Astana used the crosswind to split the peloton and in consequence nailed back the break. In other words the break including Gilbert, Millar, and Wegmann was caught up in the larger GC battle. They were unlucky.
-Stage 12 was also a bunch sprint finish (Boonen) that I rationalize by having the peloton having a couple days to regroup after the Alps and thus regaining its strength to run down any rider trying to break. That the break did not feature any Grade A Classics riders is also telling. I think that if Gilbert had been in this break it would have stayed away because of his greater endurance.
-Stage 17, post Pyrenees, featured a successful break won by Benna over Jens!, Marcus Fothen and Elmiger. Again, Benna is to me a sprinter in the mold of Freire-- a sprinter who can handle some hills and is strong enough to last. A Classic sprinter as it were. Definitely not a pocket rocket type.
- Stage 18 saw another successful break by Casar over Boogerd, Merckxx, and Lefevre. Casar and Boogerd are to me Classics guys though Casar is borderline climby with his (unsuccessful) GC aspirations.
This year's two Giro post (inter-)mountains stages were similar: One bunch sprint(Stage 17- Cav over Benna) that caught a break that consisted of two non-Classics riders, and one successful break (stage 18) by Jens! over guys like Bettini, Bennati, Nocentini, and Visconti. Looks like Classics guys all over that stage- and that's why it succeeded.
So what do we have post-mountains? The peloton is tired. It gets aroused mainly by a marginal GC guy trying to break or some odd GC-inspired move (stage 11 in last year's Tour). Otherwise the break will fail- unless the break is ONLY marginal domestique guys (stage 17 of this year's Giro or stage 12 of last year's Tour).
To sum this up, for a break to succeed in the flats- any break- it has to have a serious gap plus a Classic guy who's not a GC guy. These conditions mainly happen after the 1st set of mountains. By then some of the sprinters have retired from the race so fewer teams have a dog in the fight. Many of the rest of the sprinters are banged up. So take what I just wrote and see the inverse, the conditions where a Classics guy will succeed:
Ultimately I guess I'm saying that there are relatively few Grand Tour stages that non-climby Classics riders have any sort of chance in. The stages are few for Jens!, Bettini, Gilbert, Syl Chavanel, Nuyens, etc. and they happen at the end of the race when, just like in the Monuments, they can outlast most everyone else.
Now take this first draft that consists mainly of arm waving and odd conclusions and tell me what I'm missing....