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Want to Win the Vuelta? Try Not Riding the Giro or Tour

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A very small study on success in the Vuelta.

Fotoreporter Sirotti

Way back when, more precisely the end of week one of the Vuelta, Chris did one of his power rankings of the GC boys and he said a couple of interesting things. Here's one of them, about Nibali, which he actually wrote pre-Vuelta:

The big question is whether he can do the double. I don't see why not; when he won the Vuelta, it was four months after helping Ivan Basso win the Giro, where Nibali himself took third. This is in his wheelhouse.

Basically at the end of week one, Chris expected Nibbles to win the sucker. He then tucked into Chris Horner with fairly sound reasoning:

Me, I see it this way: so far he's killed a one-week stage race, something he's done a lot of lately and throughout his career. Second in Utah. Second in the Pais Vasco in 2011, shortly before winning the Tour of Levi, I mean Cali. The difference between those performances and where he is now is that in those other races, guys were trying to stop him by the end of week one. If you want to believe the best, believe this: that he came out flying, and that he's good at flying through tougher week-long stretches than this one.

Three weeks?  We'll see about that.

That was partly in response to something that I wrote in the comments the day before, the first high mountain stage of the race where Horner powered his way to a decisive victory. I won't quote what I said but I will summarize it like this: Horner is one of several riders high in the GC after stage 10 who hadn't ridden a GT this year who are doing better than expected. Could it be that their fresher legs be more important than we realize?

That's what this post is about. As we know Horner went on to dust Nibali off the Angrilu and win the race. So in the Vuelta, is there an inherent bias that favors those GC guys who hadn't raced either the Giro or Tour earlier in the year? Do they win more often than might be expected? Do they podium more often? Do they place in the top 10 more frequently than guys who've ridden the Giro and/or Tour earlier in the year? There's a lot of ways to study this issue and I am guessing that if you used enough data points from enough years that the Vuelta has been raced that you could come to some fairly definitive conclusions. That's not what I am doing here though. This is much more quick and dirty a study that more points towards what could be the answer. Follow along if you dare...

I looked at the last eight Vueltas, specifically the end of race top 10 GC placings: 80 results in all. Note that when I say 80 riders many individual riders count multiple times. Like Nibali counts two different times as he finished in the top 10 twice in these eight years: 2010, which he won, and 2103, which he placed. Got that? Good. At the end I will name all the riders.

I divided those 80 riders into four teams:

- Team No GC, riders that hadn’t previously raced either the Giro or Tour earlier in that year.

- Team Giro, riders that had ridden the Giro but not the Tour earlier in the year.

- Team Tour, riders that had ridden the Tour but not the Giro earlier in the year.

- Team 3 GC, riders that had ridden both the Giro and Tour prior to the Vuelta.

In selecting these teams I had to make a few judgement calls, specifically around riders who started either the Tour or Giro but didn’t finish them. What I decided is that a rider had to have ridden into the mountains of the third week to be counted as having ridden that GC. This distinction is kinda fine but what I am trying to separate are those riders who had to do that extra deep going into the red zone that only three weeks of a GT provides. I’ll share the riders who were a close call one way or another:

1) In 2007, Denny Menchov was on the Rabobank team that withdrew after they bounced Chicken from the race. That withdrawal happened after 17 stages with just a couple of flat stages and an ITT to go. He’s counted as having ridden that Tour-and he went on to win the Vuelta.

2) Last year Thibaut Pinot quit the Tour at Gap-right before the race attacked the Alps. At that point he had ridden a solid two weeks but that was not quite enough for me.

3) An easier rider to decide on was Frank Schleck in the 2010 Tour. Remember? He crashed out on stage 4-the cobbles stage. No Tour for him!

You get the idea. There were only a couple more riders who left the Tour early. (And interestingly none of the riders I looked at abandoned the Giro early-it was always the Tour.)

The 80 riders who scored a top 10 placing divided up into the four teams thusly:

- Team No GC-31 riders

- Team Giro- 20 riders

- Team Tour- 26 riders

- Team 3 GC-just 3 riders.

A side fact that may interest only me is that of these 80 riders only eight of them were not riding for a Pro Tour team. Four of those riders were Zeke Mosquera who scored the top 10 in 2007-2010 consecutively. And Zeke was the only Pro Conty Spanish team rider to be in this study. Another was Leo Konig last year. The rest were al on one non-Spanish Pro Conti team. Anyone care to guess who and what team? I would have guessed that more Pro Conti riders would have sneaked into a top 10 placing...but no.

Winner winner chicken dinner

Let’s start simple with the winners of these eight races:

- Team No GC- 5 riders (Horner, 13, Contador 12, Cobo 11, Valverde 09, Vino 06)

- Team Giro- 2 riders (Nibali 10, Contador 08)

- Team Tour- 1 rider (Menchov 07)

- Team 3 GC- 0 riders.

Well that’s a decided advantage for Team No GC, eh? Let's list a couple of things about these winners:

- Horner as we know is the oldest GT winner EVAH.

- Contador's '12 win came after his suspension. Since he's returned he has won only two races, or two stages: a stage in this year's Tour of San Luis where riders are just shaking the rust off and the decisive stage 17 of the '12 Vuelta.  Of the Serious Contenders for the overall only he hadn't ridden a GT earlier in the year.

- Valverde has ridden many GT's over the years. That much is known.  His only win in a GT, the Vuelta in '09 saw him not ride the Tour as he normally does.

- Menchov, '07, had to have been on an emotional roller coaster that year. He started out the Tour as a co-leader for the Rabos but when Chicken took the race lead, Menchov settled into a domestique role-and Chicken was really brutally frank that he didn't think Menchov was as good as him. The team of course then abandons the Tour after the last mountain stage and you gotta think the team was in even more turmoil than usual (*and we are talking a high bar here with Rabobank and emotions.)  Mench then takes out his frustration out on the Vuelta winning by almost four minutes.


Okay enough of memory lane. Let’s dig a little more-what about the number of podium placings? There were 24 of those:

- Team No GC- 13 riders

- Team Giro- 5 riders

- Team Tour- 6 riders

- Team 3 GC- 0 riders

Still looking mighty good for Team No GC as they more than double up on 2nd place Team Tour. At this point if you are a DS and reading this, and if you have an interest in winning the Vuelta, you are thinking of not scheduling your rider for either of the other two GCs. Somebody should tell Bert and Bjarne.

Top 10 life

Let’s look further because the winners and even the podiums are littered with the ultra-elite riders. Top 10 placing will get us more average GC kids. So what is the average placing in the top ten for each team?

- Team No GC-31 riders finished in the top 10 with an average placing of 4.94th place.

- Team Giro- 20 riders finished in the top 10 with an average placing of  5.85th place.

- Team Tour- 26 riders finished in the top 10 with an average placing of  5.69th place.

- Team 3 GC-just 3 riders finished in the top 10 with an average placing of  7.33rd place.

Advantage Team No GC again! This table may or may not make it appear to be not quite the advantage to be on Team No GC as the first two tables but still again the No GCers are ahead by a decisive margin. You have to be thinking now that not having ridden a GC earlier in the year is an advantage at the Vuelta, an advantage Chris Horner was only the latest rider to use. Also in 2012, Pinot and Konig also rode the  advantage to top 10 placings. It was Leo Konig's first GT ever. Isn;t there supposed to be some wisdom that a first GT is just to get your legs into you? That your body needs to experience the deep effort needed to contend for a GT before you can expect good results? Maybe that wisdom ain't quite right, at least as concerns the Vuelta.

A few words about the Ironmen on Team 3 GC

Only three riders rode both the Giro and Tour prior to a top 10 placing in the Vuelta. Carlos Sastre was the first in 06: starting with a 43rd place in the Giro, he upped his game to a 3rd in the Tour and a 4th in the Vuelta. Let those results sink into you a bit before moving on. His low Giro result happened because he was riding for the winner, Basso. Wow.

2008 saw Marzio Bruseghin finish 3rd in the Giro and 24th in the Tour before placing 10th in the Vuelta. That 24th placing in the Tour was because, I dunno, he was a little tired? He was probably riding for the Little Prince but Cunego dropped out around stage 18. His teammate Sylvester "Sigi" Szmyd placed one spot in front of him. His 3rd in the Giro..what a very weird race that Giro was. The Donkey's advantage there was that he was a good chronoman and the course had a medium last day TT  thru Milan, and an earlier hefty flat TT and most of the other contenders, save the winner Contador, sucked donkey balls in the TT, dope or no dope.

2010 saw Sastre at it again: 8th in the Giro, 19th in the Tour, 8th in the Vuelta. Carlos I recall just had no luck in that Tour. Someday though someone should do a retrospective on Sastre: possibly the purest Grand Tour rider ever. He so rarely cared about any other race.

And a word on the riders of Team Giro

You (or at least I) would think that the Team Giro riders might have an advantage over Team Tour riders cause they have more time to rest between GT's. But as we see Team Tour out performs them. Why? How? I got two possible ideas:

1) It is tricker than we realize to rest up after the Giro then look to peak again at the Vuelta. We do have two riders here who rode the Giro then won the Vuelta and last year Nibali came close. But, and I haven't studied this much, there seem to be more serious GT riders who rode the Giro, came into the Vuelta on the short list as favorites then bombed out. J-Rod, Nibali, Basso, Anton, Uran, and Henao are six such riders that come to my mind like this. If I dug I am sure I could come up with more.

2) We never see serious GC riders from Italian Pro Conti teams competing at the Vuelta as their teams are never invited and so there are just fewer possible Team Giro riders than there might be.  I blame the economy and the race calendar.

Back to the topic on hand

Next I have listed each year and the top ten placings by team. I also have after each rider’s name their final place in that year’s Cycling Quotient rankings in parentheses. Here's the average CQ rankings of each team:

Team No GC-31 riders averaged 55th place in CQ The median is 31

Team Giro- 20 riders averaged 54th place in CQ The median is 26

Team Tour- 26 riders averaged 41st place in CQ The median is 18

Team 3 GC- Just 3 riders? Not enough data.

Looks like Team Tour has overall higher quality riders.  The actual races and results:


No GC- 1. Horner (23) 7. Pinot (61)  9. Konig (126)

Giro- 2. Nibali (2) 6. Pozzovivo (39) 8. Samu (63)

Tour- 3. Valverde (4) 4. J-Rod (5) 5. Roche (42)  10. J-Moreno (17)

3 GC-


- Team No GC- 1. Contador (14) 6. Gesink (36) 9. Anton (128)

- Team Giro- 3. J-Rod (1) 5. Moreno (17) 10. Intxausti (149)

- Team Tour- 2. Valverde (4) 4. Froome (11) 7. Talansky (65) 8. Ten Dam (170)

- Team 3 GC-


- Team No GC- 1. Cobo (26) 2. Froome (42) 3. Wiggins (12) 8. Van den Broeck (68)

- Team Giro- 5. Menchov (44) 7. Nibali (13) 9. Moreno (33) 10. Nieve (113)

- Team Tour- 4. Mollema (23) 6. Monfort (67)

- Team 3 GC-


- Team No GC- 2. Mosquera (31) 3. P Velits (66) 5. F Schleck (21) 9. Danielson (171)

- Team Giro- 1. Nibali (1) 6. Tondo (59)

- Team Tour- 4. J-Rod (2) 7. Roche (36) 10. Lulu (4)

- Team 3 GC- 8. Sastre (73)


- Team No GC- 1. Valverde (1) 2. Samu (7) 5. Mosquera (64) 6. Gesink (21) 7. J-Rod (36) 10. Cobo (104)

- Team Giro- 4. Basso (19) 8. Tiralongo (187) 9. Deignan (125)

- Team Tour- 3. Evans (3)

- Team 3 GC


- Team No GC-  4. Mosquera (48) 7. Gesink (16)

- Team Giro- 1. Contador (2) 2. Leipheimer (7) 6. J-Rod (26)

- Team Tour- 3. Sastre (11) 5. Valverde (1) 8. Moncoutie (65) 9. Egoi Martinez (126)

- Team 3 GC- 10. Bruseghin (63)


- Team No GC- 3. Samu (10) 5. Mosquera (162) 6. V Efimkin (45) 8. Anton (62)

- Team Giro-

- Team Tour- 1. Menchov (8) 2. Sastre (30) 4. Evans (1) 7. Karpets (18) 8. Beltran (81) 10. Barredo (158)

- Team 3 GC


- Team No GC- Vino (12) 2. Valverde (2) 3. Kashechkin (17) 7. Samu (4) 10. Perez Rodriguez (284)

- Team Giro- 6. Danielson (41) 9. Beltran (144)

- Team Tour- 5. Gomez Marchante (44) 8. Karpets (67)

- Team 3 GC 4. Sastre (11)

The worst that the Best placed rider on Team No GC finished was 4th in 2008-Zeke. Every other year except 2007 saw Team No GC place a rider 1st or 2nd.

Last words

Yeah, there's a lot of reasons why a rider places high on GC in a GT. It seems to me that some of those reasons have been studied more than others. There's an intense awareness of individual rider performances with all that team Sky is doing and wind tunnels and power rations and body fat, etc. Definitely those things affect performance.

Also teamwork is important and we love to spend time looking at the lineups. I wonder how scientifically teamwork is looked at though. My guess is that awareness of teamwork is like the awareness that baseball had in say the 1950's in figuring out a batting order. That is to say not much awareness.

Then you got doping and for all that has been said about doping there's very little that's definitive about exactly what a given drug does to human performance in a bike race. Yeah there's a lot that's said and claimed but little rigor is attached to the claims and I guess that's because doping is illegal. But that doesn't excuse the fact that there's not a ton known that could help a team or an individual. I think that many riders have tried a doping product only to have said product backfire on them in terms of meh performance or a performance not nearly as good as say their teammate claimed that he got.

Then you got things like age which I did a study on PdC a few years ago. From the results it is clear that winning a Grand Tour is pretty damn rare for anyone over 31 or 32. Hel-lo Chris Horner!

But then there are non-personal factors like what I am looking at here. These are also not often studied. If Team Sky was aware of what we are looking at they might have held back Henao from the Giro and had him fresh for the Vuelta. But teams have other considerations to meet and while there is a vague sense that resting GC riders is a good thing I really doubt that teams look into it much. The same is true for Giro riders trying to peak for the Vuelta: there's a right way to do it and a million wrong ways.

I would love to know what is known in cycling and what is just a guess, even if it is an expert's guess. Given how much disarray the sport tends to be in I guess that there's a ton of myths out there on how to prepare to be a pro cyclist that are just wrong.  But next year with our Vuelta power poll, let's be sure to ID who hasn't ridden a GT earlier in the year. There will always be a few that crack the top 10 if not win it.