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Is the Era of Decisive Mountain Stages Over?

Stop being nice to each other!
Stop being nice to each other!
Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

I've spent too much of the morning grousing on Twitter about how this year's Tour de France parcours has offered next to nothing in the way of stages that could make a difference in the battle for yellow. Obviously the initial Pyrénéan stage to Pierre-Saint-Martin made a big difference. Since then? No difference. Today was the first Alps stage and there was no separation among the top guys, except for Tejay van Garderen's departure due to an apparent illness and Alberto Contador's crash that cost him two minutes. That stuff happens, and it makes for drama, but beyond that this stage had noplace for Nairo Quintana to launch his now-long-awaited counterassault on Chris Froome's lead. And tomorrow should be no different. For exactly how I feel you can read my Twitter feed, but I don't recommend it.

Now, I can't read into the minds of grand tour designers, but it seems to me that when they give their preview opinions they often say they expect a close race. Could just be PR nonsense to get people excited. But it could also reflect a change in course design. Or a change in how these races are ridden. What the hell am I talking about? This:

  • Six of the nine closest Tours de France (based on spread between the winner and runner up) have occurred since 1987.
  • The Giro d'Italia's 98 editions have seen 15 races finish with a final spread of less than a minute, including three in the last seven years and four of the last 11.
  • The Vuelta a Espana has seen eight of its 12 closest finishes since 1982.

First off... are these number significant enough to establish a trend? I'm only a pretend-statistician here, but another way of looking at them would be:

  • Of the Tour's 101 editions, 66% of the closest ones have occurred in the last 28% of its races.
  • The Giro's last 11 editions represent 11% of the race's history, but 44% of its closest finishes.
  • The Vuelta has had 69 editions, 33 since 1982. So in less than half its races we've seen 66% of its closest finishes.

I'm not sure the Giro or Vuelta examples are statistically significant, as opposed to somewhat random clusters. In the case of the Giro, there were batches of close races in the 50s and 70s. The Vuelta's closest dozen races are all since 1974 except for one (1956), but the Vuelta is a new and sometimes shifting affair compared to the other grand tours.

The Tour seems like maybe things have changed. Prior to Vincenzo Nibali's blowout win last year, the last eight Tours had been won by an average of about 2.04, including three straight years where the margin was under a minute, and five of the eight under 2'. Prior to 1987 there had only been seven Tours won by less than two minutes. Prior to 1987 there were 36 editions won by more than ten minutes, and zero since. It goes without saying that the Tour has changed a lot since the old, old days... but has it also changed a lot since the days of Hinault?

Well, sure. There were the doping heydays when entire pelotons would finish atop high mountains, barely out of breath. Those days started for certain in 1992 and ended... when? 2006? After Lance retired? Sometime in the future? Still debatable, but for my money it's not the mid-90s anymore, that much is certain.

Another difference, one could argue, would be team tactics. "Riders don't know how to attack anymore!"  you might argue. "Directors are gigolos using game boys to tell riders when to attack or take a piss!" You made your point. "I could have beaten LeMond in 1986!" You should probably stop now.

Did riders attack more in the past? I'm not totally buying that one. First, it's a qualitative judgment that sounds like it came straight from the same file as "America was better in the 1950s (violently segre-what-now?)." Also, while there is undoubtedly anecdotal evidence to support it, there are no statistics showing how attacky things got back then. And for those of us watching in the non-Lance years, a/k/a the Contador Era, it's been pleasantly attack-filled, with the exception of the unwatchable 2012 version.

So does that leave course design? I posit that this year's watery gruel of a maillot jaune battle is directly the result of poor course design -- up to this point, and maybe even extending into tomorrow, though that would still leave two stages for an actual battle to take place. Some of you have responded to my criticisms by pointing out that Quintana has been able to attack and Froome is too good for him to drop. True, so far, but at least in the case of today I don't see anyplace on that course where a truly dangerous attack was possible. Nor have I seen much of that in this Tour at all since the first MTF at La Pierre-Saint-Martin.

Is this normal? Let's take a look at a few Tours and where gaps happened, which may or may not illustrate the point. Looking at how the final three in Paris sorted out their differences. Here is how the GC battle ebbed and flowed over the mountain stages, using the spread between the eventual top three GC finishers as a gauge.


Stage 11: Spread of 1.55 from Hinault to Roche

Stage 12: Top three s.t.

Stage 17: 2.03

Stage 18: 1.30


Stage 13: Spread of 3.39 from Jeff Bernard to Stephen Roche and Pedro Delgado

Stage 14: 1.28

Stage 18: 2.19

Stage 19: 4.13

Stage 20: 1.40

And for the heck of it, 1979

Stage 2: 53 seconds from Hinault to Zoetemelk and Agostinho

Stage 3: s.t.

Stage 13: 0.03

Stage 15: 3.15

Stage 16: 0.57

Stage 17: 3.19

Stage 18: 1.05 (second straight MTF on Alpe d'Huez)

Stage 19: s.t. (third straight Alpe d'Huez finish!)

OK, now let's try something more recent, 2011 -- a cracking good race.

Stage 12: 20 seconds from Frank to Andy and Cadel

Stage 14: 0.02

Stage 17: s.t.

Stage 18: 2.15

Stage 19: s.t.

Hm, How about 2010

Stage 8: 10 seconds from Andy Schleck to Contador and Menchov

Stage 9: 2.08

Stage 14: 0.14

Stage 15: 0.39 (chaingate)

Stage 16: s.t.

Stage 17: 1.40

And now 2015

Stage 10: 2.01 from Froome to Valverde

Stage 11: 0.02

Stage 12: 0.01

Stage 17: 0.07

Maybe there is plenty of countervailing evidence that these are aberrations, and in the old days mountain stages were just as likely to end in a stalemate as they are now. Maybe it comes down to the quality of the riders, or the instincts/lack thereof. For my money, 2015 is a show of weak stage planning, with two of the four "high mountain" stages set up to produce a GC-guys bunch sprint, along with perhaps one more tomorrow. I will never quite know if the Tour is actively designing the race to present very few real opportunities to attack and put major time into a rival on a mountainside, but if it's not on purpose, for the sake of something like "a close race," then it's a pretty unhappy accident so far.

There will always be heroic stages in the Tour de France. Whether they are raced as such is up to the riders. However, those high MTFs are more often short stages now, distance-wise, supposedly to reduce the temptation to dope. A legit goal, but have we lost the chance for something more definitive in the process than these a-few-seconds-here-and-there wins that have become more commonplace? Did we vote for that?

And since Will's post has a cow and Jens' has knives, I'll close with this rendition of the GC battle in 2015.