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The Art of Racing Over 7 Days

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What does it mean to be a one-week specialist?

Tour de Romandie - Stage 5 Photo by Michael Steele - Velo/Getty Images

From 2014 to 2017, Alberto Contador was the undaunted master of week-long stage races. Having finished on the podium of WT one-week stage races (see the races I used for this analysis below) a whopping 10 times, including 3 wins. It would be easy for you to rush to interpret that this means that Grand Tour excellence translates to week-long results, until I tell you that over that time frame, Alberto Contador finished on a Grand Tour podium just once. In the twilight of his career, Contador was a shell of himself when it came to the big 3 week races, but was simply unparalleled when it came to the week-longs. [Full disclosure: Contador was also a week-long asskicker when he was a great GT rider as well… but we’ll get to that later.]

You often hear the adage: “Rider X just can’t cut it over 3 weeks; he needs to just focus on those week-longs,” and I always wondered if there was any merit to that assertion. It seemed on the surface that the same qualities that led to Grand Tour victories (e.g., superior time-trialing, powerful mountain attacks, the ability to do it every day) were the same qualities that would lead to success on the week-long circuit. The only real thing that was missing was the luck required to stay upright and kicking over a long time frame. What benefit would there to be focus on week-longs at the behest of Grand Tours when 1) Grand Tours pay the bills and 2) the skillset is probably exactly the same? A good all-around GT bike rider ought to just be able to do the same sorts of things over 7 days that they would over 21 with roughly the same results.

So that got me to wonder: Is one-week racing actually a speciality and if so what does it mean to excel at one weeks?

First, the proof of concept: I analyzed podium results from WT one-week races over the last 5 years (2014-2018). I included races that were both 1) on the WT calendar and 2) I don’t (somewhat) arbitrarily think are stupid. I came up with a list that included the following: Paris-Nice, Tirreno-Adriatico, Volta Ciclista a Catalunya, Tour of the Basque Country, Tour of Romandie, Tour of California, Tour De Suisse, Dauphine Libere, Bing Bong Tour and Tour of Poland. That’s an even 10. From that list, 67 different riders found themselves on the podium of one of these races, the most being Alberto Contador.

I limited my analysis to riders that had at least 3 podia over that time, which came out to exactly 20 riders. Within those 20 riders, there were 20 different GT podia over the same range, led by Chris Froome’s 8. Utilizing that range of data, I discovered that there was no significant correlation between one-week podia and GT podia. So, no, excellence at one weeks is not necessarily the same as excellence over 3 weeks.

But that doesn’t completely answer my question. Is there such a thing as a true one-week specialist? Now comes a much less scientific and very back-of-the-envelope investigation, which revealed that there were basically 4 ways to be a one-week racer (maybe actually 3 ½) but really only one of them qualifies as a true specialist.

Amgen Tour of California - Stage 6 - Folsom
The hallmark of The Fluke is excellence at one discipline and a ton of luck.
Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

The Fluke

At Tirreno Adriatico in 2016, the big mountain stage was cancelled due to weather. This put the onus on separation at the behest of a team time trial on the first stage, some lumpy sprinting and an individual time trial on the last stage. This meant that Greg Van Avermaet, on the back of a BMC TTT and some opportunistic riding won the Tirreno-Adriatico, ahead of Peter Sagan who is also not thought of as a particularly gifted one-week racer. But what GVA and Sagan have in common is a knack for opportunity, a hallmark of this type of one week racer. It is basically a rider who maybe excels at one aspect of bike riding, but through chance and the tremendous heroics of small-sample sizes, they find themselves on the pointy end more often than one might expect.

Another great example of and perhaps the archetype for The Fluke is Rohan Dennis, probably the best time-trialist in his generation, but is highly unlikely to ever be mistaken for a GT rider. A prime iteration of his flukiness is the 2017 Tirreno Adriatico, in which his chances were bolstered by a blistering BMC team time trial, a final time trial in which he won, some mountains in which he hung on for dear life, and a fair bit of luck due to the overall favorites spending perhaps a little too much time shadow boxing. This formula brought him to second position overall at the end of the week.

The problem with The Fluke is that it’s difficult to perform this way with any consistency or dictation. Only Sagan and Dennis have won this way at least 3 times. They basically just have to do their job perfectly and hope for some luck; a lot of it is completely out of their hands.

Criterium du Dauphine - Stage Seven
Do you think any of these guys might trade their Dauphine success for a Tour victory?
Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

The Training Ride

These are the riders for which my inherent bias was correct. Frequently in the course of training or preparing for GT success, one-week success is a stop along the way. And it is easy to see why this may be the case: the same skills that are good for one translate very nicely toward the other. In the last five years, this category has been led by Nairo Quintana and Chris Froome. The former has finished on 8 one-week podia, (second only to Contador) to complement the 5 GT podia. The latter with 4 one-weeks and of course 8 GTs. Prior to the frame of this analysis, middle-stage Alberto Contador would have fallen entirely in this category.

It’s fairly easy to see why Nairo Quintana can excel at one-weeks. He’s a competent time-trialist with an explosive climbing engine and is way better at staying upright than he’s given credit for. Similar story with Chris Froome: he’s an extraordinary time-trialist and a competent climber and is way better at staying upright than he’s given credit for. And of course, all of these skill-sets strung over 3 weeks a good GT rider make. What trips these guys up is that it is not the purpose of their season to win these races. If you could guarantee a Dauphine win but reduced your GT overall chances by 2%, the guys in this group wouldn’t even think twice. They wouldn’t even show up. Their one-week success is merely a rung on the ladder of their GT training programme.

Training Ride Subgroup - The Fall Backs

Insert Richie Porte joke here. Richie Porte and Ion Izagirre have both stepped on the podium in 7 week-longs in the past 5 years (good enough for third on the list) but have not once stepped on the GT podium in that time. In fact, 12 of the 20 riders on this list have not stepped on the GT podium. I am singling these guys out specifically because I am reluctant to truly call them specialists because neither make any bones about their season goals. Both of these guys want to win Grand Tours; they just don’t. If you offer them the same Faustian bargain as above, Dauphine success for 2% less chance at a Grand Tour, they almost certainly would refuse. The same can basically be said of late-stage Contador, whose qualifications I listed in the intro. Throughout his entire career, Contador was foremost a racer but in his heart and soul he was a GT racer and he really made no bones about it.

Tour de Romandie - Stage 3
A true specialist, Špilak is prioritizing the one-week events
Photo by Michael Steele - Velo/Getty Images

The Specialist

The entire purpose of this article was to highlight one curiosity that I discovered recently. Simon Špilak has finished on 5 one-week podia in the last 5 years including two victories at the Tour de Suisse. If we include his entire career, the number grows (and a bunch more top 5s). The 32 year-old Slovenian with no outwardly visible bicycling strength has made an absolute killing on the one-week circuit. But the curiosity is this: he has not suited up for a Grand Tour stage since Stage 17 of the 2014(!) Tour De France. The guy just doesn’t care for Grand Tours.

Notwithstanding the issue of “how can you make a living riding bikes at the top level for 5 years without having to suffer through at least one Grand Tour,” Špilak has well and truly built his seasons around one-week races. Last year (without much success) he attended Tirreno-Adriatico, Basque Country, Romandie, Tour De Suisse and Tour De Pologne, along with a smattering of other similar non-WT races. That’s just about as many as you can do without overlapping chronologically. The year before that (with tremendous success), he did all that and Algarve.

So what is it exactly about Špilak that leads to this success? This is something I have trouble putting a finger on. He is by no means prolific at any one thing: I guess he can time trial ok, he can climb adequately, though is not especially explosive, and he of course stays upright but that alone will not win any races. One obvious ingredient is that he attends a lot of these races. If you throw enough darts, some of them will hit the bullseye.

Another ingredient is that he cares about these races. There’s no Grand Tour to save himself for. He only tried GTs a couple of times early in his career and they didn’t fit; his best finish was in the 2008 Giro, at 48th overall. He seemed to learn early on that for some reason GTs just weren’t his bag [in a short profile on Špilak, inrng suggested he doesn’t like the heat, as in physical temperature, but that wouldn’t necessarily rule out the Giro].

Since then, he has truly embraced the role of one-week specialist. This allows him to be choosy and select races with the right competition in a way that isn’t dictated by GT preparation. [Notice I said “right” and not “weak”: throughout this extraordinary run, he has beaten straight up the likes of Tom Dumoulin, Geraint Thomas, Superman Lopez, Thibault Pinot and Steven Kruijswijk.] If there is a single rider in the peloton that “can’t cut it over 3 weeks and should just be a one-week specialist” Simon Špilak has acknowledged and embodied the mantle.

So there you go. I never believed that there was such a thing as a one-week specialist. It always felt like those who excelled at one-weeks did so by means of another mechanism: either fluking their way along crushing at one discipline, while prepping for a Grand Tour, or using it as a backup as their GT world shatters. But there is at least one pure one-week specialist in the pro-peloton. Someone who has truly decided they can’t hack it over 3 weeks and changed their entire career focus. If you are looking for the perfect mold of a one-week specialist, it is Simon Špilak.

[Conflict of Interest: I did spend 1 point on Špilak in VDS]