On The Roadby: Bill Oetinger 8/1/2015
Little things along the way
A Grand Tour travels a long and winding road, a hard and cruel highway.
For even the most ambitious recreational riders, a three-week tour is a big undertaking. We do them when we can muster up the time, the money, and the fitness. We might ride 100-K a day, with plenty of time for a leisurely lunch and other stops at vista points or historic waysides…any handy excuse to get off the bike and take a breather. But compared to a three-week stage race…
I've made this same comparison in previous years: the difference between the pleasurable rambling of the tourist and the meat-grinder of a Grand Tour. Just doing the mellow, vacation-style tour—given the new horizons and a few hefty challenges—will pick your life up by the scruff of the neck and give it a good shake. Imagine what it's like to be in the pro peloton for the real deal: 21 stages averaging around a century a day…with just two days off…at race pace…in driving rain and baking sun…headwinds, crosswinds…and an average of over one crash per rider. It makes me hurt, just thinking about it.
That's what we just got to enjoy—vicariously—over the course of the 2015 Tour de France. You know what happened. You know who won. And perhaps, to some extent, you can even remember how those hard boys got from A to B to Paris. Looking back on it now, those early days on the windswept flats of Holland and among the lumpy rollers of Belgium seem like a distant memory, somewhat eclipsed by the heroics of the mountains in the final week. And yet those early days count just as much as the later ones, and little details from those long-ago stages can have a telling impact on the final outcome.
This year's Tour ended up being a battle between Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana. The hype ahead of the tour billed it as a contest between the "Fab Four" of Froome, Quintana, defending Tour champion Vincenzo Nibali, and Giro winner Alberto Contador.
Although I'm a big Nibali fan, I never gave him much of a shot. His whole spring campaign was lackluster: dropped on just about any climb, anywhere. He had his share of bad luck in the Tour, but he battled gamely and made at least a few attempts to attack and animate things. His efforts finally yielded an impressive win on Stage 19, one of the big mountain finishes, and he ended up a respectable 4th overall.
Contador won the Giro in May—as reported in this space—and was attempting to do what they say cannot be done in the modern era: win the Giro-Tour double. His performance—an honorable but rather tired looking 5th overall—seems to bear out that conventional wisdom. In retrospect, it's easy to say he won the Giro not so much with overwhelming athletic superiority but with tactical savvy and a careful deployment of what resources he had. When it came time to back that up at the Tour, with one Grand Tour already in his legs, and against stiffer competition, he just didn't have it. But as he said afterward: better to have tried and failed than to have not tried at all.
After all the other big-name riders and opportunistic wannabes had made their plays, in the end, it was Froome vs Quintana. Quintana vs Froome. Two lighter-than-air heavyweights, slugging it out in the center of the ring. When the rain puddles had dried up on the cobbles of Paris, after almost 85 hours in the saddle, the time gap between them was only 72 seconds…less time than it might take to read a couple of these paragraphs. So many miles, so much travail, so many ups and downs, crashes and trauma and trouble…to come down to a gap you could measure with an egg timer. Sheesh!
How did they get to that pass? Okay then, let's see… There were eight out of the 21 stages where they swapped seconds back and forth. Most fans will recall that Quintana clawed big chunks of time out of Froome on the final two mountain stages, :32 up to La Toussuire and 1:26 on l'Alpe d'Huez. And no one can forget the Team Sky smack-down on the first real mountain stage to La Pierre Saint-Martin, where Froome and Richie Porte finished one-two, with Froome gaining 1:10 on Quintana. Once Froome had established his lead after that Stage 10, there were any number of other mountain stages where Quintana or Nibali or some other hopeful would attack Froome's group. But in every case, one of his Sky team would hunt them down and bring them back into the fold…until Quintana finally got away on Stages 19 and 20.
After all that push and shove, there were just those three mountain stages where time was gained or lost. But if those marquee stages—the ones we look forward to so avidly—told the whole tale, Quintana would have won the Tour by :48, instead of losing by 1:12. So we have to look elsewhere for the rest of the story.
Stage 1 was the only stage of the tour that was an individual time trial. At 8.5 miles, it was just a prologue…not the typical 25-mile ITT that can really make a difference. This is the first Tour I can remember without at least one full ITT. I find that extraordinary. In any event, Froome was :11 faster than Quintana over that short distance.
Humble little Stage 2 is the day that really jumps out as unexpectedly decisive. And yet I don't know why we should be so surprised that this might be the case. That's part of what makes a Grand Tour so grand: every stage counts and every one of them presents its own challenges and puzzles. Some challenges are taken in stride, while others end up being deal-breakers. If it's not the cobbles of Flanders, it's the crosswinds on a Breton plain or some tide-slick causeway along the shore. You think everything is routine and then… "…when life looks like Easy Street, there is danger at your door."
What happened? Crosswinds happened, out on the Dutch dikes. We've seen it again and again: to shelter from the wind, the riders quickly form protective echelons, and if you miss the front rank, you can very quickly be gapped. Among the GC hopefuls, only Froome and Contador got in the very small front group and only Froome lost no time at all. Quintana lost 1:28. By simply paying attention and getting in that first echelon, Froome gained more time than he did on his spectacular solo win on Stage 10. And by not paying attention, Quintana lost more time than he gained with his heroic charge up l'Alpe d'Huez. There's your whole Tour right there, decided on an otherwise insignificant stage before the race ever rolled onto French soil.
Froome gained :15 on the steep finish of Mur de Huy, another :03 in the team time trial, and a final second on the steep finish at Mende on Stage 14. All of those tiny increments required gut-busting efforts, and all of them amounted to piffle compared to the time gained in the crosswinds on Stage 2.
I've read an analysis of the Tour which suggests that the time lost in Zeeland was not decisive; that you can't reduce the whole complex Tour to just a mathematical equation. Fair enough, in theory at least. But time is time. If you lose it, you have to expend energy to get it back later. If you gain it, it's money in the bank. Call it temporal capital. If you have enough of it, you can afford to give some of it back later, as Froome did on the final two mountain stages. (He might not have had to concede that time at all had he not come down with a chest cold in the last week of the race. But he was a bit off his best at that point, and that's where having those extra seconds in the bank was worth the world.)
You think Nairo Quintana isn't lying awake at night, thinking about that front group riding away from him across the Dutch countryside on Stage 2? If he's not, he's still not paying attention.
Bill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org