Why Short Tour de France Stages Are Not So Sweet

By Chris Carmichael
CEO and Head Coach of CTS

The Tour de France tried something new this year, in the form of two very short, very hard mountain stages, both ending with summit finishes. The first was Stage 11 in the Alps, a 108-kilometer race with four categorized climbs and virtually no flat valley roads. The second was even shorter, just 65 kilometers, but still brutally difficult. The idea was to spark more aggressive and exciting racing. It’s debatable whether it made the action at the front of the peloton more exciting, but it definitely put a lot more pressure on the riders at the back of the peloton.

The “grupetto” is the name given to the group of riders who get together, way off the back of the main peloton, to help each other reach the finish inside the time cut. Depending on the length of the stage and number of other factors, the race officials establish a time cut as a percentage of the stage winner’s finishing time. Typically the time cut ranges from 15-25%. For Stage 17, for instance, the time cut was 25% and stage winner Nairo Quintana finished in 2 hours 21 minutes and 27 seconds. That’s 141 minutes and change, which put the time cut at just over 35 minutes behind Quintana. On Stage 11, the time cut was just 15% of Geraint Thomas’ 3 hour and 29 minute stage winning time, a mere 31 minutes off the back.

How hard could it be for Tour de France-caliber riders – even heavier sprinters – to finish about half an hour slower than the stage winner after 65 and 108 kilometers? It’s a lot harder than you might think.

How the grupetto works

When you and your buddies get dropped from the group ride you might just sit up and set a cruising pace for the rest of the route. That’s not what the grupetto is. No one back there has an easy day. On the climbs the group of non-climbers (who are still faster than most amateurs who fancy themselves as strong climbers) set a tempo that’s tough but sustainable. They know they’re going to lose time to the stage leaders, but they try to minimize the losses and ideally keep them to about one minute per kilometer of climbing.

Life in the grupetto gets really hard as you go over the summit of a climb. Riders take a lot of risks on the descent in an effort to claw back some of the time they lost on the previous climb. However, the riders at the front go downhill plenty fast, too. If you lost one minute per kilometer going up, you might only retake 10-20 seconds per kilometer going down.

The flat valley roads between climbs are the grupetto’s area of opportunity. The riders in this group are the tall and heavy workhorses who were at the front in the first week, and the sprinters they were shepherding to the bunch finishes. When the road flattens out, they put that weight behind the pedals and ride flat out. As hard as the climbs are for this group, the valleys are brutal because this is the only place they can retake big chunks of time.

Where the riders at the front ride tempo through the valleys and ride hardest on the climbs, the grupetto rides tempo on the climbs and blitzes the valleys – and they still lose 20+ minutes by the end of the day.

Why Short Stages Are Tough on the Grupetto

Take a look at the profiles for Stage 11 and Stage 17. The road is either up or down, and there aren’t many kilometers in the valleys. By trying to make the racing up front more exciting, the Tour de France eliminated the terrain the grupetto depends on to beat the time cut. This means the sprinters and roleurs have to set a higher tempo on the climbs to further minimize their time losses, and take even bigger risks on the descents. Two of the race’s top sprinters – Mark Cavendish and Marcel Kittel – lost out on Stage 11 and were sent home, and the riders who squeaked in under the time limit turned themselves inside out to do it.

tour de france stage 17 2018

Stage 11, 2018 Tour de France. Source

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Ironically, it’s easier for the grupetto to manage their time losses on climbs during a 200-kilometer stage than a 100- or certainly 65-kilometer stage. On long mountain stages, the front of the peloton rides tempo on the early climbs and lets the distance take its toll on the competition. In short stages, the front of the peloton goes faster from the start.

tour de france stage 17 2018

Stage 17, 2018 Tour de France. Source

The fallout from Stage 11’s 15% time cut most likely played a role in the much more generous – but still difficult – 25% time cut on Stage 17. Based on the results of Stage 17, 60 riders (out of 146) who finished more than 21 minutes behind Quintana would have been eliminated by a 15% time cut.

Long-Range Damage

Mountain stages are tough for the grupetto already, and making them dig even deeper on these very short mountain stages just makes the following days even harder. With smaller teams at this year’s Tour de France (8 starters instead of 9 per team) and attrition that has reduced the peloton to 146 riders, only 6 of the 22 teams still have all their riders. Katusha-Alpecin and Lotto-Soudal have been reduced by half, and Dimension Data, Ag2R-La Mondiale, and Quick-Step Floors are down to five riders each. That means more work divided among fewer riders, fewer tactical options, and fewer opportunities to put riders in position to win.

So, should the Tour de France continue with their experiment of short mountain stages to spur more action-packed racing? Probably, yes. Just give the guys at the back a bigger cushion so they have a fighting chance.

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Comments 12

  1. Disagree! If you’re going to ride a grand tour making time cut is part of it. Sprinters do not need to weigh 180 and probably need to drop a few to ride grand tours

  2. Trying to spice things up ended up cooling things off. Seems like the cut-off times would’ve been easier to safely predict. Need more excitement? How about a crit midway through one of the long, flat stages?

  3. Undoubtedly, shorter stages make for a more exciting Tiur. However, I believe for those short stages, some exceptions should be made. Any stage that is 65 miles or less – with the exception of a TT- should increase the time limits. Sending two sprinters of the likes of Kittel and Cavendish is denying more excitement to the fans of the Tour.

  4. Miss the courageous breakaways of the Merckx, Anquetil, and even Hinault eras ? Want to make the riders think, and act instinctively, when they can’t see the breakaway group in front of them and wonder how far ahead they are ? Want to encourage more heroic breakaways, and have more breaks produce stage winners :

    Get rid of the damn radios, which UCI was talking about doing 8-10 years ago :


    You say that it’s needed to warn of road hazards ahead ? Then allow them to listen to race radio only; no more two-way radio with the team directors….

    Of course, the team managers won’t like this, because

  5. More individual time trials, with short time cuts, throughout the race might take some of the energy out of the climbers and even things up for the puncheurs. Or give time cut relief “credit” as primes in some stages. 1st place in a prime gets 5 minutes of relief, which could be used in multiple stages. For example, a rider with 5 minutes of “credit” could use 3 minutes to stay in the race on one stage and still have 2 minutes left for another climbing stage. Spectators want to see guys like Cavendish race, and cutting star power is hurting the race. The organizers better get out of the box and do something, because it is getting boring, and team sponsors know they are not getting enough value out of their sponsorship money. It is not sustainable as is.

  6. Thanks Chris, this was really fascinating. I knew that if riders of the caliber of Marcel Kittel and Mark Cavendish were not making the time cut, something was seriously tough for them this year — and this explains why. Perhaps they should give higher percentages of the time cut allowance based on rider weight…

  7. The TdF needed to do something to make the race worth watching. I haven’t watched a stage this year, just check the results each day. By and large the racing has become predictable in this race each year. It’s become flat out boring, so spicier stages such as yesterday make me want to check those out. The Giro and Vuelta are much less predictable and exciting to watch. Kudos to this year’s tour organizers for trying something outside of their usual box. As for the grupetto, perhaps teams need to start thinking about goals and weighing out the advantages/disadvantages toward what they want to achieve. It keeps it interesting…but yes, it continues to be brutal for the domestiques and sprinters that have to suffer at the back. Tough sport!

  8. if it takes till the end of the 1st week for major contenders (Quintana this time but probably would also have been Nibali or Porte) to make a move on sky then we need more innovation and probably earlier – otherwise just make the race one week

  9. What are the expectations of the viewers? Could it be the time for a different physical profile for these athletes?

  10. So the problem really isn’t the course selection, but really the time cut. For races at or under 100km the time cut should be significantly higher percentage than for 150+ km stages. Easy for the race organizers to fix – just increase the time cutoff on the shorter stages. Set it to a fixed amount of time vs a percentage, if they have to.

    They need to do SOMETHING to get the riders to stop just playing chess with one or two major attacks determining a 3 week race. These teams are ultimately paid by viewership and TV contracts – they need something more than just pretty scenery shots for 3 hours each day.

  11. Well, TdF, Giro and La Vuelta are all about climbers and GC contenders. Over 150km (flat) stages have no particular meaning for them. Personally, I was really excited with the idea of short stages. The only objection I have, is that I would like to see these short stages early in the race when everyone (including sprinters or puncheurs) are still fresh.
    A 65km stage, name it stage 5 or 6 early in the tour, when everything is still fragile and the time gaps are small, would be much more exciting.
    Yesterday’s etape left me with the feeling that the GC cyclists where exhausted, one waiting for the other to attack etc.

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