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.
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.
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.
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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