Tour preparation isn’t so simple

Some riders have already gotten their season under way at the Tour Down Under in the middle of January, other riders will have waited until February to begin at races like the Tour Méditerranéen or the Tour of Qatar, while others still will wait until March before contemplating racing. The racing schedules of the top riders are scrutinised by fans so we can determine what their season goals are and what sort of shape they’ll be in at various points of the season. The racing schedules of the Tour de France contenders are usually examined more than most. Will they ride the Giro as preparation? Will they ride the Dauphiné or the Tour de Suisse? Will any of them be riding the cobbled classics? So which races do the Tour contenders frequent more than others? Each rider maps out a path hoping that theirs in particular will be the magical combination of races that will result in them being in better shape come July than all of their rivals. So is there an ideal combination of races?

By examining the racing schedules of the top five finishers in the last two editions of the Tour perhaps some light can be shed on what could be considered as ideal Tour preparation. The top five finishers last year were Contador, Schleck, Armstrong, Wiggins and Schleck eile. In 2008, the top five at the Tour were Sastre, Evans, Kohl, Menchov and Vande Velde. Five different top five finishers in consecutive years is relatively rare at the Tour de France. To digress slightly, this has only happened on six occasions in the last 50 years and usually only occurs due to extraordinary circumstances where riders have either retired or have been banned from competing the following year. For instance, the last time a completely different set of riders finished in the top five than from the previous year was 2006. This was mostly due to the retirement of Lance Armstrong and Operation Puerto which ensured the non participation of Tour favourites Ullrich, Basso and Vinokourov. Previous to this, it happened in 1999 and Armstrong was again involved, this time due to his return from cancer. Favourites from previous years Ullrich and Pantani were both injured, thus opening the top five places for some new hopefuls. Before 1999, it occurred in 1987 due in no small part to the retiring Bernard Hinault and reigning champion Greg Lemond being shot by his brother in law.

Last year, this anomaly could be explained in part by the returning Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador and also by Carlos Sastre moving from Saxo Bank to Cervélo. Armstrong was returning from retirement while Contador was competing again having been part of the Astana team that was banned from entering the 2008 edition. Sastre’s move away from Saxo Bank allowed the Schleck brothers off the super-domestique leash in the quest for personal glory. Remarkably, in the six years between 1955 and 1960 no riders finishing in the top five at the Tour had been in the top five the previous year. Perhaps even more remarkably, this relatively rare occurence (apart from 1955-1960) does not even hold true when the years skirting the two world wars are taken into account. In 1914, Frenchman Jean Alavoine finished in 3rd place, then when the Tour returned after World War 1 in 1919, Alavoine also returned to the podium, this time in 2nd place. For World War 2, the rider in question was another Frenchman, René Vietto, who finished 2nd in 1939 and competed again in 1947 to finish up in 5th place.

But getting back to the preparation races of Tour contenders, Bradley Wiggins has recently said that he would like to be competitive in some early season races and not be “one of those Tour contenders who sits at home until June then crawls out of the woodwork”. Lance Armstrong gained a reputation for concentrating solely on the Tour de France and on nothing else, but are the rest of the top five Tour finishers in the last two years also culprits when it comes to ignoring other races? The following is a table of the races that these ten riders took part in before the Tour de France where they finished in the top five:

The races in which the top five riders of the last two Tours de France raced in preparation for the Grand Boucle. Races listed in bold are one day races.

From looking at the above figure, it is evident that there are plenty of orange cells, that is, races where a rider has finished in the top five and/or won a stage. The most impressive set of results is that of Alberto Contador, the 2009 Tour winner, who that year figured in every race he entered. Two of the races he entered and didn’t win were Paris-Nice and the Vuelta Castilla y Leon. In the former he won two stages and finished 4th overall and would have won the overall had he not famously bonked on the penultimate stage allowing his compatriot Luis Léon Sanchez to charge away for the victory. In the latter race, Contador finished 2nd overall but probably could have won had he not been riding in support of his team mate Levi Leipheimer who finished 1st. Contador’s schedule is notable however for the distinct lack of one day races, he didn’t ride any. In fairness to Armstrong, even at the height of his Tour winning powers, he still had time to ride the odd classic and even managed two 2nd places at the Amstel Gold race. Contador’s lack of interest in one day races will surely inhibit any claims he might have in the future in being one of the greatest cyclists in history.

Apart from Contador, the most impressive set of results is provided by the new World Champion Cadel Evans. His race results in the 2008 season were highly consistent, winning stages in most races he entered whilst also taking 2nd and 7th in Fléche Wallonne and Liége-Bastogne-Liége respectively. Evans is no stranger to racing competitively all year round having won the season long Pro Tour competition in 2007. He’s also shown some very early season form already this year with his two attacks at the Tour Down Under in January which almost resulted in overall victory.

What is also notable in the figure is that no two routes to the Tour de France were the same. Even the Schleck brothers who seem to go everywhere together spent plenty of time apart en route to the Tour. Contador’s route didn’t contain any one day races but this is not to say that leaving them off the racing schedule is a must for any potential Tour winner. Carlos Sastre rode three major one day races on his way to winning the 2008 Tour. However, he didn’t perform well in any of the races he rode prior to the Tour, somewhat the opposite of Contador last year.

Props must go to Bradley Wiggins for being the only man to take on the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix. Although I suspect this may change this year due to the fact that there will be cobbles present early on in the Tour de France. The Tour contenders will want to hone their bike handling skills during April and not leave anything to chance when faced with the cobbles in July.

The most popular stage races to ride are Paris-Nice and the Vuelta al Pais Vasco due to the fact that they provide a nice mix of flat, mountaineous and time trial stages. Plenty of riders chose the Giro d’Italia over the Dauphiné or the Tour de Suisse. Riding the Giro seemed to go out of fashion for Tour contenders during Armstrong’s reign but the Italian Grand Tour is getting more and more popular, but only as a preparation race. Only once in the last ten years has a rider finished in the top five of the Tour and the Giro in the same season, that was Denis Menchov in 2008. The days of riders like Pantani and Indurain winning both Grand Tours in one season seem to be well and truly over due to the current trend of uber race specific conditioning.

There doesn’t seem to be any magic combination of preparation races that will lead a rider to Tour glory. Contador’s tactic of solely focusing on short stage races seems to be working for him but it may not suit a rider like Andy Schleck or Bradley Wiggins who enjoy competing in one day races. To consider Wiggins’ comment that there are Tour contenders who only come out to race in June; there are only three out of the ten riders listed here who did not gain a top five placing or a stage win prior to the Tour de France in which they finished in the top five. There is Armstrong, who was injured with a broken collar bone for a lengthy period of time, there is Bernard Kohl, the now disgraced drug user, and Carlos Sastre who quietly but efficiently worked his way to peak fitness for the Tour. The only thing that looks certain from this list of results is that Contador is the best stage race rider in the world and despite what he might say himself, he is the far and away favourite for the Tour de France in 2010.

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