Much was made before this year’s Tour de France of the salivating showdown we had in prospect between the ‘Fab Four’ of Vincenzo Nibali, Chris Froome, Alberto Contador and Nairo Quintana. The four are all Grand Tour winners and had never all competed in a race together until this past July. We weren’t really treated to a four-way showdown due to Contador and Nibali struggling in the opening couple of weeks and it looked like Froome had the race sewn up after the first summit finish until Quintana finally made a race of it in the final Alpine stages.
However, along with the gate-crashing Alejandro Valverde, all four riders did eventually finish the race in the top five overall. And because Valverde himself is a former Vuelta winner it meant that for the first time ever the top five riders in the Tour de France were all Grand Tour winners. It makes Froome’s victory seem all the more impressive given the quality he was faced with at the pointy end of the race. It also threw up a fair few other related stats and facts to do with the top five finishers in the Tour de France, if one was so geekily inclined to go digging for such things.
Former Grand Tour Winners
While this year is the first where all five riders in the top five of the Tour are Grand Tour winners, even having four Grand Tour winners within the top five is a rare occurence. It has only happened on three previous occasions:
1989: Greg LeMond, Laurent Fignon, Pedro Delgado and Marino Lejaretta
1969: Eddy Merckx, Roger Pingeon, Raymond Poulidor and Felice Gimondi
1952: Fausto Coppi, Bernardo Ruiz, Gino Bartali and Jean Robic
Conversely, it is a much more common occurrence for there to have been no Grand Tour winners in the top five at the Tour. This has happened 26 times in Tour history the most recent example of which was in 2007 largely due to the fact that Lance Armstrong and Jan Ullrich had retired, Ivan Basso was suspended and Alexandre Vinokourov got thrown off the race for blood doping. The only other time this has happened since 1960 was in 1996, explainable on that occasion largely due to Miguel Indurain’s capitulation and the lack of former Giro and Vuelta winners on the startline.
Former Grand Tour podium finishers
Obviously as they were all winners this year, all five were also Grand Tour podium finishers. This is the seventh time this has happened in Tour de France history:
2005: Lance Armstrong, Ivan Basso, Jan Ullrich, Francisco Mancebo and Alexandre Vinokourov
1979: Bernard Hinault, Joop Zoetemelk, Joaquim Agostinho, Hennie Kuiper and Jean-René Bernaudeau
1975: Bernard Thevenet, Eddy Merckx, Lucien van Impe, Joop Zoetemelk and Felice Gimondi
1973: Luis Ocana, Bernard Thevenet, José Manuel Fuente, Joop Zoetemelk and Lucien van Impe
1972: Eddy Merckx, Felice Gimondi, Raymond Poulidor, Lucien van Impe and Joop Zoetemelk
1952: Fausto Coppi, Stan Ockers, Bernardo Ruiz, Gino Bartali and Jean Robic
What is slightly more rare is a Tour de France top five where none of them have previously finished on the podium of a Grand Tour. Apart from the first Tour de France in 1903, this has happened on four occassions:
1956: Roger Walkowiak, Gilbert Bauvin, Jan Adriaensens, Federico Bahamontes and Nino Defilippis
1950: Ferdi Kubler, Stan Ockers, Louison Bobet, Raphael Geminiani and Jean Kirchen
1935: Romain Maes, Ambrogio Morelli, Felicien Vervaecke, Sylvere Maes and Jules Lowie
1904: Henri Cornet, Jean-Baptiste Dortignacq, Alois Catteau, Jean Dargassies and Julien Maitron
In 1956, Walkowiak was the rider who won the Tour thanks to a massive amount of time he gained through an innocuous looking breakaway, giving birth to the phrase ‘winning á la Walko’. For poor old Roger, a case could be made that he won the Tour with the least impressive top five in the history of the race. The most impressive previous Grand Tour result among them was a fourth place in the Vuelta for Bahamontes a couple of months previously.
Former Tour de France winners
This year saw three former Tour winners in the top five overall – Nibali, Froome and Contador. This has only happened twice before in Tour history. Unsurprisingly, they are two of the years already mentioned in the former Grand Tour wineer stat above – 1989 and 1952.
Riders who had never ridden the Tour de France before
In 2013, Nairo Quintana finished on the podium of the Tour having never taken part before. He was the first rider to do such a thing since Raimondas Rumsas in 2002. It is becoming more and more rare as years tick by for such a thing to occur as it appears that riders require a sort of apprenticeship period to work out how difficult it is to lift oneself into the top five of the Tour. Apart from the first edition, when nobody had ridden the race before, having four Tour newbies in the top five overall has only ever happened once.
1947 – Jean Robic, Eduoard Fachleitner, Pierre Brambilla, Aldo Roncini
Only previous runner-up René Vietto in fifth place saved the top five from having a clean sweep of Tour virgins. But this was perhaps as unsurprising as that first edition in 1903, becuase 1947 was the first time the Tour had been raced since the outbreak of the Second World War.
Never ridden a Grand Tour
It’s also becoming rarer for a rider to make their Grand Tour début in the Tour de France. Again an apprenticeship period seems prevalent where riders sample Grand Tour riding in one of the other races first before being introduced to the Tour. In the 1950s and 1960s the number of riders taking their Grand Tour bow at the Tour was typically in the 20s or 30s. This year, the number was nine. And the lowest ever was six in 2012.
The last rider to finish in the top five of the Tour de France while making his Grand Tour debut was the Dutch rider Peter Winnen in 1981.
Riders taking part in multiple Grand Tours in one year is normal these days. However it took a while to become the norm. It was only after the third of the Grand Tours, the Vuelta, was created in 1935 that riders had an option of three of these mighty races. And even then it was only in 1948 when cycling’s first season-long competition took place, the Challenge Desgranges-Colombo that riders would regularly tackle both the Giro and the Tour. The Vuelta was added to the list of races when the challenge morphed into the Super Prestige Pernod International. Consequently…
First rider to have ridden the Giro and finish in the top five of the Tour
Kurt Stopel in 1932
First rider to have won the Giro and finish in the top five of the Tour
Gino Bartali in 1938
First rider to have ridden the Vuelta and finish in the top five of the Tour
Leo Amberg in 1937
First rider to have won the Vuelta and finish in the top five of the Tour
Bernardo Ruiz in 1952
“If Quintana, Froome, Nibali and Contador all agree to ride all three Grand Tours, I’ll get Tinkoff Bank to put up €1 million. They can have €250,000 each as an extra incentive. I think it’s a good idea”
The words of Oleg Tinkov speaking recently to Cycling News as he once more offers to throw money at the sport of cycling for his own amusement.
Trying to win all three Grand Tours in the same year is seemingly impossible, but Tinkov seems to think that every rider has their price. With that notion, he might be right, €250,000 is a lot of money. Perhaps not worth as much to these multi-million euro contracted riders than to you or I, but a lot of money nonetheless.
The last time a prize of this sort was put on offer for riders with regard to three specific races was in America in the early nineties and it led to some nefarious shenanigans. In her recent book ‘Cycle of Lies: The Fall of Lance Armstrong’, Juliet Macur describes the details of the deal:
“In 1993, Armstrong chased a million-dollar bonus. The pharmacy Thrift Drug offered the prize to a rider who won three big American races – the Thrift Drug Classic in Pittsburgh, the Kmart Classic in West Virginia, and the USPRO national championship in Philadelphia.
“Armstrong, only 21, won the first race and surprised everyone. Five stages through the second race, he was among the favourites to win. So, with the possibility of a million dollar payout dangling in front of them, several riders on the Motorola team allegedly devised a plan to guarantee victory.
“They allegedly offered to pay some riders on the Coors Light team a flat fee of $50,000 to help Armstrong win the million dollar prize by not challenging him for the victory in the rest of the second race and the entire final race.
“If Armstrong won the million, both teams would benefit. Armstrong would receive the prize money – $600,000 taken in a lump sum – and would walk away with $200,000 while the balance would be distributed to his team and other cyclists who had helped him win. Each rider on Coors Light would be given $3,000 to $5,000.
“As long as America had no idea how it happened, Armstrong’s $1 million jackpot would also give cycling the positive publicity it needed to grow. It was a win-win all around”
Armstrong completed the hat-trick and so began his decades long career in skulduggery.
Admittedly, the Tinkov situation is slightly different in that the riders in question seemingly just need to take part to receive the bonus, not necessarily win. But given the history of cycling and the likelihood that ‘deals’ are still done at races, €250,000 is a lot of money to give a rider to potentially recruit help from other teams should they need it. And other teams will know that there is extra money there for negotiations.
There’s also the obvious moral dilemma of riders accepting money from a rival team owner. Would this have a conscious or even subconscious affect on how the quartet would race against each other?
But having said all that, ultimately this move from Tinkov is a load of public relations nonsense. A team manager offering to pay riders from other teams is against the UCI rules.
Getting various riders to take part in a race in exchange for money, seems like a fair definition of ‘work’ in the context of professional cycling. It could also be argued that should Froome, Quintana and Nibali take Tinkov up on his offer that they would also be providing advertising for another sponsor. Contador of course, is the exception to these stipulations as he is the only one contracted to Tinkov’s own team.
Riding and competing for the win in three Grand Tours seems impossible enough as it is. But under the terms of Tinkov’s deal, it’s against the rules of the sport and should not be allowed to happen.
1974 – The last time a rider won four road stages on his way to overall victory. This year, Nibali won four, but in 1974 Eddy Merckx actually won six. The Belgian also managed four road stage wins throughout his Tour victory in 1970. The only other riders who have achieved this feat since World War II are Luis Ocana (1973), Fausto Coppi (1952) and Gino Bartali (1948).
6 – The number of riders who have now won all three of the Grand Tours: Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a Espana. Nibali joins the elite group containing Jacques Anquetil, Felice Gimondi, Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Alberto Contador.
19 – The number of stages Nibali spent in yellow throughout this year’s race. This is the most amount of stages spent in yellow in a single Tour by any rider since Bernard Hinault who held the jersey for 20 stages in 1981.
1997 – The last time a French rider stood on the final podium of the Tour de France was Richard Virenque when he finished in between Jan Ullrich and Marco Pantani. Jean Christophe Peraud and Thibaut Pinot are the first French riders on the podium since then.
1984 – The last time two French riders appeared on the podium together was in 1984 when Bernard Hinault was taught a Tour de France lesson by a dominant Laurent Fignon.
1969 – The last time French riders occupied second and third place on the podium was when Roger Pingeon and Raymond Poulidor finished behind a rampant Eddy Merckx who was busy winning his first Tour de France.
37 – The age of Jean-Christophe Peraud, the oldest rider ever to achieve his first Tour de France podium finish. The previous record holder was Joaquim Agostinho who was 36 when he finished third in 1978.
32 – The number of years since there were two Tours de France in succession with no Spanish stage winner. The last Spanish rider to win a stage of the Tour was Alejandro Valverde at Peyragudes in 2012, a stage which was more famous for Chris Froome making a mockery of Bradley Wiggins’s leadership of Team Sky.
7 – The number of stages won by Germans, the most they have ever won in the Tour. Their previous best came in 1977 and 2013 where they won a total of six. The same three riders, Marcel Kittel, Andre Greipel and Tony Martin contributed the seven wins this year as won the six stages last year.
5 – The number of riders who won more than one stage in this year’s Tour – Marcel Kittel, Tony Martin, Vincenzo Nibali, Rafal Majka, Alexander Kristoff. The last time this number was bettered was in 1977 when Francesco Moser, Theo Smit, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Thevenet, Lucien van Impe and Rik van Linden all won multiple stages.
1925 – Marcel Kittel is the 11th rider to have won the first and final stage of the Tour de France. But he also achieved this feat last year. The only other rider who has topped and tailed the Tour with stage wins in consecutive years was Ottavio Bottecchia in 1924 and 1925 and unlike Kittel, the Italian also won both of those Tours.
10 – The number of riders who have won the Green Jersey of points classification winner without winning a stage of the Tour de France – Peter Sagan (2014), Thor Hushovd (2005), Erik Zabel (1998,1999), Sean Kelly (1983, 1985, 1989), Eddy Planckaert (1988), Eric Vanderaerden (1986), Herman Van SPringel (1973), Jean Gracyzk (1958), Jean Forestier (1957), Stan Ockers (1955).
149 – The winning margin achieved by Peter Sagan in the points competition. The record winning margin is 277 held by Sean Kelly over Bernard Hinault in 1982 (although these tallies are not directly comparable due to changes in the rules of the points competition).
7 – The number of stages in a row that Peter Sagan finished in the top five. The last rider to achieve this was Laurent Fignon in 1984.
58 – The number of stages that Peter Sagan has spent in the Green Jersey during his career. The only riders who have spent more time in Green are Erik Zabel (88) and Sean Kelly (67). But both Zabel and Kelly both took part in 14 Tours de France. Sagan has taken part in three.
“Frankly, there is no story to tell other than that Robert failed to engage, communicate or evidence any activity of any significance that led me to think he was suited to a formal professional coaching position. Competing and coaching in sport are two very different things, even though they clearly have many things in common. Professional coaching in a highly accountable publicly funded role is a task that requires very specific skill sets, attitudes and insights, that in my judgement Robert did not possess. There have been many things I did in my tenure at British Cycling that, on reflection, I regret or would have done differently. Letting Robert go was not one of them.”
In March 1997, more than a year and a half after he had ridden his last professional race, Britain’s best ever Tour de France cyclist Robert Millar was appointed as a coach for the British road cycling team. Not long afterward, money from the National Lottery began pouring it’s way into British Cycling as their quest for Olympic domination on the track began. Peter Keen, the man charged with leading the new conquest, wasted no time in unceremoniously getting rid of Millar from the setup.
In Richard Moore’s 2008 biography ‘In Search of Robert Millar’, he asks the elusive climber about this incident:
“I didn’t consider driving a car around cycle races three times a year a future for me…it wasn’t what I had to offer and I don’t find it particularly interesting, so when I was told quite clearly I wasn’t going to be part of this big World Class Performance Plan being put together by Peter Keen, the chapter was closed.
“So when I look back at it now what has changed at the British Cycling Federation?… it’s now called British Cycling aaaaaand that’s about it. The same people are back there in the same seats, going on the same trips with the same results, making the same plans with their same ideas of how things are done. You can’t change unless you want to.”
These days Millar keeps himself to himself but remains involved around the fringes of the sport by contributing columns to cyclingnews.com and Rouleur. His writing is always interesting as he provides the kind of honest insight that perhaps those a bit closer to the sport would be reluctant to commit to print. His columns are often witty, intelligent, pragmatic and devoid of a level of emotion which might cloud one’s ability to assess a situation in a sober fashion.
But that cannot be said of his most recent column where he shares his opinion on Bradley Wiggins’s announcement that he doesn’t expect to be part of Team Sky’s lineup for the Tour de France, which starts in Yorkshire in just over three weeks.
Millar’s usual pragmatism is lacking throughout the article. For example he says:
“Saying Wiggins isn’t good enough to merit a place at the Tour is tosh, saying he’s arrogant, disruptive and doesn’t fit in the team is tosh as well.”
He also makes a mistake when he attributes this announcement to Dave Brailsford rather than Wiggins, who took it upon himself to do several interviews with the BBC. It’s a subtle distinction but an important one given the context of the story and it’s a distinction which a less emotional Millar wouldn’t usually overlook in one of his columns.
But then, this column was never about Wiggins or Brailsford or Team Sky. This column was about Millar himself and the animosity he still harbours for British Cycling after his ejection from the setup 17 years ago.
It’s clear from Millar’s contributions to Moore’s book that he is bitter about that incident. He describes his attitude towards the British Cycling approach:
“There’s no creativity, it’s all numbers and figures, which is great in a fixed environment like track racing i.e. if you have this number of watts you’ll go this fast and we’ll know you can reach this level of competition. It’s like painting by numbers, fill in the boxes and you’ll complete the picture… wooohooooo isn’t that clever. Trouble is, road racing isn’t that controllable and if Picasso turned up for a job at the BCF paint school they’d tell him he was barking up the wrong tree. When I read about coaching tips and the like I get the impression that people involved in just about every aspect of training and racing in the UK have forgotten they are racing with other people.”
These words from Millar are from 2008, shortly before Team Sky was launched and the British began to stamp their authority all over the Tour de France. For Millar, he watched the organisation he was shunned from, do exactly what he said was impossible, win the Tour de France by numbers. Team Sky had, by and large, successfully transferred their approach to track cycling on to the road.
Now that Millar can no longer question the validity of the Team Sky approach, he has chosen instead to focus on personality. He says in his recent column:
“Chris Froome might be a better bike rider than Bradley Wiggins, he might be more considered in his interviews, never saying the wrong thing or swearing, but in terms of character it’s the politician versus the rock star. PR spiel or an actual opinion, now there’s an easy choice.”
This also is not about Wiggins, but about Millar himself. Millar has a quirky personality and during his racing career he was considered a bit of a curveball. He appreciates the fact that Wiggins is similar to him. They’re both moody, enigmatic and obscure, so Millar empathises with his plight. He boils down the Wiggins/Froome debate to respect:
“It’s pretty low to take that opportunity from him [riding the 2014 Tour de France]. The team can try to hide behind excuses and so-called reasoning but it shows a total lack of respect for what he has given to Team Sky.”
It was Millar’s personality which ultimately led to the lack of respect shown to him by British Cycling and he sees it happening again and he doesn’t like it.
Wiggins won the Tour de France in 2012 and has not ridden the race since. It’s conceivable that he will never ride the race again. A first time Tour winner never riding the race again has only happened twice in the history of the Tour (René Pottier 1906 and Roger Lapébie 1937).
Although Millar obviously never won the Tour, it’s worth noting that he was also not afforded the opportunity to ride the world’s biggest race one last time on his own terms. His last participation was in 1993 but he didn’t retire until two years later. In 1994, still part of the Dutch TVM team where he had been for a few years, he was injured in a Spanish stage race during the Spring and didn’t fully recover in time. The 1994 Tour visited Britain for the first time in 20 years and the only time during Millar’s career.
Twelve months later he was riding for Le Groupement, he had won the British road race for the first time and was all set to ride his final Tour de France. But the financiers behind the team were exposed as frauds and the team imploded the week before the race. Not only did Millar never ride the Tour again, he never rode another race.
Millar wrote in a previous column back in January of this year when talk had already begun of whether Froome and Wiggins would both be at the Tour:
“One thing is clear – no last Tour outing for Britain’s best-known cyclist would be a massive disappointment for Sky, for ASO, for Yorkshire, the cycling public and for the Sir Bradley Wiggins camp.”
With his latest column, Millar has inadvertently (or, perhaps, entirely deliberately) revealed to us his feelings towards Team Sky and British Cycling and just how disappointed he was during his own career that there was no last Tour outing for Britain’s best-known cyclist.
The Tour de France is like life. It’s not a game, or a series of games. It’s a two-thousand-mile, month-long odyssey that creates and breaks heroes, elevates some while diminishing others. There’s unspeakable triumph and heartbreak, not in fleeting moments but washing over you for sustained periods. There are disasters, and illnesses. Babies are born while racers speed simultaneously away from and toward home. Deep friendships develop. Rivalries, too. Bikes crash. So do cars. There are cheaters — and there always have been, though the methods have varied. The Tour de France is the only sporting event, someone once said, so long that you have to get your hair cut in the middle of it. This messiness and glory is what I think of when I say the Tour de France is like life itself. It was always where I had most desired and most sought to prove myself.
Needless to say, the Tour de France is hard and hard work wins it. It requires a lifetime of dedication, both mentally and physically. Quite apart from winning, it is undoubtedly one of the hardest events in the world to even finish. Naturally, since the event began in 1903, cheating has been a part of it. What was grabbing on to cars and hitching a ride on trains in the early 20th century is now drug trafficking, blood transfusions and bribery. There are not many Tour winners who have remained untainted by scandals since the race’s inception.
Carlos Sastre is one of the few Tour de France winners who was never directly implicated in a doping scandal. If we consider the Spaniard’s finishing positions from his first Tour in 2001 right up until he won it seven years later, we can see a gradual improvement year on year (apart from the obvious exception of 2005):
Sastre won the Tour after he had gained a wealth of experience in not winning the race. However, there are several riders who have won the Tour de France at their first attempt, although it has been 30 years since this massively impressive feat has been achieved. Laurent Fignon arrived at the Tour in 1983 as the precocious understudy of Bernard Hinault. But due to an injury to the Badger, the lack of form of Joop Zoetemelk (not helped by a positive dope test which resulted in a 10 minute time penalty) and the withdrawal of Fignon’s team-mate Pascal Simon while wearing the yellow jersey, at the very first attempt, the young Frenchman took the opportunity to win a Tour bereft of out-and-out favourites.
The list of riders who have won the Tour at the first attempt are a who’s who of cycling legends which include Hinault, Eddy Merckx, Felice Gimondi, Jacques Anquetil and Fausto Coppi. But this is the exception, the rule involves many years of gaining experience and coming close to winning the world’s hardest race before eventually tasting victory, just like Carlos Sastre and more recently, like Cadel Evans and Bradley Wiggins.
However, there are another set of exceptions to the rule of hard graft. These are the riders who had ridden the Tour before but never came close to victory and then suddenly rose to prominence to take their first Tour de France win. Since World War II, there have been six riders who have won the Tour de France having never before finished in the top 10.
The first of these was Ferdi Kubler who won the Tour in 1950. He had competed in the Tour twice before, in 1947 and 1949 where he had won a stage in each and worn the yellow jersey but had never before finished the race. The year before his victory, he sat in second place overall up until Stage 10 before Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali began their ding dong battle across the Alps which left the entire peloton in their wake.
After Kubler came Roger Walkowiak and Lucien Aimar, two Tour champions which are viewed by some as default winners. Walkowiak won in 1956 thanks largely to his presence in a breakaway early on in the race which saw him furtively gain a massive chunk of time over the main contenders.
In 1966, Aimar was the beneficiary of the rivalry between Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor. It became apparent early on in the race that five time winner Anquetil no longer had the ability to win himself. Consequently, he put all of his efforts into ensuring the victory of Aimar in order so that Poulidor would not win. It was Aimar’s first and only podium finish at a Grand Tour.
The fourth post-war rider to have won the Tour having never before finished in the top 10 is Luis Ocana. Before his victory in 1973, Ocana had only ever finished the Tour once, in 31st place (1970). On a further three occasions he abandoned the Tour, once because of bronchitis (1972) and twice because of horrific crashes (1969 and 1971). In 1971, Ocana was in the yellow jersey and 7’23” ahead of Merckx before his crash on Stage 14. The Spaniard had earned four podium places and one overall victory in his home Grand Tour before his Tour win in 1973.
Of the four riders mentioned thus far, two were surprise winners who were on the receiving end of some very fortuitous race tactics. The other two were strong riders who had shone in the battle for a Tour win before but had been the victims of untimely and costly accidents.
The remaining two riders who won the Tour having never before finished in the top 10 came much more from out of nowhere than any of the others. Neither had even been a team leader at the Tour before and neither had ever finished above 30th place.
The two riders are Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong.
The quote at the start of this article comes from Johan Bruyneel, once the directeur sportif of both Contador and Armstrong. He was the man in charge when both riders won their first Tours. That quote goes on to include the now detestable phrase ‘we might as well win’.
Bruyneel knew that hard work and hard work alone could not win the Tour de France. But he though he might as well win anyway. So he did.
A leader of a cycling team must have a strong personality, a will to win and the ability to get results. Some leaders are the quiet type that like to lead by example, think Carlos Sastre, while others are more vocal but still have no problem getting the job done, Mark Cavendish springs to mind. The leader who is vocal and yet can’t back up his words with performances will inevitably lose the trust of his team-mates and will shortly thereafter no longer deserve the status of leader at all.
‘Leadership and learning are indispensable to one another’ said a great U.S. leader of Irish descent. A current leader of more established Irish descent could have done with listening to these words of John F. Kennedy for he has now come to the end of the road as leader of his cycling team.
Nicolas Roche is a good cyclist who has the potential to win many races. But in the four years he has now spent with the French AG2R-La Mondiale team he has won only two of them, the Irish national road race championships in 2009 and a stage of the inaugural Tour of Beijing last year. As a rider who has unabating aspirations to reach the top 10 in the general classification of Grand Tours, you would also expect Roche to be a challenger in minor stage races but he is yet to win a stage race of any description since he turned professional.
His blinkered focus on attaining a top 10 of the Tour de France has blighted his career so far. He spends all year gaining fitness and honing his form for the Tour and when he gets there he seems to constantly hover around the G.C. places which make him too much of a risk for the other leaders to let into a breakaway and yet there are always 10 or more better riders than him preventing him from clinging on to a top 10 place overall.
But Roche’s decision to tie himself up in this situation is not due to naivety or a basic lack of knowledge of how stage races work. Roche knows these things and acknowledges them and yet he chooses to willingly enter stage race oblivion anyway. Writing in his daily Vuelta diary in the Irish Independent, he said the following:
Although my ultimate goal for the team is to win a stage, I don’t want to give up my high G.C. position to do so, even if it would make the task a bit easier. Some riders who ride big three-week Tours with the sole aim of winning a stage lose time on purpose on certain days, sparing their energy for an all-out assault on whatever stage they feel they have a chance to win. But I can’t do that.
I prefer to continue to ride hard for the overall classification and try to go for a stage at the same time. I realise the fact that I’m not too far down on the race leader means I won’t be given much rope, but that’s the way I won a stage in Beijing last year and I will try to do the same here.
Roche talks about leadership, he wants to maintain his high position and win a stage. Admirable sure, but over-ambitious? Almost certainly.
I tried to get across to the move a few times on the climb but every time I moved I was nailed by one of the Rabobank duo of Laurens ten Dam (eighth) or Robert Gesink (sixth), who were afraid I would gain enough time to overtake them in the overall standings.
When I saw that we had left a couple of guys, like fifth-placed Daniel Moreno, behind I tried to attack but, once again, the Rabobank guys chased me down so I resigned myself to just riding with them for the rest of the climb. That’s the difference between me and Contador. When I attack, Gesink is able to follow me. When Contador attacks nobody is able to follow him.
Leadership and learning may be indispensable to one another, but Roche the leader just isn’t learning. He knows why he’s not being afforded chances to win stages, he has explained why in a national newspaper. These are his own words but he is choosing not to learn from them.
Despite the fact that next year he will be part of a team which is led by multiple Grand Tour winner Alberto Contador, Roche announced on Irish radio recently that he still harbours hopes of a stage win in next year’s Tour de France while riding in tandem with the Spaniard to a high G.C. place.
Perhaps Roche is unaware of just how difficult that task actually is. Has he ever sat down and wondered how many other riders have been capable of winning a stage of the Tour de France while they occupy a spot in the top 10 overall? Does he realise what a monumental challenge this actually is?
Let’s rule out the opening week of the Tour, where the race hasn’t hit the mountains yet and the G.C hasn’t yet taken shape. Before the 2008 Tour, there were also time bonuses available which meant that sprinters like Mario Cipollini and Robbie McEwen often won stages while in the top 10 on G.C.
But ignoring these opening exchanges between the sprinters and getting to the hard grind of getting over mountains in the second and third week of the Tour – in the past ten years there are eight riders who have achieved this feat. All bar one of these eight riders have finished on the podium of a Grand Tour. The eight are – Andy Schleck, Joaquin Rodriguez, Alberto Contador, Frank Schleck, Carlos Sastre, Michael Rasmussen, Alexander Vinokourov, Lance Armstrong and Tyler Hamilton.
All of these riders, for one reason or another, were operating on another level to the one which Roche is on right now. The identities of these riders also show that stage winning opportunities for top 10 riders are not dished out easily and it takes exceptional climbing talent to pull it off. Nicolas Roche is not an exceptionally talented climber.
A major reason for Roche’s fixation on achieving a Tour de France top 10, and is also the main reason why he is also fixated on it at the Vuelta, is UCI World Tour points. These precious points go a long way towards guaranteeing your team the top Pro Team status for the following year.
The accumulation of points has been a constant battle for Roche’s AG2R-La Mondiale team for the past number of years. So much so that last year they signed a bunch of misfits from various countries who happened to have points which helped with their application for Pro Team status. It is a flaw in the system that points belong to the rider rather than the team. Thus, the team management bought points rather than earned them which, ironically enough, has perhaps contributed to a disjointed sqaud of riders which has made it even harder to earn points this year.
It seems unnecessary for Roche to be chasing points at the Vuelta given that he is moving to Saxo Bank-Tinkoff next year where Contador will likely be riding around as the new Vuelta champion along with all the points the team need. But not if the UCI have their way for they are attempting to apply a rule which stops riders returning from a ban from earning any points for two years thereafter. It remains to be seen whether this will be enforceable or not. In the meantime, Roche is desperatley hanging on to his 26 points which his 12th place at the Vuelta currently gives him.
He said this in his most recent Vuelta diary:
I’m 12th overall now and pretty p****d off. The only chance I have of breaking back into the top 10 is on the second last stage on Saturday, which finishes up the savagely steep climb to Bola de Mundo. Anything can happen but I’m two minutes and 11 seconds behind 10th-placed Intxausti now and that’s a lot.
It is a quirk of evolution that Roche is pissed off about being in 12th and not in 10th. Humans find pleasure and comfort in multiples of ten because we have ten fingers and ten toes. If Roche was a robot, he’d feel more at home sitting in 16th place overall.
The 10th place he is so focused on would earn him and his new team 38 UCI points. But why not focus on winning races like the Tour de Romandie or the Volta a Catalunya which would give him 100 points? Or, as the UCI have placed so much pressure on riders to gain points, why not focus on finishing fourth in the Tour of Poland instead? This would give him 40 points and would be equally as memorable as a 10th place at the Vuelta.
Either way, for the first time in three years, Roche will soon no longer be a leader. Maybe this is a good thing. He was dispensing with any learning to be gained from being a leader of his team. Perhaps now he will learn more and win more without the heavy burden which leadership bestows.