The Attraction of Uncertainty

By losing the race on the last day, Sevilla was following an established Vuelta tradition in which the outcome remains uncertain until the final day. It’s a pattern that distinguishes the Spanish race from the Tour de France, where the winner nearly always has a very clear, unassailable margin.

As is written by Adrian Bell and Lucy Fallon in the book Viva La Vuelta. The race referred to is the 2001 edition where Ángel Casero managed to overhaul the Colombian Óscar Sevilla in the final time trial to win the Vuelta without winning a stage and without ever wearing the leader’s jersey.

But what’s more interesting is the assertion that the outcome of the Vuelta is always more uncertain than its bigger Grand Tour brother, the Tour de France. It’s the kind of thing you read which sounds about right so you just accept as fact. But is it really the case?

Let’s consider the last 30 years. It seems like a nice round number and 1986 was the year of Greg LeMond’s first win – the beginning of the modern era of cycling.

The following graph shows the lead held by first place in the general classification over the rider sitting in second place in classification. Specifically, it displays what this lead was the morning before the final mountain stage of the race, when we would expect to see the final major G.C. shakeup. For posterity, also included is data from the Giro d’Italia.

Tour Giro Vuelta Lead Before FInal Mountain

With the red line representing the Vuelta and the yellow line representing the Tour, it’s clear from the graph that the Vuelta leader going into the final mountain stage of the race has less of an overall lead than his counterpart at the Tour. That is, the red line generally falls below the yellow line. The Giro, appears to fall somewhere between the two.

If we flatten the data a bit, the differences between the three races becomes even more clear. Of the last 30 years, let’s remove the five years in which there was the biggest lead and the five years in which there was the smallest lead, for each of the three races (the plot has filled in the removed years automatically simply for display purposes).

Screen Shot 2016-02-17 at 8.58.55 a.m.

This gives a better impression of the average lead a rider should expect to hold in each race before the final G.C. battle.

Additionally, the following table shows the average G.C. lead a rider can expect before the final mountain stage in each of the three races (data taken from the second plot):

Average G.C. Lead before final mountain stage

Grand Tour Lead
Tour 3'07"
Giro 1'58"
Vuelta 1'13"

So roughly speaking we can expect to see a three minute lead at the Tour, a two minute lead at the Giro and a one minute lead at the Vuelta. Is it a coincidence that this is also the order of importance that is placed on these races?

Regardless, it’s quite clear that Lucy Fallon and Adrian Bell are right, the Vuelta does appear to remain more uncertain than the Tour late into the race. So why is this?

We often hear that the Tour de France is much more controlled than the other two races. Teams are more organised and have much clearer goals for the duration of the race. G.C. focused teams usually have a single leader and are completely focused on delivering him to the highest position possible. All of the riders turning up for the Tour are fit and ready. Nobody turns up for the Tour half-baked or are there simply to use it as a preparation race (with the possible exception of Olympic years).

On the other hand, the startlist of the Vuelta can be a hodge-podge of talent. A combination of riders returning from injury, riders chasing contracts and riders preparing for the World Championships (albeit only since 1995 when the Vuelta was moved). It’s much more likely that a rider may misjudge their form in the Vuelta than in the Tour due to the unorthodox routes by which many riders arrive at the race. This can lead to riders seeming to be in supreme form for the first two weeks of the Vuelta before faltering in the final week which feeds into the notion of the outcome remaining uncertain.

The Vuelta is also used by riders as a Grand Tour finishing school. Riders go there in an attempt to prove to themselves and their team that they are capable of challenging (and perhaps winning) a three-week race before turning their attention to the big one in July. Riders such as Fabio Aru, Vincenzo Nibali and Alexander Vinokourov are all examples of this in recent years.

The Tour is different. If a team thinks they have a rider who can win the Tour, then the focus is on the Tour. Even if the rider also rides the Vuelta, it’s a secondary priority. Chris Froome is a prime case in point. He is the best G.C rider in the world right now and will be the favourite to win the Tour de France again this year. However, he has ridden the Vuelta four out of the past five years, has finished in the top four on three occasions but he has never won it. He has never quite been as fit as he can be at the Spanish race simply because of the French one.

The fact that the cream of the crop will always be at the Tour de France but will only sometimes be at the Vuelta is borne out in the winning dynasties we see at the Tour but which never happen at the Vuelta. Of the 30 years illustrated in the graph, for the Tour de France, in exactly half of those years the race was won by Greg LeMond, Miguel Indurain or Lance Armstrong, none of whom rode the Vuelta between their first Tour win and their last. This means that the dominant rider of a generation will spend his peak years attempting to dominate the Tour de France. Depending on just how dominant that rider is can lead to more controlled racing and bigger time gaps.

So if you decide that your favourite Grand Tour actually isn’t the Tour de France but is in fact the Vuelta (or indeed the Giro), don’t kid yourself that it’s because you’re a hipster cycling fan. It’s more likely that it’s simply because there are smaller time gaps and therefore more suspense.

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