Tour de France 2009: Pyrenees are over  //  Tour bores its way over the mountains

12 Jul 2009 Posted by

The Pyrenees, mercifully, are over. I suspect one would have to go a long way back to find a Tour where the Pyrenees have been so inconsequential to the overall race. The days where the main contenders attacked one another to gain time in the Pyrenees are a distant memory, because the 2009 Tour trundled over some legendary climbs today in what resembled a transit-leg, rather than a bike race.

The long and short of it is that Rinaldo Nocentini holds onto the yellow jersey, 6 seconds ahead of Alberto Contador, with Lance Armstrong two seconds further back. A great deal of buzz was generated by Contador’s attack on the slopes of Arcalis on Friday, the move which saw him jump Armstrong into role of Astana’s team leader (in terms of time, anyway). Some chat rooms are filled with those who say Armstrong would have dominated the climb had it not been for team orders. Others are writing that he would not have kept up with Contador’s acceleration even if he did try to.

It’s difficult to pin down an objective opinion. Having read many of the articles, I will say that this one, from the Times, is the best piece written about the mountains so far. Well worth a read.

It makes the excellent point that Armstrong was quick to point out that Contador’s move was not “to the plan”, and how in his role as a team player, his “obligation is to the team”, which is why he didn’t respond. As valid as that may be, it’s brought into focus by a comparison with what happened on stage 3 of the race, when Contador missed the split in the peloton. On this occasion, rather than show the obligation to the team leader who was losing time, it was Armstrong who sent team-mates to the front and himself drove the pace. Presumably “to the plan” is entirely contextual…

A similar opinion from the always excellent summary provided by Cycling Fans Anonymous site, which sums up the details of the days in the Pyrenees better than I would care to.

But, a very brief look at the Tourmalet climb today, and some numbers to put into context just how neutralized it was…

The ‘non-event’ of the Tourmalet

The Col du Tourmalet is one of the most famed climbs in cycling. At the top, a statue of Jacques Goddard (Tour director 1936 to 1987) welcomes riders to what is the highest road in the central Pyrenees. It has been climbed 47 times, and I dare say it has rarely been relegated to such an inconsequential role as it was by its placement in the stage today, so slow was the pace of the main field up its slopes.

Col du Tourmalet. Photo by Flickr user Soumei Baba (muneaki)
Col du Tourmalet. Photo by Flickr user Soumei Baba (muneaki)

The slowest ascent in years

How slow was the Tour today? Well, back in 1994, the peloton rode the final 12.6km of the Tourmalet in 46:00. For a man weighing about 78kg (including bike and other equipment), that corresponds to a power output of approximately 350W.

That stage in 1994 also featured the fastest climb ever of the Tourmalet to that point, by Marco Pantani. His time? 39:50, a power output of approximately 400W (normalized to 78kg total weight). In 2003, Jan Ullrich recorded the fastest ever ascent, 38:43, which is amazing considering his size compared to Pantani’s, and also that Pantani, in 1994 when he set the previous record, was pretty much breaking all records in that Tour – he set the records up Alp d’Huez and Mont Ventoux in that tour (the Alp d’Huez record was broken by him the following year, the Ventoux one still stands!)

Jump to 2009: The peloton took 54:09 to reach the summit, though this time is measured from a different point and therefore measures the bottom slopes as well. Extrapolating is difficult, because the latter half is quite a bit steeper, but it’s about 9 minutes longer, which means that the 2009 group rode the climb some 7 minutes slower than the record, and more in line with what the main peloton rides it. That it contained all the elite men of the Tour is a sign of the “truce” that existed today. Also, the break-away group was in fact FASTER than the main peloton, which is almost unheard of on the final climb of the day in a mountain stage, which tells you just how “shut down” the race was at the front. In terms of power outputs, this year’s average is approximately 20% down on that of Pantani 15 years ago and Ullrich in 2003.

Note that this is a correction on the earlier post, thanks to the feedback from a commenter who pointed out the discrepancy in lengths between the climbs, which I initially missed

Now, many will point to this as an indication that doping is under control – we got a few emails and comments suggesting that after I pointed out how slow the Arcalis climb was the other day. That certainly may be part of it, and I’ve got some data from the history of the Tour to look at that particular question in some more detail. But that’s for next week…

I don’t think you can infer much from the climb today, because the peloton was completely disinterested in racing up the climb, it was a ‘truce’ day.

In fact, I would hazard a guess that this must be the slowest ascent of the Tourmalet in many, many years. Sadly, I don’t have other numbers, so I don’t know how fast Armstrong and Ullrich climbed it in 2003, or what the climbing time was in 2001 – if anyone has this, please let me know.

The stage profile, race route and eliminating the spectacle

However, it makes the point that this year the Tourmalet was neutralized, and the race was denied a real contest, thanks to the fact that there was an extra-ordinary 70km to go to the finish once the summit had been reached.

This, plus the fact that the Tour still has three Alpine stages (which are also pretty non-descript, it has to be said), one individual time-trial, and the climb up Mont Ventoux, meant that no serious riding was done, which is a great shame.

Not that I am blaming the riders, of course, I don’t wish this to be criticism of their efforts. From the time this route was announced, this stage (and yesterday’s) was always going to be controlled affairs. The Tour organizers take responsibility for that. As for Friday, which was an anti-climax of note, that was the result of the dull Astana tactics, helped along by a team time-trial which has all but eliminated four or five riders from being factors in this Tour.

Of course, the intention of the race organizers in creating this route was almost certainly to ensure that we will have a host of riders in close contact by the time the race hits Mont Ventoux. The “spectacle” of the yellow jersey on the line on the second last day was always the intention. I suspect that will fail anyway because of Astana’s dominance and the team time-trial, which means the Tour has, from the point of view of excitement, dropped a notch this year.

And sadly, the desire for that spectacle has meant that the Pyrenees have hardly been a spectacle at all.

Next on the agenda

The race now enjoys a rest day, then a few flat stages where the focus will again be on breakaway riders, the sprinter’s green jersey and maybe some time for more scientific posts about the typical Tour rider.

Join us then!

This post is part of the following threads: Tour de France Analysis, Tour de France timeline – ongoing stories on this site. View the thread timelines for more context on this post.

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