Saturday’s Climb to Mende Could Reveal Team Sky’s True Leader

Heading into stage 14 at the 2018 Tour de France, Team Sky is facing an old-fashioned leadership crisis. Chris Froome, looking for a record-tying fifth Tour title, is trailing his teammate Geraint Thoms by 1:39, and has the formidable cheekbones of Tom Dumoulin lurking a mere 11-seconds back. Most viewers are looking ahead to the brutal Pyrenees to decide Sky’s leader once and for all, but few are looking at the stages through the Massif Central, especially Saturday’s steep final pitch in Mende.

The three-kilometer climb comes right before the finish, averages a 10 percent gradient and will see the peloton hit the climb relatively fresh after a slow-rolling the first 2/3rds of the stage. It will offer no chance for the overall contenders to hide, and everyone’s form will be laid bare for the world to see. Potential gaps won’t be large, but they could be a bellwether for things to come in the higher mountains.

While Thomas and Sky are publically saying Froome is still the leader, Thomas has put time into Froome everytime the road has titled skywards and Thomas has just won consecutive mountain stages, the latest being atop the legendary Alpe D’Huez while wearing the Yellow Jersey. Only three riders have ever won consecutive mountaintop-finishes, and nobody has ever won on the Alpe in the leader’s jersey.  We can’t rule out a catastrophic third-week collapse, or a spat of bad luck,  but the chances are not looking good for Froome’s chances after such a dominant display in the mountains by Thomas.

When the Tour visited a carbon copy of tomorrow’s finish back in 2015, Steve Cummings schooled Romain Bardet and Thibault Pinot to win the stage from the break, but back in the GC group, Chris Froome marked the early moves on the steep pitches, and then proceeded to shred the overall favorites on the flat final few hundred meters.

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If Thomas gets frisky and drops his rivals while Froome struggles behind, we could see Sky make a subtle tactical shift before the race heads into the final week. But if Froome can put on a display similar to 2015, it could be the initial rumblings that a comeback could be brewing. However, if they finish on the same time, we will have to wait for the Pyrenees to chose their leader for them.

Tour de France Notebook: GC-Only Standings and First Week Winners/Losers

With the first “week” of the Tour de France over, we can look back and see who won, and lost, the opening stages and how that sets up the upcoming decisive Alpine and Pyrenean stages.

Below is the weighted overall standings. When we take out current race leader Greg van Avermaet [edit: Wow, I was very wrong. Really impressive ride to hold yellow, watch out for GVA at the lumpy world’s course in Innsbruck], and third place Phillippe Gilbert, Geraint Thomas is in “virtual yellow,” and young Bob Jungels is right behind him in second place. Behind them, the menacing presence of Valverde and Fuglsang stick out. Despite his bad luck on the first day, Chris Froome comes out ahead of almost all of his main rivals.

Let’s take a moment to run down the winners and losers of the first nine stages based off the GC-only standings.

1 Geraint Thomas 0:00:00
2 Bob Jungels 0:00:07
3 Alejandro Valverde 0:00:48
4 Rafał Majka 0:00:49
5 Jakob Fuglsang 0:00:50
6 Christopher Froome 0:00:59
7 Adam Yates 0:00:59
8 Mikel Landa 0:00:59
10 Vincenzo Nibali 0:01:05
11 Primoz Roglic 0:01:14
12 Bauke Mollema 0:01:15
13 Tom Dumoulin 0:01:20
14 Steven Kruijswijk 0:01:23
15 Romain Bardet 0:01:49
16 Warren Barguil 0:01:54
17 Ilnur Zakarin 0:01:59
19 Domenico Pozzovivo 0:02:05
20 Nairo Quintana 0:02:07
21 Rigoberto Uran 0:02:10
22 Daniel Martin 0:02:39

The Winners

Geraint Thomas hasn’t put a foot wrong so far in the Tour, and baring a mishap, will likely be in the actual yellow jersey at the end of stage 10. Scoring a yellow jersey on a mountain stage in the Tour de France would be a massive achievement for the Welshman. However, the implications of Thomas taking yellow could be somewhat disruptive to the Sky team.

When Alberto Contador took yellow on stage 15 of the 2009 Tour de France, even Lance Armstrong, who famously hated the Spaniard, wouldn’t attack his teammate. Instead of going on the offensive, he was forced to wait for his teammate to crack, but the chance never came. Thomas and Froome have an infinitely better relationship than Armstrong and Contador, and Froome will have no responsibility to wait if Thomas has an issue in the mountains, but things could get interesting if Thomas doesn’t crack. With rumblings of Froome making preparations for the run at a Vuelta a Espana title in August, Thomas certainly feels slighted. He was promised GC leadership at the Giro before Froome announced his intention to ride the race. After Froome decided to race the Giro, Thomas changed his focus to the Tour with an eye on leading the Team at the Vuelta. Now that Froome is potentially calling Thomas off once again, tensions could start to bubble up between the two riders.

Another name that sticks out on that list is Alejandro Valverde. When Movistar announced their tri-leader strategy, he was considered the least likely rider to actually contend for the win. However, he has emerged from the first third of the Tour with nearly a minute and a half over Nairo Quintana, and ten seconds over Mikel Landa. While Landa would normally be tipped over Valverde in the high mountains, he appeared to crash incredibly hard on stage 9, and one has to wonder how that is going to affect him over the next few days of racing.

Other big winners are Bob Jungels, who some tipped as a dark horse contender for this race. He hasn’t proven an ability to hang in the high mountains, but it will be interesting to see how he performs.  Jakob Fuglsang and Adam Yates are both sitting well less than a minute back. Both are superb climbers who have been able to quietly head into the Alps within touching distance of the lead. We haven’t heard, or seen much, of Vincenzo Nibali, which is exactly what the Italian wants. Outside of a lackluster TTT, he has avoided any major time losses, and when he is on form, can put time into the best in the mountains. Watch out for the shark of Messina to strike as the race enters the twisting roads of the high mountains.

Chris Froome is fresh off a tough Giro d’Italia win, crashed twice in the first week, and has a teammate threatening to take the race lead, but the four-time champion is less than a minute off the lead and sits ahead of many of his main contenders in the GC standings. The Briton doesn’t even need to attack to win the race at the point. He can hold steady knowing he can put time into nearly every contender in the final 31-kilometer time trial.

The Losers

While Tom Dumoulin is only 80 seconds off the lead and sits on equal time with other favorites, the big Dutchman is going to have his work cut out for him in the mountains after losing over a minute on the final kilometers of stage 6. He is a good climber, but likely won’t be able to advance his GC position until the final time trial. He’ll chew into the leads of the other GC contenders on stage 20, but ultimately, he will rue the 1:20 he shipped on the Mur.

Romain Bardet needed to take advantage of the punchy climb of Mûr de Bretagne and stage 10’s cobbles, but instead, he sits nearly two minutes behind Geraint Thomas. On top of that, he lost two teammates in the first nine days. In the past, Bardet is a grinder who chips away time here and there, not one that takes giant cuts out of leads with long-range attacks. He needed to have a perfect opening to the Tour. Instead, he’s dug a whole.

The two Colombians riding for victory, Nairo Quintana and Rigoberto Uran, both have the ability to climb with the best, but their 2+ minute deficits will likely prove too much to overcome. If either Quintana or Uran is on top climbing form, it will certainly be thrilling to watch them try to dig themselves out.

A Fit and Lucky Geraint Thomas Is Turning into Froome’s Biggest Rival

With six days in the can at the 2018 Tour de France, Team Sky is sitting at the top of the list of overall contenders. They have a rider three seconds behind Greg Van Avermaet, who has been kind enough to keep their Yellow Jersey warm for the race’s opening week. This scenario is par for the course for the British squad and barely merits a mention in a first week Tour de France piece. However, there is a major wrinkle in the plan this year. The leader sitting in pole position with sparkling form is former Sky domestique, Geraint Thomas, while the four-time Tour de France champion Chris Froome sits close to a minute down in 14th overall.

While we saw Thomas ahead of Froome during the Tour’s first week last year, it was by a mere twelve seconds, and the moment the road tipped skyward, Thomas stumbled and ceded the overall lead to Froome. But as of stage 6 in 2018, Thomas hasn’t put a foot wrong and currently sits second overall, a full minute (technically 59 seconds) ahead of Froome. Most importantly, he outperformed the former champion on the first big climbing test. The stage 6 finish on the slopes of the Mur-de-Bretagne saw Thomas finish five seconds in front of Froome. The eye-test revealed an even bigger gulf in form than the final results let on. Thomas looked incredibly strong and appeared to even be a legitimate contender for the stage, while Froome dangled off the back. The Welshman looked appears to be on the form of his life, while Froome appeared fatigued from his recent Giro d’Italia victory.

While the climb is much shorter and more explosive than the high alpine slopes where the race will be decided, the Mur has proven to be a reliable bellwether of climbing performance later in the race. In the Mur’s past two appearances, the eventual race winner has been present in the front group of finishers. Froome’s absence in the lead group could be a sign of things to come later in the race.

The gulf between the two riders even has the potential to widen before the Tour hits its first real mountain stage when the peloton hits the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix during Stage 9 on Sunday. Thomas was once a legitimate classics contender, and while he has slimmed down and lost raw power since those days, he still posses deft bike handling and an ability to read the treacherous cobblestones. It stands to reason that Thomas will be able to pull out even more time over the more traditional GC contenders who have little-to-no experience on the brutal cobblestones. While anything could happen on Sunday’s stage, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Thomas head into the first rest day with a sizeable advantage. This scenario would wreak havoc on Sky’s team dynamics and Froome’s ability to mount a long-range attack similar to his coupe on stage 19 of the Giro d’Italia. A lot was made of Movistar’s decision to bring three leaders to the 2018 edition, but not enough attention was paid to the leadership tussle that was set up when Sky designated Froome and Thomas co-leaders.

This co-leadership situation raises a number of complications and theoretical questions. For example, what if Froome had suffered misfortune like Tom Dumoulin and Romain Bardet at the base of stage 6’s finishing climb? What would the team have done? Would Thomas feel compelled, or be forced, to sit up and wait for his teammate, or would Sky be true to their “co-leader” word and let Thomas ride away from a four-time champion while he waited for a wheel change?

Many have been saying Froome comes into form later in grand tour’s and the early setup is nothing to worry about. There is only one issue with this argument, it isn’t true. While he came back with a stunning late-race comeback in the 2018 Giro, he traditionally pulls out his winning margins in the first 10 days of a race.

In 2016, 2015, and 2013, Froome took a significant chunk of his winning margin in the first 10 stages. In 2013, Froome took 40% of his winning margin to Quintana on the first mountaintop finish of Ax 3 Domaines, on Stage 8. In 2015, at La Pierre-Saint-Martin, Froome took 88% of his eventual winning margin to Quintana on Stage 10.

2016 deviated slightly from this template. Froome won the first mountain stage into Luchon, a shocking downhill victory, netting 23 seconds. This gap was only roughly 9% of his winning margin and the first big gaps had to wait until individual time trial on Stage 13. In 2017, he used the steep slopes of La Planche des Belles Filles on stage 5, and a slight time bonus on stage 9 to carve out an 18-second lead by the stage 10 mark, which turned out to be 33% of his final margin.

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While Thomas is obviously a massively talented cyclist with a mind-boggling set of skills, and looked on incredible form at June’s Dauphine Libere, he has an abysmal track record in three-week grand tours. He’s never stood on a podium at a grand tour, and his biggest result on the road is the overall win at the aforementioned Dauphine Libere. It is incredibly risky to suppress Froome’s chances of pulling back time in the name of backing an unproven Thomas for victory. Even if Froome has free reign to ride his own race in the mountains, he certainly won’t have access to the team’s vast firepower to wind up a long-range attack like we witnessed at the Giro.

The co-leadership situation with Thomas, at one point an abstract way to repay a loyal teammate for years of service, is starting to look like a major liability to Froome’s potential, and record-tying, fifth Tour de France title. It is too early to draw any definitive conclusions, but Sky could have a legitimate leadership controversy by the time the race heads into the Pyrénées during the third week.

The Case For Movistar’s Multi-Leader Tour de France Lineup

Movistar’s recently released Tour de France lineup was notable for including nearly equal parts team leaders to domestique. Mikel Landa, Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde all head to the race with GC ambitions, along with budding stage-race star Marc Soler. With the UCI cutting teams from nine to eight riders, this three-pronged attack is even more top heavy than previous triple leader teams we’ve seen in the past, like T-Mobile in 2005.

This strategy stands in stark contrast to team BMC, who has one clear leader in Richie Porte, and Team Sky, who has a clear hierarchy with Chris Froome as the team’s undisputed leader. The use of this strategy raises the age-old question of if it is better to back one rider at a three-week race or diversify your strategy by backing multiple leaders.

The unusual three-leader setup has caused more than a few raised eyebrows and skepticism from those who have seen this setup fail endless time before. History is littered with failed attempts at the “multi-pronged” Grand Tour leader approach. The downside of this decisions was most famously exemplified in the 1986 Tour de France when La Vie Claire teammates Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond openly fought for team leadership from one another. The T-Mobile team in 2005 went to the Tour de France with three leaders, Alexander Vinokourov, 2004 Tour de France runner-up Andreas Kloden, and 1997 Tour de France winner Jan Ullrich. This three-leader setup saw the three fail to work together in any way, and possibly even hurt each other chances, making the team lesser than the parts of its whole.

Of course, let’s not forget the 2009 Astana team, which featured dueling leaders of Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong. Any chance of a positive relationship between two riders was doomed from the start. Like Sybill Trelawney’s prophecy, “neither can live while the other survives… ” the two generation-defining talents could never co-exist. They were meeting each other at opposite ends of their careers and Armstrong could never come to terms with the existence of a newer, faster rider that subconsciously reminded the champion of his fleeting mortality. The Astana team was bitterly divided from the start, with Contador actively undermined team orders in-race, while Armstrong and Team Manager Johan Bruyneel played mind-games with the Spaniard off the bike, going as far as leaving their “leader” stranded following a mountaintop finish. Contador was physically on a higher plane of existence during the three-weeks, and took the overall win in Paris with a healthy time buffer, but had the race been closer, the divided team could easily have cost Astana the race win.

These examples are burned into the minds of team directors everywhere, but even taking personality clashes out of the equation, there is certainly merit to the argument that taking multiple leaders to a Grand Tour diminishes the chances of overall success for individual riders on the team. A truly cohesive team will have 7 (formerly 8) members riding in full support of a sole leader, but for every extra leader added to the start list, a domestique is taken away, with the remaining helpers divided among the leaders. A team of 8 riders featuring two leaders is left with 6 total workers, with each leader getting 3 domestiques if the team sees its loyalty split down the middle, a la Astana in the 2009 edition. While this leaves split teams at a firepower disadvantage and keeps them from consolidating team power to accomplish a singular objective, the main reason for its failure is that teams taking multiple leaders to Grand Tours usually just simply aren’t as good. A true favorite is most likely able to convince a team manager to put all of their chips behind them, while B and C level favorites are more likely to share leadership duties. This pollutes the sample and makes it difficult to know if multiple leaders actually increase a team’s chances of success.

On the flip side, there are three big reasons for spreading out risk by taking multiple leaders to the 2018 Tour de France. The first week of the Tour de France often sees an absurd number of crashes, which can leave a team leaderless before the race for overall victory even begins. Team Sky, which traditionally religiously sticks to the lone-leader template, suffered this fate at the 2011 Tour when Bradley Wiggins crashed out on stage 7. It should be noted that Sky has bent their strict “one-leader” rule in recent years. Geraint Thomas was sitting second overall when he crashed out fo the 2017 Tour, and heads into the 2018 race as a self-described co-leader for the British squad.

The second main reason is that having multiple riders placed high in overall standings put rival teams in difficult position late in the race. This is best exemplified by Carlos Sastre riding away from a peloton busy marking his CSC teammates Frank and Andy Schleck on stage 17 of the 2008 Tour. This hesitation by conflicted riders allowed the Spaniard the requisite elbow room to ride away with the overall victory. Movistar’s tri-leader lineup certainly allows for this possbility late in the 2018 Tour if they can finally figure out how to capitalize on their superior numbers. If they can’t convince one of their leaders to lay it all on the line, their numerical advantage could be wasted as we’ve seen in years past.

The third reason a multi-leader strategy could work is the collection of unique stages in the 2018 route that could be lethal to a rider’s overall ambitions. The opening week of the Tour de France is always hectic, but this year, that hectic week is capped by a stage 9 that sees the peloton traverse the brutal cobblestones of northern France.

Screenshot 2018-07-05 at 7.51.54 PM

Having a few “spare” leaders during this stage could end up being the difference between winning the overall and having your team’s ambitions ruined before you even get a glimpse of the Alps. In addition to the brutal stage 9, the uber-short 65-kilometer stage 17, with 43 of those precious Ks spent climbing, will codify team hierarchies in a truly egalitarian fashion.

Screenshot 2018-07-05 at 7.51.47 PM

Outside of the risk of an untimely mechanical, teammates will be rendered all but useless on the short, frantic stage, and each individual rider’s form will be laid bare for all to see.  No artificial team structures will protect a GC pretender, the cream will rise to the top over the super-sonic 65 kilometers.

Taking these three reasons into account, Movistar’s Tour de France selection starts to look less like a fan’s fantasy squad, and more like a deliberate strategic decision.

 

Giro Notebok: What Happened to EF-Drapac’s Climbers, Dumoulin’s Mistake and Where Does Simon Yates Go From Here?

The 2018 Giro d’Italia featured one of the most dramatic comebacks, and meltdowns, in modern cycling history. After a slow-burn GC picture over the first two weeks, the race exploded on the 19th stage, with Chris Froome attacking solo from 80 kilometers out to win the stage and take the race lead after being all but written off as a potential winner. This historic comeback (we won’t get into the believability of the performance or the ethics of Froome’s participation at this time) capped off an already thrilling race that leaves me with a few burning questions.

I’m sure I was the only person thinking “what the hell happened to EF Education First-Drapac’s lineup of supposed up and coming climbers” during the most thrilling GC comeback in the modern history of the sport. But seriously, what happened? The “American” team came into the race touting a collection of potential stage (and even possibly overall) winners with Joe Dombrowski, Hugh Carthy, and Michael Woods, only to go home empty-handed on all fronts.

Dombrowski signed with Team Sky in 2013 and was hailed as the next great American climber. He turned in a few promising climbing performances at the 2016 Giro d’Italia but has failed to show the same form since. He is often cited as a young rider and given quite a bit of leeway for his sub-par performances, but he is 27, which is two years older than Simon Yates and the same age as 2017 Giro winner Tom Dumoulin. With an incredibly narrow set up skills, time is running out for Drombrowski to show himself a viable grand tour stage winner.

Carthy is still a legitimate young rider at the age of 23. While he got into a few long-range breakaways on mountains stages, these moves seemed oddly timed and slightly desperate. A pure-bred climber like himself should be tucked in the group when the GC contenders are certainly going to pull the early breakaway back and race all-out for the stage win. Carthy also has a concerning trend of coming into races below an optimal performance weight. He would most likely be better off putting on a few kilograms to produce a little bit more power and strengthen his immune system.

Woods came into the Giro touted as an outside contender for the overall win and probable stage winner. He came close to a stage win on stage 4, but that proved to be the high water mark of his race. His EF team displayed odd tactics by burning significant energy to launch him 70km from the finish line (Sky must have been taking notes). That move obviously didn’t work and Woods was dropped soon after he was caught 30km later and the team was left with nothing to show for their huge energy expenditure. I can’t help but feel there was a better use of Woods’ talents than using the entire team to launch a doomed-to-fail desperation move. A high GC finish seemed to be in the cards early on, but an illness in the final week tanked his overall standing. Woods came into the Giro looking extremely skinny, which paid off on the steep uphill finishes, but likely contributed to his late-race illness.

Speaking of long-range attacks, what was Tom Dumoulin thinking when Froome attacked from 80km out? He certainly thought it would be impossible for a single rider to stay away for the rest of the stage, but he picked the absolute worst composition of riders to attempt to chase back to Froome with.

Froome attacked with 80km left in the stage and quickly established a large, but manageable gap.

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By the time he crested the summit of the Finestre 7km later, he had a lead of 37 seconds over a group of chasers that included Dumoulin, Thibaut Pinot, Miguel Angel Lopez and Richard Carapaz.

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When Froome hit the bottom of the descent 20km later, his lead was at 1:23. Pulling out close to a minute on Dumoulin during this descent would prove to be the difference that would eventually allow him to win the overall.

How did Dumoulin, a rider with immense descending skills, let Froome get so much? His first grave mistake was sitting up to wait for Pinot when he was suffered a mechanical on the Finestre. Distancing Pinot over the top of the climb would have incentivized Lopez and Carapaz to work with Dumoulin in an attempt to push Pinot off the podium. His second mistake was waiting for Pinot’s teammate, Sebastien Reichenbach on the descent. Reichenbach added valuable horsepower to the group, but the time it cost to wait for him on the descent likely cost Dumoulin a second Giro title.

Simon Yates rode an incredible 18 stages, only to stumble and lose the race in fantastic fashion on the 19th stage. He exhibited a stunning meltdown on the race’s penultimate mountain stage and ended up losing 38 minutes by the end of the stage. The Briton wasn’t able to recover the following day and was relegated to the groupetto the following day. His collapsed mirrored that of his teammate, Esteban Chaves, who lost 25 minutes on stage 10, a transition stage that only featured mild climbs. Both of these stunning meltdowns were written off the Mitchelton-Scott team as “bad days,” but neither Chaves or Yates was able to recover and couldn’t hold pace on the climbs for the rest of the race. These weren’t mere stumbles, but extremely concerning trends that raise questions about their abilities to compete for wins in three-week races in the future.

Dumoulin cracked on stage 20 of the 2015 Vuelta a Espana, and fell out of the overall lead with one day left to race. He was able to recover from the late-race collapse by going on to win the 2017 Giro d’Italia.  However, there are major differences between Dumoulin’s bumble and Yates’ epic loss. Dumoulin only lost 3:52 to eventual winner Fabio Aru and went on to finish 6th place overall. This stands in stark difference to the historical fumble that befell Yates. His Mitchelton-Scott team is saying all the rights things to the press, but it will be interesting to see how much they hedge their chances during the Briton’s GC campaigns going forward. Another big talent, Richie Porte, suffered from the same type of inconsistency in grand tours and was never able to string together a successful campaign. With the new reduced team sizes, teams won’t have the luxury of taking chances on unproven entities year after year, which raises the stakes for the mid-race bobbles.

 

Can Simon Yates Win the Giro? It Depends on His Ability to Limit His Losses In The Time Trial.

Simon Yates heads into the second week of the Giro d’Italia with a 38-second lead over 2017 champion Tom Dumoulin. While Yates currently has the pleasure of wearing the Maglia Rosa of the race leader, if he wants to be crowned the overall winner in Rome on stage 21, he needs to race every mountain stage as if he had time to make up. The looming 34.2km individual time trial on stage 16 rips down the Adige valley in the Dolomites and will serve as an opportunity for Dumoulin to pull back significant time. We all know that Dumoulin will get time back on Yates, but the million dollar question is exactly how much time Yates will concede. If he can survive the barrage from the big time trial specialist, he will likely emerge victorious at the end of the three-weeks.

Triangulating an accurate estimate is difficult, because like two ships passing in the night, Yates and Dumoulin haven’t met head-to-head in many individual time trials. A cursory glance will show us that since 2015, they have faced off on six occasions, with Dumoulin taking an average of 2.68 seconds per kilometer out of Yates. However, this sample is somewhat tainted by the time trial from at 2018 Abu Dhabi Tour, where Dumoulin suffered a mechanical and was forced to change bikes mid-race. If we take this race out of our sample, Dumoulin has taken 2.89 seconds per kilometer out of Yates.

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When we extrapolate this average per-kilometer difference out to 34.2km, the distance of the final time trial at the 2018 Giro, Yates stands to lose 92-seconds in the race against the clock. Keep in mind that none of these previous meetings feature a course longer than 18km, and the longer, straighter and flatter the course, the more time per kilometer the stronger time trialist will be able to take.

Yates has seen mild improvement in his time trialing ability in recent seasons and managed to limit his loses in the opening time trial of the 2018 Giro d’Italia to 2.06 seconds. This course featured technical corners and downhill sections, so it isn’t a one-to-one comparison to the wide-open course the race will see on stage 16. But, if we use the most recent data we have and stick to the 2.06-second difference from the opening stage, Yates could feasibly limit his losses to 70-seconds.

Yates has said that Dumoulin could easily take two to three minutes out of him, and while that statement feels when you first hear it, the limited numbers we access have to don’t back it up. If Yates can limit his losses to between one and two minutes, he certainly has a legitimate chance of winning the overall if he can continue to take precious seconds on the remaining uphill finishes. Even if he losses 90 seconds to Dumoulin in the TT, he is likely to take time from Dumoulin on the brutally steep Monte Zoncolan, and stages 15, 19, 20 all feature multiple climbs leading into an uphill finish, which present great opportunities for Yates to slip away and put time into the big Dutchman.

Of course, Dumoulin was in a similar position during last year’s Giro, and most expected the time trial specialist to lose serious time to the climbers once the race hit the mountains. Instead, he stuck with the best climbers and even put time into them on the Oropa summit finish on his way to a definitive victory. Lurking outsiders like Thibaut Pinot and Domenico Pozzovivo can’t be ruled out, but the final week appears to be on track for a Dumoulin/Yates head-on-head collision. Part 2 of this piece will attempt to estimate how much time Yates stands to take from Dumoulin the Giro’s mountainous final week and if the Dutchman has a chance of holding on to the jersey if he ends up taking it back on the stage 16 time trial.

Chris Froome’s Deficit Is a Really Big Deal

Chris Froome lost 37-seconds to Tom Dumoulin in the opening time trial of the 2018 Giro d’Italia on Friday. Conventional wisdom tells us this is no big deal.

“There is plenty of time for Froome to make up this margin. The race is 21 stages long, and we still have the mountains! It’s way too early to count anybody out! Anything can happen!”

However, after taking a deeper look at trends from the recent past, conventional wisdom proves to be incredibly wrong, and this time loss seems much more significant than appears at first glance.

Citing the fact that we are three stages into a 21-stage race is a bit misleading. Time gained or lost on the first stage is equally significant to time gained or lost in the first week. I’m of the belief that both fans and teams tend to overvalue potential time gaps in the third week of a grand tour, while greatly undervaluing the chances to gain time in the first week. A second on day one is equal to a second on day 21.

Since 2015, five out of nine grand tours have been decided by less than a minute. In last year’s Giro d’Italia, a gap of 40 seconds separated the entire podium. While casual observers assume that even though margins are tight in the opening stages and we’ll see major gaps open up in the mountains, these stages rarely serve up the time gaps they would expect.

Below is a graph showing the winning margin in every grand tour since 2015. A quick glance will tell you that 40-seconds is a significant margin of separation.

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If Froome’s loses this year’s Giro d’Italia by his current deficit, it wouldn’t be the first time a recent grand tour was decided by an opening time trial. The 2016 Tour de France opened and closed with the opening time trial in Dusseldorf. Eventual second-place finisher Rigoberto Uran ceded 51 seconds to Froome over the 14-kilometer course. After three weeks and 21 stages of racing, the Colombian rolled into Paris 51 seconds behind Froome.

Furthering the seriousness of this time gap is that the Giro organizers dialed back the number of traditional climbing stages in the Dolomites and placed a greater significance on the time trials in an attempt to court Froome and Dumoulin. The irony of this is that a course tailor-made for Froome could end up being his undoing.  We’ve seen he hasn’t been on the same level as Dumoulin in the race against the clock since the Dutchman absolutely crushed him at the 2016 World Time Trial championships.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but in a three-week grand tour, every second counts. The spontaneity and ample time gaps that so many fans expect simply aren’t that common, and the opening time trial is proving to be just as, if not more, important than a 7-hour, 6 categorized climb, queen mountain stage. Whatever happens, don’t be surprised if the top two places in the Giro ride into Rome in three weeks with less than a minute between them.