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.

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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.

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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.

Forget the Pretenders, The Giro d’Italia will be Froome Versus Dumoulin

The Giro d’Italia starts tomorrow and a pu pu platter of contenders will line in an attempt to take home the Maglia Rosa at the end of the 3-week race. Despite the plethora of talented up-and-comers, the 3-week long race will likely come down to a duel between Tom Dumoulin and Chris Froome.

Dumoulin will be the only former winner to start, while Froome and Fabio Aru are the only other riders in the race with grand tour wins to their names. There is a sea of young pretenders like Miguel Ángel López, Esteban Chaves, Simon Yates, and Thibaut Pinot, that will attempt to finally close the gap from also-rans to champions, but to win a Grand Tour, it helps to have already won one, along with an ability to post a good time trial.

The race only features 43km of time trials, but recent grand tours have seen an inverse relationship between the amount of TT kilometers and how decisive those kilometers are to the final result. Dumoulin and Froome are the only two riders in the field that can climb with the best while putting serious time into the competition the time trial.

Aru has a grand tour win, but he has struggled to find the consistency that propelled him to that 2015 Vuelta a Espana win. He has shown flashes of brilliance, best exemplified by his performance on stage 5 of the 2017 Tour de France. Aru rode away from feared SkyTrain like they were standing still and went on to win the stage and take the overall lead.

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These sublime performances are tempered by the fact that you never quite know what you are going to get from the Sardinian. He could ride away for an impressive mountain stage victory constantly or crack to lose significant time. This lack of consistency and his weakness in the time trial make it difficult to imagine Aru wearing the Maglia Rosa in Rome.

Thibaut Pinot looked fantastic at the recent Tour of the Alps, but the Frenchman is infamous for his erratic performances. He is in the rare club of riders who can climb with the best and put in a solid time trial and I would love to see Pinot break through and take a Giro win, but I certainly wouldn’t put any money on it happening.

Miguel Ángel López is being touted as a contender. He is a fantastic rider who appears to be riding an upswing of form, but as is the rule in modern grand tours, the fewer number of overall TT kilometers means the importance of those kilometers is magnified. The 2018 Giro will be decided by the gaps seen in the time trials on stage 1 and 16, and Lopez doesn’t have the ability to hang with the contenders in the race against the clock.

With gaps in climbing stages getting slimmer, the time trials are likely to decide the fight for the GC. This means Froome and Dumoulin have to be considered the top two favorites since they are simply at another level against the clock. Even though Froome’s powers appear to be waning and he hasn’t displayed great form so far in 2018, his first win in 2017 didn’t come until the final day of the Tour de France, when he took the overall victory. However, he is a year older, his form hasn’t had the same sparkle as in pre-Tour 2017, and he has been forced to put an immense amount of energy into the defense of his Adverse Analytical Finding. His lack of form and ongoing legal battle makes it difficult to imagine him winning a third consecutive grand tour.

Even taking the above into account, Froome still has to be considered a safer bet than anyone not named Tom Dumoulin.

Dumoulin rode to an emphatic victory in the 2017 Giro despite spotting his competition over two minutes due to an ill-timed bathroom break during the most decisive stage. His win appeared to be the coronation of a future star, but his buildup to the 2018 Giro has been a disaster, which saw the Dutchman struggle to finish the majority of his early-season races for a plethora of reasons. However, his impressive 15th place at the recent Liège – Bastogne – Liège showed his form could be coming around just in time for the Grande Partenza in Jeruselum.

With Dumoulin throwing verbal jabs at Froome in the days leading up to the start, the 2018 Giro is shaping up to be a fantastic showdown between riders at opposing ends of their careers.

Can Bob Jungels Win the Tour de France?

Bob Jungels transformed from a star of the future to simply a star on Sunday with his win at Liège–Bastogne–Liège. Winning one of cycling’s monument is a huge achievement that could be considered a crowning achievement for almost any rider. However, Jungels has the talent and skill to be one of the preeminent riders of his generation. If he really wants to utilize his immense toolset, he should turn his focus to winning grand tours, and the big question everyone should be asking is if Jungels has what to takes to win the biggest grand tour of them all, the Tour de France.

Winning the one-day race with the most elevation gain should be a bellwether for ground tour success. However, there isn’t a direct correlation between winning Liege and winning either the Giro d’Italia or the Tour de France in the same year. Since 1980, no rider has won Liege and the Tour in the same season, and only three riders have won Liege and the Giro (1980-Bernard Hinault/1994-Eugeni Berzin/2007-Danilo Di Luca).

Jungels has won the best young rider classification and finished in the top ten overall at the Giro d’Italia the past two years. This is an impressive feat and puts him in good company.

Here is a list of the best young rider classification winners from the past eight editions of the Giro and Tour.

Best Young Rider Giro d’Italia
2010 Richie Porte
2011 Roman Kreuziger
2012 Rigoberto Urán
2013 Carlos Betancur
2014 Nairo Quintana
2015 Fabio Aru
2016 Bob Jungels
2017 Bob Jungels

Best Young Rider Tour de France
2010 Andy Schleck
2011 Pierre Rolland
2012 Tejay van Garderen
2013 Nairo Quintana
2014 Thibaut Pinot
2015 Nairo Quintana
2016 Adam Yates
2017 Simon Yates

Only Schleck and Quintana are the riders on this list to go on to win grand tour’s overall. Rigoberto Uran scored a second place overall at the Tour de France in 2017, and the Yates twins, Pinot and Aru could potentially score an overall win in the years to come.

There is also one major difference between Jungels and every rider on this list, the ability to crank out a world-class time trial. Due to the decreasing number of TT kilometers in grand tours, the TT has paradoxically become more important.

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With the trend of diminishing overall TT kilometers, most grand tours are coming down to the small separation between riders during these efforts.  This trend sets up a rider like Jungels perfectly. He displayed his skill in the race of truth at last year’s Giro d’Italia by finished top ten in both TTs.

We’ve seen Froome challengers like Quintana able to match him the mountains, only to hemorrhage time in the TT. If the young star can avoid bad luck and serious injury, he will certainly emerge as a significant force in the Tour for years to come, which sets up a likely rivalry with a rider of similar skill, Tom Dumoulin. Taking this speculation even further, Jungels could use his proven classics skills to navigate through the cobblestone-riddled stages in northern France to put himself in position to surprise the favorites at this year’s edition of the race. Even if he falls short in the 2018 edition, keep your eyes on the Luxembourger in the years to come.

It’s Time For Team Sky to Worry About Chris Froome

Chris Froome wound up to unleash a trademark attack on the final slopes at the Tour of the Alps. This was not a surprise, this is business as usual for the Briton. It’s what he does, he crushes the souls of his competitors in the final uphill kilometers of stage races. However, what has stood out at the Tour of the Alps is that his attacks have dropped almost no one, and have appeared to hurt Froome more than his competitors.

While we’ve seen Froome start his season slower and slower with every passing year, it’s unusual for him to look this vulnerable two weeks from a major target. It could be time to ask if we are watching Chris Froome age out of his grand tour dominance. Sky needs to seriously consider hedging this risk and putting plans in place to line up a viable plan B.

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After today’s botched attack at Tour of the Alps, Froome pulled off the front to examine the carnage, only to see a group of five, led by Thibault Pinot, not only still with him, but launching counter-attacks (it really doesn’t get any worse than being unable to drop Pinot).

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Froome clearly hasn’t been able to find the form that propelled him to four Tour de France victories this season. With his first big goal of the year, the Giro d’Italia, only two weeks away, it’s a very real possibility that he shows up to a grand tour only to get his butt kicked by a wave of young, hungry Froome-stoppers.

We could be watching Froome fall off the cliff that has befallen every great champion before him. It’s always shocking to see a champion lose their top end. It happens faster than anyone can imagine. Everyone looks unbeatable until they aren’t.

While it’s difficult to imagine the controversy around his adverse analytical finding from last year’s Vuelta and a looming suspension isn’t affecting his performance, Froome’s increasing age is likely to cause a greater threat to his performance than a looming legal case.

If Froome does go on to find his old form and win either the Giro d’Italia or Tour de France, he would have to beat some steep odds. Only 3 riders have won the Tour de France at the age of 33 or older in the past 38 editions. While Froome is one of the best grand tour riders we’ve ever seen, shucking off the realities of biology to win another grand tour is a tall order.

Team Sky needs to seriously look at these odds and reconsider deploying 100% of their resources to exclusively back Froome. We could be in for a summer of watching Froome experience a few unprecedented bobbles, and they would be wise to take a look at their deep bench of domestiques to create a solid succession plan.

Causation or Correlation: Does Rider Height Matter at Paris-Roubaix?

Now that we find ourselves firmly in cycling’s “holy week” (defined as the start of the Tour of Flanders and the finish of Paris-Roubaix), it is time to take stock of the usual contenders and see who has the best chance of winning Paris-Roubaix this Sunday.

Predicting Paris-Roubaix is always difficult. While the strongest rider almost always wins Flanders, Roubaix has the unique ability to serve up wildcard winners like Johan Vansummeren in 2011 and Matt Hayman in 2016. While this can make predictions difficult, there is a common thread through most Roubaix winners. They are almost all over 6-feet (1.83 meters) in height.

Since 1999, 14 editions of Roubaix (73%) have been won by a rider over 6-feet tall, with only 2 winners under 5 feet 11 inches. Compare this to the Tour of Flanders, which, in the same timeframe, has seen 11 editions won by riders over 6-feet tall, with 6 editions being won by riders under 5”11. 

The difference is even starker when we pull out this comparison to every Monument. Milan-Sanremo has only seen 4 editions won by a rider over 6-feet since 1999, Liege-Bastogne-Liege 3, and the Tour of Lombardy with only 2 (note: these 2 editions were won by the same riders, Phillipe Gilbert).

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(These numbers are obviously nuanced and complicated due to factors like repeat winners and potentially inaccurate rider height data and should be taken with a grain of salt.)

A factor for taller riders triumphing at Roubaix is that it features the least amount of climbing of any major race, and taller riders tend to be heavier than shorter riders.

This extra weight not only makes it difficult to get up and over climbing-heavy courses but also helps when dealing with the constant punishment dished out by the cobblestone roads. A slightly-built rider like Michał Kwiatkowski is always going to have difficulty managing the rough, 6+ hour ride over the Napoleonic roads of Roubaix.

However, if weight was the only factor, one would think there would be heavy riders under 6-feet winning the Queen of the Classics.

This leads me to wonder if there something about Paris-Roubaix that actually rewards taller riders.

Let’s take a look at a list of the lead contenders for Sunday listed in order of height.

Niki Terpstra-6”3
Sep Vanmarcke-6″3
Wout Van Aert -6”2
Jasper Stuyven-6”1
Zdenek Stybar-6”0
Philippe Gilbert-6”0
Gianni Moscon-6”0
Peter Sagan-6”0
Oliver Naesen-6″0
Alexander Kristoff-5”11
Arnaud Demare -5”11
Greg Van Avermaet-5”11
Edvald Boasson Hagen-5″11
John Degenkolb-5″11

Now let’s look at the list listed in order of their odds according to Sky Bets.

Peter Sagan-11/4
Greg Van Avermaet-7/1
Niki Terpstra-7/1
Philippe Gilbert-9/1
Sep Vanmarcke-9/1
Zdenek Stybar-12/1
John Degenkolb-14/1
Arnaud Demare-18/1
Wout Van Aert-18/1
Alexander Kristoff-20/1
Edvald Boasson Hagen-22/1
Jasper Stuyven-22/1
Gianni Moscon-25/1
Oliver Naesen-25/1

It is possible rider height matters at Roubaix. It is also possible this is simply a crackpot theory. But judging from recent history, if you are in interested in picking possible winners, the smart money should go with a rider measuring 6-feet or above.

What Happened to Peter Sagan at Flanders?

Peter Sagan’s 6th place on Sunday at the Tour of Flanders would have been a career-defining result for most riders. However, Sagan isn’t most riders and with every passing spring, the triple World Champion is letting chances to win coveted Classics and cement his legacy slip through his fingers.

While the Slovak has looked a bit off his best over the past few weeks, he still bagged an impressive 8th place at Strade Bianche, 6th at Milan-Sanremo, and a win at Gent-Wevelgem. Most importantly, he seemed to be floating up the steep bergs and breathing through his nose through the decisive moments of Flanders.

Following Greg Van Avermaet’s brutal attack on the Taaienberg with 39 kilometers to go, Sagan’s Bora team put their last remaining domestique, Daniel Oss, on the front to reel in a dangerous attack by Zdenek Stybar, Gianni Moscon, and Jürgen Roelandts. Once they attack was managed, Bora opted to Oss there to keep the pace high to deter attacks from the Quick-Step team, which still had four riders remaining in the group.

However, as soon as Oss was distanced on the Kruisberg 10 kilometers later, the situation quickly began to deteriorate for Sagan. He covered a promising move containing Michal Kwiatkowski, Vincenzo Nibali, and Stybar. This move soon faced a stalemate as each star was unwilling to work for the others, and they were quickly reeled in by the chasing group. In the ensuing lull, Nibali attacked while the favorites were caught literally starring at each other. Sagan calmly watches the Italian fly by, but in retrospect, he most likely let his train to victory leave the station.

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As long as Sagan remained in the group, he was going to be forced to chase down every attack from Quick-Step team. But if he could have gotten up the road and capitalized on the break in pace, he would have been able to let the race come to him when Terpstra launched his winning move.

The main problem with this hypothetical scenario is that there is absolutely no way Terpstra would have worked with Sagan once they were up the road. Remember, Sagan and Terpstra have a sordid history when it comes to sharing the workload in a group. Terpstra proved at the 2017 Gent-Wevelgem that he isn’t afraid of tanking a race out of spite (finally proving that spite is indeed a valid reason).

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This would have forced Sagan to either pull Terpstra into the final two climbs and attempt to dispatch him there or sit up to let the group reel them in. This would have forced him to respond to endless Quick-Step attacks until they inevitably caught him out.

Once Terpstra got away, Sagan’s group was never going to have the horsepower to reel the Dutchman in. Quick-Step was able to strategical roll through and slow down the bunch, and for most of the riders, a podium position at Flanders has the potential to add significant value to their career by way of bonus and additional zeros on future contracts.

To his credit, Sagan recognized this and surged clear at the top of the Paterberg with 13 kilometers remaining. Sagan hit the descent with 30 seconds to close on Terpstra. Peak Sagan could have closed down this gap without breaking a sweat. But, it soon became apparent that Sagan simply didn’t have the form that allowed him to hold off a chasing Fabian Cancellara and Sep Vanmarcke in 2016.

For reference, check out Sagan’s metronomic, “on-form,” pedal stroke as he holds off the chasers on his way to winning the 2016 edition solo.

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Compare that with his herky-jerky, never-seems-to-be-comfortable style on display during his attempted solo pursuit of Terpstra on that same run-in to the finish in 2018.

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Racing slightly off his top-form, lacking serious team support, and facing a Quick-Step group with numbers, Sagan was up against steep odds no matter what we did at Flanders. The answer to what happened can likely be answered with his extremely high salary limiting the quality of his teammates, along with his suspect training schedule over the past few months.