Time for Tour to reconsider time bonuses

Sean Lee Columnist

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    Alberto Contador leading out Cadel Evans. AP Photo/Christophe Ena

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    While 2012 will be remembered as the year Bradley Wiggins became the first British cyclist to win the Tour de France, it will also be remembered as a year of rebirth for the Vuelta a Espana.

    For the first time in recent memory, the Vuelta has outshone its Italian and French counterparts. The Tour de France remains cycling’s flagship race, and rightly so, but this year’s edition lacked the excitement and drama that a Grand Tour should demand of its riders.

    Not so the Vuelta.

    With a well thought-out parcours consisting of short stages, hill top finishes and time bonuses, the Vuelta has put on a show worth staying up late for and Tour organisers would do well to take note.

    Watching Joaquin Rodriguez and Alberto Contador duelling it out on the vicious slopes of Cuitunigru at the end of stage 16 brought back memories of Andy Schleck and Contador having a similar battle on the Col du Tourmalet at the 2010 Tour.

    On that occasion, Schleck and Contador were by far the strongest climbers in the race, and had soon burnt off all the pretenders to find themselves alone for much of the climb.

    Schleck’s lean and gangly body was perfectly conditioned and he looked strong and dangerous every time he rose from the saddle. Contador’s form was perhaps the lesser of the two, but he danced on the pedals in his distinctive style and was the Luxembourger’s equal as they pushed through the mist that was shrouding the summit.

    It was a fascinating climb, but it soon became obvious that neither rider would be able to drop the other. Maybe it was more a case of neither rider wanting to risk blowing up by pushing into the red in a bid to gain an advantage but, either way, it was a disappointing end to what had been a great stage.

    Contador was content to follow Schleck to the finish and the two riders passed over the line together with no further hostility. They, of course, both recorded the same time. Imagine though, that time bonuses had been on offer.

    Would the ending have been so anti-climatic then? No way. Only eight seconds separated the two on general classification and we would have seen a fight to the death to secure the stage win, not the gentle love-in that eventually transpired. With margins in Grand Tours trending towards the minuscule, every second counts.

    Contrast the finish of that stage to the Vuelta’s Cuitunigru battle. Rodriguez and Contador belted each other senseless as the road pitched upwards of 20 per cent. They had long since dropped Chris Froome, and Alejandro Valverde, although still lurking nearby, had been suitably gapped.

    The stage win wasn’t at stake, that honour had already been taken by Dario Cataldo, but his effort, and that of Thomas de Dendt who came second, was overshadowed by the war being fought out behind them for third. Of course there was more than just a podium spot on offer, there were the last precious seconds of a much sought-after time bonus.

    Would Rodriguez and Contador have fought so fiercely if those seconds weren’t up for grabs? Or, having already disposed of Froome and Valverde, would they have been content to ease up a fraction knowing that they would receive the same time if they crossed the line within a bike length of each other?

    I have never been a fan of time bonuses, preferring to see the leader board reflect the actual time taken to ride each stage, but I can’t argue with how exciting the fight to the line can be when extra time is at stake. This year’s Vuelta has produced memorable stages and dynamic racing, and the time bonus has been one of the contributing factors.

    Valverde pipping Rodriguez on the line at the end of stage three, Valverde and Rodriguez swamping Contador at the end of stage eight and Rodriguez’s efforts to claim third ahead of Contador on stage 16 are just three examples of time bonuses adding just a little more spice to the day’s conclusion.

    Even Contador’s brilliant, race-stealing ride on stage 17 was partially inspired by time bonuses. The Spaniard made his move just before the intermediate sprint to claim the small bonus on offer there, before dancing his way to victory.

    It is refreshing to sit back and watch the heads of state scrap and claw for every inch of road rather than be content to sit back in the pack and cross the line, safe in the knowledge they will receive the same time as everyone else.

    Maybe it’s time for the Tour de France organisers to reconsider their stance on time bonuses. It wouldn’t have blunted the might of Team Sky this year, but it could add to the intrigue of Tours still to come.

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    The Crowd Says (13)

    • September 7th 2012 @ 8:39am
      Moses said | September 7th 2012 @ 8:39am | ! Report

      The problem is the crashes in the opening week. If this year’s crashes were bad, with time bonuses and the yellow jersey up for grabs they’d be much worse. Crashes are less of an issue in the Vuelta where there are fewer sprinters and fewer cowboys looking for their moment in the sun.

      • Columnist

        September 7th 2012 @ 9:28am
        Sean Lee said | September 7th 2012 @ 9:28am | ! Report

        I understand where you are coming from Moses, but there are always crashes in the opening week anyway. Time bonuses are less important to the sprinters because they are never a threat for the general classification and they are chasing stage wins and sprint points anyway (otherwise they wouldn’t be there!).

        • September 7th 2012 @ 10:37am
          Moses said | September 7th 2012 @ 10:37am | ! Report

          But you’re adding more riders into the mix, making crashes worse. At this year’s TDF, RadioShack would have had to be at the front of every sprint finish to protect Cancellara; without bonuses they could have sat back a bit.

          In any case time bonuses wouldn’t have changed a thing about the TDF. After the first ITT Wiggins already had a comfortable lead; time bonuses here and there would have only marginally eaten into that lead. The problem with this year’s TDF (if you accept there was one, which I don’t) was the long and early ITT.

          • Columnist

            September 7th 2012 @ 12:40pm
            Sean Lee said | September 7th 2012 @ 12:40pm | ! Report

            With regards to your first point – do we really want riders to sit back knowing that they don’t have to fight for a placing? And were there really any more crashes when the Tour did have time bonuses?

            I agree with your second point. Time bonuses wouldn’t have changed the result of this year’s Tour which I noted in the very last paragraph of the article.

            I just think it could be time for the Tour to think about trying them again. We might have to agree to disagree on this one Moses. I do enjoy your comments however and it is obvious you are passionate about the sport. Enjoy the rest of the Vuelta.

    • September 7th 2012 @ 10:26am
      Ridley said | September 7th 2012 @ 10:26am | ! Report

      Vuelta has been epic this year, Giro was great too. TdF was a procession by comparison.

    • September 7th 2012 @ 1:34pm
      sittingbison said | September 7th 2012 @ 1:34pm | ! Report

      There should not be intermediate time bonuses, but yes there should be final bonuses. Re-emphasise the importance of winning or placing in each stage. And there should be a single long ITT, not the pathetic excuse in the Veulta, and not two long ITTs like in the Tour. And the ITT should be stage 19 like in previous years, not early. This years parcours was a travesty.

      BTW Sean perhaps not a great example using Contador and Schleck in 2010. Contador got DQd and disgraced for doping, bringing the sport to its knees.

      • Columnist

        September 7th 2012 @ 3:32pm
        Sean Lee said | September 7th 2012 @ 3:32pm | ! Report

        DQd or not, Contador did not fight that stage out to the end and he would have if time bonuses were on offer. Agree with everything else you suggest.

    • September 7th 2012 @ 4:17pm
      Rhys said | September 7th 2012 @ 4:17pm | ! Report

      In previous years I’ve not been able to see much of the Giro or Vuelta live, but thanks to having Eurosport this year I’ve seen the three grand tours. I agree Sean, there was something lacking in the mountain top finishes at this year’s TdF, not that there were many. The flat stages are always going to be duked out between the sprinters and/or whether a breakaway move can hold out the peleton. But this years Vuelta has been compelling viewing, with all of the main contenders punching and counter punching to asert dominance, and the time bonuses have clearly played a part. I’d like to see the TdF try them again, at least in selected stages, to add some more spice to the mix.

      • Columnist

        September 7th 2012 @ 4:57pm
        Sean Lee said | September 7th 2012 @ 4:57pm | ! Report

        Eurosport is my favourite channel! Time bonuses on selected stages – that’s an interesting idea. I think it would have to be all stages or none, but worth considering.

    • September 8th 2012 @ 12:09am
      Russ said | September 8th 2012 @ 12:09am | ! Report

      I’m no fan of time bonuses and I’m not sure they really added much to this vuelta. In some ways they may even have hurt Rodriguez, because, once he cleared the time trial, he was content to hold Contador’s wheel up the steep slopes and jump away at the finish. Without time bonuses maybe he would have attacked earlier and harder on the slopes? That said, I’m not opposed either. I think there are limits to how much race organisers can do, and the same change can sometime add to the spectacle and sometimes make it boring.

      One suggestion I’d add to the above discussion on crashes would be to separate the point where stage finishes, and the timing finishes. Effectively the tour does this anyway, when it ignores time lost after crashes in the final few kilometres. What I’d suggest is extending it. Make the point where the clock stops at the top of a climb (or the bottom of a descent) 10-15km from the finish, and the finish for stage honours in a town. The sprint-trains could follow the GC contenders past the timing point, knowing that they’ll generally have time to set themselves up, without the GC riders trying to stay up the front; breakaways can hope to gain seconds (or minutes) if the leader isn’t willing to chase early, and those little 5 and 10 second gains that have marked the Giro and Vuelta will be available on a lot more stages without removing the sprint finishes.

    • Columnist

      September 8th 2012 @ 1:14am
      Felix Lowe said | September 8th 2012 @ 1:14am | ! Report

      Nice piece, Sean. I would welcome time bonuses in the Tour. The thing is, time bonuses are meaningless if they aren’t backed up with the right kind of route. They have worked so well in the Vuelta because the race has pretty much been a battle for GC on two thirds of all stages. The Tour still contains so many meaningless stages, which would render the bonuses irrelevant. That said, I have high hopes for the 2013 Tour: it’s the 100th edition and so should visit some iconic climbs and – we can only hope – boast more than three miserly summit finishes. What made the Giro and Vuelta so great was a fight between two or more rival riders right to the end – and that was brought about because of the demanding parcours. The 2012 Tour route could well have been designed in the Team Sky head office – there was only ever going to be one winner.

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