Surprises (UPDATED)

The first week of the 2011 Tour de France has been full of nothing so much as surprises. From Alberto Contador’s time loss to the other favorites to the fact that Tom Danielson is the best-placed rider on Garmin-Cervelo to just how long teammate and sprinter Thor Hushovd actually held on to the race leader’s maillot jaune, the week can best be described as something we wouldn’t have guessed.

There’s been loads of talk and hand-wringing about the incredible number of crashes at this year’s Tour. It’s impossible to quantify each crash and the injuries suffered and compare them and their severity to previous years, but we do have the advantage of one truly objective measure: DNFs.

I spent a little while this afternoon (in between trips to the bathroom—I’ve been sick enough to be short on creative energy) [UPDATE: Apparently I was sick enough that I didn’t stop to consider the number of starters in between said trips. I’ve overhauled my analysis based on a reconsideration. This is what you get when a blogger ought to be confined to the couch and the remote. Sorry.] checking previous editions of the Tour for abandons and DNSs. In the last ten years (I’m going to confine this analysis to a jury of peers), by stage 9, the average number of abandons was 13.9. The Tour has suffered 18 abandons this year, tied for the second highest (2007 also had 18 abandons) in the last 10 years. That said, 2003 was a very rough year, with 26 abandons; three of those were riders with GC  hopes: Joseba Beloki, Andreas Klöden and Levi Leipheimer. The reason for the high number of abandons that year had less to do with crashes than the fact that the race already had two brutal days in the mountains.

This analysis does suffer a bit of a wrinkle. Most of these years began with a prologue, the upshot being stage 9 fell on the day following the first rest day. Rather than stick with the actual number of days raced, I chose to go with the number of stages because it results in a truer equivalence of days raced in the peloton. Bottom line: The perception that there are a lot of abandons, more than usual.

Have the crashes been worse? It’s hard to make a case for that, with the exception of the way Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky) and Johnny Hoogerland (Vacansoleil-DCM) were taken out by the car from French network 23. It was a piece of driving I’d have expected from some rookie hailing from a cycling backwater, such as Morocco, not from the network of record for le Tour. It’s tantamount to a 168-year-old newspaper getting shut down for hacking into cell phones and deleting voicemails of murder victims. Nevermind. Some stuff you just don’t do.

I told the TV, “I didn’t just see that.”

Where were we? Oh yeah, those numerous crashes.

Only four of the pre-race favorites are out: Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana), Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto), Chris Horner (Radio Shack) and Bradley Wiggins (Sky). All things considered, it could be worse. I’m going to go out on a short limb and assert that of these four riders VDB was the only one with any real shot at the podium. Wiggins had zero shot. Zero. The only Criterium du Dauphiné winners who go onto the podium at the Tour de France are previous Tour winners. It’s happened four times in the last 20 years and their names were Miguel Indurain and Lance Armstrong—two apiece. Alberto Contador has yet to do it. At best, statistically speaking, Wiggins had a shot at fourth.

What of the abandon of Tom Boonen? It’s unfortunate, to be sure, but a complete non-event. Boonen was riding anonymously as his 50th place overall in the points competition indicates. KOM leader Hoogerland had more than double the number of sprint points Boonen collected.

Crashes are an inevitable, if unfortunate, reality of professional racing. That the peloton slowed to let favorites rejoin following one of the crashes during stage 9 was, I thought, an act of pure class. No one wants to see a competitor beaten at the Tour due to sheer bad luck. At Paris-Roubaix? Sure; that race is all about how the dice rolls, but the Tour is meant to be a test of a racer’s mettle, not his ability to dodge crashes for three weeks.

What’s seems most surprising is how Contador has thus far turned in Lance Armstrong’s 2010 performance. It’s hard to make a case that his head is fully in the game to this point in the race. Yes, he’s been there on occasion, which is better than we can really say of Armstrong’s performance last year. That descent into forgettability was a comedic re-take of Eddy Merckx’ 1977 ride to sixth place at le Grand Boucle, a failure people have often said tarnished Merckx’ legacy. And we know Armstrong didn’t get anything like sixth.

Contador lies in 16th place overall and with more than 1:30 to make up on Cadel Evans, Frank Schleck and brother Andy Schleck. It’s a tall order, and while history shows that Contador won the 2009 Tour by 4:11, he didn’t do it with a Giro win in his legs. There is reason to think that this year’s performance may bear more in common with last year’s performance given that A) Contador lacked some of his famous acceleration last year following his second place at the Critérium du Dauphiné and B) has yet to dump anyone on a climb this year.

My money is on someone named Schleck. It’s a bit like betting black, but I think the brothers will probably figure out that they can’t both win, which should give them the necessary ruthlessness to send one up the road while they hang the other around Evans’ neck, the albatross he can’t get rid of.

Literally, the only thing in this race that shouldn’t surprise us is the way Philippe Gilbert is kicking large-scale ass.

Image: John Pierce, Photosport International


For the record, here are the numbers of riders that abandoned by the end of stage 9 for each of the last 10 years—

2011: 18 (198 starters, 180 still in the race)

2010: 16 (197 starters, 181 still in the race)

2009: 9 (180 starters, 171 still in the race)

2008: 9 (179 starters, 170 still in the race)

2007: 18 (189 starters, 171 still in the race)

2006: 6 (176 starters, 170 still in the race)

2005: 14 (189 starters, 175 still in the race)

2004: 16 (188 starters, 172 still in the race)

2003: 26 (198 starters, 172 still in the race)

2002: 7 (189 starters, 182 still in the race)

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  1. randomactsofcycling

    Interesting stats, thanks Padraig. I think it’s a little like the rest of life, when every year something is always worse than it was the year before….Geez, haven’t had a summer this hot for XXX years….I haven’t seen rain like this since……I think we’re just getting more saturation coverage of the crashes so they seem more numerous. Even the commercial channels on TV here in Australia have been showing Tour highlights daily. Of course that’s only because Cadel Evans is so close to yellow.
    And speaking of which, I can’t see him getting worked over by the Schlecks again. That’s an old trick he won’t fall for again. Contador is far from finished and with Basso, Gesink and both the Schlecks having a quiet first week, it’s going to be a great tour to watch when it hit’s the hills!

  2. chas

    Padraig – could you also add the number the started each of the tours you listed? I think that adds some perspective to the number remaining.

  3. Adam

    One of my thoughts from the first week was how this week’s racing is going to change Gilbert’s future team negotiations. With a stronger team its entirely possible that he could have four stage wins now. Twice winning a field sprint behind the break and one second to Cav without a lead out – could stronger teammates have turned this from a great season into a legendary one?

  4. John

    Another way to view the “incredible number of crashes at this year’s Tour”.

    Personally, I like Cosmo’s analysis better, since it accounts for the number of riders that actually started the Tour. You’re comment on the lack of prologue stage could also be tested.

    Gotta love the statistical view though. Let’s look at history as a comparison, instead of relying on our “seems to me” memory.


  5. John

    While I think it notable that there are more riders left at this stage than in previous years, I think it should be compared to the number of starting riders too. Unless I’m wrong, there are more riders that started this year than was common in the past. Perhaps a better representation might be to show the percentage of riders remaining at this stage, rather than the raw figures.

  6. grolby

    Adam, I would say his season has already been legendary! Could he have done better with a stronger team? Perhaps, but he’s doing okay. Speaking of that second place to Cavendish, at that point I was thinking, does anyone really think he’s not going for the green jersey this year?

    Parfait, thanks for this post. I had been thinking that it didn’t seem as if an unusual number of abandons had occurred this year. As for who is abandoning – I suppose it’s possible that more big name riders have crashed out than is usual, but I haven’t tried to quantify that.

    As for the win, I’ve been thinking for the last couple of days that Contador seems unlikely to repeat. He could still come back, I guess, but I also suspect his form is more like that of 2010 than 2009. But I’m going to take a chance and call it for Evans, instead of Schleck, though Schleck is definitely my fall back position on this one!

    1. Author

      All: Thanks for your comments. I apologize for my earlier math. I was in worse shape yesterday than I thought. No excuses.

  7. LD

    I wonder how much (although I’m sure after his many falls he is seriously hurting) Contador’s knee problems are mind games being laid on his rivals? Preparing for unsuspected hits against his rivals? Then again he could also be laying the groundwork for a potential poor performance.

  8. a thought

    the starting numbers are interesting … possibly 180 or less is a safer number.

    An interesting stat to compare, but hard to come by, would be how many riders have hit the deck. And then I suppose we would have to compare wet years with dry years.

    As regards Evans, he wasn’t far out of the climbs in his good years, and he is looking good again. Clearly I’m an Aussie!

  9. sophrosune

    I think it would also be interesting to see how many abandonments were due to actual crashes (versus illness or other). I believe in 2003 was when they ran the Alp stages in the first week, correct? Another point is that the number of of GC guys who have crashed out seems high this year. You may not feel that they are genuine GC guys but they are certainly their team’s leaders, i.e. Wiggins, Vinukurov.

    1. Author

      Thanks all.

      Sophrosune: Yes, most of the abandons in ’03 were because they’d already spent two days in the Alps. There were six or seven no-name abandons each of those days. Even if we agree that there have been a number of real favorites who crashed out, I still add a caveat that we started this year’s race with an unusually long list of favorites. I mean, when was the last time a team showed up to the Tour with four protected riders?

      Regarding race population and danger, the one thought I’ve had, which I believe someone on HTC also voiced (Eisel or Martin, perhaps?) is the possibility of running eight-man teams. I don’t think the ASO will cut the number of teams because if you cut teams it means there are fewer French teams present; they are always pulling up the rear, so the only way to have fewer riders on those tiny roads is to reduce team size.

      Last, Contador is known to complain. Just recall 2009. I won’t say he’s a whiner, but he’s willing to complain publicly. He hasn’t had the acceleration that has terrified the field in the past. I think his knee is pretty jacked. It’s a shame. I want to see him beaten not because he’s injured, but because he overplayed his hand by trouncing everyone at the Giro.

  10. cthulhu

    “Never trust a statistics you didn’t forge yourself”
    Only so much to the DNS and DNF, they could also be because of doping, see Kolobnev, or illness, see Popovich….

    I’m with you though on the case of the crash victims, VDB was the only real podium tread in my eyes, though Horner and Vino could have been good for a stage win.

    And I concur with LD, this openly complaining about his knee sounds more like a distracting or deception. Because if it was really compromising his efforts they wouldn’t be talking about. And I still think he is the man to beat. Cadel looks really good but I’m not sure about the really hard climbs. Also I’m not really convinced about the form of the Schleck brothers, Fränk didn’t look too good in Switzerland and Ändy’s form looks a bit like an enigma to me, could be either stellar or the total opposite…I’m not really sure.

    Well, with VDB out of the picture I guess OPL’s new goal is green?

    And with the mountains in sight, will the changes in the mountain points competition be as good as the one in the points competition?

    And on Bastille day, finally a French stage win?

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