Winning a Grand Tour

Grand tours can be won in numerous ways. Chris Froome won the 2018 Giro on the back of a stunning raid in Stage 19 – picking up over three minutes on the best placed rider ahead of him in the GC. He won the 2013 TDF using five big efforts – two ITTs, two summit finishes, and a team time trial. His teammate Geraint Thomas steadily accumulated time on Tom Dumoulin – never gaining more on a stage than the 53 seconds when Dumoulin crashed on Stage 6. Dumoulin himself relied on gaining over four minutes in two ITTs in 2017 Giro to best Nairo Quintana by just 31 seconds. Point is, there’s many ways to skin a cat to win these things.

Looking at the 19 grand tours won since 2013 (ignoring time bonuses and team time trials – just individual gains on the road), the time gained by the winner on 2nd place has ranged between 30 seconds (Horner over Nibali in 2013 Vuelta) and 457 seconds (Nibali over Peraud in the 2015 TDF) with an average of 125 seconds – just over two minutes.

Mountains

15 of 19 grand tour winners have beaten their 2nd place rivals in total time in the mountains with Quintana having the two best runners-up finishes in the 2017 Giro (220 seconds gained) and 2015 TDF (46 seconds gained). The median gain by the GC winner on 2nd place is 33 seconds total in the mountains (65 seconds is the average).

No GC winner has ranked worse than 7th best in the mountains; that was Dumoulin’s 2017 Giro which even saw him win a mountain stage. 15 of the 19 winners have ranked #1 in the mountains; take care of that element and you have a great chance of winning the race.

Time trials

In this year’s TDF, there’s only a 27km time trial to separate the pack. The median gains by GC winner on 2nd is 26 seconds on ITTs (45 seconds is the average). Twelve of 19 grand tour winners have beaten 2nd place when looking just at ITTs; Froome was the best runner-up gaining over two minutes in the 2016 Vuelta on Quintana, while Quintana has both of the lowlights losing over four minutes on two occasions (Bardet’s 2016 TDF effort also saw him lose 3.5 minutes).

Froome’s 2015 TDF win was the worst ranked against the clock – but considering there was just the 14km opening TT he lost little time to anyone that mattered and he was in yellow by the third stage.

Primoz Roglic has the best TT effort by a non-winner; he gained almost 2.5 minutes on Carapaz against the clock, but was just 4th best in the mountains.

Other stages

Besides time trials and climbing stages, there’s plenty of other chances to gain or lose time. Eg, last year’s Stage 6 finish at Mur de Bretagne in the TDF saw Thomas gain nearly a minute after Dumoulin crashed. In his 2014 TDF win, Nibali took over three minutes on Peraud on the cobbled Stage 5 (with Froome DNF). In this year’s Giro, Richard Carapaz announced himself with a big win uphill on Stage 4 and then picked up some more time on several rivals on the more intermediate Stage 15.

These gains/losses follow more of a normal distribution centered with a median of 0 seconds exchanged with a max of 202 seconds lost and min of -55 seconds gained.

Performance of GC winner in grand tours (vs 2nd place)

distro-gains

Stage Type Winners gaining on 2nd (of 19) Ranked #1 in race (of 19) Average gain  on 2nd Median gain  on 2nd
Mountains 15 of 19 15 of 19 65 seconds 33 seconds
Time Trials 12 of 19 5 of 19 45 seconds 26 seconds
Other 8 of 19 1 of 19 15 seconds 0 seconds

The only grand tour winner to rank #1 in gains on the ‘Other’ stages was Vincenzo Nibali in 2014; he escaped on Stage 2 into Sheffield to take yellow, finished third with big time gains on the cobbles in Stage 5, and finished 3rd again in the punchy finish of Stage 8. Before the first mountain Stage 10, Nibali led every realistic GC contender by at least 1.5 minutes.

Looking ahead

Already this year, Thomas and Bernal have gained a little time on every rival except Kruijswijk (ranging from just 8 seconds over Uran and 12 seconds over Pinot to 45 seconds over Quintana/Landa/Valverde and nearly a minute over Bardet).

Stages 3 and 5 both have tricky finishes with sharp climbs which could see a contender get into trouble either by being caught in a crash or being dropped by a breakaway. Note again the time gains by Nibali in 2014 and Thomas in 2018 on these other flat stages with punchy finishes.

All that leads up to Stage 6 which crosses four legitimate 2nd to 1st category climbs before a summit finish at La Planche de Belles Filles. There’s a brutal final KM to the finish there where the GC hierarchy should start to shake out.

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