The most defining trends of the modern grand tour – (1) world-class time trialists slimming down to extremely light weights in order to win grand tours or, more rarely, (2) natural climbers honing their TT craft to the point where they don’t lose significant time in the race against the clock.
- The fittest and lightest, grand tour machines with world-class time trial pedigrees like Tom Dumoulin, Geraint Thomas, Chris Froome, and Primož Roglič can ride such a high tempo on climbs that pure climbers are unable to build up significant time gaps on them.
- Climbers like Egan Bernal and Vincenzo Nibali have had to hone their time trialing to limit losses against the clock since the time differences they can pull out on their more favored steep mountain summit finishes is limited.
While the time trial does finish on the brutally steep La Planche des Belle Filles (5.9km at 8.5%), it still provides 30km of flat or rolling roads – longer than the total amount of time-trialing in the 2019 route – for the bigger engines to build up time.
- Even with the inclusion of the finishing climb, the scales should tilt in favor of multi-talented riders like Dumoulin, Roglič, and Thomas (or a healthy Chris Froome) – racers who have proven they can outclimb the pure climbers in upwards-tilting time trials.
- This theory is supported by Roglič’s win at 2019 Giro’s opening stage which finished on the steep climb to Madonna di San Luca in Bologna; Froome and Dumoulin finishing 1st and 2nd at the 2016 Tour de France climbing TT on stage 18; and Dumoulin, Roglič and Froome going 1, 2 and 3 at the 2017 TT World Championships, which finished with a 3.5km climb at an average gradient of 9.1%.
- 2020 may offer Dumoulin the best chance in the last several years, but he will have to create a race-winning difference in those 36km if he wants to be the Tour de France winner.
The argument that adding long time trials will balance the route is simply a myth. Pure time trialists don’t win the Tour de France. Riders don’t win grand tours unless they are superior at both climbing and time trialing.
- The most ITT-heavy route in the last twenty editions was the 2007 Tour de France, which featured a whopping 117 solo time trial kilometers, won by Alberto Contador, a climbing specialist. Dennis simply doesn’t have the ability to climb with the other quality time trialists like Froome, Dumoulin, and Roglic. A rider like Bernal can limit his losses to Dennis in the time trial to a few minutes and then put 20-plus minutes into him the next day on a difficult mountain stage. In fact, Bernal can be a deceptively strong time trialist: he finished only nineteen seconds behind Dennis in the pancake-flat 19.2km time trial in the 2019 Tour de Suisse.
As we’ve seen in recent years at the Tour de France, top riders struggle to put major time gaps into each other in the mountains. The top GC riders tend to mark each other more closely in the mountains when there are fewer time trial kilometers later in the race where they can make back time.
- For example, on the first major summit finish contested by the GC contenders in the 1998 Tour de France (stage 11), the difference between first and tenth place on the stage was 2:03, in 2013 (stage 8) it was 1:45, in 2018 (stage 11) it was 59 seconds, and in 2019 (stage 14) it was 53 seconds.
It seems quite possible that ultimate victory will be decided or sealed against the clock on Stage 20.
- Those who want to contend for the 2020 Tour should stay diversified – the climbers would be wise to bank some major hours on their time trial bikes and the time trial specialists shouldn’t necessarily throw in the towel just because there are only 36km of ITT.