A quick note on stage profiles. We all rely on cross-section graphics used to depict the route elevation of a race, this blog’s daily race previews use them as the prime graphic because they’re a graphical heuristic for the day to come, at a glance you can tell a sprint stage from a GC day. Study it for a moment and it says even more but sometimes races can hide information about the route, deliberately or not.
While people have known routes across the mountains for millennia, map-making is a relatively new concept. Early maps would illustrate mountains with cartoonish peaks which gradually became more detailed sketches to show the relief. It’s only in the last two centuries that topographical maps have appeared, and with them the use of contours which in turn allowed profiles to be made.
Profil du Mont Ventoux paru dans L’Auto en 1903. pic.twitter.com/6ENv0v6aEu
— David Guénel (@davidguenel) August 21, 2018
The earliest bike races had stage profiles right from the start but like today they only tell you so much. In 1910 Alphonse Steinès was dispatched from Paris to visit the Tourmalet to see if the Tour de France could go over and this was as much to inspect the condition of the road as well as the mountain. Steinès had a bad time and needed rescuing, but that was his fault for visiting in January and the Tour went over in the following summer.
Different races have different designs, they’re almost branding as you can often tell where the race is from according to the graphic design. The recent Tour de Romandie had some y-axis doping with stage profiles that looked more like busy seismographs than profiles, the severity of the spikes didn’t really tell us what was to come.
The Tour of Flanders has very little altitude but the y-axis is stretched so much that the hellingen are visible on any profile as they’re so strategically important, here it makes sense to exaggerate the y-axis. The Giro d’Italia’s ones are instantly recognisable thanks to the pink line. Look closely and you’ll see the initials SDS, for Stefano di Santo who does all the profiles for RCS.
That’s the profile for the Giro d’Italia’s Stage 16 via the Fedaia, Pordoi and Giau reduced to scale, a 1:1 ratio on both axes. Look closely and you can see just how big these mountain passes are as their length and gradient are still visible, it’s on other stages that we need the profile as a guide to what’s coming.
Vincenzo Torriani ran the Giro from 1949 to 1989 the story goes that the stage profiles were indicative at best, perhaps even whole climbs could be missing in order to fool the peloton, and advantage local knowledge over outsiders. It’s hard to find the proof of this though, but the myth is attractive and something told anecdotally by ex-riders and former managers.
Could that sort of thing happen today? It’d be hard to smuggle a climb into the race, locals would point it out on social media and soon everyone would know. Sometimes though profiles don’t tell us everything. Mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot asked “how long is the coastline of Britain?”. You could trace the coast on a map. But which map, and to what scale is it drawn? Measure in reality and you might be tracing a line around every rock, pebble and even grain of sand and the coastline gets vastly longer still. Mandelbrot was really on about fractals rather than cartography and deconstruction but the point here is that scale matters, just as the closer you look the more details emerge, one glance at the stage profile doesn’t tell us everything.
Reporting the average gradient of a climb might tell of the work required but can miss things in between such as small descents which only mean a nasty steep section to come. A good example is the “new” Col de la Loze. The profile shows some steep gradients around 10% above 2,000m altitude so from this alone you know it will be hard work. Only you need to visit to feel how wild the road is, a cycle path that keeps changing pitch, there’s a small descent high up that the profile doesn’t show.
Route surprises are less of a trap for riders and teams today. In the old days you could have one or two directeur sportifs in charge of a team during a stage race but they were busy doing everything, from driving the team car to managing the mechanics. Raymond Poulidor arguably lost the 1964 Tour de France because he didn’t visit the Puy-de-Dôme climb before the race and got his gearing wrong. Today at least one manager per team is tasked with making a forensic report on the course – to the point of boring or overloading riders – and there’s all sorts of mapping tools and software available. Google seems to have become the universal mapmaker but it’s not so useful for the cyclist, the US company wants to list businesses, tourist spots, traffic flow and other data-rich locations rather measure an empty landscape. Many teams use the Veloviewer service which has stage profiles and route maps loaded on and this takes away a lot of the surprises.
One thing that seems a bit off for the Giro at the moment, whether by accident or design, is the vertical gain per day. Take Tuesday’s stage to Sestola, 1,800m of vertical gain according to the race website (cropped screengrab above); RAI used the same number in their stage preview. Only the real number is above 3,000m. That’s biggest difference but some other stages are off too, and the Giro website reports 46,000m of vertical gain for the 21 stages but the riders will log something closer to 49,000m this month. Vertical gain is a useful stat but you can have a stage for the sprinters with 1,500m of vertical gain in the Vuelta, just as you could ride across the plains before tackling a climb with 1,500m of elevation in a few kilometres and a finish reserved for climbers only, which brings us back to the importance of the profile, a quick glance at the profile and the vertical gain for the day and you can narrow down who the likely winners and losers will be.