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What Makes A Great Grand Tour?

Watching the Giro this year you wanted to see Bernal go up against Pogačar in the Tour. Watching the Tour you wanted Primož Roglič healthy. In the Vuelta Roglič was healthy but had no rivals. 2022 is promising with these three riders and more likely to contest the Tour de France.

This year’s grand tours were enjoyable but not vintage editions and if they still made DVDs you probably wouldn’t buy the highlights discs. What makes a great grand tour?

The challenge typing this piece is to avoid excessive references to the 1989 Tour de France. That year does have so much going for it, it is exemplary for so many reasons. The eight second winning margin, settled on last stage in Paris, was the merely conclusion, the last sip of a grand cru edition.

There are some structural elements. The 1989 Tour had theme to coincide with the bicentenary of the French revolution. Now this theme didn’t make the racing any better but it gave the race an added identity, the route visited certain places and even the TV graphics at the time bought in it. So before even picking a route, the first suggestion is a theme. The Giro has done this in recent years, commemorating the 150 years of Italian unification in 2011. It ties the race into history and makes it a part of the year’s celebrations and hopefully a background air rather than in-your-face nationalism. Now a grand tour can’t have a theme every year but since we can cherry-pick, let’s start with a theme that goes beyond the race, a hook into something cultural beyond sport.

Next the route matters. First as an exercise in story-telling, you should be able to glance at the route map and the outline should say something. First you want to see a grand tour rather than too much in one region or any corner. Now a race can’t visit everywhere in three weeks, nor should it have big transfers to try but it try to cover plenty of ground. Foreign starts can bring big crowds and lucrative hosting fees but let’s leave them out for now so that our perfect edition has an obvious route in the country, and there’s no tortuous transfer either. Getting into more detail on the route it needs to have a balance between different kinds of stages. This is subjective, readers will have different views. Our views change over time too, as does the racing style. To reprise the 1989 Tour again, the run down the Atlantic coast for Stages 5-8 looks dull today but one day was a time trial and none of the others finished in a bunch sprint thanks to action. Today it’s hard to engineer these outcomes across flat terrain so you’d need to find a climb or something else to avoid too many consecutive flat stages.

The route can borrow freely from the past. Using the legendary climbs is a requirement because it links the race to past editions. To see a rider tested on the Galibier or Tourmalet today is to evoke the great battles of the past, it enriches the race and counters against any claims of not doing the real climbs. In addition, rather than contradiction new roads are great too. The Col de la Loze was a hit and climbs like the Mortirolo and Angliru have quickly been adopted. Novelty is interesting by itself but in a bike race it’s a step into the unknown, there’s no settled way to race it. Some pavé, strade bianche or even la gravilla is welcome too as it can add action.

What to do with the balance of time trials to mountain stages? This has changed in recent years to the point where adding more time trials just tended to reward a rider like Chris Froome, or Tadej Pogačar today, widening the gaps rather than narrowing them. So TT stages can be included but probably need to be short and on technical courses that ensure plenty of pace changes.

Staying with course design what about time bonuses? They don’t make a big difference but perhaps we could get rid of them, rather than incentivising stage-winning exploits they just tend to reward the strongest rider, an alchemy that turns winning by six centimetres into a six second gain. But this isn’t a hill to die on, things can work out differently.

Other elements include the points and mountains competitions. Here we could have whole separate articles about reforming them but for now let’s imagine trying to make them races within the race rather than things that are just collected along the way, the jerseys should be something that riders have to go and get rather than collect like some win-one-get-one-free offer when they’re winning stages. This year’s mountains competition in the Tour was actually quite good, until right at the end when Pogačar took the lead.

By now we’re straying into how a great grand tour should be raced. This obviously can’t be arranged in advance. You need the right riders to show up in the right form and then for events to unfold. Having mentioned 1989’s flat stages often didn’t deliver a bunch sprint this is part of what helped to make it so good. The day’s sport should beat expectations, that stage we thought was going to have a 4×4 breakaway turns out to be a humdinger of a day. We get some of this today, when some saw this year’s marathon Tour stage from Vierzon to Le Creusot it looked like a very long day. Only Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel joined a big breakaway and we got hours of action, with even a late GC move by Richard Carapaz too.

During the Giro the Cycling Podcast’s Daniel Friebe said the day’s breakaway needs to be challenged by the GC contenders and he’s got a point. It’s nice having two races for the price of one where a breakaway eventually forms after an hour or more of action and then stays away to contest the stage win, and then the GC riders come in later and make their moves. But why not be greedy and hope for a third contest? We’d have breakaway fighting hard to stay away, of not knowing whether they can make it. This ennobles the stage winner because rather than being given a ticket to win the stage for the day, the breakaway still has to fight to stay away. It also puts a burden on the GC riders who must race hard to try and bring back the breakaway.

The race needs a local hero too. Essential? Perhaps not, but desirable. It’ll bring more locals out to the roads and gives the home media a boost although if it goes too jingoistic it can deflate too. But it’s not sufficient, an Italian, French or Spanish winner of their home tour doesn’t make it into a great edition if they’re not tested.

Since we’re choosing heroes, ideally an adored winner too. Not one from a team raided during the race or with baggage, or even an open case against them because it’s easy to put an asterisk next to their name pending resolution, or just because of suspicion. This can get subjective but to reprise 1989 again, Pedro Delgado’s self-inflicted loss by showing up late for the prologue was perfect – he’d caused a scandal on the way to winning the 1988 edition because after testing positive for a masking agent, only one which the UCI hadn’t got around to banning – because his past couldn’t cast too much of a shadow, the limelight fell on others.  To step away from doping, think more of the “moral winner”, a popular winner finally having their day.

Popularity can come out of adversity, anecdotally in Slovenia Primož Roglič seems to win more hearts than Tadej Pogačar because he’s had setbacks. For years Philippe Brunel was L’Equipe’s lead cycling writer and he often asserted the definition of a champion is someone who can be in a losing situation but turn it around to their advantage. So our ideal grand tour probably needs to see the winner struggle at some point and then turn the tables in time to win. Raymond Poulidor crashed hard on Stage 14 of the 1964 Tour and lost time. The next day he won, reversing his losses. To use a modern example for definition, let’s take this year’s Tour de France when Tadej Pogačar won the Stage 5 time trial and then Stage 8, the first Alpine day and found himself with five minutes on his rivals. His early dominance took the suspense away. In our ideal scenario, imagine if Roglič had stayed in the race and began to recover from his crash injuries, and to claw his way back and rode into the Pyrenees on the same time as his compatriot. Now this doesn’t mean wishing for a crash, it could be a puncture, a crosswind or another setback. It needn’t be in the race itself, 1989 saw both LeMond and Fignon flourish after injuries that some thought had ruined their careers. The ancient Greeks called it peripeteia, the reversal of fortune in their tragic tales and it is the stuff of great stories.

One scenario we haven’t seen for a while is a Walkowiak one where a breakaway in the race takes a surprisingly big leads and some of its members are GC contenders late into the race. The 1990 Tour de France had this, with LeMond hunting down the Claudio Chiapucci, Steve Bauer, Frans Maasen and Ronan Pensec who took ten minutes on Stage 1.

Perhaps the sine qua non is a contest for the leader’s jersey. The more times it changes shoulders, within reason, the better and as the race develops the contenders are whittled down. Then the jersey keeps changing, a to-and-fro between the best. Maybe this doesn’t have to be a duel but reducing it to two riders does make it more exclusive and makes it simpler for the wider public and the mass media to follow. Certainly this duel a large reason why the 1964 Tour was so good, a reduction to Anquetil versus Poulidor. 1989 was LeMond vs Fignon but they couldn’t mark each other as Pedro Delgado was rising up the ranks.

A duel for the lead is fine but ideally it’s got more going on around it. Seeing riders trying to settle in for, say, seventh place is understandable given the achievement and the matching incentives and rewards but defending a top-10 position doesn’t wow the crowd so while it’d be good seeing the top two duking it out, watching others in the top-10 make moves too is good.

Conclusion
What makes a great grand tour? A battle, perhaps a duel for the leader’s jersey that lasts until the end is an obvious start. But that’s arguably the minimum, there can be a lot more. Holding up the 1989 and 1964 Tours works because they contain a lot of reference points and cycling is constantly making comparisons and relative judgements. But we can also judge a great grand tour by a set of objective measures. Is the course satisfying and does it tell a story? Are the best riders there, how much action is there every day and are their surprises? Do the three weeks provide suspense on a number of fronts? All this is hard to design but you know when to savour it.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Richard S Thursday, 25 November 2021, 3:10 pm

    I think you’ve covered pretty much all the bases. The only thing I would add would be ‘appropriate’ weather. The Tour should be in blazing sunshine with the crowds in shorts spraying the riders with hosepipes. The Giro is a bit more complicated. You need some nice weather to show off the scenery but also ideally a snowy (not shortened or rerouted or done in buses) mountain stage for the hero factor. It should probably also have a wet sprint stage with a really technical finish that involves tramlines. The Vuelta can do as it pleases!

    • The Inner Ring Thursday, 25 November 2021, 5:15 pm

      I think you’re right, the weather does contribute to the feel of the race, and the lasting imagery too.

  • gabriele Thursday, 25 November 2021, 3:11 pm

    Loved the piece.

    Not exactly what you called a Walkowiak effect – but sort of – recently made the winner of the 2019 Giro (and please also note that the Suisse Carlo Clerici made it a couple of years before Walkowiak at the Giro 😉 ).

    Of course, it wasn’t morning-breakaway > advantage which top GC men can dent in (or not). Yet, Carapaz was able to go thanks to heavy marking between Nibali and Roglic. I’m quite sure he’d have been able to climb away anyway, only surely not the full 2 minutes he got towards Nivolet and again one minute and a half or so. Considering that he finally won with a one minute margin, I think that it’s pretty much safe to say that he was granted way more free rein than it was opportune to, probably because they did consider that they could claw that back – which they nearly did, barring that decisive minute.
    It nearly was a full Walkowiak back in 2010, probably one of the 3-4 best GTs since the beginning of the century. Arroyo got a margin with an epic break under pouring rain towards L’Aquila, mainly thanks to Vino’s decision not to defend pink (“this is Giro of Italia, not of Kazakhstan”). Then, it looked nearly impossible to bring him back – he added devilish descending to his decent set of skills. Professor Sassi said that according to his data, only one rider could have brought Arroyo back – he didn’t say who, but apparently he was Cadel Evans. Only for Basso e Nibali, also trained by Sassi, putting on a show of grit and teamwork to show that cycling isn’t just W/kg. It ended like Basso, then at 2-3′ Arroyo, Nibali, Scarponi and Evans, than again at some 7-9′ Vinokourov, Porte and Sastre.
    Also the 2012 Giro might have come down to a “Walkowiak-though-not-exactly-such”: De Gendt went on a crazy break on the Stelvio stage. Not a classic Walkowiak because that sort of break should happen earlier on, not on stage 20 with just a final ITT the following day. Anyway, they “let him go”, only to see how the man, who was lingering in the low side of the top ten with a lot of other guys, some 5 minutes back, established a sound advantage which nearly put him in pink. The final rush by Purito reduced the difference on the line to 3 minutes and a half, but things could have easily gone a different way – only half a dozen riders from the field could keep their time difference under the 5 minutes mark, and De Gendt indeed went on to keep a precious final GC podium stop.

    It’s indeed harder to see this sort of things at the Tour or at the Vuelta, the latter doesn’t offer the appropriate terrain to build a huge margin with an out-of-control break (you had indeed great editions won attacking from far, but they were attacks from GC men who went away out of pure strength or talent and intuition, it wasn’t ever the case of letting anyone go away then not being able to bring him back – 2016, 2015, 2006…), whereas at the Tour the big teams just keep things tight. And yet, at the Tour we got the *only and authentic* (?) Walkowiak of the 21th century, thanks to Óscar Pereiro Sio. And to antidoping, too, given that Landis had supposedly won that TdF with one of the greatest peripeteia you could imagine. Only it was one of the fakest things ever (and not only because of the testosterone – rather, because for some unknown reason the peloton actually didn’t chase – or did so at amateur speed – along much of that infamous stage).

    • The Inner Ring Thursday, 25 November 2021, 5:19 pm

      Still rate Carapaz’s ride, I think you do too so not contradicting, he really went and got the lead in Courmayeur that day.

      Landis’s recovery stage win was impressive but it was hard to enjoy in the moment, the suspicion that something was up, a day with a question mark or an asterisk hanging over it. So Pereiro’s backdated “Walko” win wasn’t even enjoyed by him in the moment.

      • gabriele Thursday, 25 November 2021, 11:23 pm

        Agreed. To make things clear, I didn’t mean to present the above as examples of great GTs (although Giro 2010 surely is and Giro 2019 wasn’t bad at all), just cases when somebody got advantage of some free rein to snatch or nearly so the big prize. And even so, as I stated above, if one wants to be more precise, only Arroyo’s and Pereiro Sio’s were “fughe bidone”. However, it happens so seldom that it’s worth remembering those special circumstances, including Carapaz or De Gendt’s cases, when bravery and not just sheer strength (which was displayed as well, of course) was highly rewarded.

    • Irungo txuletak Saturday, 27 November 2021, 10:35 am

      What about perreiro, for a more recent walkowiak scenario?
      Ok, this very Tour is not the one everybody wants to remember, but still.

      • Cascarinho Saturday, 27 November 2021, 5:23 pm

        Voeckler almost did one in 2011 too…

        • gabriele Saturday, 27 November 2021, 8:49 pm

          I don’t think he was really *that* close, hype apart. But, yes, closer than many else in a similar position.

          • Nick Monday, 29 November 2021, 12:59 pm

            and the fact that the home favourite was hanging on in the lead, for longer than expected, against the odds, definitely helped the feeling of that Tour

          • The Inner Ring Monday, 29 November 2021, 4:57 pm

            It was still a good edition though, the way they attacked the Alpine stages especially with Andy Schleck’s raid, then attacks from the foot of the first climb the following day. Not too much camping on those positions, even Voeckler getting carried away on the Télégraphe etc.

      • gabriele Saturday, 27 November 2021, 8:47 pm

        Well, yeah, named it just above 😉 (Óscar Pereiro Sio)

    • brent sword Saturday, 27 November 2021, 9:08 pm

      I always thought the stage in the 2006 tdf was raceed not to hard from the peleton but I have heard Chris Horner talking about that stage in recent times. He rates it as one of the hardest days ever. Everyone from the team leaders to the mountain domestiques was shattered by the end.

      • gabriele Saturday, 27 November 2021, 11:05 pm

        Chris Horner, what a witness ^__^ 😀
        How could anyone doubt his words?
        Jokes apart, surely most were surprised by the early attack and just couldn’t keep Landis’ wheel, but then a not so thin peloton climbed Aravis and Colombiere at amateurish pace (~1400 and ~1300 VAM). The stage was long but they had raced some 100-120 km at that point, it really doesn’t make much sense. I remember a distinct feeling of farce while watching, commenters were amazed, too, looked like a strike of sort. Especially on Colombiere. It’s not like when they climbed it during other TdF people weren’t tired… and yet it was *always* tackled at some avg. 25-26 km/h whereas in 2006 they went up at 22 km/h. Maybe that doesn’t sound much of a difference but for a pro peloton is shocking, less than strolling.
        If one want to believe Horner, perhaps he might be remembering the last climb only… but I don’t believe him that way, either. 20 riders stayed within 5′ from Sastre, 40 within 20′. A really gruelling stage, even if without big stars, like say Laghi di Cancano in Giro 2020 has exactly half of those numbers.

  • Tim Thursday, 25 November 2021, 5:08 pm

    A great grand tour needs to have an air of non-predictability. Not so much chaos for its own sake, but so that we are both watching intently and the final result is not known until the final set piece. Jersey changes don’t necessarily mean that this is a riveting edition – see Alaphilippe’s exploits in 2019. We had no idea if the puncheur could hold on until Paris, but the jersey never really changed hands until the final few days.

    • The Inner Ring Thursday, 25 November 2021, 5:21 pm

      A bit of back and forth for the Giro. Imagine if Alaphilippe had lost the jersey but then took it back (unlikely given his characteristics, the course etc) but that sort of battle rather than someone “renting” the jersey. It was still a good edition though.

  • Tom J Thursday, 25 November 2021, 9:36 pm

    Interesting you mention 1990 – as I was reading your paean to 1989, I was thinking “what about 1990?” and then bam! you mentioned it. I can’t remember now the extent to which Lemond’s eventual victory felt inevitable, but the fact that he recovered ten minutes a minute here and a minute there; and the fact that Chiappucci was still leading at the conclusion of the last mountain stage, meant there was action every day and the result in doubt – at least in principle – right up to the penultimate day.

    For me, the ideal champion has to prove themselves all round; and there has to be a jeopardy that they might lose. I think one of the reasons why gravel has revitalised racing is because it provides that element of jeopardy, rather than making races just a boring contest between trains of W/kg merchants. Seeing groups emerging through dust provides an immediate visual cue back to the heroic days of the sport, but with a modern twist. So cobbles or crosswinds in the Tour de France; Strade Bianche in Italy; small erratic roads in Spain. Think of the memorable stages in recent grand tours, and they have been when the leaders have been stripped of their teams, or small groups have been madly chasing to recover a dropped leader. Grand Tours should be about more than sustained climbs.

    • Larry T Friday, 26 November 2021, 8:50 am

      Agreed, though I have to admit to bias about 1989/1990 as a fan of LeMond. For the same reasons the 2010 Giro may have been a great contest but it gets marked down IMHO because of the unworthy victor.

      • Richard S Friday, 26 November 2021, 10:00 am

        But the 2010 Giro was won by Ivan Basso who had and still holds an Italian passport. Are you suggesting your love of Italy and Italians has some exceptions?!

        • Anonymous Friday, 26 November 2021, 10:20 am

          I think Larry is recognising that Basso was the hero Italian cycling deserved, not the hero it needed.

        • Larry T Friday, 26 November 2021, 2:48 pm

          Of course there are exceptions, there are as many a-holes in Italy as in any other country. Basso’s just one of them IMHO. I love my adopted country, but that doesn’t mean I love every Italian!

      • gabriele Friday, 26 November 2021, 12:29 pm

        Ivan Basso was always too intelligent a person to be granted uncompromising love.

        Yet, I suspect that the 2010 Giro was among the very few GTs won by a *then relatively clean* rider (stress on *relatively* and *in that moment*) in the last 30 years or so.
        I don’t know if I’d count half a dozen of those, summing up the three GTs…
        Personal opinion, most of it.

        Hence, Larry, you might add another dilemma to the one which was tormenting you some days ago, when you asked yourself if it was better a juiced but exciting win or a clean & dull one – now, you’ve got a clean (so to say) victory, but an athlete who clearly hadn’t been so in the recent past, and what’s worse he didn’t even fully admit it, he just deeply and publicly repented for something he defended – against all evidence – not having done, only attempted.
        But then again circumstantial evidence started suggesting that he actually stopped doing whatever he was doing (or *attempting*, according to him!) before. And without being that much forced by surrounding conditions, given that riders were still doping and being doped quite a lot during those years.

        Should we accept *factual* repenting although paired with a lie or sort, or do we prefer façade ones? Should we dismiss one of the very few apparently clean (again: *relatively so*) victories in decades, or should we just prefer those by guys whose shoulders are covered enough to avoid being caught (for some years, at least – then things tend to surface)?

        Hard to answer – to me, just in narrative terms, that whole situation, with its deeply rooted ambiguity, was a plus for the 2010 Giro dramaturgy, not a flaw.

        • Larry T Friday, 26 November 2021, 2:55 pm

          Ivan Basso? The guy whose bag o’blood was found in that gynecologists’ office but claimed he never used any of it? The guy whose death-stare as he ground up Colle San Carlo towed by the “Flying Trullo” who was likely doped-to-the-gills like his teammate, the “Cobra Modenese” (aka the Little Pharmacist) reminded me of BigTex at his best/worst?
          That’s the Ivan Basso I detest and when I think how Nibali got screwed over at Liquigas in favor of the most boring man in pro cycling, I get even more wound up about disliking the guy – he should have done what he claimed he was going to do when he hung up his wheels – grow blueberries!

          • gabriele Friday, 26 November 2021, 6:43 pm

            Of course, yet what you say doesn’t contradict an inch of what I stated above. And I might add that I found Basso a boring rider, too.

            If anything, I’m left wondering about how Basso’s presence might have hindered Nibali during his Liquigas’ years – it was one of the best cohabitation between top riders in a single team which I could name in recent (and not so recent) pro cycling. I think the two also went along pretty well, but perhaps I’ve lost a couple of Processo alla Tappa too many.

            By the way – Basso indeed established a successful blueberries business, besides other things (the bikes and so).

            Let me add, in case you had any doubt, that as a cyclist I prefer Nibali over Basso from pretty much any POV.

  • gabriele Friday, 26 November 2021, 12:31 am

    I was remembering above… the 2010 Giro edition, one for the books, no doubt.
    Epic weather, with crosswinds, too (thanks to a foreign start, indeed) and rain on Strade Bianche, great course with a surprisingly well-used Zoncolan and the Mortirolo-Aprica classic which rarely fails, plus the Asolo downhill finish after Monte Grappa. Young guns raising in Nibali and Porte, Basso’s *clean* renaissance, all-time favourites like Vino and Evans, sort of spaghetti western cast. The Walkowiak effecy thanks to L’Aquila’s fuga bidone. Wiggins when he was just a cronoman grabbing pink on stage 1, Pozzato a classic-like Marche one. Stage wins by Weylandt or Scarponi, too…
    You can forgive the athletes for not making much of the Gavia which was out there on the penultimate stage.
    Since that edition, speaking of the Giro only, 2012 was quite dull barring the very last road stage (the Vuelta was *the* GT that year), while 2011, 2013 and 2014 were no doubt nice (lots of memorable moments… yet lacking that feeling of highly contested race), then, wow, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 were *exceptionally good*, pretty much better than anything else GTs had to show this decade (maybe TdF 2011 could play in that same league, not much else), while in 2019-2021 we’ve been having a regression toward the mean of sort – an impressive mean, surely, but a little step back, for me, while the TdF was becoming more interesting, although the French race tends to have, dunno, just a couple of interesting days each year in GC terms. If you’re lucky enough.
    Vuelta’s often fun, especially the last three ones won by Roglic, but tends to lack that greatness of sort, although 2012, 2014, 2015 and 2016 were all very good for different reasons, especially those won by Contador, the latter proving he was probably still the best GT man around, the former showing how a GT can be conquered without being the strongest athlete on the road, just the best competitor.

  • S Pokes Friday, 26 November 2021, 1:00 am

    Wonderful reflective exercise and analysis in these off-season doldrums – thank you!
    It’s artful, really, in the eye of the beholder – the masterpieces that stick with me are the messy ones animated by feats of serendipitous cycling glory – Hampsten on the Gavia in ’88 for example, Armstrong’s hors-piste recoveries, duelling Slovenes on the rollercoaster of Loze…

  • plurien Friday, 26 November 2021, 11:46 am

    It’s just so difficult to make comparisons across the years where we only got full stage coverage on TT stages. The days where journalists made the stage action by retelling in highlights packages or off the page are not as ‘real’ or susceptible to being ‘dreary’ as ones where we can get the full six hours alongside, ahem, our full day’s WFH.

    Greatness is a hindsight thing.

    The other big difference is the ruling on convoy vehicles, especially camera motos, which surely used to affect the racing. – A local favourite would get his breakaway pain-face in very detailed close up, and for minutes on end whilst a challenger would be seen passing the moto to get the shot from behind, ready to see reactions on the faces of ‘our’ riders in the bunch.

    A Great Tour also shouldn’t lose big favourites in the first few days through crashes in the bunch, but a Tour without the nerves would definitely not be great.

  • gabriele Friday, 26 November 2021, 1:39 pm

    A candidate for best year *across the 3 GTs* since Armstrong’s null years: 2015.

    Of course, we had better editions for each one of the three GTs, but I’d say that in no other season so much quality (in the terms defined by inrng above, more or less) was ever achieved across the three since 2006 included.

    At the TdF, Quintana pushing Froome against the ropes at the hard end of the third week after losing time (mainly because of his team) in crosswind mayhem during the first week, illegal feeding on Alpe for a bonking Froome included, LPSM Sky madness on a hot day, Nibali’s long range attack towards La Toussuire with Movistar drama again to protect Valverde’s first Tour podium, 25-year old Bardet and Pinot during their thing winning mountain stages with brave raids, Cav vs. Greipel in the sprints (the gorilla prevailed), young Dennis’ prologue win, a couple of uphill flashing rushes by Purito Rodríguez. And more (Tony Martin, Majka, Stybar, Van Avermaet…). More or less the only decently contested TdF after 2011.

    At the Giro, it had been Astana against Contador stage after stage since the very start, not a single day passed by without putting pressure on the Spaniard, which resulted in spectacular racing on the Liguria roads and then the Appenines (great victories, among others, by Matthews, Formolo, Ulissi, Zakarin). The battle for the most explosive legs was held on Monte Berico, with Gilbert topping Contador. Curiously enough, as in the Tour we had some in-team drama, with Astana playing their cards in order to favour enfant-du-pays Aru over eternal gregario Landa, albeit only the latter had what it was needed to crush Contador; at the end of the day, both Astana men won two stages and stepped on the final podium – on the two lower steps, of course. The Mortirolo day was one for the books, with Contador puncturing down the Aprica and starting the ominous climb sort of a minute back, only to put on a show and getting back to the front. Then it was Aprica grinding again, Aru chasing at sight distance so close yet always so far. A couple of day later Contador attacked the bunch 50 kms from the line on the “mezza montagna” Verbania stage to cement his lead – apparently no need to – only to be found floundering on Finestre during the last decisive stage to Sestriere, where Aru and Landa took back *2 mins*.

    The Vuelta was maybe a step down, yet a great race with the clash between pure climber Aru and *then* ITT specialist with a keen eye for short or easy climbs in Dumoulin. Both 25-year old, facing an equally young and promising high-level competition in Chaves, finally back to his best level after his terrible injury, Majka, and of course Quintana, although wear out from the Tour. Valverde and Purito added to the mix in one of the most competitive fields of the decade. As always we had tapas cycling with exciting albeit short uphill finishes which lighted up the first week (Valverde, Chaves, Dumoulin all grabbing wins and the latter two also getting the leader jersey, too) along with sprints by Sagan or Caleb Ewan. Although Landa won the day, Aru dominated the gruelling Andorra stage with 5,500 m of altitude gain in just 138 kms (some *five* first/hors category climbs) to dress red, whereas Dumoulin got the jersey back in the 40 kms long Burgos ITT. After a tense duel along the walls of Ávila, when Dumoulin teammates accused Luisle Sánchez of having launched Aru with a pistard handsling only to be proven *wrong* by TV images, it all came down to stage 20 “marathon” (for Vuelta standards) on the Madrid mountains (memorable stage win by Plaza, by the way). Aru broke Dumo on the final kms of one of those too easy climbs, but then perfect teamwork left the Dutch unable to make contact again. GC shake up, a sense of confirmation for Aru after the Giro disappointment but everybody could see in Dumoulin one of the next top GT contenders for the seasons to come.

    • Davesta Friday, 26 November 2021, 7:13 pm

      2015 was the year that sprang to mind as soon as I saw the title of this blog post…perhaps it’s due to rose-tinted glasses, but I recall the Giro that year being one of daily action & intrigue, and the best GT I can remember in recent memory…and like you say, the Dumoulin v Aru battle at the Vuelta was great to watch

    • Irungo txuletak Saturday, 27 November 2021, 10:41 am

      Agreed. I loves the 2015 giro too.
      The battles in the 2 first weeks, the mid / long range moves of Kontador, the stages of Gilbert and eventually this stage on the finestre where everything was close to be put up and down.

      Now, it has to be said that the Giro has for me clearly the best route among the 3 GT.

    • Larry T Saturday, 27 November 2021, 1:00 pm

      2015 was a pretty good year for the Corsa Rosa and GT’s in general if I overlook Contador’s earlier “It was the steak!” silliness. Back to my “Exciting dope cheat or boring clean guy” conflict (though Basso was the worst of both IMHO).

    • Cascarinho Saturday, 27 November 2021, 5:38 pm

      Thanks for bringing back memories… 2019 TdF was a “decently contested TdF after 2011”, until the three painful stages of the Alps… It really ended like a fish tail, only by bad luck : everything was in place.
      Going back you can really see that Contador made a GT enjoyable, in any kind of form he was. I think Pogacar has the same potential – he just doesn’t have to be the strongest, and it can be really fun.

    • Anonymous Monday, 29 November 2021, 8:40 am

      Contador “puncturing”. How fortunate that his “relatively clean” BFF was there to help him.

  • DJW Friday, 26 November 2021, 5:59 pm

    TdF 1975: an unbeatable ogre finally brought down by a down-to-earth local hero,and the first French win in years. Well played Bernard, a great story.

    • gabriele Friday, 26 November 2021, 9:48 pm

      “an unbeatable ogre finally brought down by a down-to-earth local hero”… do you mean the guy who punched Merckx on the Puy the Dôme? 😛

      Jokes aside, Merckx decline was one of the most sudden and sharp in cycling history. His 30th birthday turned the rider who was still winning three Monuments *in that same 1975 Spring* (Sanremo, Flanders, Liège – and he was also 2nd at the Roubaix behind, well, monsieur Roubaix De Vlaeminck, after a lone chase because of a puncture), plus a couple of short stage races and Amstel, to growing woes both in prep races before the Tour – Dauphiné and Suisse – *and* during the Tour itself, especially during the third week.
      Little health issues and injuries, among which the consequences of the above mentioned back blow, bothered him more and more; nothing *that* serious, at the end of the day, yet truth is that – barring his 7th Sanremo the following Spring – he never won again *anything* big after turning 30…! (or after that same 1975 Liège, if you prefer).

      Quite shocking if one thinks about it. From winning three Monuments in a month to Romandie *stage*, Boucles de l’Aulne, Druivenkoers, Leuven Grote Prijs or A traves Lausanne contender.

      Of course, that’s an exaggeration of sort since he fared quite well for any normal rider, during that 1975 Tour, which he ended up in 2nd place, after all; but he *only* won a couple of short ITTs and by a reduced margin.

      Remember we’re speaking Merckx. In contrast, he had won *every single* GT he had started during the previous five years, *10 in a row*. And, at the Tour, only once had he won less than 6 stages for edition (including prologues and semitappe), in 1971 – when he won “only” 4!

      In fact, Van Impe or Zoetemelk still sat behind him in the 1975 TdF final GC, yet the difference was 3-4 minutes whereas at the end of any *normal* Tour they used to track the Cannibal some ten minutes behind. Actually, nobody had ever been able to come closer than some 8-10 minutes to Merckx in a TdF final GC (Ocaña, as we know, was a different story and doesn’t break this stat anyway). Adorni, Gimondi or Tarangu and especially Gibi were all able to push themselves closer to Eddy, but only at the Giro, obviously – and that’s always been the Giro, after all, not so much a reign of pure strength.

      It’s a mystery of sort, and one can just be left wondering how Eddy himself might have felt about it, going from being, well, Merckx… to a *normal top athlete* – not even a much winning one, let alone being dominant – in the space of a couple of months.

      • DJW Saturday, 27 November 2021, 10:27 am

        Yes Gabriele. I have often wondered about the rapidity of Merckx’s decline. Had he just done too much for two long, and from a young age: GTs, classics, six days with Sercu, crits…. and all to win (and in style if possible) Was he just worn out, had the others caught up, or maybe just the hunger had diminished after so much effort and so many rewards. Thevenet too was a splendid consultant for France Télévisions for many years: wise, calm, modest and lucid.

        • gabriele Saturday, 27 November 2021, 11:14 pm

          As in Carapaz case above, I didn’t mean to diminish Thevenet’s feat, just providing (in this case, sort of unexpected) context.

  • Martin Saturday, 27 November 2021, 4:45 am

    I think that the 2011 TDF fulfills many of the criteria for greatness outlined here: the dominant rider in Contador under a cloud and out of sorts after crushing the Giro, Voekler almost stealing the race by being let go for eight minutes, some consistent dueling between the GC protagonists, with the overall winner Evans proving himself to be the best allrounder in the race – being good against the watch, short uphill finishes, very solid on the climbs but also crucially a better descender than Andy Schleck, and speaking of Andy, the intrigue of him racing with his brother, although neither ending up on the top step of the podium. The biggest let down of the race was the loss of various GC favourites, including Wiggins who if he didn’t crash may likely have won in the TT style he perfected the year after.
    Failing that, the Giro in ’17 was also a wonderful contest of contrasting styles, albeit the time difference being made and made up in time trials and ill-timed toilet stops.

    • brent sword Saturday, 27 November 2021, 9:16 pm

      Evans had such a weak climbing team so the highlight for me on that tour was Evans holding on for the last 2 climbing stages against a number of competitors. There were great stages even if Evans is not usually the most aggressive racer ever.

    • gabriele Saturday, 27 November 2021, 11:47 pm

      TdF 2011 is no doubt one of the best in recent decades, and probably the most similar to what inrng describes above. I had found 2009 more compelling and technically superior (Contador against his own team and revenant Armstrong) but 2011 had a wider range of appealing elements in the mix, among which some which I don’t rate that much but which inrng listed above (“cleanish” winner, local heroes, Walko effect). I liked 2015, as I wrote elsewhere, but it doesn’t come close to 2011, neither does any TdF edition since.

      I also agree about Giro 2017, although what you say against it is partly false. Dumoulin was waited when he stopped, the way you can “wait” in a cycling race, but he just failed to come back – and then lost more time uphill on the Umbrail to several contenders. Besides, being unwell is part of your performance in road cycling. Piancavallo made a serious difference, and the last mountain stage also could have well dented into Tom’s advantage – he was very lucky to find the friendly help of Jungels at hand. Plus, we’re only speaking of differences between the top two… on Blockhaus or Oropa they were close among them, but gaps in the bunch were more than notable. More than anything, it was a relatively poorly designed course (or well designed to explicitly favour an ITT man). Yet, the high level of the field and the variety of styles among the top competitors (Dumoulin, Quintana, Nibali) made it a great edition all the same, no doubt the best GT that year, and a proper gem in the wonderful 2015-2018 series. However, since 2010 included the Giro offered an impressive average. As somebody pointed out, great courses in the middle term are paramount, as well as keeping the race very open to a variety of athletic types, while still utterly balanced. It’s a paradox of sort that it was the Giro which kept alive the fire of decent ITTs while the Tour slashed them, pretty much to no use since they were also cutting down mountain stages… Now the trend might change once again, we’ll see.

  • Christopher Kam Saturday, 27 November 2021, 7:15 am

    I enjoyed the post very much. I enjoy watching the grand tours, but my passion is CX racing. The post provokes a similar question in my mind: what produces a great Cx race? The course—just like in GC racing— plays a huge role IMO. The best offer the opportunity for a variety of riders to win, but they also have a defining feature, e.g., the ditch at Zonhoven, the climb at the Koppenberg, the dunes at Koksijde. This provides a focal point to the race. But sometimes the iconic feature of the course removes the possibility of a variety of riders winning. A dilemma! Hence, it becomes races or GC tours that successfully balance these elements that succeed. That’s why a course like Overijse – a harsh climb, technical descents, such that several riders could win – is so exciting year after year. A tangential post, but I hope a provocative one for those focussed on cycling paved roads in sunny seasons!

    • gabriele Sunday, 28 November 2021, 4:52 pm

      Nice point. Not an expert, but I always liked CX, and I firmly believe in the utter importance of course design on the road, too, albeit obviously it’s up to racer racing a proper course as it would deserve. But that’s a truism of sort, “racers make the race”, as if any course was equally good…

  • 150 Watts Saturday, 27 November 2021, 7:35 am

    I think what makes a good grand tour is a time trial with climbing as the final stage … as in 2020 TdF. I don’t think there is any doubt that Pogacar was the one with the most left in the tank on the final day.

  • Irungo txuletak Saturday, 27 November 2021, 10:44 am

    I know that every protagonists of that tour are now so to say banned from pro cycling, but 2003 was a thrilling edition.
    A great contrast with the tours of that periode.

    • gabriele Saturday, 27 November 2021, 9:08 pm

      Indeed. Armstrong struggled or relatively so in hot weather, and it’s quite impressive that the only edition held in the sort of scorching heat which is part of TdF classic imagery (as Richard S pointed out above) was precisely 2003. Besides, we finally could see how “the son of Rudy” would fare if kept away from that too familiar an environment, quite toxic (as so many families) to say the least. Add to that an unleashed Vino, ex teammate Hamilton and the pressure generated by the mere aggressive presence of Mayo, one of the athletes which Lance detested, being among the few who could crush him in the mountains no matter the number of in-race tranfusion the American should enjoy on the team bus. In fact, the will to seriously clash with Mayo already at the Dauphiné probably hindered the form of both, forcing an early peak and full gas effort which isn’t normally opportune in June. By far the best Tour in more than ten years, that is since 1998 and probably until 2009 – or 2011.

    • Rooto Sunday, 28 November 2021, 9:49 pm

      So glad you mentioned 2003. It had the theme, it had the visits around the regions, it had the falls (I’ll never forget Meaux or Gap), it had the weather (including in the final Nantes TT), it had the side-plots (Hamilton’s collarbone, Vasseur in Marseille), it almost had the upset – at least it had the suspense. Personally, as a spectator, it was the tour which I experienced most passionately and desperately, I *so* wanted Armstrong to lose and it was almost there to touch…
      2011 comes in second, also never to be forgotten.

  • brent sword Saturday, 27 November 2021, 9:04 pm

    A break away getting into the lead of the tour and then contesting the overall.
    2006. When its best not getting what you wish.
    Mid way through the race the eventual winner going from 30 minutes down to being magically able to match everyone else. 2nd place being taken by somebody from a team well and truly tainted.
    Worst race ever.

    Óscar Pereiro

    • gabriele Saturday, 27 November 2021, 9:16 pm

      I fail to see how Unzué structure is that much tainted. No reason to believe they’re especially, nor the other way around, either. Considering the number of decades they’ve spent in pro cycling, and the low number of red hot cases, most of them in gray areas or based on suspects alone (Delgado, Indurain…), one could infer they always tended to keep a low profile in doping terms, if anything. No need to say that Valverde’s doping situation had nothing to do with what we now call Movistar, they actually were “enemies” of Fuentes’ friends.

      • gabriele Saturday, 27 November 2021, 9:18 pm

        *to believe they’re especially CLEAN, nor the other way around, either

      • brent sword Saturday, 27 November 2021, 9:47 pm

        2nd place rider was from team telecom. Well and truly tainted is an understatement.
        As to Óscar Pereiro. It was a magical improvement half way through a race from a rider without many top results in a ling career.

        Pereiro also rode for Teams Phonak and Astana. Pereiro performance must be regarded as strange regardless of which team he was on.

        • gabriele Saturday, 27 November 2021, 10:22 pm

          Ah ok, I thought you meant 2nd place on the road. Pereiro won thanks to the fuga bidone, not so much any special magic, and the strange way everybody was riding also helped him. That said, for sure I wasn’t speaking of the rider as such, little to add to what you say; it was more about the structure, which I had understood to be Caisse d’Epargne, given that, as I said, I believed you were speaking of road results, like, “hey, they took it away from Landis and look what team ended up winning”. However, a poor edition, no doubt.
          I didn’t like much 2007 (a full farce, from many POVs), either, or 2008, sadly, because Sastre was a worthy winner. A *relatively* clean rider and widely regarded as such in a team which needs no presentation when doping is concerned… (Riis’ CSC), a good example of how things can become complicated to judge when working on assumptions alone. He apparently attacked against team orders, by the way, although once he was ahead on the road, he was earnestly protected both by team car and captains. However the racing had been awful until that day, which in itself was more a chess game than anything else.

  • BC Saturday, 27 November 2021, 9:32 pm

    As well as the route and weather it also helps to have several decent riders competing who are battling for the win.

  • DJW Sunday, 28 November 2021, 9:31 am

    One of the enduring factors in a classic sporting event, and whatever the course, weather…, is the good guy (and woman of course) / bad guy match (Sunderland : Leeds FA Cup for example).
    Who are the good, joyous, gritty, stylish guys : Coppi, Poulidor, Pinot, Gimondi, Alaphilippe, Chaves, Carapaz, Virenque (yes, I know), Dan Martin and Alf Tupper
    and who are the bad, calculating, winning too much, too well funded, joyless, cheating, just too good…; Anquetil, Merckx, Froome, Armstrong…

  • Anonymous Sunday, 28 November 2021, 12:46 pm

    Gabriele wrote: “If anything, I’m left wondering about how Basso’s presence might have hindered Nibali during his Liquigas’ years
    I never thought there was anything other than a star/worker relationship between the two, with Basso the northern boss and Nibali the southern worker who sacrificed his own ambitions whenever the boss asked. Since they’ve moved on I’ve seen no relationship of any kind between them that would suggest otherwise.
    “By the way – Basso indeed established a successful blueberries business, besides other things (the bikes and so).”
    Yeah, I knew that, my point was he implied at the time he’d not be involved in cycling, concentrating on the fruit biz instead. Perhaps he was key to EOLO and/or KOMETA backing the team so one might count that as a positive, but IMHO he’s added pretty much nothing to the sport on or off the bike 🙁

    • Larry T Sunday, 28 November 2021, 12:46 pm

      OOOps, that was yours truly above, sorry!

    • gabriele Sunday, 28 November 2021, 4:35 pm

      Although it’s true that for whatever reason Basso didn’t ever help much Nibali on the road, I’d say that you’re pushing imagination a bit too far, given that during the four seasons they spent together, they mostly split their objective in quite functional a manner. In 2009 Nibali focussed on the TdF while Basso raced Giro and Vuelta, while in 2011 it was the other way around. In 2010 Nibali helped indeed Basso winning the Giro, but he was also given his own space. After all, at the end of the day Nibali went on losing 3′ to Basso on the Zoncolan where team strategies don’t matter that much. And while Basso actually overcame Arroyo, Nibali didn’t. Even as a Nibali early fan, I can’t say he was unduly sacrificed to Basso’s ambitions in that race. After that, they went on to race separate GTs, with the best option in terms of GC opportunities, i.e. the Vuelta, reserved to Nibali, who won it. In 2012 Nibali focussed on the Tour, and Basso who had raced an exhausting Giro however mediocre in results term (perfect definition of ultraboring approach by Cannondale), then went to the Tour to help. He wasn’t as effective as he’d later be for Contador, not at all, but he didn’t limit or affect much Nibali’s bid, either. Also note that Nibali wasn’t asked to support Basso’s supposedly strong ambitions at the 2011 TdF nor at the 2012 Giro. While at the same team, they raced 6-7 GTs each and were teammates just a couple of times: at the 2010 Giro, where Nibali actively supported Basso, albeit I would’t say that he was losing so much of a personal chance because of that; and at the 2012 Tour, where Basso couldn’t help as much, but he came with no personal objectives which would hinder Nibali’s attempt. He worked as a decent gregario: perhaps more could be expected, but not many would have done better, either. So, your narrative doesn’t really stand. In the few Classics they raced together, a similar pattern can be observed. All sort of races included, they shared a total of 20 races in 4 seasons, which isn’t much indeed.
      Indirect influence was also modest: race calendars always looked quite coherent and meaningful for both, for example I consider that for Nibali it made perfect sense to go for the Giro and not the Tour in 2011. If anything, winning chances in terms of calendar organisation were maximised for Nibali, which is absolutely logical, of course.

      • gabriele Sunday, 28 November 2021, 4:48 pm

        And I vaguely remember Nibali saying that Basso had been “un maestro” to him, but I’m not sure about the circumstances, probably the Tour because I read it in Spanish press. However, they publicly expressed mutual appreciation several times and only in very few occasions sort of a subtle rivalry surfaced, never after 2010, anyway, I believe. Italian press, as you know, are always trying to forge rivalries, maybe it’s just that I stopped reading “la Gazza” years ago…

        • Larry T Sunday, 28 November 2021, 7:53 pm

          I think we can just disagree on this as I don’t want to go back to try to find the race examples where I thought “Nibali’s getting screwed over again. It’s gotta be a north/south thing” but there were plenty.

  • Anonymous Monday, 29 November 2021, 12:49 pm

    Likely suggested elsewhere, but: having all serious GC contenders in top shape at the beginning and avoiding daft setbacks through to Paris would be good. It seems to happen so little, maybe because the season is so congested and the tour’s 1st week too nervy. If there’s a dominant rider it might be boring to the neutral but at least it would be a professional victory.

    • gabriele Wednesday, 1 December 2021, 7:27 pm

      Would be fine, but at the end of the day that sort of challenge among the very best in a specific competition is not, at least for me, the beauty of pro cycling. It’s at the very core of GTs that cyclists find themselves facing changing circumstances which, in a sense, *alter* the result, it is an essential part of the sport (course, weather), and in a sense it also includes facing a very different field each year, be it only because even top athletes struggle to achieve the very same level of best shape edition after edition.
      There’s a lot of complexity thrown in, which is why normally (unless different and more controllable sorts of advantages are set into place) it’s so difficult to see a single rider winning more than two-three editions of a GT in a row, even if commonly a pro rider can keep around his best level through some 8-9 seasons (which, in fact, looks like it was halved for the riders born around 1990, but that’s a different story). Podia also change a lot…

      That’s sort of a general thing in road cycling. Maybe that’s also why an athlete is best judged at the end of his or her career, thanks to a full palmarés, rather than by a single performance.

      That said, the abstract idea expressed above can notwithstanding be shared by many, at least in theory. Including myself, as I said.
      Yet, when people look at real races – where, indeed, as you wrote, it is pretty much impossible to get a *full* virtually top field, even less so from start to finish – impressions happen to vary, and not necessarily according to the depth of the field.

      For example, 2009 and 2011 were, I’d say, among the best TdFs in decades; I’d struggle to choose, but if forced perhaps I’d go with 2009: however, from what I read above, most people actually prefer 2011, which I understand, of course… even if 2009 was clearly closer to the abstract definition of “top contenders in top shape clashing from start to finish”.

      Of course, OTOH, that’s seen as a strong point in favour of the 2017 Giro – and rightly so. Yet, 2019 comes quite close to the definition, or even closer, with the only – albeit notable – absence of Bernal (which, in fact, does look a little less notable, once what happened in July is taken into account; whereas Pogacar was slightly “still too young”, so to say, as we’d see at the Vuelta): Carapaz, Nibali, Roglic, all of them in the top form they could reasonably attain according to age and racing strategies. The rest of the top ten is impressive, too, given that barring Sivakov (a well-known prospect) *each and every* other rider who made the top-ten had previously got at least one GT podium. Very few GTs can exhibit that sort of stat about field quality, and all the same I feel that the 2019 Giro, albeit good, isn’t *that much* appreciated in comparative terms. Probably, same could be said for the 2020 Tour which also had an impressive field – just scroll down the GC until 13th place or so… and even so I suspect that most feel that it was no doubt *memorable* or *shocking*, but not the sort of great GT as a whole we’re discussing here. If I had to choose among the two, I’d go with 2021, for example, thanks to its *actually great* first half – until Pogacar killed it all. And that’s also because, as inrng insisted so many times, a GT isn’t GC only (although that’s paramount), and when remembering a great GT a huge lot of “side stories” come to mind, re: stage wins and so.

      • gabriele Wednesday, 1 December 2021, 7:34 pm

        Oooops, I got mixed up my 2019 and 2020 TdFs re: Bernal above, ah ah ah ^__^

        And maybe that actually explains why in retrospect that 2019 Giro feels surprisingly lacking, against top-10 stats, although I’m not so sure that it’s just that. It was perhaps the early Dumoulin accident, which felt as the loss of a very important contender? Or maybe it’s just me and it was actually as great as the previous four ones. Or is that comparison itself which hinders it?