It's normal that the TV cameras focus on the race for the yellow jersey but when the lead group slims down to less than ten riders during a summit finish don’t forget that mean 160 riders are somewhere else on the mountain.
The race might be on up front but for many it further back it can be a battle to finish the stage. Three time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond once said "it never gets easier, you just go faster" so let's spare a moment for those who don't go faster in the high mountains.
On a big day in the mountains the heavier riders will often get dropped on a climb. This can be deliberate, many don’t want to go too far into the red, it’s better to control the pace and conserve energy for the mountain passes still to come rather than try to hold the wheels and risk cracking.
Once several riders are dropped, cries of “gruppetto” go out, this is Italian for “small group”. Riders regroup and even rivals who tussle for the sprint finishes become allies on a mountain pass as they take turns to reach the finish in time. Note these riders are certainly not sitting up, few can afford to relax.
The cut off time for last Saturday’s stage to the Plateau de Beille was set at 28 minutes from the moment Jelle Vanendert crossed the line. Whilst the Belgian was celebrating many riders were still on the lower slopes of the final climb. A group of roughly forty riders made the finish with just 90 seconds to spare. But FDJ’s William Bonnet was fighting knee injuries and refused to give up, only to arrive a few minutes later. The wrong side of the time limit he was eliminated.
The gruppetto relies on precise timing. The formula for the daily cut-off time is based on the average speed of the winner that day, and the type of stage and then calculated as a percentage of the winner’s time. It would make a good school maths exam question. Only try calculating percentages and average speeds once you’re five hours into a mountain stage after several days of racing. It’s not easy, the sharpest minds are blunted by fatigue.
Riders might count on team managers for information but the pace is down to the group, they run the numbers on the speed needed both uphill and downhill. Too fast and the group blows apart, too slow and they’re going home.
Right now Mark Cavendish wears the green jersey but he, like several other sprinters, is not built for the high mountains. If winning the green jersey means sprinting faster than the others it also means surviving the mountains. Indeed as well as getting a lead out in the last kilometre he can also count on his team in the high mountains.
The slowest schedule for Stage 19’s stage across the Galibier and up to Alpe d’Huez predicts the winner will take 3 hours 18 minutes and my calculations put the cut-off at 26 minutes. So let’s call it 3.44 for the slowest permissible time on the day. In fine weather last week, and with fresh legs, more than 7,000 amateurs tackled Stage 19 in the Etape du Tour cyclosport race and. Only four of them managed to beat the Tour de France cut-off time.
Whilst everyone watches the action up front, spare a thought for the guys behind. Thanks to the gruppetto they can work together to reach the finish line but this is a race in itself and for some a time of huge suffering.
Even the sprinters climb at an impressive rate.