The Tour has not held a team time trial this late in the race since 1982 (when there was also a stage nine TTT finishing in Plumelec). The modern tradition has been for the team event to happen in the first few days of the race. The reasoning was that it would be fairer to hold a TTT while all the teams have as close to nine riders as possible – the later in the race it is held, the more chance some teams will have to ride with eight, seven or even fewer riders, who would have no chance against a well-drilled squad of nine riders.
But in the new spirit of route-planning anarchy which seems to be holding sway in the Tour organisers’ office, this has been turned into a Good Thing, and the TTT is coming on the ninth day of the race. What’s more, the TTT has traditionally been held on a flat course. This route, between Vannes on the Breton coast and Plumelec, is seriously rolling, with two long drags, and the final climb up the Côte de Cadoual. At least the distance, at 28 kilometres, is not too outlandish, although it’s still the longest since 2009.
In the past, TTTs are not decisive in winning the Tour, although losing a lot of time in the 2009 event put race favourite Cadel Evans on the back foot, where he stayed for the rest of the race. In the last 19 Tours featuring a TTT, the eventual yellow jersey winner has been on the winning team just five times. But then again, most TTTs are not like this one, and while the stage will give us wonderful television images of teams working in perfect harmony together (and some teams riding more like the event is a third-category road race), the results as they come in will be compelling viewing. How apt that the craziest opening phase of the Tour de France in living memory finishes with the craziest team time trial for over 30 years.
The team time trial doesn’t appear in every Tour de France, and the last few years have seen watered-down short tests which have minimised time losses. As an illustration, the 23km 2011 TTT (won by Garmin) saw five teams within five seconds of each other at the top of the leaderboad. Another two teams lost only up to 12 seconds. Last-placed Euskaltel lost 1-22, which was probably a little disappointing, but it was hardly a race-changing time.
This time around, the gaps may be measured in multiple minutes, and the tactics are going to be complex. The best team time trialling outfits – Etixx, Sky and Orica, for example, will have trained and prepared with their Tour squads, but losing one or two riders will not only reduce firepower, it will affect the operation of the entire team. In modern cycling, the riding order in a TTT is strictly set, so that riders’ strengths can be best used for the good of the team.
For example, when Garmin won in 2011, the line was organised to include Tyler Farrar, a sprinter, going before David Zabriskie, a time triallist, in the line. Thus when Farrar pulled off, Zabriskie would increase the speed, and Farrar, being a sprinter, was the rider in the squad best able to sprint for the last wheel when everybody came past him. The tactics of today’s stage will have to walk a line between supreme organisation, talented riders and, if teams have lost firepower, a fair bit of improvisation. The time is taken on the fifth man across the line. Any six-man teams at this point are going to have a hard day.
Robert Millar's view
“Plumelec is the Wembley of Brittany for cycling fans. The crowd at the finish comes from far and wide to see their heroes suffer on the long drag to the line and atmosphere is a knowing mix of festival meets congregation. But you have to get there first. 28km might not seem much but it's heavy going round here. You can't let anyone down in the TTT, not yourself, not your team mates. It all makes the pressure even greater to do your work, take your turn or just hang on. Painful if you are strong, purgatory if you aren't. And the reason no one smiles beforehand? Everyone is worried.”
Stats & Facts
- Plumelec hosts a Tour de France stage for the fourth time. There was also a TTT here in 1982, for the Tour’s first visit.
- Plumelec hosted the Grand Départ in 1985, when local boy Bernard Hinault won the prologue. In 2008, the first stage of the race finished on the Côte de Cadoual, with Alejandro Valverde winning and taking the yellow jersey.
- TTTs are a lot more reasonable these days – in 1978, there was a 153-kilometre TTT, in which TI-Raleigh beat C&A by seven seconds.
0km Start Vannes 15:00 (first team), 16:45 (last team)
10km Checkpoint Lesnevé 15:11 (first team), 16:56 (last team)
20.5km Checkpoint Le Croiseau 15:34 (first team), 17:08 (last team)
28km Finish Plumelec 15:32 (first team), 17:17 (last team)
The text in this preview first appeared in the July edition of Procycling magazine