Today I thought I'd look at how rider's relative abilities play out in Grand Tour stage racing. I was prompted to do so after watching this year's Giro d'Italia's Stage 19 mountain individual time trial.
It's no surprise that to be competitive on general classification (GC) in a grand tour requires, amongst a variety of traits, phenomenal physiological capabilities, and each rider has their strengths and weaknesses relative to their opponents. Clearly climbing ability is a key factor in success, but also a rider's ability in individual time trials (ITT) is also an important factor for success.
Success in the ITT, is more suited to those riders with the highest sustainable power to aerodynamic drag ratio (power to CdA, W/m^2), while climbing steeper gradients a rider's sustainable power to weight ratio (W/kg) is the dominant factor for success.
Some riders are a bit larger and have more power and are relatively more aerodynamically shaped and set up, while others have better power to weight ratios. If you can nearly equal your opponents in one discipline and beat them in the other, then you're well on your way to GC success.
The balance between these two key attributes does vary from race to race as grand tours vary the total number and distance of ITTs, and the number of mountain top finishes. While total metres climbed during a grand tour is a factor for overall fatigue levels, it's the summit finishes and individual time trials that account for the majority of time gained and lost between leading contenders, and these are the critical stages for GC riders.
As an example of this game of physical swings and roundabouts, note the differences in make up of race defining stages in recent editions of the Tour de France:
We can see that the 2012 TdF was far more suited to TT ability than it was for climbing ability, but this year is more weighted towards the climbers. Of course you can't badly falter in either discipline, but 2012 was never one for a pure lightweight climber.
In this 2014 edition of the Giro d'Italia, there have been three time trials: a team time trial, an individual time trial over flat/lumpy terrain and an individual time trial (MTT) up a mountain. There are also 5 high mountain summit finishes. So while ITT performance is important, it was always going to be a rider's climbing prowess and their power to weight ratio that dominated this Giro.
What is interesting with this race though was the inclusion of the MTT, giving us a chance to directly compare riders' flatter ITT and MTT performances.
Both the individual TTs arrived fairly deep into the contest, with the ITT on stage 12 and the MTT on stage 19. I thought it interesting to plot the relative performance of the top GC riders in each of the time trials (click on the pic to see a bigger version). I chose the top 25 on GC (after Stage 19's MTT) as these are the riders more likely to be actually competing on such stages, rather than holding back somewhat to save the legs as much as possible for other duties or race ambitions.
The dots represents each of the top 25 riders on GC after Giro Stage 19. The top 10 riders are highlighted with red dots and text.
The rider's time for the Stage 12 ITT is plotted on the horizontal axis versus their time in the Stage 19 MTT on the vertical axis. e.g. we can see Uran's time in the ITT was a bit over 57:30, and in the MTT a little over 1:07.
When plotted this way we can see whether riders fared relatively better in the flatter ITT, the MTT, or if they performed relatively similarly in each. Of course the further a rider's dot appears to the bottom left indicates faster TT times overall.
The further away the rider's dot is from the diagonal line indicates a dominance of either the ITT (upper left) or the MTT (lower right). If their dot appears close to the diagonal, it indicates their relative performance for the two time trials was balanced.
Those in the upper/left side of the chart are more skewed to perform better in flatter ITTs, and hence their power to aero drag ratio is relatively better than their power to weight ratio, while those in the bottom right side of the chart performed relatively better in the MTT and so their power to weight ratio is relatively better than their power to aero drag ratio.
This Giro is clearly one for the climbers over the TT men given there is an MTT and 5 high mountain summit finishes, and only one (not totally flat) ITT and one TTT.
The balance between each of these two key attributes will play a factor in a rider's likely chances of success in any grand tour and which side of that balance is more dominant depends in large part to the make up of the critical stages. It also points out what element of performance a rider may need to look at in order to improve their overall standing relative to their opponents.
Looking at the chart, there are some riders that would do well to refine their ITT performance, something that's more possible to address with a focus on aerodynamics. Losing weight and gaining power is much harder for a top Grand Tour GC rider to (legally) achieve.
Aru, Rolland and of course Quintana will be dominant riders for the future if they are able to improve their power to aero drag ratio. Of these three, I'd say Rolland and Quintana have the most to gain from aero refinements.