Tour de France 2017 is in its final leg. The riders have cycled almost 3500 kilometres and have crossed the Pyrenees and Alps in the past 19 days. Now a 22.5 km Individual Time Trial (ITT) stares them on the penultimate day of the Tour. This is the last chance for the General Classification hopefuls to either rise to the top, or at least improve their place in the top ten. An ITT is a pivotal stage in every Tour, so let us understand more about this speciality in general, and what it means for the race this year.
The French call the Individual Time trial Le contre la montre, which translates to “the race against the clock.” There could not be a description for the speciality, in which each rider fights his own individual battle. It is racing at its purest, with no team tactics, no pacers, no hide-and-seek games between competitors and no scope for any error. For these reasons, ITTs are also referred to as “the race of truth.” In an ITT, all cyclists have to ride around a road circuit and are timed individually (riders start at equal intervals, usually at one to three minute gaps). The rider with the least time on the day wins, simple.
The ITT tests each rider’s endurance to his maximum and the strongest rider on the day wins. This test takes special significance at the fag end of the race, when all riders are carrying heavy legs. Considering the pace and special nature of the stage, riders have special equipment, from the bikes down to the shoe covers. Also each rider has his own custom settings like saddle height, wheel discs, gear ratios, et all. But don’t think that the fancy bikes and aero kit give any rider an unfair advantage, because unlike the exorbitant world of Formula One, in humble cycling all teams can afford the best kit and are very evenly balanced when it comes to equipment. So it's just the rider’s performance on the day that makes the difference.
This year the Tour has two ITTs, a short 14 kilometre one raced on the stage 1 prologue in Düsseldorf, and the second coming up on Saturday. Together the two ITTs count for less than 50 km of the total distance, which may seem irrelevant in the overall calculations. But longer time trials tend to favour time trial specialists against the pure climbers, hence the distance of ITTs is always a matter of debate.
This year the pivotal ITT is being held in the city of Marseille, which will start and finish in the iconic Stade Vélodrome (better known for football and rugby). This is a new twist because the Tour has not seen stadium finishes in a really long time (probably not after World War II). The route is mostly flat, except a short 1.2 km climb (albeit at 9.1% gradient) to the basilica of Notre-Dame de la Garde. With a 2 km descent to follow, the route is a fair mix of challenges, testing the overall skills of any rider.
Despite the many crashes we have seen in this year’s race, there are still many heavyweights fighting for the stage win on Saturday. We can expect speeds in excess of 50 km/hr which makes this stage for riders not only with high endurance, but also sharp mental focus and most of all, the hunger to win. So today, we cover the main contenders battling for the stage honours.
Tony Martin (Team Katusha Alpecin) is the quintessential time-trial specialist with a very decorated career. The German has four world championships, an Olympic silver medal and three ITT victories in the Tour de France. These figures do not need any explaining and despite his age (32 years), he is one of the favourites as always. Martin finished eight seconds behind the winner of the stage 1 ITT and would be hungry to end the Tour on a high.
Stefan Küng (BMC Racing Team) is at the opposite end from Tony martin as regards to age (23 years) and is at the dawn of his cycling career. Despite his young age, he has already impressed this year, finishing second in the prologue in Düsseldorf. That difference of five seconds to first place must have stung the Swiss rider and with a slightly longer course, he has a better opportunity to go one better.
Taylor Phinney (Cannondale Drapac) might not strictly be among the favourites for the Saturday race, but he deserves a special mention. The two-time world champion in the individual pursuit (in track cycling) suffered a horrendous crash in the US National Road Race Championships in 2014. The extent of his injuries were so severe that he feared ever walking again, and still does so with a limp at times. But the American has fought adversity and earned his place in one of the top teams in the Tour. Though he finished 12th in Düsseldorf, an upset victory on Saturday would be sweet justice.
— Taylor Phinney (@taylorphinney) August 31, 2014
While the above riders will give their all to be the best on the day, we also have the top three in the General Classification who will be the last riders to hit the course. As mentioned earlier, this is the last opportunity for Bardet and Uran to outperform Froome, so it will be interesting to know if it is likely to happen.
Christopher Froome (Team Sky) would say not a chance. He has won similar time trials in the 2013 & 2016 edition of the Tour (which he went on to win overall) and is considered one the best time trialist in the peoloton. Whilst he has not been as dominant in the Olympic version of the ITT, he still has two bronze medals to his name. On stage 1 this year, Froome finished sixth which shows he has not lost his touch. The Brit is searching for his first victory of the season and the weekend would not be a bad time to get that.
Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) is second in the overall classification, sandwiched between Froome and Uran. His odds for making up 23 seconds on Froome are low, so Bardet would be more focussed on not losing his six second lead to Uran. The French rider is a pure climber not known for ITT skills and it showed in his low 63rd place on stage 1, where he came 51 seconds behind the winner in a short 14 km route. So Bardet may pace his race with an eye on Uran’s timing (who will start before the Frenchman), to conserve his place on the podium.
Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale Drapac) is the unpredictable rider among the top three. Generally known for his time-trial potential, the Columbian could only finish 95th on stage 1 this year. That was probably owing to him being over cautious, bartering a slow time in favour of making it safely to the finish line on a treacherous day. Froome is most wary of Uran on this circuit and whilst 28 seconds maybe a little too much to cover, Uran can certainly jump over Bardet with a decent performance.
Individual Time Trials are always one of the most interesting stages to watch in any Tour and expect no less this time around. To see the top riders in the world on out-of-the-world bikes, pushing themselves to the limit, would enthral any sport fan. Whilst the top three may have been decided, their order on the podium can still change. And this time, it is each man on his own!
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Updated Date: Jul 22, 2017 12:02:38 IST