Tour de France: Why Mark Cavendish, Marcel Kittel and other sprinters had a premature end to 2018 race

The Tour de France 2018 resumed action on Tuesday after a day’s well deserved break. Riders had just been through nine gruelling stages, including through the treacherous cobbles of Roubaix. And coming ahead, Stages 10, 11 and 12 were equally brutal, going over some of the toughest Alpine climbs. The scheduling of these stages was not by chance: race director Christian Prudhomme had tailored the route to ensure an explosive few days.

And so it proved, as the race exploded on the slopes of La Rosiére on 18 July. Stages 11 and 12 contained five Hors catégorie (the toughest category) climbs and three more, rated category 2 and higher. At the end of Thursday, the general classification battle was turned on its head with Team Sky once again emerging on top (pun not intended) as several top riders fell down the rankings along the away.

Dimension Data rider Mark Cavendish competes during the 2018 Tour de France. Reuters

Dimension Data rider Mark Cavendish competes during the 2018 Tour de France. Reuters

However, during these three brutal days, another parallel battle has been going on, a battle for survival to stay in the race. Le Tour’s mountain stages are a hard nut to crack for even the best climbers in the world, but they are even more brutal for the sprinters in the pack. These fast men who set the flat stages on fire, are completely in hot water when the road ramps upwards. Therefore, there was a lot of apprehension among the sprinters as the Tour approached these three back-to-back mountain stages.

The carnage of these three stages can be gauged by the fact that of the 24 withdrawals till date in this year’s Tour, 15 have been in the last three days. Of those, Thursday’s Stage 12 alone accounted for 10 withdrawals due to various reasons. Among the big names to leave the race were Mark Cavendish, Marcel Kittel, André Greipel and this year’s stage winners Fernando Gaviria and Dylan Groenewegen. All these riders were disqualified for finishing “outside the time limit” or were forced to withdraw themselves knowing well that they would not reach the finish within the cut off.

This brings us to the question that many fans often ask: How can established pros and multiple stage winners like Cavendish not be able to finish within the time limit? It seems to defy common sense that cyclists who train all year long for this race and all its challenges are not even able to finish dead last within a decent time. Valid though those questions are, the reasons for such time based disqualifications are many.

First is the sheer physical toll the Tour takes on any rider, after all they are human. Well trained and insanely fit, but human nonetheless. The last three days have witnessed some of the most difficult climbs scheduled back to back and the scorching temperatures have added to the fatigue. Exacerbating the physical strain are the injuries that many riders are carrying with them due to crashes in earlier stages. The effect of these injuries magnifies on a tough day like Stage 12, causing the rider not being able to match pace with the others.

Then comes the physiology of sprinters. They are generally tall and heavy built, often weighing close to 90 kgs (Cavendish may be an exception here). Further, their muscles comprise mostly of fast twitch fibres, which give their legs explosive pace. But these very merits of their physiology turn as limitations in the mountains. Hence the best climbers are often short and light (some are so skinny they almost appear to be ill). Climbers have slow twitch fibres in their muscles, tailor-made to survive the grinding efforts of a mountain climb. Then there’s the difference in the training patterns of the sprinters and climbers, which are obviously tailored by their teams to suit their respective strengths and the stages being targeted by each rider.

You can almost compare them to their counterparts in Olympic athletics. The short distance sprinters (100-400 metres) are stocky with bristling muscles, while the marathoners are lanky with toned physiques. Just imagine Usain Bolt competing in the Olympic marathon, where do you expect him to finish with respect to Haile Gebrselassie? I would say it is a testimony to sprint cyclists that they are even able to compete in the same race as the climbers and finish within a respectable time. That is also the reason the Tour has a mix of sprint and mountain stages, to suit all riders and make it a diverse competition.

That being said, the Tour organisers would not want the sprinters to completely switch off and coast on the mountain stages, falling back in a group running their own race. As sprinters are never in the race for overall victory, time lost over a mountain stage does not matter to them in the grand scheme of things. Hence, to ensure that they continue to race at a respectable pace on tough mountain stages, Tour has time cut offs on all stages (even on flat and time trial stages). Any rider not finishing within this time is deemed to have finished “outside the time limit” and is disqualified from the race (on Stage 12 it was set at 31 minutes, 12 seconds after the winner’s time).

What is the time cut off and who decides it? Well there is not a pre-set or standard time, instead it depends on various factors. Firstly, each stage is assigned a difficulty coefficient before the start of the Tour. This is factored in with the time of the winner on the day, to arrive at the time cut within which the riders have to finish to avoid disqualification. On extremely difficult days, due to weather, crashes, or any other factor, the Stewards’ Committee may increase the time cut with agreement of the race management. Also, if more than 20 percent of the riders finish outside the time cut, the time may be increased to avoid mass withdrawals.

Exceptional situations can also be brought to the notice of race management, as was the case on Stage 12 this year when Rick Zabel missed the cut by a few seconds. The race management granted him clemency as the rider had suffered a mechanical problem, far away from any support vehicle. So one can see it's a fair system where all teams are generally aware of the rough finish times their sprinters need to target, and due cognisance is provided to unfavourable conditions or situations beyond a rider’s control.

Despite the above explanation, it is always sad to see a lone sprinter turning himself inside out on a hot day in the mountains and still not being able to finish in time. The below tweet aptly captures how lonely it can get for a top sprinter who hits the red zone.

In case of Cavendish, his sheer determination was at display on Stage 11, when despite being sure of disqualification, he chose not to withdraw and instead continued to cycle till the finish line. After the finish, he simply said, “I never climb off…”

From the Green Jersey perspective, these stages were a disaster, as the only sprinters left in the peloton are Peter Sagan, Arnaud Demare, John Degenkolb, Alexander Kristoff and Sonny Colbrelli. With the points advantage Sagan has over the second placed rider, the Green Jersey battle is more or less finished in favour of the Solvak — barring a race ending crash. One always wishes that the Tour finishes with as many riders as were at the start, but that never happens. So despite the above setbacks, the riders live to fight another day and the Tour continues to roll with enough and more action in the other dimensions of the race.

This was a heavy post about withdrawals and setbacks, so let's finish on a high note with the tweet below. It encapsulates the brotherhood within the peloton which transcends team rivalry; and beyond the Tour, this is what sportsmanship is all about!


Updated Date: Jul 21, 2018 11:21 AM

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