July 21st, 2006


how to watch tomorrow's tour de france time trial

This is the closest Tour de France in years: the top 3 spots are all within 30 seconds of each other, and the contest between Cunego and Fothen for Best Young Rider is separated by 5 seconds. The course is again fairly technical, with a couple of fairly dangerous turns, so once again it would seem that the earlier riders (the riders are started in reverse order of how well they are placed coming into the stage, with the leader starting last) will be encouraged to take risks in order to move up, and that the later riders may be able to avoid them because they'll know already if their opponents' risks paid off. But last year all three of the eventual podium finishers were very strong time trialists, and this year there is much more variation in the time trialing abilities of the top riders.

So let's look at how we'd expect the riders to do if they were careful in all of the turns. Tomorrow's course is about 10% longer than the first time trial, and also a little hillier, and we've been going for another two weeks, so I'm going to imagine that the each rider's time tomorrow is 20% more than their time the first time around. That would give the following expected result in the overall times after the time trial, with times in seconds away from first place:

0 Floyd LANDIS (currently 3rd)
66 Carlos SASTRE (currently 2nd)
90 Oscar PEREIRO SIO (currently 1st)
169 Andréas KLÖDEN
215 Cadel EVANS
275 Denis MENCHOV
... (four other riders at 390 through 730 seconds) ...
1062 Marcus FOTHEN (currently 16th)
... (four other riders at 1095 through 1320 seconds) ...
1394 Damiano CUNEGO (currently 15th)

Notice the rather large gap between Fothen and Cunego. What everyone is wondering, especially Fothen, is whether Cunego's last time trial was anomalously bad, which would imply that he'd be more of a threat. But even if he is, I don't see what Fothen gets out of taking any risks. He's not likely to break into the top ten unless someone ahead of him crashes badly, and he knows no matter what he's at least a little bit better time trialist than Cunego, which is all he needs, and while riding first means his feedback is not as immediate as Cunego's he'll still get some, so he'll know if he needs to start attacking the turns by about a third of the way through his ride. Cunego on the other hand has more of a chance to move up in the standings, and riding in the next slot behind Fothen will help him psychologically if tries to maintain Fothen's pace. Cunego as a relatively inexperienced rider will have trouble choosing the best pace, and my guess is that he will simply try to ride according to the pace Fothen sets. Probably, this will be too much for him and he'll bonk part way through. If this happens the commentators will either say "what bad luck he bonked" or maybe if they're sophisticated "what a bad choice he made in trying to go so fast at the beginning of his ride". But this is his best strategy: maybe he'll be able to keep it up, and maybe Fothen will choose a pace that conserves too much energy, and anyway from Cunego's point of view either he keeps up with Fothen in which case he gets Best Young Rider by a few seconds, or he doesn't in which case he winds up with a respectable finish anyway and gets to try again next year.

On to the top contenders. They know exactly how hard they can ride without bonking. Those top 6 places are awfully tight and a few seconds here or there might make all the difference. I think Sastre and Landis will assume that Pereiro will fade and worry about each other and Kloden. Kloden has a lot to gain and not much to lose by taking a lot of chances. He also has a teammate, Michael Rogers, who he'll be using for a time reference, and if you're looking to see how everyone's doing I'd suggest making that comparison (instead of to the winner) as well. Pereiro likewise will be incented to take some risks to hang on to his top spot. Sastre and Landis I think will start out taking risks and then settle down once they start to see some time feedback. We'll see what happens...