Archive | July, 2011

Plateau de Beille Times, 2002 to Present

18 Jul

PdB-sign from Google MapsThe past 48 hours have been a painfully ironic reminder of why I think this sort of comparison is silly. Forget weather, race situation, GC consideration and day-of tactics—unsourced historical records, ambiguous starts and finishes, and conflicting reports are enough hassle on their own.

But with decent footage of every ascent to Plateau de Beille, including two by a yellow-clad Tommy Voeckler, and with the second big mountain-top finish of the year bringing another unexpected result, the opening to take an incisive look at the times is just too tempting.

The “start” at Plateau de Beille is kind of a hard thing to nail down. While the finishes on each of the videos I used looked the same, the heads-up KM-to-go displays varied pretty widely. Even Phil and Paul were inconsistent between years, citing both a sharp left-hand bend in the town of Les Cabannes and a 16km to go KOM banner as official climb starts—of course, as Ted King will tell you, trust the roadside banners at your own peril.

There also seems to be some dispute about the length of the thing. VS coverage seemed to suggest 15k, Strava says 15.2km, The Sport Scientists say 15.8km, and honestly, with the switchbacks, they all might be right. Considering how much climbing there seems to be within Les Cabannes itself—and the fact that there are hundreds of kilometers of racing beforehand—the ambiguity is understandable.

But if we want to maintain some semblance of precision in all this, we have to draw a line somewhere. If were Emperor of Bike Racing, I would declare this intersection the start, since it seems to mark a transition between village roads an unmistakeable, Euro-style climbing. But alas, that quaint sign is almost impossible to pick out behind the fans, on video filmed from the back of a motorbike, and this prominent 150m sign next to a caravans advertisement a few hundred meters earlier will have to suffice. Screenshots for the incredulous:

Rabobank leads up Plateau de Beille in 2007

Leopard-Trek leads the 2011 peloton into Plateau de Beille

Postal in 2002 on Plateau de Beille

You’ll note that there are only four years represented here. Unfortunately, I can’t find uncut video of Pantani’s apparently record-setting ascent from 1998. It’s a great watch if you do get the chance, with Ullrich sprinting back on au bloc after a puncture in Les Cabannes, before Pantani storms away in the drops, but the performance would have required some correction factor anyway, since the ’98 course is reported to have finished at a lower elevation than later ascents.

Armstrong wins Plateau de Beille in 2002

Armstrong wins Plateau de Beille in 2004

Contador wins Plateau de Beille in 2007

Vanendert wins Plateau de Beille in 2011

Because I set my own line for the start, I also had to pin down my own elevation and length numbers. Ideally, I’d be able to head out there and ride it on a sunny day with a barometric altimeter, holding a path roughly equidistant between the center line and shoulder. Sadly, that’s not an option for me, so I’ll have to trust that Strava user Alex Palmer didn’t do too much Paper Boy on his way up. Here’s the “official” segment I’ll be using, from the aforementioned sign to the final curve of the ski-area turnaround: 15.6km, 1214m, 7.8%.

So, numbers-wise, what does that give us? Here are the PdB Stage Winner and “Tommy Voeckler group” (he finished alone in ’04) figures, ordered fastest-to-slowest, measured against the best performance (excluding Pantani for reasons noted above):


Time Back


%Diff VAM

Inferred W/Kg
Winner 2007




Winner 2004




Winner 2002




Winner 2011




Voeckler 2011




Voeckler 2004





The first thing I notice is that, compared to Luz Ardiden, the difference between this year’s times and historical performances isn’t nearly as sharp, especially if you’re looking at Armstrong (’02, ’04). Of course, considering the GC situation in ’03, its no stretch to imagine that the ’03 Luz climb represented a removal of all the stops, both in terms of tactics and in terms of biochemical enhancement. Still, while the gaps weren’t as large, a significant, across-the-board decline for the 2011 numbers remained.

The second thing that catches my eye is Voeckler’s improvement between 2004 and last Saturday (he did race PdB in ’07, but having no GC position to consider, finished 42 minutes down in the autobus). I’d noted that on Thursday, the winner was as far behind Armstrong’s time as Voeckler used to be, but now that we’ve got some direct comparisons, you can see that his presence at the head of affairs isn’t merely the top end of the field slowing down.

There’s always the spectre of doping, I guess, but one likes to think that a rider who revels in his aggressive, opportunistic style wouldn’t feel compelled to dose up in pursuit of a title he doesn’t think he can win. Voeckler is slimmer—he’s lost some of the round-faced, cherubic appeal he had in 2004, he won a very hilly “classic” last fall, and was a presence on the bergs this spring. He’s also got team support, something Brioche la Boulangere just couldn’t offer. In ’04, Voeckler had also been dropped at least once before even arriving the foot of Plateau de Beille, suggesting he might have been having a rougher day—or suffering from a more intense pace.

Which brings me to one last note—the speeds leading up to the foot of Plateau de Beille on Saturday were uncharacteristically slow, and the peloton experienced minimal breakup over the previous climbs. That’s a pretty sharp contrast to 2004, when a group of just 22 (including 7 Posties) crested the penultimate climb, or to 2007, when Contador brought home the 200km, 3-climb stage in 22.5 mph. That’s all the more noteworthy when you consider that Saturday’s stage was over 30km shorter than the previous two ascents.

A Tale of Two Luz Ardidens – 2003 and 2011

15 Jul

Luz Ardiden Sign by Steve Selwood cc-nc-saSince you all loved it so much when I compared Tours de France earlier this week (and since you all took such care to read the admonitions about my data) I’ve decided to try it again for yesterday’s Luz Ardiden stage finish. While I normally have a dim view toward comparing climbing times between races, the contrasts between the ascents of this climb in 2003 and 2011 were too sharp not to look into.

So I obtained digital copies of WCP’s ostensibly unedited DVD from 2003’s Stage 15, and a screencap of yesterday’s live, commercial-free finale on VS, and rolled them each back to a recognizable start point—the moment each heads of state group exits the Pont Napoleon. Since it’s where the riders removed their helmets back in 2003, I think it’s a solid choice for the official climb start.


Has The 2011 Tour de France Really Been More Dangerous?

10 Jul

As Stage 9 brought in another handful of dramatic tumbles and sent out another handful of top names, the most compelling storyline at this year’s Tour de France continues to be the crashes. Everything from the weather, to “muppets” to too many bikes has been blamed, but I can’t help but wonder if this year has actually been any more dangerous than the others.

After all, so much attention has gone to crashes this year because so many GC riders have been taken out. But is there really an increase in overall riders down? It’s rare that more than a passing nod is given to a tumble that takes out a few domestiques, but as far as overall safety is concerned, I think one rider’s abandon is as good (or bad) as any other’s.

So I’ve compiled some data for all the Tours de France since 1997 ( doesn’t go back any further), looking at the percentage of riders who’ve gone home after nine stages. Obviously, it’s not a comprehensive study—early climbs and drug scandals have also played a role in thinning the pack, and not all crashes result in abandons—but I think it’s a decent ballpark metric.



Stage 9 Finishers

% Attrition





























































Avg Attrition: 8.13%*
Avg Attrition w/198: 11.11%*
Avg Attrition w/180: 5.67%
Std Dv: 3.10%*
+1 Std Dv: 11.23%*
(higher rates in red)
-1 Std Dv: 5.04%* (lower rates in green)

The numbers say some interesting things. The first is larger fields definitely increase the number of abandons—the rate of attrition by the 9th stage in a 198-rider field is almost a full standard deviation above the average since 1997, while 180-rider fields fall almost a full standard deviation below it.

As much as I’d like to see as many teams as possible contesting the sport’s biggest prize, it might just make for a better race if a few more people stayed home. Perhaps the 8-rider-teams solution floated by Craig Lewis might be a good way to get as many sponsors involved in the Tour while maximizing rider safety.

The second big takeaway is that this years race hasn’t been as brutal as you might expect in terms of sending riders home. Through nine stages, 2011 is just a touch above the 15-year-average, and well below what you’d expect for such a full field. Certainly the GC contenders have been overrepresented in the early departures, but that higher visibility doesn’t necessarily reflect a more destructive event.

The third thing that stands out to me is that—and I readily confess to falling back on the TREND(); function here—there is a slight trend toward lower attrition rates over the past 15 years (through nine stages, not correcting for field size*):
Rider attrition rate through stage 9 1997-2011

While I wouldn’t say that the ASO has ever been a tremendous advocate for rider safety, I believe this trend reflects the increasing level of sanity they’ve applied to routing each year’s Grand Boucle. Continuing in a direction that began with the end of split stages, organizers have promoted shorter routes as a way to stave off doping, while extending the “safe” zones at the end of flat stages to preserve the campaigns of GC riders caught behind crashes.

The end result of these changes has been—statistically speaking, anyway—a less destructive race, and 2011, for all the carnage we’ve seen out on the roads thus far, has been yet another step in that trend. It’s certainly felt like a more dangerous race, and viewer reactions (mine included) have helped foster that sense. But looking at the numbers, it’s pretty clear that reaction is not reflective of a greater number of crashes, but more a result of a greater public awareness of and affection for the athletes involved.

This post initially misreported the number of starters at the 2007 Tour as 198. Dossards 1-9 were omitted that year, making for only 189 starters, despite dossard 219 being the highest awarded. Numbers and figures marked (*) have been corrected from their initially reported values; the conclusions of the post remain largely unchanged.