The 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:
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.
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):
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.