Time Gap Theory: So Far, So Good

May 22 2010

old stopwatchSo before the chaos in Stage 11 of this year’s Giro (here are some new rider interviews on it), I posited that time gaps in the General Classification have a direct, predictable impact on the racing action.

Specifically, I claimed that there was a “sweet spot” where 1-2 minute GC gaps would reduce nervousness while prompting riders to attack, leading to what, in my biased vision, is great racing. And the Stage 11 reshuffle, while it had the unusual effect of burying a few GC favorites, still established the sort of gaps I think lead to good, aggressive racing—with the added effect of giving some of the strongest men in the race constant incentives to pull back time.

And what have we seen since Stage 11? Vino’ ripping a select group free over a climb that would have otherwise only been a test for the sprinters. Vlad Karpets slipping out of the field behind a breakaway, and Liquigas staking out a 1-2 finish by using Basso to grind the field down on the way up Monte Grappa, and sending Nibali off the front on the way back down.

Now, let’s imagine Nibali is 30 seconds down on the lead, instead of 10 minutes—you think he stays clear in a 40 mile downhill TT? Conversely, if Basso and Nibali are perched high on the GC, do you think Liquigas is willing to shoulder the load on the climb, or take the big risks on the descent?

Amgen Tour of California 2010 by Michael RisenhooverIt’s an especially sharp contrast to the Tour of California, where the GC lead was as fine as a few lines of text in the race bylaws. Yesterday’s queen stage was a visual feast, and an important moment for American racing—a real mountain stage for the first time in decades (minus narrow roads and seriously steep sections)—but it also ended in a a 20-man bunch sprint.

It’s not that riders didn’t attack (plenty of squads were active) or that the pace wasn’t hard (anytime a Schleck gets dropped and 20% of the field HDs or DNFs, you know it’s on), but its that no one was really willing to stick their necks out and go for the win. With 35 seconds separating the top 14 competitors and nary a featherweight climber in sight, the one thought on every DS’s mind is to keep their GC leader from losing time.

I suppose, with four categorized climbs and the transmission-shredding pitches of Monte Zoncolan on the menu, tomorrow’s Giro stage will be the truest test of my time gap theory. Conventional wisdom says the strongest riders will set pace and let the course do the damage, but the still-massive gaps from the overall lead—and critical 1-2 minute gaps between buried GC contenders—suggest some real initiative and risk will have to be taken for a pre-race favorite to get back to true contender status.

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