A Tale of Two Luz Ardidens – 2003 and 2011

Jul 15 2011

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.

I realize there are conspiracy theorists among you who will seize on the different angles and road surfaces, but I assure you, it’s the same bridge. You can see the same monument in the approach to it each year.
Heads of State cross Pont Napoleon, 2003

Heads of State cross the Pont Napoleon, 2011

I likewise stopped the tape as each stage winner and heads of state group crossed the line at the top of the hill, put both figures into a spreadsheet, and began calculating elapsed times. The twisting approach and short finishing straight appear to be identical between the two ascents, so assuming that nothing funky happened in encoding either of the videos, the numbers are about as accurate and verifiable as any you’ll find.

Lance Luz Ardiden Bike Throw, 2003

However, Sammy Sanchez, as he is wont to do, decided to make things complicated. He escaped on the descent leading into Luz Ardiden, and crossed the bridge just ahead of the other leaders. You can’t really see him as he exits, because the camera cuts back to the chase, so I used the moment of the cut as the timestamp for his crossing.

So, what did the numbers look like?

2003: 2011:
Climb Winner 0:34:56 Climb Winner 0:38:51
Climb 1st Group


Climb 1st Group

Winner VAM


Winner VAM

Group VAM


Group VAM

Winner W/Kg


Winner W/Kg

Group W/Kg


Group W/Kg

Time Diff

%Change in VAM
Climb Winner


Winner VAM

Climb Group


Group VAM


Before I begin drawing any conclusions, let me just say that I’m well aware yesterday’s finish (despite a very similar profile) came at the end of 212km, compared to 160km in 2003. I also know that the lead group was much smaller in ’03, and that today’s finish had a decent tailwind, and that Armstrong’s 2003 time includes a number of historic mishaps. These, and the innumerable other things that make each new bike race interesting, are the reasons I generally think comparing times between ascents is stupid.

But the differences here are enormous, to the point that they negate almost any imaginable interference. The 10% drop in VAM (calculated, along with watts-per-kilo, from Strava’s figures of 982m and 7.5%) is insane. It basically says that after 5.5 hours in the saddle, a Cat 1 climb, and the Tourmalet, the top pros slowed down enough that even I can (very briefly and while fresh) reach a similar ascent speed.

Because Sammy Sanchez started ahead of the rest, it’s possible that Frank Schleck had a faster time it was actually Frank Schleck who had the fastest climb on the day—38:39, VAM of 1524, W/Kg of 5.54. But the fact that there aren’t any glaring differences in performance between the winner and the other heads of state is another striking change. In 2003, Carlos Sastre finished three minutes down on Armstrong and was 11th. That same margin on today’s stage barely put you in the top 25.

So what’s the cause? I’m sure many of you will go on in the comments section about people marking a sub-par Contador, or fewer GC riders around to kick up the tempo, or an overall race un-impacted by time-trials, or the flogging Leopard-Trek doled out over the Tourmalet, or any other of the innumerable, pleasant reasons why yesterday’s finish cannot possibly be compared to anything, and that I’m a fool for even trying.

So I’ll just direct you to this fact: the difference between Lance Armstrong’s ’03 time and Sanchez’ mark yesterday is almost identical to the amount of time one Thomas Voeckler lost to Armstrong in the Frenchman’s first day of high mountain maillot jaune defense, way back in 2004.

A peloton at two speeds? C’est possible.

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