Has The 2011 Tour de France Really Been More Dangerous?

Jul 10 2011

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 (cyclingnews.com 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.

Year

Starters

Stage 9 Finishers

% Attrition

1997

198

179

9.60

1998

198

168

15.15

1999

180

167

7.22

2000

180

171

5.00

2001

189

173

8.47

2002

189

182

3.70

2003

198

172

13.13

2004

189

172

8.99

2005

189

175

7.41

2006

180

170

5.56

2007

189*

171

9.52*

2008

180

170

5.56

2009

180

171

5.00

2010

198

181

8.59

2011

198

180

9.09

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.

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