Time bonuses, and the thrilling battle for the yellow jersey in the first week that come with them, are back in the Tour de France.
As part of a restructuring of the points competition, Tour officials reintroduced time bonuses for the first time since eliminating them for the 2008 edition. Finish-line bonuses of 10, 6, and 4 seconds will be in the offing in the opening nine days of racing, but do not apply to the stage 1 time trial nor the stage 9 team time trial. The remainder of the stages, dominated by the Pyrénées and Alps, will not see bonuses in play.
“We want to open up the race,” said Tour director Christian Prudhomme in Paris on Wednesday. “We want the race to be decided on any day of the Tour.”
It’s a compromise to appease the GC riders who argue that time bonuses, especially on mountaintop finishes, can be inherently unfair and can dramatically alter the overall standings. The logic being that a rider with a fast finishing kick atop a brutal climb doesn’t deserve to gain an invaluable 10 seconds (or more, when some bonuses can be as much as 20 seconds) by simply stabbing their bikes across the line first.
By limiting the time bonuses to the first nine stages, the Tour is looking for a middle ground. It wants to protect the integrity of the GC battle, but open up the typically exciting battle for the yellow jersey among the sprinters.
The gateway to the prized maillot jaune was slammed shut, at least to the sprinters, after the 2007 Tour when Tour director Christian Prudhomme introduced the “true time” policy of eliminating time bonuses.
Tour officials rationalized that time bonuses unfairly altered the GC and confused fans. But in practice, the time bonus ban blotted out one of the most interesting battles during the entire Tour: the fight for the yellow jersey among the sprinters.
Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), who rose to prominence in the sprints just as ASO rolled back the time bonuses, has never worn the yellow jersey. Neither have sprinters over the last half decade, such as André Greipel (Lotto-Belisol).
In 2012, for example, Fabian Cancellara won the opening prologue, and held the yellow jersey uncontested for a week, before Bradley Wiggins overtook the lead in the first of two time trials. Wiggins held it all the way to Paris, giving the Tour just two yellow jerseys throughout three weeks of racing — hardly palpating stuff to excite fans, teams, riders, or media. In sharp contrast, five riders held yellow in the first week alone in 2006.
Of course, time bonuses can occasionally decide the outcome in the final GC of a grand tour. In the 2011 Vuelta a España, Juanjo Cobo beat the ascendant Chris Froome by 13 seconds. Take away Cobo’s time bonuses, and Froome would have won by 19 seconds. In the 2008 Vuelta, Alberto Contador beat then-teammate Levi Leipheimer by 46 seconds, but erase the bonuses, and the pair would have finished in Madrid tied on time.
Most agree, however, that time bonuses will help liven up the first half of the Tour.
By the 1990s, the Tour settled into a familiar pattern, with a short opening prologue followed by a week of relatively flat stages that favored the fast-twitch sprinters. That gave riders such as Robbie McEwen, Erik Zabel, and Mario Cipollini the chance to finish close in the prologue, win a stage or two, and they could end up in the yellow jersey. Intra-stage time bonuses — of 6, 4, and 2 seconds — only added to the drama. Those apparently have not been reintroduced for 2015.
Just how much the return of the time bonuses will play on the yellow jersey remains to be seen. The opening day time trial, at nearly 14km, will create major differences, and it could prove difficult to wrestle away the yellow jersey if such see riders such as Tony Martin (Omega Pharma) or Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Shimano) win the stage, and take substantial time with it.
On top of that, the opening week is hardly a string of boring sprint stages, so it’s unlikely that pure sprinters such as Cavendish or Marcel Kittel (Giant) will be cherry-picking time bonuses at their whim.
Stage 2 could well end in a mass sprint, but stage 3 ends atop the Mur de Huy, the challenging wall featured each year in Flèche-Wallonne, hardly sprinter’s country. Stage 4 takes the peloton once again over the treacherous cobbles, which saw the peloton crumble over the punishing pavé. Any sprinters who survive those landmines will face a hard battle to win back bonuses on equally sinuous terrain across Brittany before a punchy finale in stage 8 and the team time trial on stage 9.
Instead, the bonuses could play into the hands of the likes of Peter Sagan (Cannondale), Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge), Michel Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), or even Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing). Those are riders who could have a strong time trial to stay close, and then thrive in the classics-style racing of the first week.
So what to expect? No matter how it plays out, the return of the time bonuses will add an additional layer of drama and intrigue to the first week of racing, without taking anything away from the true fight for the yellow jersey. In fact, their presence will give GC riders even more motivation to battle for stage wins in the first week.
Rather than seeing just two riders in the yellow jersey throughout the entire Tour, like in 2012, the opening nine days of racing of the 2015 Tour could see three or four riders take yellow, perhaps even a few more.
In another significant change, the Tour has reshuffled the points competition in what could be viewed as the “anti-Sagan” rule change. Like time bonuses, the new points rules will apply to the first nine stages only.
In 2014, Sagan won his third consecutive points jersey without winning a stage. By consistently placing in the top-5, Sagan picked up points to coast relatively unchallenged into his third green jersey. Under new rules introduced for 2015, that feat could prove more difficult, with a new rule structure favoring stage winners.
“We want to give more of a bonus for those who win,” Prudhomme said Wednesday.
Under new rules, a stage win will be worth 50 points, compared to 45 under old rules. The gap to second-place is significant, with just 30 points to the runner-up, compared to 35 under former rules. Here are new points for the top-15 — 50, 30, 20, 18, 16, 14, 12, 10, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2 — compared to the former top-15: 45, 35, 30, 26, 22, 20, 18, 16, 14, 12, 10, 8, 6, 4, 2. Those numbers will only put more pressure on green jersey candidates to win.