From the Mag
Photo: BrakeThrough Media

Grand tour calculus: Stage wins vs. GC standings

How do top riders decide whether to chase GC glory or simply hunt stages in the Tour de France and other grand tours?

Pierre Rolland had plenty of time to celebrate before reaching the finish line. The 30-year-old Frenchman poured everything into a do-or-die attack with seven kilometers to go in stage 17 of this year’s Giro d’Italia, jumping out of a big breakaway. It worked. He zipped up his jersey, pumped his hands in the air in a raw mix of disbelief and relief, and pointed to the names emblazoned on his jersey: Cannondale and Drapac. With his win, Rolland completed a long-awaited goal for himself and his team.

“I can’t say how much this means to me,” Rolland gushed in tears after the stage. “This is my first stage win in a grand tour since 2012. I tried to win the Tour de France, but I knew it wasn’t possible. So we came to the Giro to chase for [stage] victories. I’ve put so much into this.”

For Rolland, the decision to give up his futile chase for overall victory in a grand tour and focus instead on attacks and stage victories proved prophetic. It gave him his biggest win in a half-decade, and earned his team its first grand tour stage win since 2015.

So, was it worth it? For Rolland, who rode into four breakaways at the Giro before hitting it right, it certainly was. More importantly, what was it worth? Is winning a stage with a mix of panache and pure strength, finishing alone in the photo, more valuable than slogging away with no one noticing just to finish seventh overall in the general classification?

It’s a question that riders, team directors, and sponsors must ask themselves each year, and one that often produces different answers. “What really counts in a grand tour is the podium. That has a lot of value,” says BMC general manager Jim Ochowicz. “Riding into the top-10 might mean something to a rider’s development, but in terms of impact, it’s limited. It’s bigger to win a stage or get the jersey for a day or two.”

FOR MANY TEAMS, THAT’S the type of analysis that takes place well before outlining the objectives for the grand tours.

If a team isn’t packing a guaranteed winner such as Nairo Quintana or Chris Froome, taking something positive away from three-week races quickly gets complicated. Coming home from a grand tour with something — be it a stage win, a day or two in a leader’s jersey, or a top-10 showing on GC — is ultimately why a team lines up to race. It’s also why sponsors invest millions of dollars in the team.

“If you’re looking at it strictly from a commercial point of view, once you’re out of the frame of the favorites’ group fighting for the podium with the top five or six guys, the value of GC decreases exponentially,” says Cannondale-Drapac manager Jonathan Vaughters. “If you can finish on the Tour podium, that’s huge because there is a high media-value return. Once you’re beyond the podium, fighting for seventh or eighth, you’re better off fighting for stages.”

For Rolland, Vaughters, and the Cannondale-Drapac team during the 2017 Giro d’Italia, what was most valuable was obvious. For one glorious day deep in the Italian Dolomites, Rolland and his Cannondale-Drapac team were kings.

Do you remember who finished seventh overall in the 2017 Giro? Bauke Mollema.

Grand tours are unique beasts. As one sport director put it, it’s like contesting a monument every day. The three weeks of racing offer plenty of opportunities for teams to score results. Or so you’d think.

When you slice away stages suited to a particular type of rider, the number of realistic chances for breakaway stage victories shrinks. A grand tour typically has two stages for time trialists (or three, if there’s a team time trial), and another three or four, if not more, designed to allow the main GC contender battle to take shape. Add another six to eight stages for pure sprinters and there’s not much left over for the adventurous.

“Winning a stage in a grand tour is very hard,” says stage-hunter Thomas De Gendt. “You cannot attack when it’s a sprint stage, or a day when you know the GC riders will be riding hard. When you go, you must give everything. You have to study the route to choose the right day.”

Twenty-two teams line up for most grand tours, and there are 21 stages and three GC podium spots up for grabs. (There are also the less important team classification, best young rider, and best climber competitions.) In an ideal and equitable world, there would be something for everyone. Of course, the pie is rarely sliced up along such democratic lines.

“There are two big trophies every day: the stage win and the leader’s jersey,” Ochowicz says. “Even if it’s for one day, winning a stage or holding the jersey, most teams can say their grand tour is a success. That’s especially true at the Tour de France.”

As far as grand tours go, the 2017 Giro was fairly well distributed. Some 18 different riders from 15 WorldTour teams won across the race’s 21 stages. Six different riders (from five teams) held the leader’s pink jersey. The 2016 Tour de France, which saw multiple wins for Peter Sagan and Mark Cavendish, featured 14 winners from 12 teams in 21 stages, with four riders from four teams holding the maillot jaune.

While being “king for a day” is certainly no easy feat, reaching the podium — three spots for three weeks of hard work — proves even more elusive.

There are roughly 600 elite professional cyclists in the world. GC-caliber riders represent an incredibly small talent pool. There are only three active racers who’ve won the Tour: Froome, Alberto Contador, and Vincenzo Nibali. There are only five others who’ve won any grand tour: Nairo Quintana, Damiano Cunego, Alejandro Valverde, Tom Dumoulin, and Fabio Aru. Add another dozen riders who are truly within podium range and it becomes readily apparent that it’s a very elite club.

Teams invest a lot of time, money, and energy in developing grand tour talent. It rarely comes to fruition.

“There are not many people who can attain that one pinnacle in our sport — winning the Tour de France,” Ochowicz says. “To find a guy like Richie [Porte] is like finding the next Brett Favre. We had Cadel Evans, now we have Richie. It’s huge for us.”

For the teams who don’t have an assured grand tour candidate (as if any grand tour podium were guaranteed), it often comes down to betting on a young talent, in hopes they’ll blossom into the next Tom Dumoulin, for example. There are also those teams willing to take a chance on squeezing one or two more big rides out of an established GC star, much like Trek-Segafredo’s wager on Contador. Some teams, such as Lotto-Soudal or Cofidis, have given up altogether on the general classification. Instead, they hunt breakaways or race for the bunch sprints.

“It’s bloody hard to find a real grand tour-level rider,” says Orica-Scott sport director Matt White. “When we started, we didn’t have the money to sign a big-name GC rider, so we wanted to develop young riders.” Fortunately for the Australian squad, the investment has paid off. The team boasts three grand tour contenders in Esteban Chaves, and brothers Simon and Adam Yates.

FOR THE 2016 SEASON, Cannondale-Drapac made a “Moneyball” bet on Rolland. Vaughters picked him up relatively cheap, yet he still believed the French all-rounder could deliver on his long-held GC promise after finishing three times in the top-10 at the Tour.

Vaughters invested hundreds of thousands of dollars on the project. He picked Rolland and others to spend weeks at altitude on Spain’s Teide volcano. Vaughters hired Sky’s former nutritionist Nigel Mitchell and former Team Highroad and Katusha trainer Sebastian Weber. Soigneurs, mechanics, and other staffers followed Rolland throughout the season.

What happened? After a harrowing first week of the 2016 Tour, the Frenchman crashed in the first mountain stage. His GC hopes were shattered.

During the winter Vaughters sat down with Rolland and convinced him to target stage victories at the Giro and Tour this year, instead of racing for the GC. Why not? Rolland had already won at Alpe d’Huez, and knew the sweet taste of victory.

“It was a very easy conversation to have.

Pierre loves to attack, and he hates the style of racing of meting it out, little by little, chipping away at the GC. He immediately embraced [the idea],” Vaughters says.

This year, Rolland tweaked his training and changed his mentality. Instead of flailing away to get seventh place at the Giro d’Italia, the team put the focus on winning a stage. And it paid off. After riding into several breakaways, the team struck gold in the Dolomites.

SO WHAT’S BETTER for the sponsors? Stage wins might get them some publicity for the day, but a three-week-long assault on GC is the larger narrative. It all depends on who’s paying the bills, and what they want.

Until the 1990s, sponsors mostly backed teams to expand their brand recognition across Europe, and counted on TV and print media exposure that came with winning stages and targeting the GC. In those days, even riding into the day’s breakaway had a certain media value.

Conversely, when Orica, a major Australian mining company, backed the GreenEdge team as its title sponsor, it wasn’t necessarily pressuring the squad for top results.

“They wanted to be associated with a successful Australian sporting franchise,” White says of Orica. “It was good for their marketing, and something they could use with their staff. They were proud of us, but the real pressure to win came from the riders and staff inside the team.”

The media landscape has also undergone major upheaval since the ’90s. Social media outlets like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are challenging traditional print and TV media. Bloggers drive the conversation online, while many mainstream newspapers don’t even bother sending reporters to races these days.

Media hits simply don’t count for that much anymore. Many of today’s sponsors are looking for engagement and lifestyle association rather than old-school media impressions. When CSC (an international data company) backed Bjarne Riis’s team for nearly a decade, its primary interest was using the team as a vehicle for VIP trips to schmooze top clients, helicoptering in to watch a stage on Alpe d’Huez. The payback would be million-dollar deals come negotiation time.

The style of sponsorship has changed as well. In recent years, there has been a relative surge in the emergence of the millionaire “super fan” — individuals who love the sport and back a team simply because they’re rich enough to do so. The list includes BMC’s Andy Rihs, GreenEdge’s Gerry Ryan, Slipstream’s Doug Ellis, Katusha’s Igor Makarov, Quick-Step team owner Zdenek Bakala, Sky’s James Murdoch, and former owner Oleg Tinkov, all millionaires (and in some cases, billionaires).

The arrival of quasi-state institutions like Astana from Kazakhstan and Middle East oil money from Qatar, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates has also changed the game. None of them are necessarily selling anything, but they’re spending millions on bike teams. Why? Sometimes they like the legitimacy that comes with being associated with an elite international sport. More likely, they’re bike geeks with deep pockets.

Sponsors might not be demanding teams to ride into breakaways, but they do expect and insist on results. It comes down to a positive representation of their brand aligned with the drive to perform and succeed.

WHEN IT COMES TO CONTRACTS and salaries, measuring the value of a stage win versus a top-10 overall finish requires a completely different calculus.

In fact, the factors involved are nearly the opposite of what drives the media needle. Tenth place in the Giro might not engender much media coverage — who was 10th in the Giro? Davide Formolo — but if you’re a 24-year-old Italian climber at the end of his contract, it could mean hitting the lottery.

“Formolo is thinking that his future contract value will be driven a lot more by in the top-10 at the Giro than by winning a stage,” Vaughters says. “He wasn’t in the GC frame at all during the Giro. He was barely hanging on to the front group, but many will see him as someone who could someday finish on the Giro podium. Formolo will get paid a good amount of money because of that.”

Cycling is sport’s truest open and free market. There are no rider unions, no salary caps, and no profit sharing. Salaries are limited only by how much sponsors are willing to pay. Without any additional income from ticket sales, TV rights, or licensing fees, teams spend 80 to 90 percent of their budgets on salaries. How a rider’s value is determined depends on many factors, but two things stand out as the most important denominators: consistency and potential.

Teams and sponsors agree the only real marketable value in the GC contest is riding onto a grand tour podium. Thus, riders who demonstrate they can perform at the elite level over three weeks can earn big bucks. Of course, teams need money to pay the riders who do the work so that their big stars can win, but cycling’s biggest paychecks go to the riders who can consistently deliver results or show the potential that they might be able to do so very soon.

With top-level pros earning several million dollars a year, teams are more willing to place a longer-term bet on a young, up-and-coming rider. That way the team has someone who might be able to reach the Tour podium within a few years. In many ways, it beats going all-in on an established star with a high price tag and a costly entourage.

VeloNews spoke with one of the top agents operating in the peloton today, who represents some of the leading GC and one-day riders, and he confirmed that a grand tour top-10 packs the most value when it comes from a young, emerging rider.

““Winning a stage in a grand tour is very hard. You cannot attack when it’s a sprint stage, or a day when you know the GC riders will be riding hard. When you go, you must give everything. You have to study the route to choose the right day.”
– Thomas De Gendt

“Teams will pay a lot for potential,” says the agent, who asked not be named for this article. “A young guy, for example Louis Meintjes, teams will pay top dollar because they see he could get better. An older rider, even if they can still get a seventh or eighth in the Tour, won’t fetch the same price because people don’t see much room for improvement.”

Riders can also see their value spike rapidly only to see it drop just as fast, especially if they do not fulfill their perceived potential. Tejay van Garderen was fifth overall in his second Tour de France at 23 in 2012, and his market value skyrocketed. Hyped as a future Tour winner, he once more reached fifth in the 2014 Tour, but has since finished only two of his last five grand tours — and nowhere near the top-5. This year’s Giro was a chance for van Garderen to revive his GC credentials. Though he managed to win his first grand tour stage, he flopped in the GC and only finished 20th.

Will van Garderen demand as high a salary after his stage victory? The agent believes the American will take a pay cut.

The highest paid riders in the peloton are Tour king Froome and classics star Sagan, who each earn about $5 million per year (not counting bonuses, prize money, appearance fees, and other sponsorship deals). Behind them are riders like Greg Van Avermaet, Nairo Quintana, Richie Porte, and Alberto Contador, all earning between $2-3 million per year.

A rider can also make a very good living by giving up on their GC ambitions and targeting stage victories. Lotto-Soudal’s De Gendt is the latest in a long line of riders who’ve made a career of winning out of breakaways. Others like Jens Voigt and Richard Virenque were never going to win the Tour de France, but every July, more often than not, they would bring home a stage victory.

“If a rider can consistently produce, especially if they can deliver a stage win year after year at the Tour, their market value goes through the roof,” Vaughters says. “If Rolland wins a stage at the Tour this year after winning one at the Giro, he will be expensive.”

THE NEXT TIME YOU’RE watching a grand tour, look beyond the suffering faces and try to decipher the true motives of riders: Who’s pushing their buttons? Is it the team egging them on to secure points for the season-long WorldTour ranking? Is it because their contract is about to expire?

When you see a rider like Rolland or Steve Cummings in a breakaway, don’t think it’s simply because he woke up feeling he had good legs. Those calculated attacks have taken months to plan.

When a young rider like Meintjes or Formolo is slaying himself to stay in the top-10 — when logic might dictate otherwise — he’s doing it with an eye on tomorrow’s paycheck.

That tug-of-war between GC and stage wins comes to the fore even more so during the Tour — still the center of the cycling universe — often to the detriment of the racing action.

“That’s the difference between races like [the Critérium du Dauphiné] and the Tour: Guys don’t want to finish fifth or sixth [at the Dauphiné.] They want to win, and they’re willing to risk losing fifth or sixth to try and win,” says Quick-Step’s Dan Martin. “At the Tour, everyone seems happy to race for ninth or eighth or whatever. I learned that last year the hard way. I lost maybe two or three positions on GC by trying to attack and win stages.”

To deduce the motivations of a given team or rider on any given stage or race, you must see cycling for what it’s all about: money. If it pays to give up on GC and hunt stages instead, that’s what will happen. Professional cycling is all about getting into the frame, and then cashing the check.