With smaller teams, tighter cut-off times, and short, explosive stages, Tour sprinters find themselves off the back.

L’ALPE D’HUEZ, France (VN) — Cycling’s fastest men are dropping like flies at this year’s Tour de France.

Three Alpine stages have decimated the race’s lineup of heavy sprinters, with some of the peloton’s marquee fast men either abandoning or being eliminated by the time cut. The carnage began on stage 11 from Albertville to La Rosière, which saw Mark Cavendish, Mark Renshaw (both Dimension Data) and Marcel Kittel (Katusha-Alpecin) all finish well behind the stage’s time cut.

The dynamic continued during stage 12, a 175km stage to l’Alpe d’Huez. Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo) was the first sprinter to abandon, and then Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors), and Andre Greipel (Lotto-Bellisol) called it quits. Also abandoning was Rick Zabel (Katusha), who was time cut on stage 11, but allowed to continue because he suffered a mechanical.

“I cannot remember ever seeing something like this.”
– Rolf Aldag

In total 12 riders left the race during the two stages.

“I cannot remember ever seeing something like this,” said Dimension Data manager Rolf Aldag, who raced the Tour 10 times during his 16-year pro career. “There were always sprinters in difficulty but in two days we have seen a challenge.”

Now, just three sprinters with bunch-kick Tour victories are left to contest the remaining flat stages: Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates), and Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ). And second-tier fast men like Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Merida) and Christophe Laporte (Cofidis), may seize an opportunity to win.

VeloNews spoke with riders and team sources to better understand why so many sprinters left the race, why some sprinters survived, and whether the Tour de France organizers need to adjust the rules.

Mark Cavendish finished stage 11 but was well outside the time cut. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Reasons for the exodus

This Tour’s three-day run through the Alps was unquestionably punishing, yet previous races have included similarly hard routes. So why did so many sprinters fail?

Riders and directors pointed to various reasons. The shrinking of teams from nine to eight riders has forced some teams to choose riders for the GC instead of the sprint, which has decreased the size of the grupetto that forms on sprint stages. Modern training methods and specialization have perhaps widened the gap between sprinters and climbers.

“There is a feeling that the pace is very fast this year,” said Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo). “It was clear from the first mountain day that the real sprinters were going to have to fight to get in the [cutoff] time.

All sources that VeloNews spoke with pointed at stage 11 as the primary culprit for the exodus. Just 108km long (67 miles), the stage included three successive and sizable climbs, with almost no flat road. It was yet another experimental route organized by ASO to inject excitement into the Tour. And it was sandwiched between two other punishing stages in the mountains.

“It was ridiculously hard,” said Heinrich Haussler (Bahrain-Merida). I’ve never done a stage like that in my life.”

The short, punishing route meant that the sprinter grupetto had to ride a stiff tempo just to avoid the time cut. For every stage, the Tour sets the time cut as a percentage of the winning time. Which percentage organizers choose is based on a convoluted system that factors in the overall difficulty and average speed of the winner. Sprinters often rely on flat roads to narrow the gap to the front group on climbing days. Without much flat, sprinters had to push themselves on the climbs harder than they may have done on a longer stage.

“It was ridiculously hard. I’ve never done a stage like that in my life.”
– Heinrich Haussler

The effort to simply survive was huge, and it had consequences for Thursday’s stage to l’Alpe d’Huez.

“If a sprinter had to go full-gas yesterday, then there was nothing left today,” Aldag said after Thursday’s stage. “There was no way to recover property overnight and get ready for a big stage like today.”

The pace did not slow down on stage 11 to l’Alpe d’Huez, as an early breakaway attacked on the Col de la Madeleine, forcing Team Sky to ride a hard tempo to keep the move in check. The aggression shed the sprinters within the opening kilometers of the stage. That tempo only increased throughout the day, as Sky’s domestiques poured on the pace.

The grupetto fell further and further behind. Tony Gallopin (Ag2r La Mondiale) and Groenewegen were first to be dropped, and eventually gave up after determining they could not make the time cut. Gaviria and Greipel were next.

John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo) said Sky’s intense pacing at this year’s Tour added to the challenge.

“The problem is Sky is so strong. They go their own pace and still they are with a full team at the front, so the distance to [sprinters] only grows,” Degenkolb said. “That pace is too high for me and a lot of guys to stay close.”

Thor Hushovd, twice a winner of the Tour’s points classification, believes another factor may have contributed to the loss: June races. In recent years the peloton’s fastest sprinters have chosen to race the Amgen Tour of California and Tour of Slovenia, rather than tackle traditional warm-up races Critérium du Dauphiné and Tour de Suisse. By choosing this option, the sprinters miss out on long, punishing stages in the Alps.

Sagan and Démare both raced the Tour de Suisse.

“A lot of these guys didn’t do a stage race with bigger hills in it, and they are perhaps missing those efforts,” Hushovd said. “I always needed to do the Dauphiné to get used to the hills. That was an important part of the preparation for me.”

Marcel Kittel was also time-cut on stage 11. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

How some survived

Teams saw the potential for time cuts during stages 11 and 12 and prepared specific strategies to help their sprinters survive the Alps. Degenkolb focused on a pacing strategy to help him survive the Col de la Madeleine without falling too far back. Directors had teammate Michael Gogl stay behind with Degenkolb to pace him up the Col de la Croix de Fer and Alpe d’Huez. Degenkolb finished 32 minutes in arrears.

“It was important for me not to over-pace myself on the first climb,” Degenkolb said. “I knew that 1km into the first mountain I would never see the bunch again, so I had to simply let it go and then ride at a pace I was comfortable with to the finish.”

Other teams employed a completely different strategy. Bora-Hansgrohe predicted the time cut would be approximately 38 minutes for the stage. Directors had Peter Sagan ride near his limit to the top of the Col de la Madeleine in order to stay as close as possible to the front group. Sagan then chased on the descent before settling into a comfortable rhythm. He rode to the finish alongside his teammate, Daniel Oss.

“Peter’s finish line was the top of the Madeleine,” said Sagan’s coach Patxi Vila. “So then you have 38 minutes to lose over two climbs. Downhill you go the same speed as the front group. So that is 19 minutes to lose on each [climb]. That’s 1.5 minutes per each kilometer, and he can do that.”

John Degenkolb rode a planned pacing strategy alongside teammate Michael Gogl to survive Thursday’s stage 12 to l’Alpe d’Huez. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

The fallout

The day after the abandons, calls to permanently widen the time cut echoed through the peloton.

“I think the time cut was too narrow,” said Brian Holm, director at Quick-Step. “When you see somebody like Greipel lose it — and he is quite good in the mountains — it leads you to believe it is too narrow.”

Aldag said the Tour should adjust the cut for shorter stages that feature mountains.

“When the length of racing is only three and a half hours in the mountains then there is simply no time to make it up,” Aldag said. “You only have up, down, up, down, there’s no flat to take it back.”

Indeed Tour officials did extend the cutoff time during Thursday’s stage to Alpe d’Huez, however, the decision was made midway through the stage, after Gaviria, Greipel, and Groenewegen all quit. That decision was puzzling to riders in the peloton, even those who survived the day.

“You only have up, down, up, down, there’s no flat to take it back.”
– Rolf Aldag

“You saw many sprinters abandon yesterday because we had a tight time cut. We started the day and we thought we had 30 minutes and we thought it would be hard,” Kristoff said. “They moved the cut during the stage which was a bit strange. We were fighting for half an hour and suddenly we have 40-minute time cut. It’s strange when they change the rules during a race.”

Whether or not Tour organizers extend the cut remains to be seen. What is known is that the Tour’s sprinters will face a similar dynamic in the Pyrenees, where climbs, a short 65km stage, and intense racing are all on tap.