Want to get a rider primed and skilled-up to win the Tour de France? Send them to the spring classics.
That’s according to Mitchelton-Scott sport director Matt White, who says there is nothing else on the calendar that compares to the stress, speed, and pressure of the Tour de France as the rigors of the one-day classics.
“The only way you can prepare for the Tour is giving them exposure to races that are similar, and the only ones that come close to the Tour are the classics,” White said. “Only Flanders or Roubaix has that similar sort of stress and that same claustrophobic feeling as the Tour.”
That contrarian view rubs up against conventional wisdom that says to win the Tour, a rider must hone down to climb with the best but retain power to time trial. And nothing in that recipe calls for sending skinny Tour de France contenders rattling across the pavé. The traditional road to July includes a run at races like Paris-Nice or the Critérium du Dauphiné, with altitude camps mixed in as well.
But what White is referring to isn’t the fitness test required to win the Tour, but rather the physical and psychological prowess that a GC captain needs to endure during the Tour de France.
White goes so far as to claim that a significant difference between riders who have the engine to win a Giro d’Italia or a Vuelta a España, and a Tour champion is their ability to handle the tension and stress of racing when everything is on the line day-in, day-out. And no other race has that same built-in drama as the one-days.
“For riders who’ve never raced the Tour before, I tell them it’s just like racing the classics every day,” he said. “It’s like racing Liège or Flanders every day for three weeks in a row. It’s that level of stress.”
While White agrees that the Giro and Vuelta have their tense moments, neither of those races have the vice-like pressure that squeezes the peloton for 21 days of racing during the Tour. Even the modern Giro still has the occasional “piano” stage and the Vuelta often slips into siesta mode with stages that don’t start until 1:30 p.m.
The Tour, in contrast, sees packed roads, constant speed and nerves, and unrelenting pressure to perform during the race. Add long transfers and endless media obligations, and the stress just never stops.
“To win the Tour de France, you have to be a very complete bike rider,” White explained. “Winning the Tour requires that you can compete by handling the stress and being efficient in that work zone that includes pavé, crosswinds, huge crowds, and pressure. If you look at the guys who’ve won the Tour over the past 10 years — the Nibalis, Wiggins and Froomes — they’ve all been excellent bike-handlers who can race in conditions like it’s the classics.”
White said he notices that riders who’ve done their fair share of racing in the one-day classics handle the Tour quite well, be it domestiques or GC captains. Riders like defending Tour champion Geraint Thomas (Sky) and Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) earned their stripes from racing the classics that served them well later in the Tour.
Four-time Tour champ Froome is a bit of an exception. Froome generally loathes the spring classics, yet even he has started Paris-Roubaix once during his career.
Honing your chops in the classics only helps in the long run. Thomas, for example, said he was never fazed last summer by the growing pressure as he rode into the third week of the Tour with the yellow jersey. White believes Thomas’s experience in the classics, which included victory in E3 Harelbeke, would have served him well.
“There are some guys who can win a Giro or Vuelta, but they’ll never win the Tour because they can’t deal with that stress and pressure,” White said without naming names. “The classics are the only other races where you have people all over you every day and the pressure is just as intense as the Tour.”
The irony, of course, is that most Tour favorites avoid the classics like the plague. The risks are too high to race the cobbles at Flanders or Roubaix. In fact, Thomas is steering clear of the northern classics this spring for that exact reason and will target the less treacherous Ardennes instead. Froome almost never races the one-days, and has only raced Liège six times and has one DNF at Roubaix without going near the other monuments.
White has three promising young GC captains on his roster who have limited experience in the classics. Esteban Chaves and the Yates brothers have dabbled in the one-days, including Chaves — who won the Giro di Lombardia — but none of them have ever raced Flanders or Roubaix. And they likely never will. All three are smaller, punchier riders who would get thrashed on the cobbles.
Yet White is encouraging his captains to target the Ardennes classics. Though not quite as intense and treacherous as the cobbles, races like Amstel Gold and Liège-Bastogne-Liège will give them even more experience in surviving the day’s challenges and still being able to perform.
“The Tour is the biggest race of the calendar and everything is amplified in July. At the Tour, there is an incident waiting to happen at any given second,” White said. “The only races that are like that are the classics. Some of our guys don’t like those races [classics], but they are a good little reminder that this is what the entire month of July is going to be like.”