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Do time bonuses have a place in grand tours?

Time bonuses played a major part in all three of this year's grand tours; do they add spice or spoil a race? We dig in.

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Time bonuses have been around for just about as long as bicycle racing. Yet for a sport that’s about getting from A to B in the shortest amount of time possible, the concept of subtracting time from a winning ride can almost seem contradictory.

Love them or hate them, bonuses have been an integral part of bicycle racing ever since someone decided to race on a velodrome, or cooked up the whacky idea of a three-week grand tour.

And they were front and center in the 2020 Vuelta a España. Slovenian star Primož Roglič won by 24 seconds to second-place Richard Carapaz, a winning difference built on time bonuses. The 2020 Vuelta awarded 10-, 6-, and 4-second bonuses for the top-3 of each stage (except time trials), and Roglič played that to his advantage throughout the race.

Roglič won four stages (there was no time bonus for his time trial win at Ézaro), and finished second on three stages, giving him 48 seconds in time bonuses. Carapaz did not win a stage, finished second twice, and third once, awarding him 16 seconds in bonuses. Roglič won 32 seconds more time bonuses, yet when the bonuses are stripped out of the final times in Madrid, the difference is eight seconds.

What are time bonuses? It’s a prize that awards a rider with a time reduction from their running total. Time bonuses can be added at the finish line, at intermediate sprints, or over the top of climbs. Time bonuses are not required and the number and frequency of bonifications depend entirely on the race organizer. Decades ago, time bonuses could be minutes for the stage-winner or a rider topping the highest climb.

In the modern era, those bonuses have been steadily whittled down. Two decades ago still saw a Tour de France stage-winner earn 20-second time bonuses. Lately, bonuses are even smaller, with 10-, 6- and 4-second bonuses typical for the top-3 in most modern grand tours.

Should Carapaz have won the Vuelta? It’s an interesting question. And here we dig in, with Jim Cotton and Andrew Hood taking opposite sides of the argument.

Jim Cotton — why I like time bonuses:

Hindley outsprinted Geoghegan Hart at the bottom of the Sestriere climb to score a few extra seconds in their neck-and-neck GC battle. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

First things first – to those that suggest that Roglič “only” won the Vuelta through his canny targeting of bonuses – you’re just plain wrong (you know where I tweet – tell me if I’m incorrect).

Sure, Roglič’s winning margin was forged in bonuses, but had they not been on offer, the race tactics would have been totally different. The Slovenian did gain some advantage from those extra seconds being up for grabs given he has a stronger finishing kick than long-range raider Richie Carapaz, but that’s the way it goes.

Time bonuses are a good thing that adds spice to grand tours.

Simply put, they reward the first man across the line – and that’s what bike racing is all about, right? Remember when you got your first bike with training wheels on it and immediately wanted to race your dad? I like that bonuses reintroduce a touch of that basic premise of “first guy over the line is the best.”

Plus, bonuses disincentivize wheel-sucking. If two GC guys come to the line together after one sat on the other’s wheel for the final kilometers of a climb, they both get the same time if no bonuses are available. Not fair. But with bonuses, the guy that did all the pulling gets the extras.

Also, bonuses introduce a whole new race dynamic.

Take stage 16 of this Vuelta, the transitional ride out of Salamanca. How often do you see stage-hunters and punchy sprinters such as Magnus Cort and Alejandro Valverde going for the line against GC guys like Roglič and Carapaz? You did on that day. Had the bonuses not been available Rogo and Richie would have sat back and let the sprint play out. Instead, they had reason to get in the mix and fight to cross the line – which as I said, is what bike racing is all about.

Lastly, I think bonus seconds add the most intrigue when they’re placed at cunning points in the parcours, like at the Tour when they were on the top of the penultimate climb of the day, or at the Giro where they sometimes were thrown in at the bottom of a summit finish.

Had Jai Hindley not sprinted for the seconds at the base of the final climb of the Sestriere on the Giro’s penultimate stage, we never would have had the neck-and-neck tie ahead of the TT. Little opportunities to grab time over rivals that are scattered through stages keep riders on their toes and viewers on the edge of their seats in days that may otherwise lack fizzle.

Andrew Hood — why time bonuses ruin a race:

Carapaz’s attack on the Angliru only gained him four seconds more than Roglič’s late bike throw a few stages after. Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images

First off, I prefer time bonuses, because I think they add spice and a new dimension to racing, but for the sake of argument, I will take the other side of the issue. Many fans and riders dislike time bonuses because they can warp or twist the outcome of a race unfairly, and they have good reason.

Time bonuses in shorter stage races often decide the overall, but it rarely happens in a grand tour. Roglič’s narrow margin of victory at the Vuelta was the first time that bonus seconds made the winning difference in a grand tour since Giuseppe Saronni won the 1983 Giro by 1:07 over Roberto Visentini.

So is it fair that Roglič won the Vuelta? Anyone who doesn’t like time bonuses will argue no.

There’s no question that time bonuses unfairly reward a rider with a stronger finishing kick, and give super-size rewards for the minimal number of watts.

Look no further than the Vuelta. Roglič was dropped on the three hardest climbing stages — Formigal, Alto de l’Angliru, and La Covatilla — but recovered much of those losses and more in time bonuses picked up by having that winning kick at the line. Except for stage 8 at Moncavillo, where Roglič dropped Carapaz to win by 13 seconds, and 10 to Suances, when Roglič gapped Carapaz on the steep uphill finale only to see race judges rule after the stage finish that time gaps would be taken at the line, Carapaz finished in the same finishing group as Roglič on every other stage where the Slovenian picked up bonuses.

In fact, Roglič’s fast-finishing kick in stage 16, when he was second out a reduced bunch following a grueling stage across Spain’s las hurdes region, nearly made up for the gap that he lost to Carapaz on the Angliru. Roglič won a six-second bonus for a bike throw, while Carapaz only earned 10 seconds on Roglič despite a monumentally more difficult effort on Spain’s hardest mountain. Hardly seems fair.

Had the time bonuses been stripped out of the GC at the Vuelta, Carapaz would have rode into the red jersey Saturday on La Covatilla when he clawed back 21 seconds to Roglič on the final mountain stage. What could be more exciting than that?

Take time bonuses out of the race, and the winner wins on their true time. Isn’t that what pure competition is supposed to be?