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It can be easy to forget that Jasper Stuyven won Milano-Sanremo this year, that Kasper Asgreen won the Tour of Flanders, and that Damiano Caruso won Italian hearts and nearly the Giro by finishing second in 2021. The road cycling season has come and gone in the blink of an eye, but there will always be a few highlights to remember this year. Mathieu Van Der Poel’s sprint at Strade Bianche was one of the best attacks of the year, while Tadej Pogačar’s romping at the Tour de France was a dominating statement.
In this article, we’re going to dissect the three Grand Tours of cycling – the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France, and Vuelta a España – to see how different they really are. They say that everyone tries to peak for the Tour, but do the numbers reflect that? The cold Giro mountain passes are a lot different from the melting Spanish pavement in the Vuelta, while Italy in May is a lot different than France in July.
From the hour-long climbs in the Giro, to the punchy finishes in France and the chaos of the Vuelta, this is what it took to become a grand tour champion in 2021.
First, we’re going to break down punchy finishes, everything from two to five minutes in length. These are designed for the puncheurs: Julian Alaphilippe, Primoz Roglic, and Dan Martin. But in the Giro, the hardest punchy finish of the entire race came on top of a climb.
Think back to May 2021, and you probably remember the Giro’s gravel summit finish being hyped up by everyone in cycling. The Tour had tried a similar tactic on Le Planche de Belles Filles with promising and explosive results. We were all expecting fireworks on stage 9 of this year’s Giro, and that’s exactly what we got.
Up against the likes of Remco Evenepoel, João Almeida, and Dan Martin, Egan Bernal destroyed them all when he took off with 1.5km to go on the gravel climb. The Colombian put out huge power numbers despite his diminutive stature and soared to the stage victory and an early lead on GC.
Bernal – Giro d’Italia stage 9 finish
Average Power: 438w (7.4w/kg)
Attack on steepest grade: 579w (9.8w/kg) for 46 seconds
What stands here is Bernal’s huge punch with less than 500m to go, attacking at 10w/kg for nearly a minute and putting a huge gap on the rest of the field. This summit finish also came at 1,500m above sea level and in less than 10C° (50F°) temperatures. In other words: These were far from ideal performance conditions.
In the Tour de France, we were expecting puncheur winners on stages 1 and 2 held in the Brittany region of northwestern France. Both stages featured steep climbs lasting 1-2km with average gradients near 7 percent.
Alaphilippe took the yellow jersey on stage 1 with an aggressive solo attack — one of the most impressive punches of the year. The world champion’s estimated numbers are clearly on another level compared to Bernal at the Giro, but there are many factors at play here. Alaphilippe’s win was on stage 1 versus Bernal on stage 9; the Tour’s climb was much shorter than the Giro’s overall, and Brittany only sits at ~100m above sea level.
Alaphilippe – Côte de la Fosse aux Loups
Estimated Average Power: ~470w (7.6w/kg)
First 1.3km: 2:53 at 558w (9w/kg)
On stage 2 of the Tour, in one of the most emotional cycling displays of the year, Mathieu Van Der Poel attacked both times up the Mur de Bretagne, first in search of bonus seconds, and second in search of the stage win. Not only did he accomplish both feats, but he did so with enough of a time gap to take the yellow jersey off the back of Julian Alaphilippe. While Bernal’s Giro win was mightily impressive, it’s hard to see him fitting into the top five on these punchy finishes at the Tour.
Van der Poel – first ascent of the Mûr-de-Bretagne:
Estimated Average Power: ~600w (~8w/kg)
Van der Poel – second ascent of the Mûr-de-Bretagne:
Estimated Average Power: ~608w (~8.1w/kg)
The Vuelta is never without punchy and brutally steep finishes, and while most of la Vuelta’s climbs last 20 – 30 minutes, the finale of stage 11 served up a thrilling finale just like the other grand tours. The Valdepeñas de Jaén has an average gradient of 10 percent, but it is the 24 percent ramps in the first half of the climb that every rider fears. Nonetheless, Primož Roglič and Sepp Kuss showed no signs of slowing down when they attacked into the bottom of that climb on stage 11 of the Vuelta.
Kuss took off at a peak of 15w/kg for the first 30 seconds of the climb before Roglič attacked and bumped shoulders with Enric Mas around a tight right-hand bend. The Slovenia-Spanish duel continued for a few hundred meters before both riders sat up and the chase group led by Jack Haig began to catch on. But in classic Roglič style, the Slovenian kicked again with 350m to go to take an emphatic stage win and put up one of the most impressive finishes of the season.
Haig: Valdepeñas de Jaén
Average Power: 558w (7.9w/kg)
Peak 1-min Power: 645w (9.2w/kg)
Roglič: climb to Valdepeñas de Jaén
Estimated Average Power: 552w (8.5w/kg)
Peak 1min Power: >650w (>10w/kg)
Here it seems that the Tour boasted the most impressive numbers of the year on punchy summit finishes. Day-to-day fatigue should be factored in, but the difference between the Tour and the others is still quite significant. In France, we saw the best puncheurs in the world, relatively fresh, and on peak form, going all-out for 3 to 4 minutes with the added motivation of the yellow jersey. Perhaps it’s no surprise that those numbers were the best.
While the punchy stage finishes and uphill sprints are thrilling to watch, they don’t decide the winners of grand tours. That honor goes to high-altitude summit finishes, epic mountain passes, and the most famous climbs in cycling. There was no shortage of action this year between the Giro, Tour, and Vuelta, where we saw incredible performances and record-breaking climbs in each Grand Tour.
On Stage 14 of the Giro, Egan Bernal set a new record on the Zoncolan, climbing the pass in just over 40 minutes. Given the high altitude, fatigue, and cold conditions – it was 7C° (45F°) at the top of the Zoncolan – this was a truly incredible performance. Caruso, who posted his entire Giro d’Italia data on Strava, would finish 10th on the stage, 39 seconds behind Bernal.
Caruso – Zoncolan:
Average Power: 402w (6w/kg)
Bernal – Zoncolan:
Estimated Average Power: 365w (6.2w/kg)
The Tour de France quickly became the Tadej Pogačar show once the defending champion took two commanding stage victories and cemented himself at the top of the GC standings. On his day, the Slovenian is the best climber in the world, but on stage 17 of the Tour, we saw an epic battle play out between Pogačar, Jonas Vingegaard, and Richard Carapaz.
On the hors catégorie Col du Portet, Carapaz played every trick in the book to try and fool his competitors. He feigned pain faces like Fabio Aru and refused to take a pull almost the entire length of the climb. But with 1.3km to go, everyone realized that Carapaz had been bluffing because he attacked and immediately gapped Vingegaard. The Dane fought his way back, but neither he nor Carapaz had anything left to challenge Pogačar who sprinted to the stage win with another incredible climbing performance.
Carapaz – Col du Portet:
Average Power: 364w (6.1w/kg)
Normalized Power: 374w (6.2w/kg)
Second half of climb Normalized Power: 386w (6.4w/kg)
Final 2km Normalized Power: 446w (7.4w/kg)
Pogačar – Col du Portet:
Estimated Average Power: 406w (6.15w/kg)
Second half of climb Normalized Power: 429w (6.5w/kg)
While Bernal’s record in the Giro was impressive, it’s the finishing kick of Carapaz that definitively separates him from the Columbian. While Bernal rode at a relatively steady pace having distanced all of his competitors, Carapaz put in a number of >500w (8w/kg+) attacks after 45 minutes of climbing at 6.2w/kg on the Col de Portet.
One of the best climbing performances of the season came on stage 17 of the Vuelta a España, when Bernal attacked on the day’s penultimate climb and could only be followed by Roglič. In terms of pure watts-per-kilo, this was the most impressive 20-30min climb of the year.
Bernal – La Collada Llomena:
Estimated Average Power: 6.4w/kg
Roglič – Lagos de Covadonga:
Average Power: 364w (6.1w/kg)
Roglič and Bernal rode full gas in the valley between these two climbs, which makes Roglič’s second climb even more impressive. Both riders were pushing hard for over an hour, and Roglič still had the power to pull out >6w/kg for 26 minutes on the final climb. Especially considering the stage 18 fatigue and rainy conditions, this climbing performance in the Vuelta is the best of the year.
In this limited data set, I tried to find the most impressive and explosive performances from all three grand tours, from punchy three to five-minute efforts, to longer 20- to 60-minute climbing efforts. Of course, there is a litany of factors to consider including the stage number, weather conditions, altitude, and the lead-in to the climb; but since all of these efforts came at the end of a grand tour stage, I can confidently say that the lead-in was always four to five hours of hard racing in sub-optimal conditions.
We can clearly see that the puncheur performances are a step above the race. No one can challenge Julian Alaphilippe or Mathieu Van Der Poel on a four-minute climb, especially with the yellow jersey on the line.
As we head into the mountains, the performance differences narrow. All three grand tours presented incredible 20+ minute efforts at 6w/kg, with attacks and punches over 7w/kg. These efforts were repeated in the third week of the grand tour, often in poor weather conditions. Between Bernal, Pogačar, and Roglic, there’s not much to separate them at their respective peaks.