April 23, 2021 0 Comments
Words by Shane Stokes
Photos by Fabien Boukla and Alex Broadway (A.S.O)
Earlier this week l’Equipe reported that last year’s Tour runner-up Primož Roglič would have a two month break from racing prior to the French event. That approach goes against the trend of all recent Tour winners, yet Jumbo-Visma believes that this route is the best one to take. Is the team right?
Primož Roglič was in dominant form at this year's Paris-Nice, taking three stages, but lost the leader's jersey on the final day following two crashes.
Photo by Fabien Boukla/A.S.O.
You can’t blame Primož Roglič for being cautious about his Tour de France build-up.
Last year he dazzled for much of the race. He won stage four, then seized the overall lead at the end of stage nine. He and his Jumbo Visma team defended the Maillot Jaune brilliantly from that point onwards, and he headed into the stage 20 time trial with a solid advantage of 57 seconds.
Everything looked good for Slovenia to win its first Tour.
The country did indeed top the podium in Paris, but not with Roglič. He had a slight off day on the uphill time trial to La Planche des Belles Filles, finishing fifth; in contrast, Tadej Pogačar had probably his best performance of the race, dominating the stage and seizing the yellow jersey. He pedalled into Paris the following day as the Tour’s winner, while the long-time race leader ended up a disappointed second overall, 59 seconds back.
Roglič put a brave face on things, but left France feeling somewhat shell-shocked. Cruelly, several months later, the same country brought a similar upset. After dominating Paris-Nice and taking three stage wins, he crashed twice on the final stage and trailed in over three minutes behind.
Once again he went from the heights to the depths overnight. Once again his yellow jersey evaporated with victory on the horizon.
Roglič is a highly ambitious rider. He has proven this many times during his career, and has also shown his ability to recover from setbacks. He rebounded from his Tour disappointment by winning Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Vuelta a España. He then bounced back from this season’s Paris-Nice by winning the Itzulia Basque Country event.
And yet he doesn’t want to make do with consolation prizes. This year everything is staked on being in prime shape throughout the Tour de France, and on finally winning the race.
That’s why some were surprised by the news this week that he would be taking a two-month break from competition after Sunday’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège. L’Equipe said he will train in Tignes in the French Alps. It also quoted Jumbo-Visma directeur sportif Frans Maassen as saying that the move should ensure Roglič is fresh and will be strong in both the Tour and the Olympic Games.
But, even if he is fresh starting the Tour, many will ask if he will be fully fit?
Avoiding racing is certainly an atypical route to cycling’s top event, as we will show below, but Jumbo-Visma believes he is doing the right thing. Here’s why.
“A plan how to be in the best possible form”
Merijn Zeeman is sporting director with the team and spoke to Conquista this week about the topic. He expressed satisfaction with Roglič’s performances this year, saying the team is very happy with how he has been riding. He also referenced Paris-Nice, saying that both the rider and the team were frustrated by the bad luck he had and how things turned out.
“That was obviously a big disappointment,” he said. “But as we know, Primož always comes back, he always bounces back. That happened in Pays Basque.”
As regards the racing programme decisions, Zeeman explained the team’s standard approach is to pinpoint a goal and then to work backwards from that. “The first goal of the season [for Roglič] was Paris-Nice. Together with the riders, we always make a plan to prepare as good as possible. The second goal is the Ardennes Classics, and we work backwards for the best possible preparation towards those Classics.
“Obviously the next goal is the Tour de France and the Olympics, especially because the Olympics are straight after the Tour de France. It means there is a block of almost 5 weeks that you have to be on your best possible form. Together we made a plan how we can be in the best possible form in those two races.”
Zeeman noted that different riders respond in different ways to racing and training. He said that some need competition to hit peak form, with Steven Kruijswijk cited as an example. However he said that Roglič is someone who finds his best condition through training.
“We analysed his performance last year in the Tour de France. He had a high level in the Alps and an okay level in the TT. When you analyse the parcours of this year's Tour de France, the last five days are again very important in that. This decision [not to race for two months] is a combination of that fact, of having the best possible shape in the Olympics, and of learning the lessons from last year.
“We came to the conclusion that the Dauphiné wouldn't make him better in the Tour de France or in the Olympics, and that actually a longer training period and staying longer at altitude doing specific training would make him better in the last week of the Tour. Plus he could have his highest possible form in the Olympics. So, because of that, we decided to skip the races and to continue training.”
Last time around, Roglič did both the Tour de l’Ain and the Critérium du Dauphiné before the Tour. He won the first event and crashed out of the second while holding the race lead. Zeeman’s point is that doing those two races may have been the reason why the rider had a slight dip in form right at the end of the Tour.
Still, avoiding all competition prior to the Tour seems like a big decision to make. Roglič’s approach will be pretty much unique as a build-up to cycling’s biggest race. Looking at past winners of the race, there is a tried and tested routine in place, with competition before the Tour favoured in helping them be ready.
An analysis of recent history:
In order to illustrate the traditional kind of build-up, consider the past decade of Tour winners. For purposes of comparison, we will examine a period of two calendar months prior to the Tour de France start point; this is the same duration Roglič will spend training.
A decade ago, Cadel Evans had eight days of competition prior to the start of the Tour. He placed second overall in the Critérium du Dauphiné, then went on to top the podium in Paris. The following year, Bradley Wiggins also had eight days of racing prior to the Tour, winning the Critérium du Dauphiné. In 2013 his Sky teammate Chris Froome followed the same template, riding the Dauphiné (where he finished fourth) and also competing for a total of eight days.
The 2014 Tour winner Vincenzo Nibali had a slightly more active programme, with nine days of competition netting him seventh in the Dauphiné plus the Italian national road race title. Froome then returned to the top, winning the next three Tours and, on each occasion, doing eight days of racing beforehand at—you guessed it—the Dauphiné.
His-then Team Sky teammate Geraint Thomas also used the French event as his main preparation and then rode and won the British road race title. Similarly, Egan Bernal also raced nine days prior to his 2019 Tour win, two more than Tadej Pogačar last year.
So, as can be seen, each rider did between seven and nine days’ racing prior to their Tour victory.
If the amount of competition is essentially the same between the past ten winners, a second pattern has also emerged. Eight of the past ten Tour champions followed almost exactly the same route to the race: riding the Tour de Romandie (which falls just outside the two month window we are examining) and then racing hard in the Critérium du Dauphiné.
That was the case for everyone between 2011 and 2018. Only Bernal and Pogačar avoided the Romandie/Dauphiné approach: in 2019, Bernal did the Tour de Suisse instead, while last year the Covid-19 disruptions saw Pogačar ride Strade Bianche (13th) and Milan-Sanremo (12th) prior to netting fourth overall in the Critérium du Dauphiné.
What’s clear is that the traditional route to Tour victory has had a certain pattern: race hard beforehand, and show strong form in that build-up period.
Primož Roglič (r) led the Tour de France for much of last year's race, but was deposed by Tadej Pogačar on the penultimate day. He believes a different approach will see him remain strong until the Tour's conclusion, and on into the Olympic Games. Photo © Alex Broadway/ASO
“It’s not a gamble”
Notwithstanding Jumbo-Visma’s reasons for being cautious after last year, is it not a risk for Roglič to adopt such a different approach?
Zeeman doesn’t believe so. “For us, it is not a gamble. It is not a gamble,” he said, using repetition to emphasise his feelings. “We work now together for more than five years. Remember that in 2019 he did the Tour de Romandie before the Giro. The conclusion after this was that he won the Tour de Romandie, but that it cost him in having his best possible shape in the last week of the Giro [Roglič led the Giro early on, but finished third overall].
“For a rider like Steven Kruijswijk, it always works very well for him to have a race in the build-up to a big goal. But with Primož, we learned our lessons. It didn’t make him better. Yes, Dauphiné is a nice race, and it is a nice race to have on your palmares if you can win it, but the big goal is more important. That is how we work on this team: we are always critical to our own way of working, we always learn lessons if we come into new situations, and that is what we did.”
He said that Roglič is fully on board with the non-racing build-up. “Primož was the person who said that he had doubts that the Dauphiné would fit in his program and that it would make him better. That was his own opinion about this, that he would really prefer to train longer and that he believed it would make him better towards the Tour de France and the Olympics.”
It remains to be seen how well this will work out. This week’s known unknown is precisely that question: will bucking the trend followed by all the recent Tour winners see Roglič race into Paris in the yellow jersey? In other words, will taking a totally different approach pay dividends in France and Tokyo? It could lead to big rewards; it could backfire.
For those who have doubts, Zeeman gives an example of how such a build-up suits Jumbo-Visma’s Tour contender. “Let me remind you that in 2019, he finished the Giro and then didn’t do any racing before the Vuelta [which he won – ed.]. So it is not the first time that he will be racing after a long period of training.
“I think for Primož, a lot of training rides are harder than races. We know what to do, and we know that our training will get him ready for the first week, for the first stages of the Tour. We are very confident about that.”
July will show if he, and they, are right.
Tour de France champions and days competing in the two months prior to the start of the race:
Cadel Evans, 2011: 8 days of competition (2nd Critérium du Dauphiné)
Bradley Wiggins, 2012: 8 days of competition (1st Critérium du Dauphiné)
Chris Froome, 2013: 8 days of competition (4th Critérium du Dauphiné)
Vincenzo Nibali, 2014: 9 days of competition (7th Critérium du Dauphiné, 1st Italian national championship road race)
Chris Froome, 2015: 8 days of competition (1st Critérium du Dauphiné)
Chris Froome, 2016: 8 days of competition (1st Critérium du Dauphiné)
Chris Froome, 2017: 8 days of competition (4th Critérium du Dauphiné)
Geraint Thomas, 2018: 9 days of competition (1st Critérium du Dauphiné, 1st British national championship road race)
Egan Bernal, 2019: 9 days of competition (1st overall Tour de Suisse)
Tadej Pogacar, 2020: 7 days of competition (13th Strade Bianche, 12th Milan-Sanremo, 4th Critérium du Dauphiné)*
*Comparisons difficult with previous years because of Covid’s disruptive effect on the racing calendar
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