Since the dawn of the millennium fifteen years ago, 151 different riders have etched their names into the record books as Tour de France stage winners — dozens more if you count all the men who contributed to wins in nine team time trials. Those men have seized on 345 opportunities (prologues included) to earn one of the sport’s most instantly transformational victories, some multiple times, others just once. Compared to the scarcity of cycling’s other top prizes — the five monuments, the three grand tours, a world championship title — Tour stages present some appealing odds.
For those members of cycling’s top tier not destined for GC greatness, monumental glory, or rainbow stripes, winning a Tour stage is the most attainable piece of bona fide cycling stardom. No other stage win and few one-day races offer the same rewards or recognition. And the Tour offers that chance to every type of rider, from stoutest rouleur to willowy climber. So, despite the healthy supply of Tour stages in the marketplace, demand pushes their worth near the top of the sport’s value chain. A journeyman domestique or Coupe de France hero might not dare to consider winning Il Lombardia or a yellow jersey, but if everything plays out right — if he makes the break, if the GC leaders and their teams need a rest between mountain ranges, if the sprinter’s teams time it wrong — he just might be able to stand on the sport’s biggest stage for a few precious minutes.
And it is a big stage. Estimates for total television viewership vary widely, but most put the number north of 1 billion. By Tour organizer ASO’s sometimes optimistic estimate, some 12 million people stand in town squares and on mountainsides and in fields to watch it pass each summer. Win a stage, and, more than in any other bike race, the eyes of the world are upon you, from die-hard cycling fans to grandmothers out for a picnic. For the rest of your life, you have proof that you not only reached the de facto pinnacle of the sport, but emerged victorious, if only for a day.
As important as they are to a stage hunter, the value of a stage win isn’t lost on the men fighting for the Tour’s bigger honors. For those candidates for the yellow, green, and polka-dot jerseys, stage wins are an important accessory, proof of a victory achieved with panache rather than cool, calculated riding. Peter Sagan is the latest Tour jersey winner to feel the sting of a stage win’s absence, taking the green jersey in 2015 without the swashbuckling wins that had leant his three previous titles undeniable credibility and forced the cycling world to take a young, swaggering kid seriously.
It’s no new phenomenon. In 1990, the year Sagan was born, Greg LeMond’s dramatic, race-long pursuit of the unexpectedly tenacious Claudio Chiappucci featured plenty of drama and inspired riding, but the American never crossed the line first as he rode to his last Tour win. Without that defining moment — the stopped clock of a winning time trial, the victory salute of a road stage — even the grandest victory in Paris can feel lacking.
A Tour stage win is also, often, a trumpet blast that signals an arrival, a first foothold on the climb to the sport’s highest summits. Before he became the Lion of Flanders, Johan Museeuw roared in France in 1990, first in the dash to Mont-Saint-Michel and again on the Champs-Élysées. Fabian Cancellara’s talents first came to widespread attention when he crushed all comers in the 2004 prologue to wear yellow at the age of 23. Four world time trial championships and seven victories in three of the sport’s five monuments would follow. And back in 1989, high in the Pyrénées at Luz Ardiden, a domestique for defending champion Pedro Delgado seized an opportunity to ride for himself. Miguel Indurain bagged the stage and wore polka dots for a day, but returned to make yellow his own for the next five years.
For many, though, a Tour stage win is the summit, not a stepping stone; it is a career-defining achievement never to be bettered or even equaled again. It can mark the upper limit of talent for those who consider themselves race winners, or simply a shining moment in the life of an avowed domestique. Some, like Frenchman Pierrick Fédrigo, develop a knack for the Tour stage win, finding repeated success in the Tour’s pressure cooker that never quite extends to other events. But is that so bad? Victory at the Tour means a contract for the next year, bonuses, endorsements, and, if you believe the old saying, never the need to buy a beer again. Every stage winner comes from somewhere, and wherever it is, there’s a good chance there’s a cycling fan willing to buy a round just to hear the story again.
All Tour stage wins have value, whether in beer or bonuses, panache or prediction, but not all are valued equally. Unfair, perhaps, but true. In the hierarchy of Tour stages, elevation elevates. Victories in the Alps and the Pyrénées are the building blocks of legends, while the transitional stages between them are often written off as cease-fire days in the broader GC war.
Win on Mont Ventoux, for example, and your name goes down beside Gaul and Poulidor, Merckx and Thevenet. Win on Alpe d’Huez, and they put your name on a sign on one of those 21 famous hairpins — forever. Even Lance Armstrong’s name, purged from official Tour records, still marks hairpins number 19 and 21 for his 2001 and 2004 Alpe wins. And hairpin number one, that final, agonizing bend before the race launches toward the line in the ski village? That pride of place belongs to Giuseppe Guerini, who proved to be ahead of his time by getting knocked off his bike by a fan with a camera en route to victory in 1999. But Guerini’s gutsy solo win through the Massif Central at the tail end of the 2005 Tour? All but forgotten.
Compared to the rarified air of the mountains, victories in the flat heat of the field sprints are treated not as works of art, but as commodities. The locales are not legendary and their names mostly forgotten, reduced to one more tick mark in the raw tallies used to compare the sport’s legendary fast men. The man who all but created the supersprinter genre, Mario Cipollini topped out at 12 wins at the Tour, before his habit of quitting before the race hit the mountains made him a persona non grata. His foil, the more versatile but less rapid Erik Zabel managed 12 as well, as did Robbie McEwen, who unlike the blinding Cipollini remained all but invisible until 100 meters go. And then came Mark Cavendish. By the end of his third Tour, he’d surpassed them all and tied Freddy Maertens’ total of 15. Cavendish’s count now lies at 26, one more than heroic-era Frenchman André Leducq, third on the all-time stage wins list, with time left on the clock and a new team for 2016.
Though Marcel Kittel was absent this year, the context, caveats, and mitigating circumstances fall away from all but the most storied stage wins, regardless of terrain. Nobody remembers that the winning break was all but forgotten as a cat-and-mouse GC battle raged down the mountain, that the top sprinter got pinched against the barrier and had to brake, or that the winning mark in the time trial was set before the wind and rain swept in for the afternoon starters.
All of those facts are there for those who seek them, tucked into detailed histories, tattered magazine articles, and forgotten nooks of the web. But few bother to look. There are 21 new stages worth of stories each year, and the stage winner’s is just one among many. What’s the use in remembering that Traversoni’s 1997 win came only after Voskamp and Heppner were disqualified, or that André Greipel and Cavendish’s prosperous 2012 Tours came while Kittel battled and lost to a stomach bug, or that, in that same Tour, reigning world champion Tony Martin flatted in both the prologue and first individual time trial, won by Cancellara and Bradley Wiggins? No victory is achieved in a vacuum.
For the most part, only the stark truth is left in popular memory — the rider, the year, perhaps the name of a town or a mountain or an image of upstretched arms. The adulation fades, contracts come and go, careers end, the story is relegated to the barroom and the café. Only the honor and the line item on the palmares remain. And each July, like clockwork, 21 new opportunities spring forth to be fought over by 198 men hungry to claim their own piece of cycling’s most valuable property.