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A rule introduced last year eliminating time bonuses from the Tour de France could mean a long run in the yellow jersey for prologue winner Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank).
Cancellara, who carries a 10-second lead over Tony Martin (HTC-Columbia) going into Sunday’s first stage, certainly doesn’t have a problem with the new rules, which erased finish-line and mid-race time bonuses from the GC equation.
“For me, it’s good. I am a lucky man,” Cancellara said when VeloNews asked about the absence of time bonuses. “Those are the rules. Maybe I can take a big profit of it, but this is the decision of the race organizers.”
Tour de France race director Christian Prudhomme introduced the new rule in 2009 in order to deliver a winner with a “true time.”
Gone are time bonuses of 6, 4 and 2 that had been awarded at mid-stage intermediate sprints and 20, 12 and 8 seconds awarded at the finish line (except in time trials).
The direct result is that sprinters like Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Transitions) have almost no chance of claiming the maillot jaune during the first week.
Farrar was the best of the sprinters in Saturday’s prologue, stopping the clock seventh at 28 seconds back. Unless he sneaks into a breakaway, which is unlikely with sprinters’ teams collaborating to set up a mass gallop, he has almost no chance of taking back that time on Cancellara.
“I think it’s a pity because I’d love to be challenging for the yellow jersey,” Farrar told VeloNews. “The time bonuses make the racing more exciting, especially in the first week. Someone like Cancellara can have the yellow jersey for a week.”
Some of the most exciting fights in Tour history have been the duels between the sprinters in the heated battle for finish-line bonuses to claim the maillot jaune. Who can forget the infamous chariot ride by Mario Cipollini after he won the yellow jersey?
This year’s Tour route, with a series of classics-style stages in the first week, could very well see a breakaway snatch away the yellow jersey from Cancellara.
Yet without time bonuses in the offing, many sprinters soft-pedaled in Saturday’s potentially dangerous course. Thor Hushovd (Cervélo), who won the prologue in 2005 to become the first Norwegian in yellow, finished a distant 157th because he knew the yellow jersey was not an option.
“I didn’t want to risk today to save my strength for the green jersey fight,” Hushovd said. “It’s too bad there are no time bonuses, because now the sprinters will never be able to win the yellow jersey. There will always be someone like Cancellara or a time trialist who can beat us on a longer prologue course. A sprinter can do well on a shorter course, but not when it’s over 5km. Then we have no chance to get yellow.”
Time bonuses were introduced to the race to liven up the action, especially on the flatter stages when the action can sometimes grow stale. Tour officials, however, insist that the modern Tour can thrive without the sprints and that the overall GC balance is fairer without the time primes.
Not everyone is missing the time bonuses. GC riders often lamented that they could be in the front group on a mountaintop finish yet lose time simply by being out-sprinted by an inch.
“I was never a big fan of time bonuses,” said Chris Horner (RadioShack). “I don’t think it’s fair that someone can suck my wheel and then come around me in the final sprint and take 20 seconds on bonuses. I will never win many of those sprints against guys like Valverde or Sánchez.”
Erik Zabel, the retired German sprinter who won the green jersey six times, says there could be a compromise that would allow the sprinters a chance to have a run at yellow but keep things fairer for the GC contenders.
“I think that time bonuses can be eliminated on the summit finishes, but keep them during the first week,” Zabel said. “The sprinters bring a lot of action to the race. The race is not the same without the sprinters fighting for yellow.”