Analysis: The new art to winning the yellow jersey

Sir Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome and Vincenzo Nibali have won the last four Tours de France by taking yellow early - is this the new way to win the big race?

If it feels like a long time since we’ve seen Chris Froome racing in anything other than yellow, that’s because it is – he inherited the jersey from a befallen Tony Martin a whole sixteen days ago (having worn the jersey for a single day on stage four), and hasn’t given anyone else a sniff since.

In fact, this is the fourth successive Tour de France in which a rider who has taken the maillot jaune in the first week has gone on to win in Paris.

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In 2012 Bradley Wiggins capitalised on a commanding performance from Sky up the Planche des Belles Filles on stage seven to move into the overall lead in 2012; then in 2013 Sky again used the second Saturday of the race to set-up overall victory, this time with Froome winning atop Ax 3 Domaines and maintaining the overall lead all the way into Paris.

And last year Vincenzo Nibali got into yellow on just the second day of the race, and was presented the jersey on all but one other day throughout the rest of the race.

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Chris Froome in yellow at the 2015 Tour de France (Sunada)

Yet it wasn’t long ago that the fashion was to leave it until late to take the jersey – tellingly, in each of the half a dozen Tours preceding 2012, the overall lead switched hands in the final week.

The hazards of having to defend it were epitomised by the plight of Cadel Evans, who found himself ambushed by CSC when wearing it during the 2008 Tour, and lost it after just one day in 2009. It was only in 2011, when he moved into the lead on the penultimate stage time-trial, that Evans finally managed to win the Tour.

Received wisdom of the Tour has long had it that taking the yellow jersey too early in the race is a poisoned chalice. He-who-must-not-be-named was the last to do so prior to 2006, and even he liked to give the jersey away for someone else to defend wherever possible, as in 2004 when Thomas Voeckler was allowed a substantial lead.

And in 2006, Floyd Landis and his Phonak team were so afraid of having to defend the jersey that they almost threw the whole race away completely by allowing Oscar Pereiro to gain 30 minutes to inherit it off him (before Landis threw it away anyway by testing positive for epitestosterone).

Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas on stage four of the 2015 Tour de France (Watson)

Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas on stage four of the 2015 Tour de France (Watson)

Even Bernard Hinault usually did not like to see yellow until later on in a race, while Jacques Anquetil tended to wait until the final time-trial to make his move to the top of the GC.

Miguel Indurain would usually emerge in the yellow just before the first rest day, though more out of necessity to exploit his favoured discipline – the long time-trial – than in wanting to defend it so early.

Only the incomparable Eddy Merckx regularly attacked early to win yellow, though he would go on to continue attacking all the way to Paris.

Sky’s new approach

So what’s changed? As with so many of modern cycling’s trends, the new approach can be traced to Team Sky and their reimagining of the sport’s conventions.

Starting with Wiggins’ win in 2012, they’ve aimed to attack the first summit finish of the Tour, get into yellow, and defend it all the way to Paris. For them, the most important part of the Tour is not, as most assume, the final week, but rather the second weekend.

Their emphasis on control and preference of riding tempo at the front is far better suited to defensive racing than attacking, and so by getting all the attacking out the way early on, they’re able to spend the rest of the race following wheels.

Was it an attack or not? Photo: Graham Watson

Chris Froome leads Bradley Wiggins up La Toussuire in the 2012 Tour de France (Watson)

Vincenzo Nibali pushed this idea even further in 2014, and caught Sky off guard by attacking on stages in the first week (the hilly second day in Sheffield, and the cobbled fifth day) to gain yellow even before the first mountain had been climbed.

Taking that on board, this year Froome and Sky looked ride on the front foot as early as the first week, and pulled the strategy off as efficiently as ever – even before their trademark assault up to La Pierre-Saint-Martin on stage 10, Froome was in yellow with substantial time gaps ahead of all his rivals, and he spent most of the rest of the race in complete control.

Now it’s up to his rivals to come up with a new idea to disrupt this pattern of Sky dominance for next year’s race.

Watch highlights from stage 20 of the Tour de France