Monday, June 11, 2012

Is the Maillot Blanc a Good Predictor of TdF Success?

The Maillot Blanc of the Tour de France (TdF), or the White Jersey, is awarded to the highest finishing rider under 25 years of age. It suggests that that the winner has high potential of doing well in the future. In this article we attempt a quantitative analysis as we did in the Rise of Nations article.

As we are interested in the White Jersey as indicator of future performance, we examine the GC rank of a rider when he wins the White Jersey, versus his top GC performance since winning the White Jersey. We hope that this penalized one-hit wonders.
(c) Julius Kusuma
We limit the scope up to 2006: we think this to be a good stopping point, as many white jersey winners since then still contend actively. We realize that increasing one's rank on the GC of the Tour de France is an exponentially difficult endeavor, so we show a log-log plot, that is, both the x-axis and the y-axis are shown logarithmic-ally.

What insights were able to gleam?

As a predictor of performance, the White Jersey is actually good. It's not great, but it's not bad either. Several riders have won the White and Yellow in the same year: Laurent Fignon in 1984, Jan Ullrich in 1997, Alberto Contador in 2007, and recently announced Andy Schleck in 2010. But it can be argued that Jan Ullrich has since then squandered his talent, as he never again won the TdF.

As far as future potential is concerned, several riders have affirmed their potential. The late Marco Pantani won the White Jersey twice, in 1994 when he was 3rd on GC and in 1995 when he was 13th. A few years later, he went on the 1998 Giro-Tour double. A bit earlier, Andy Hampsten was 4th when he won the White Jersey in 1986, and he went on to win the Giro a few years later. Hampsten followed the heels of Greg LeMond, who was 3rd when he won the White Jersey in 1984, and went on to win Yellow in 1986. Of course, more recently Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck have dominated the White Jersey competition and become winners themselves.

Quite a few data points - or riders - perform above expectation, in the sense that they significantly bettered themselves since the time they won the White Jersey. We would like to highlight Ivan Basso and Denis Menchov. They both finished 11th when they won White, and since then they have managed to finish second. Both have won other grand tours, the Giro d'Italia for both and multiple editions of the Vuelta a Espana for Menchov. Going back in time, Erik Breukink and Johan Van der Velde also exceeded the potential highlighted by their White Jersey wins.

Conversely however, we had to eliminate the data point from Antonio Martin Velasco. He finished 12th in 1993 when he won White, but that was the only edition he finished. You see, he was killed in an accident the following year, just as he was recruited by Banesto, perhaps to continue their run of success with the great Miguel Indurain. We can only wonder what potential Velasco had.

Among the current crop of top GC aspirants, Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck have recently won the White Jersey and do very well in the GC: Contador has won the GC while donning the Maillot Blanc, and Andy Schleck has been on the podium.

For further analysis, we examine recent winners of the TdF and analyze their White Jersey performance. Notably, 2011 TdF winner Cadel Evans never had a stint in the White Jersey, although he did have a heroic turn in the 2002 Pink Jersey in the Giro d'Italia. After the demise of Mapei, Evans joined T-Mobile where he either had to ride for Jan Ullrich or in some occasions he wasn't chosen to ride the TdF. Hence, his eligibility window was closed to him.

Curiously, neither the 2008 winner Carlos Sastre nor 2006 winner Oscar Pereiro has won the White Jersey either. Their wins are unusual cases though, Sastre taking advantage of triple-attacking by himself following the Brothers Schleck, and Pereiro earning his win following a strategic breakaway and the disqualification of Floyd Landis.

Finally, is the White Jersey battle relevant to the GC battle? We examine the GC ranks of White Jersey winners.

(c) Julius Kusuma
This is hard to say. With riders the caliber of Laurent Fignon or Greg LeMond, it's easy to argue that of course they are relevant to the GC battle. It is their main or key objective anyway. We see a repeat in the mid-90s with Marco Pantani and Jan Ullrich. At best, we speculate this is highly-dependent on the rider in question. The complete list is easily available on Wikipedia.

Do you think that the White Jersey is a good indicator of future potential? Who are notable riders in this respect?

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