Cycling Betting 3
TAKING IT STAGE BY STAGE But while betting on the outright Tour de France winner is, or rather has been in the Lance Armstrong era, something of a fait accompli, there is still the daily business of unearthing the stage winner to concentrate on (stage betting on the tours of Spain and Italy is barely worth bothering about, with only negligible sums traded on Betfair). Tour de France stages fall into four main types.
THE FLAT STAGE These form the bulk of the early schedule of the race, which invariably starts in the north of the country or one of its neighbouring states and wends its way either clockwise or anti-clockwise south to the Alps and Pyrenees, where the key battles are played out before the traditional finish in the centre of Paris.
Flat stages usually mean a bunch finish, in which a small number of specialist sprinters contest the first prize. These men are protected in the early stages by their team-mates and then led through in the closing kilometres in the hope that their powerful late surge can bring them and their team glory.
You may think it strange that of a field of some 190 riders, the same half-dozen names always dominate the leaderboard when there is a sprint finish, but it is virtually impossible for a non-sprinter to get the better of the specialist fast men.
Picking the winner is still not easy, however, even when it becomes obvious that the finish will develop into a mass scramble for the line. Traffic problems and crashes are an ever-present hazard, and the timing of the late burst must be perfect to prevent a rival coming off one's wheel and getting up on the line. The threat to sprinters winning flat stages comes in the form of the breakaway. This tactic provides many of the field with their only chance of a stage victory. Early on, a group of riders will normally break clear of the pack, often with its consent. The group will work together even if they are from rival teams, taking turns at the front and conserving energy by riding in the slipstream of the others the rest of the time in a bid to put as much distance as possible between them and the peloton.
The sprinters' teams then come under pressure to lead the main field in pursuit of the break. Their sponsors do not take kindly to the limelight being taken by brave have-a-go heroes. Often the breakaway merchants will eventually be hunted down, but there are times when they manage to stay away, much to the bookmakers' delight.
A successful break will usually throw up an unheralded, and unbacked, winner. Punters who bet on flat stages in-running should be aware that if the peloton works together to chase down a break, it can usually pull back a minute every ten kilometres.
The best guide to whether the break will stay away comes in the form of a field price quoted by IG Index when they bet in-running on flat stages. Each of the main sprinters will be quoted on an index which awards 50 points to the stage winner, 30 to the runner-up, 20 to the third rider home and ten to the man who finishes fourth, with the rest lumped together as the field. If the field looks like being swallowed up, the price will fall and vice versa.
THE INTERMEDIATE STAGE These occur mostly in the rolling terrain between the Alps and the Pyrenees and feature ascents that are tough but far shorter than the brutal climbs of the high mountains.
In terms of profile, they are similar to the one-day spring classics that traditionally favour high-quality Belgian, Dutch and Italian cyclists who have neither the speed to contest the sprinters nor the pure climbing ability to play a major part in affecting the overall classification by dominating in the mountains.
These are not the best betting events because so many different riders can feasibly win, although they can offer reasonable in-running opportunities once you get the chance to assess which of a breakaway group has the form and pedigree to prevail.
You can also use internet sites like letour.fr and cyclingnews.com to check the credentials of the breakaway group to see which riders have previous form when it comes to winning stages of this nature.
MOUNTAIN STAGES Wonderfully stirring to watch - I can willingly spend seven hours glued to Eurosport's coverage - and the stages that usually decide who will win the yellow jersey. Time-trialling is almost as crucial, but if you cannot climb, you cannot win the Tour, whereas the late Marco Pantani showed it is possible to be champion without being top-class against the watch.
Most mountain stages comprise at least three major climbs, sometimes as many as seven, and it is not uncommon for a big-priced rider to go well clear early on. These are usually wiry men who can have the odd big day in the mountains but lack the quality to challenge for overall honours and are therefore left to go about their business.
Very occasionally, they will stay out in front if the race principals play too much of a cat-and-mouse game with each other before the final climb, but more often than not their early prominence is inspired by an attempt to get TV exposure and some king of the mountains points.
TIME TRIALS You can split these into four kinds. The prologue, a short test of less than eight kilometres, always starts the Tour and is a difficult betting puzzle because, even though relatively few riders can win, the margin of success is measured in seconds so the odd misjudged turn can be crucial. The longer, flat time trials are seldom won by anyone other than a market leader, most of whom will be the favourites for outright victory or specialists like Britain's David Millar who you seldom hear about for the rest of the race as this is all they are good at.
Mountain time trials are equally uncompetitive, with fewer than five men likely to triumph. And then we come to the team time trial, an absurd concept as it handicaps certain riders' bid for overall glory just because they belong to a relatively weak outfit that simply cannot keep up with those of the other star names.
An early start is necessary for punters on team time trial day as there is usually plenty of value around, for reasons explained at the start of this chapter.