Opinion: Why time bonuses are crucial to the balance of the Tour Down Under

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Love them or hate them, time bonuses are a defining feature of the Santos Tour Down Under. Riders that finish in the top three on each stage earn a healthy deduction from their GC time — 10 seconds for the winner, six seconds for second, and four seconds for third. Each intermediate sprint offers bonus seconds as well.

These time bonuses have had a demonstrable impact on the race’s honour roll, most recently in the 20th edition which finished yesterday. Daryl Impey (Mitchelton-Scott) was crowned the overall winner, having finished on the same time as Richie Porte (BMC). Were it not for time bonuses, Porte would have won the Tour.

Every year there are discussions at the Tour Down Under about the role of time bonuses and whether the race needs them. Why, the argument goes, should Richie Porte have to settle for second place when he had the lowest overall time?

It’s a reasonable question. Ultimately, though, time bonuses are a vital ingredient to the success of the Tour Down Under.

In the early days of the Tour Down Under, the sprinters reigned supreme. The race didn’t have uphill finishes like it does today and fastmen like Andre Greipel were able to win the race overall. In that era, time bonuses helped to separate the many riders that would finish the tour with the same overall time, all while rewarding riders that reached the podium each day.

Since 2012, when Willunga Hill was first used as an uphill finish, those time bonuses have served a different function: to ensure that the general classification isn’t decided on one, 3km climb. Time bonuses shift the advantage away from the pure climbers and back towards the all-rounders; riders that can post a strong result on Willunga, while also challenging on the flatter and lumpier stages.

It’s a balancing act for the race organisers. They want the Willunga Hill stage to be the great spectacle it is, and for it to be crucial in deciding the general classification. But they also want a tight GC battle that extends beyond a single day of racing.

And that’s important for the fans and for the spectacle. It ensures that, on most days of the race, there are two storylines to engage with — the battle for the stage and the battle for GC. It ensures the TDU isn’t five days for the sprinters and only one for the GC contenders. And as we’ve seen so often in recent years, time bonuses can contribute to moments of great drama and excitement.

In the minutes after Daryl Impey crossed the finish line on Saturday’s Willunga stage, there was a sense of nervous anticipation atop the now-famous hill. Fans and members of the media hastily ran the numbers, trying to work out who would be the new leader of the race (and likely the overall winner). The combination of GC time, stage 5 finishing time, and time bonuses left Impey and Porte equal at the top of the leaderboard with only a countback able to separate them. It took most of 10 minutes for race officials to confirm that, yes, Impey would be the new leader of the Tour Down Under.

That moment was only possible because of time bonuses and the race was better for it.

Having a climber (Porte) and an all-rounder (Impey) finish the race with the same time would seem to suggest a well-balanced and engaging Tour Down Under. And of course, it’s certainly not the first time the race has been so closely fought.

In the seven editions of the Tour Down Under since the first Willunga uphill finish, four have been decided by two seconds or less (2012, 2014, 2015 and 2018). Of those four editions, two were decided on a countback — Impey and Porte this year, and Simon Gerrans and Alejandro Valverde in 2012. If the goal is close, exciting racing, then these results are surely a good thing.

Alternate reality

What would the Tour Down Under’s honour roll look like were it not for time bonuses? Of the seven editions since 2012, four would have a different winner.

Ultimately though, if the question is “Are time bonuses good for the Tour Down Under?” then the answer must surely be “What do you want from the race?” If the goal is a race that should be won by a climber, then time bonuses are likely to disappoint. Just ask Richie Porte — were it not for time bonuses, the Tasmanian would have three Tour Down Under titles to his name (four if he hadn’t lost eight seconds into Victor Harbor on stage 4 of the 2014 edition).

But if the goal is an open race, that could conceivably be won by either a climber or an all-rounder, then time bonuses play a vital role. And surely, an open GC battle that lasts the entirety of the race must be a good thing. It opens up the list of potential winners considerably, it keeps us all guessing until the last, and most importantly, it makes for more exciting and more engaging racing. It’s because of time bonuses that we see GC contenders fighting for final-stage intermediate sprints, trying to hold their place on the podium.

But at the end of the day, it’s up to race organisers to decide what they want. They have the ability to tailor the course to suit the type of rider they want to see in ochre.

If they want to tilt the race back in the favour of the climbers, they can simply add another uphill finish to the mix (as they did in 2015 and 2017). If they want to make the race unpredictable and more exciting, they can have just one uphill finish and a tough stage like last week’s stage 4 to shake things up. And if they want to add another dimension to the race entirely, they could always add a time trial of some kind.

While some riders are certainly disadvantaged by time bonuses at the Tour Down Under, they all know the score when they sign on for stage 1. They know that, to win the race overall, they’ll either have to take consistent, high finishes throughout the race, picking up time wherever they can, or they’ll have to take enough time on the climbs to negate the effect of the time bonuses.

Given that, it’s hard to argue that Daryl Impey isn’t a worthy winner of the 2018 Tour Down Under. Sure, he mightn’t have won a stage but he did show a versatility throughout the week that no one else could match.

Or, as the Adelaide Advertiser’s Reece Homfray so succinctly put it:

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