Sprinters love them, GC riders who have no finishing kick hate them; either way, time bonuses add an unquestionable dynamic to any stage race that includes them.
The Giro d'Italia this week announced it would return to full time bonuses on all road stages during next year's corsa rosa in a move that reignites the debate on whether they truly heighten the action or unfairly distort the final outcome.
After experimenting in 2012 by eliminating the bonuses in five decisive mountain stages, viewed as a way to decrease their collective impact on the GC, the Giro has gone back to full bonuses in all stages except time trials. It also adds a second "hot" sprint with bonuses in each stage.
That move, clearly designed to spice up the racing even more, comes on the heels of one of the tightest GC fights ever in a modern Giro, when Garmin-Sharp's Ryder Hesjedal eked out a 16-second victory margin over Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha). Had the full bonuses been in place, at least under the calculus set for 2013, Rodriguez would have won by four seconds.
Many suggested that Rodriguez gifted the win to Matteo Rabottini (Farnese Vini-Selle Italia) in stage 15 when the pair arrived to the line at Pian dei Resinelli because no bonuses were in play.
Rabottini had been in an all-day break and Rodriguez attacked to drop Hesjedal on the steep finale and caught him with 400 meters to go. As one of the five stages without time bonuses, Rodriguez was content to get the time and seemed to let Rabottini take the win. Rodriguez immediately denied gifting the stage, but he told VeloNews that day if there had been bonuses, "I would have tried harder to be first across the line."
Garmin sport director Bingen Fernandez, speaking to VeloNews earlier this year about the Giro bonuses, agreed that time bonuses do alter the racing tactics, but said counting backwards simply makes no sense.
"When you have the bonuses at the line, of course it changes how you play out the stage," Fernández said. "You could say maybe Rodriguez could have won if there had been the bonuses, but they were not there. If the bonuses were there, then you take that into account and make adjustments. You could also say Ryder slowed down in the final time trial once we knew he had enough to win and not take more risks. Ryder won the Giro -- full stop."
Time bonuses have proved decisive in other recent grand tours. Another example was last year's Vuelta a España, when Juan Jose Cobo beat Chris Froome by 13 seconds. Cobo's win was paved by winning 32 seconds in bonuses, all earned on mountaintop finishes. Without those, Froome would have won the race by 19 seconds.
"The bonuses are sometimes an advantage to a rider with more of a punch," Froome said last year. "If you're going to have them on a mountaintop finish, which are very decisive, why not have them in a time trial?"
In the 2008 Vuelta, Alberto Contador won ahead of Astana teammate Levi Leipheimer by 46 seconds. Take away the time bonuses, and Contador and Leipheimer would have been tied. A tiebreaker taken in time trials would have tilted the win toward Contador anyway, but the bonuses obviously make a difference.
When asked about how the time bonuses played out in that Vuelta, Contador simply said Leipheimer was a teammate and that it was in their mutual interest to race together, adding that had Leipheimer been on an opposing team, "I would have attacked him."
Time bonuses have been around for a long time. Decades ago, bonuses of several minutes were seen even at the Tour de France. Over the past 20 years, the bonuses have slowly whittled down as the gaps between the favorites have become ever tighter.
Finish-line bonuses have settled into a norm for most stage races, typically with time deductions of 20, 12 and eight seconds for the top three finishers of a stage. Mid-race "hot sprints" also have time on the line, usually six, four and two seconds. No official rules dictate bonuses, so races add them and take them away at their fancy.
In shorter, weeklong stage races, especially ones without time trials, time bonuses are often the key factor in crowning the eventual winner.
In 2008, Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme did away with the time bonuses altogether, saying a winner of the yellow jersey should be proclaimed on their "true" time unaltered by bonuses that can sometimes be confusing to follow.
That decision dramatically altered the dynamic of the fight for the yellow jersey, both among GC aspirants and the sprinters and stage-hunters that vie for the leader's tunic in the first week of the Tour.
This year's Tour was especially limiting in how many yellow jerseys made the rounds, with only two riders donning yellow during three weeks. Due in large part to how the race was laid out, Fabian Cancellara won the opening prologue and held the jersey into the mountains. Bradley Wiggins took it over and held it all the way to Paris.
The 2009 Tour played out in similar fashion, with Cancellara holding the yellow jersey for a week before Rinaldo Nocentini took it in a breakaway in the Pyrenees and held it before ceding it for good to eventual winner Contador.
In the three other Tours since ASO's freeze on the time bonuses we've seen the yellow tunic change hands quite a bit, with seven riders taking yellow in 2008, enough to squelch critics who say that eliminating the time bonuses dulls the racing.
Cancellara, however, even admits that having no time bonuses severely limits who can wear the yellow jersey, especially in a Tour route laden with sprint stages in the first half.
"I can be the one who benefits, especially if I can win a prologue and then I can keep the jersey for many days," Cancellara said in July. "I cannot complain, because it is good for me and my team, but I can understand others who will not be able to wear the yellow jersey because there are no bonuses."
The biggest losers in the equation are the sprinters, who now have almost no chance at all to take yellow without time bonuses in play.
Even with time bonuses, however, it was hard for sprinters to take the maillot jaune. The last Tour to see them fight for yellow was back in 2004, when Cancellara wore yellow for two days before Thor Hushovd and then Robbie McEwen snagged it thanks to finish-line bonuses before ceding it to the GC riders.
But at least that chance was there. Now, with the Tour refusing to budge on its bonus ban, a new generation of sprinters knows they have little chance of wearing yellow. That's especially true for riders like Tyler Fararr or Edvald Boasson Hagen, who can put down a strong prologue to stay close to the specialists such as Cancellara and then chip away with mid-race and finish-line bonuses.
"I think it's a pity (to not have bonuses). I think it would make the race a lot more exciting if there was a yellow jersey battle every day in the first week," Farrar told VeloNews at this year's Tour. "Now, if someone wins the prologue, even with one second, so long as they finish on the same time, they keep the jersey. It’s their race, they can do what they want, but I think it would make it even more exciting to bring them back."
This year's Tour, which starts June 29 on Corsica, begins with what should be a bunch sprint. The peloton's sprinters know that it presents an once-in-a-lifetime chance to grab yellow. Mark Cavendish is already sharpening his knives.
"I've been waiting and hoping for that for my whole career," Cavendish told VeloNews at the Tour presentation in Paris. "I am quite excited that I have the opportunity of getting the yellow jersey, it's not a guarantee, but it's an opportunity."
This year's course gives Cavendish the shot he's been waiting for.
"There are no time bonuses, so we have one shot at getting the yellow jersey," he said. "I've never had a chance to go for the yellow jersey, so that will be spectacular."
Many would argue that it would be even more spectacular for the Tour to follow the Giro's lead and reinsert the sprinters' duel in France.