– By Chris Carmichael –
L’Alpe d’Huez favors explosive climbers over men who can ride high and steady tempos up major mountain passes. The 21 turns make it difficult to maintain a steady rhythm, and they also cause the pitch of the climb to change frequently. In the past it was a bad place for men like Jan Ullrich, a big and powerful climber who rode like a diesel locomotive. Given the chance to ride his pace, he could beat just about anyone, but he couldn’t handle frequent changes in pace. This is common among men who excel in the individual time trial, and as such it’s also a weakness for Cadel Evans.
Carlos Sastre attacked on the steepest slopes, to use his power:weight ratio to best advantage.
For lightly-built climbing specialists, the l’Alpe d’Huez is a blessing and a curse. If there was ever a climb that suited their talents and physiology, this is it. Yet because it’s so well-suited to them they are under tremendous pressure to excel here, and the racing is so intense because of the prestige of this mountain that performances that would win on any other climb are often not enough on this one.
Power-to-weight ratio (PWR) is the primary advantage for the climbing specialists on Alpe d’Huez. Every rider has a maximum sustainable power output for a given amount of time. For Alpe d’Huez, the time that’s important is about 40 minutes. Larger riders may be able to generate higher power outputs, but they also have more weight to drag uphill. Smaller riders don’t have the muscle mass to generate big power numbers, but they also don’t have that weight to carry. To compare the relative climbing strengths of riders of varying sizes, we divide their sustainable power outputs by their weight in kilograms to determine a watts-per-kilogram number. The more watts you can generate per kilogram of bodyweight, the greater your advantage on steeper slopes and the greater ability you’ll have to accelerate quickly on big climbs.
The Schleck bros. toyed with the chase by constantly changing the pace.
For example, a lightweight climbing specialist might weigh as little as 62 kilograms and let’s say he can generate 430 watts for 40 minutes. A larger Grand Tour contender might weigh 71 kilograms and generate 475 watts for those same 40 minutes. Even though the larger rider generates more power, the climber has a PWR of 6.9 watts per kilogram to the larger rider’s 6.7 watts per kilogram. It’s not a huge numerical difference, but when you’re riding at your limit on the steepest slopes in the Alps, it’s enough to make a big difference.
Carlos Sastre, Andy Schleck, and Frank Schleck all have high power-to-weight ratios and this makes them particularly dangerous on steep slopes like the first three kilometers of l’Alpe d’Huez. There’s a reason Sastre attacked right at the bottom of the climb, and that’s because it’s where he had the greatest advantage over riders like Cadel Evans, Denis Menchov, and Christian Vande Velde, who are great climbers but who have slightly lower power-to-weight ratios.
Without teammates like Andy and Frank Schleck, however, Sastre’s attack may not have netted him a 2:15 lead over Evans today. The Schleck brothers used their ability to attack and accelerate on steep pitches – provided by their high power-to-weight ratios – to keep the pace in the chasing group from settling down into a steady rhythm. Not to take anything away from the incredible ride put in by Sastre, but it’s unusual for the chasing group to continue losing time when they’re chasing a potential Tour de France winner in the final five kilometers of the Alpe. Normally the gap starts closing as the leader pays for his earlier efforts and the power-to-weight advantage lessens as the chasers reach the shallower slopes near the top of the ascent. Sastre did lose a little time in the final kilometers, but only about 10 seconds instead of a more typical 30-40 seconds.
If there was any mistake made today on l’Alpe d’Huez it was from Cadel Evans. Once Sastre’s lead grew past 40 seconds, the whereabouts of Frank and Andy Schleck didn’t matter nearly as much as chasing the Spaniard. No one else had as much to lose by letting Sastre gain a big chunk of time, so it was a surprise to see him follow wheels and respond to accelerations instead of going to the front and driving the pace. Yes, he would have been attacked and likely dropped by the Schleck brothers near the summit, and perhaps by Bernhard Kohl, Menchov and Vande Velde as well, but because the pitch lessens a fraction within the final three kilometers, his time losses to them would probably have been limited to 30-40 seconds. He had more time in hand to most of those riders at the start of the day and is the strongest time trial rider of the bunch, so those losses would have been manageable. Instead he allowed the tactics to be dictated by CSC-Saxo Bank and now sits 1:34 behind Sastre in the overall classification. Maybe he didn’t have the legs, it’s certainly understandable after the infernal pace-making of CSC-Saxo Bank and the fact we’re two and half weeks into the Tour de France, but if there’s any other reason I think he made a mistake.
• Chris Carmichael coached Lance Armstrong throughout his 15-year cycling career. This year he’s providing commentary on the race for PezCycling News and offering a special Coaching + 12-month PowerTap Payment Plan promotion during July. For more information on Carmichael Training Systems’ coaching, the free Do the Tour…Stay at Home training program, and the free CTS Tour de France Newsletter,