– By Chris Carmichael –
For riders in the leading group on a stage like Stage 16 of the 2008 Tour de France, you have to become more self-reliant than during other races. With the hard tempo being set by CSC-Saxo Bank, most team leaders were left with one or two teammates on the first climb of the day, the Col de la Lombarde. And even if they had a teammate nearby, that man wasn’t going to be of much help in terms of getting bottles or food from the team car because he was doing everything he could just to stay with the group.
Sending men up the road means support later on.
Because it’s so difficult to get fluids to riders in the lead group during a long climb, many teams place a soigneur at the summit to hand up bottles and food. And while this can be very beneficial, the descents in the high mountains are so fast and so technical that you can usually only manage to drink a little until the roads straighten out a bit more toward the valley.
Depending on the layout of the stage, the valley between climbs can be 50 kilometers – like it was on Stage 15 – or five, like today. When there’s a long valley between climbs, there’s time to go back to the team cars for food, or for the cars to come forward if the group is small enough. There’s also time for riders to get enough fluid and calories into their bodies that they can recover pretty well from the effort on the previous climb. With a long valley road, some riders can even recuperate so much that they can turn a bad day into a great final climb. But when you’re in the belly of the Alps, the valleys tend to be very short, and today there were only about five kilometers separating the end of the Lombarde descent from the beginning of the early slopes of the climb of the Col de la Bonette.
Arnaud Coyot took a spectacular spill in a cloud of dust on his way down the Lombarde, likely shaking his confidence as well.
With a short valley between climbs, there was little time for riders to eat and not much of an opportunity for dropped teammates to rejoin the yellow jersey group. Knowing this would be the case, CSC-Saxo Bank put teammates Jens Voigt and Kurt Asle Arevesen in a group up the road from the yellow jersey group. Garmin-Chipotle had Danny Pate and Ryder Hesjdal in that same group, Caisse d’Pargne had David Arroyo, Ivan Gutierrez, and Nicholas Portal in there, and Silence-Lotto was represented by Yaroslav Popovych. Since teammates would not be likely to catch back up from behind the yellow jersey group, they rode into the breakaway so they could drop back and help their team leaders if necessary on the second major ascent of the stage. This played out to great advantage for CSC and helped Garmin-Chipotle’s Christian Vande Velde when he lost contact with the yellow jersey group on the Bonette, and neither helped nor hurt Alejandro Valverde or Cadel Evans as they looked after themselves pretty well.
Yet, even if everything goes your way with food, fluids and teammates, you still have the mountain itself to contend with, and today that also meant dealing with altitude. At 2800 meters (about 9,100 feet) above sea level, the summit of the Bonette is a difficult place to ride at your best, and a very hard place to launch an attack. At moderately-high altitudes (6,000-10,000 feet), most athletes see about a 10% decrease in their sustainable power at lactate threshold. However, some see an even greater decrease in power output as they increase their effort level closer to VO2 max. In other words, it wasn’t a real surprise that no one in the yellow jersey group tried to launch an attack as they approached the summit of the Bonette climb today. Andy Schleck was setting a fast pace already, and partly due to the altitude, an attack wouldn’t have been able to go that much faster and would have cost the attacker a great deal of energy.
And since what goes up must come down, you have to be able to descend with extreme confidence in order to be successful in the high mountains. If you are uncomfortable going downhill, you’ll brake more going into the corners and have to accelerate harder out of them, which means you’ll end up doing more work than other riders and have less energy for the next climb. A rider’s confidence on descents can be easily shaken, and once it’s gone you quickly lose contact with the riders ahead of you. Just feeling your wheel slip a little is enough to make a rider tense up, or watching a fellow competitor crash. More than one rider commented that seeing Oscar Pereiro crash on Stage 15 made them more nervous on the rest of that descent. Christian Vande Velde had a minor fall on the final descent today, and commented after the stage that he couldn’t get his rhythm back and continued to lose time to the yellow jersey group even after he got back on the road.
Then, of course, there’s the situation of John-Lee Augustyn, who provides a great illustration of how difficult it is to get service for a mechanical problem in the high mountains. After crossing the summit of the Bonette first, he completely misjudged a corner on the descent and slid about 50 meters down a steep embankment. Unfortunately his bike slid and bounced even farther, and he chose to climb back up to the road rather than down to retrieve it. This left him standing there, watching the race go by, as he waited for his team car and a spare bike. In the mountains, the roads are very narrow, meaning cars have trouble passing on another, and the officials try to keep vehicles out of the gaps between riders so they don’t impede the race or inadvertently aid a rider. As a result, your team car can sometimes be several minutes behind you on the road, making quick repairs or bike exchanges nearly impossible. This is another reason the yellow jersey contenders try to have a teammate nearby so they can grab a wheel, or their bike, if necessary.
With one more stage in the Alps tomorrow, the top men in the 2008 Tour de France will have to face all the challenges of the high mountains again tomorrow. But this time there are three beyond-category climbs, including the epic summit finish on Alpe d’Huez. If CSC-Saxo Bank is going to clinch the yellow jersey for either Carlos Sastre or Frank Schleck, they have to use all means at their disposal to crack Cadel Evans and Denis Menchov on the road to Alpe d’Huez tomorrow.
• 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,