– By Chris Carmichael –
Today’s course was laid out as a triangle with the first leg into a stiff headwind and the return into town assisted by a strong tailwind. There were also two reasonably-significant hills to tackle. The first ten or so kilometers were probably the most important of the entire stage. Both mathematical models and anecdotal evidence show that time trials are won by going harder at the most difficult, slowest portions of the course. This means the places you can gain time are on the uphills and into the headwind. Unfortunately, this also means athletes need to dig deepest at the most painful parts of the race, but then again, winning hurts.
Conserving energy on the first leg of the course today was not a good strategy because the tailwind-assisted final leg was so fast. It seems logical to save energy so you can go even faster when the wind is at your back, but today the fastest riders were all traveling so quickly in the tailwind that going harder may have gained them one or two seconds per kilometer, whereas that same extra effort expended in the headwind or on a hill may have gained them 5-10 seconds per kilometer.
Watching David Millar and Fabian Cancellara today, they were pretty much spun out in their biggest gears at times on the final leg, meaning they couldn’t have gone any faster even if they had the energy to do so. Today’s winner, Stefan Schumacher, seemed to be riding a massively large gear, and if that’s the case those extra gear inches might explain why he was able to cover the final leg faster than Millar, who appeared to be catching him at the second time check. Of course, they also could have been riding the same gear setups and Schumacher was just on television at times when he was pedaling slower. Either way, it was a tremendous performance for the Gerolsteiner rider and netted him the yellow jersey.
Barring accident, it’s likely that Schumacher will keep the yellow jersey through tomorrow’s stage, and he even has a chance of keeping it through the end of Stage 6. The final climb to Super-Besse in Stage 6 will be the first time we get to see how the major favorites compare in the mountains, but it’s a relatively short climb that suits Schumacher’s strengths. He’s not necessarily a man for the longest and tallest climbs in the Alps and Pyrenees, but he has performed very well on minor mountain climbs and in the hilliest Classics, like the Amstel Gold Race which he won in 2007.
As for the yellow jersey contenders, let’s just say that Carlos Sastre and Alejandro Valverde are very fortunate today was only 29.5 kilometers and 50 or 55. They are both now a minute or more behind Cadel Evans, which is certainly not an insurmountable deficit, but it’s significant. Denis Menchov rode well today, but he’ll be kicking himself about losing more than 30 seconds yesterday when the field split on the run in to the finish of Stage 3. He’s now 51 seconds behind Evans, but could have been around 20 seconds behind instead had he been in front of yesterday’s split.
And I don’t know about you, but for once I’m rooting against the breakaway riders tomorrow. It’s been four days of racing and we’ve yet to see an honest-to-goodness straight-up field sprint. I want to see Mark Cavendish, Thor Hushovd, Robbie McEwen, Robbie Hunter, Julian Dean, Erik Zabel and Gert Steegmans go head to head once before this race hits its first mountains.
• 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,