Contributed by Chris Carmichael
Everybody is fresh and a bit antsy, no one is fatigued yet, and everyone thinks he or she can win. Now imagine that level of tension and intensity for four-and-a-half hours straight and you have some idea of what it’s like to be in the peloton on the first road stage of the Tour de France.
After the roll out at the stage start, riders can look forward to one of the two most stressfull hours of the day’s racing.
The worst of the tension comes in the first and last hour of the race. In the first hour, there’s a tremendous amount of aggression as dozens of riders launch attacks and counterattacks in an effort to establish the day’s long breakaway. This is an arduous process because the composition of that group is very important. First off, size is important. The peloton doesn’t want to allow a breakaway that’s too big (more than about 8-10 riders), because a big group can share the work more effectively and will be harder to chase down in the closing kilometers.
Who’s in the breakaway matters as well. Obviously the peloton doesn’t want to let a rider who could potentially win the Tour de France to escape into a breakaway, but it’s also important that a suitable cross-section of the peloton be represented in the group. That means it’s rare that you’ll see more than one rider from any team in a breakaway group smaller than about 8. Some teams place a higher priority on putting riders in breakaways because they know it’s their best chance of grabbing a stage win.
For teams that don’t have a top-name sprinter, a top-rated climber, or a rider who can contend for one of the jersey competitions (overall, points, climber, young rider), winning out of a breakaway is about the only option left. When you look at the composition of today’s four-man break, you’ll see that three of the four were on teams that will consider the Tour de France a success if they can snag a single stage win: Franзaise des Jeux, Ag2R la Mondiale, and Cofidis. Rabobank was the fourth team represented, and although they’re searching for stage wins as well, they have bigger ambitions with riders like Denis Menchov and Robert Gesink.
But although I’ve made it sound like nothing more difficult than picking lottery numbers, getting into the breakaway is very hard. If it’s your job to get into a long breakaway, then you have to attack and go with dozens of accelerations because if the right combination forms and you’re not in it right when it happens, you’re going to spend the rest of the day in the peloton. Even if you’re not trying to get into the day’s long breakaway, you can’t just sit back and cruise. As the riders are attacking, chasing, and counterattacking, the pace in the main pack often stays incredibly high. But unlike later in the stage when the speed will be high but steady, there are a lot of surges and decelerations in the early kilometers. This leads to a lot of nervousness in the belly of the pack because the pace is all over the map and riders can’t get into any sort of rhythm.
Once the breakaway is established life in the peloton settles down into the routine of fetching, drinking, and throwing water bottles, eating, staying out of trouble, and perhaps some pace setting on the front. That’s not to say it’s boring, though. You still have to stay very focused to avoid crashes as the roads get wider and narrower, the wind shifts, and you pass through towns. As the race enters the final hour, the pace picks up and the environment gets tense once again. The teams of the sprinters come to the front to make sure the breakaway riders get caught, and the teams of the overall contenders come to the front to keep their leader out of danger. But there’s only so much room at the front, especially on roads that start out narrow and get narrower and are filled with roundabouts and traffic islands. So there’s some pushing and rubbing of shoulders and elbows, but at least the pace is far steadier than during the high-tension period at the beginning of the stage.
Although rarely on the front, the team leaders are usually nearby to avoid the problems that come from being too far back.
Within the final 10 kilometers, the peloton is a scary place. The pace goes up to well over 30mph and everybody is fighting for position, not necessarily because they care if they’re 50th or 90th over the finish line, but because the closer you are to the front the less likely you are to finish behind a field split or get caught either in or behind a high-speed crash. And if you’re sitting 50th in the pack, you’re fighting to stay there because a moment’s hesitation or a lack of focus could put you back in 150th – or worse yet, off the back completely – in just a few seconds.
What makes the first road stage scarier than the rest? Since everybody is so fresh, more riders are trying to get into that long breakaway, more riders have the energy to fight tooth-and-nail for position within the peloton, and more riders believe they have a legitimate chance of contending for the stage win. That leads to more bumping, rubbing, braking, cursing, accelerating, and crashing. As the Tour de France wears on, some of those riders become less active and less aggressive, and that has a slight mellowing effect on the whole peloton. If it’s late in the second week, you’re an hour behind on the general classification, and you’ve already done your assigned job for the day, you fight for position just enough to stay safely within the peloton as you head to the finish, and you let the real aggressive stuff go on ahead of you.
How was Lance’s first road stage? He looked a lot more comfortable in the peloton than he did back in Australia in January. Part of the reason his race schedule was so packed during his comeback was that he needed time to get comfortable riding in extremely close quarters again. Before he retired, he was perfectly at home in the roughest pelotons you could find, but that edge dulls quickly when you’re out of competition. It took some time to sharpen up Lance’s pack-riding reflexes, but it’s great to see that he’s once again at home in the Tour de France peloton.
Chris Carmichael has been Lance Armstrong’s coach for 20 years and is the founder of Carmichael Training Systems (CTS). For more information on CTS’ Create Your Own Comeback program, the free Do the Tour…Stay at Home™ training program, and the free CTS Tour de France Newsletter, visit www.trainright.com. You can also follow Chris on Twitter.