– By Chris Carmichael –
The Dynamics Of A Downhill Chase
When the breakaway group of four crossed the summit of the final climb, there were riders following them in ones and twos, and then the yellow jersey group about two minutes behind. Franco Pellizotti (Liquigas), Jurgen Van den Broeck (Silence Lotto), Amael Moinard (Cofidis), and Mikel Astarloza (Euskaltel Euskadi) were going to decide the stage win, as long as they could survive the descent without crashing or being caught.
Catching up on a descent can be very difficult, especially if the group ahead is determined to go as fast as they possibly can. During earlier climbs in a long mountain stage, riders will often get dropped on the way up and rejoin the peloton on the way down, or in the valley before the next ascent. They’re able to do this because the main peloton is descending at a fast pace, but not actively trying to go all-out.
The risks of crashing increase dramatically when you start aggressively pushing your bike through hairpin bends and testing the limits of your tires and skills. When there are still a few mountains left to climb, riders in the peloton aren’t eager to take those bigger risks. This allows the guys who were dropped an opportunity to rejoin – as long as they’re willing to accept those greater risks to go downhill faster.
With the finish line at the bottom of today’s final descent, the riders in the leading group of four were letting it all hang out. When groups of riders are descending as fast as they can, it’s difficult for a chasing group to gain time. The speeds in both groups are so high to begin with, there’s simply not that much more speed to be had. The differences in top speeds on the straightaways are often negligible, so gaining or losing time to a chasing group comes down to the corners and the accelerations out of them.
The less speed you burn off through braking, the easier and quicker it will be to get back up to maximum speed in the next straightaway. To conserve as much of your speed as possible through hairpin bends, you have to be an expert at finding the best line through the turn. Not only do Tour de France riders have a tremendous amount of experience to rely on, but they also have the vehicles in front of them.
As a pro, you have to learn to ride full speed into corners you have never seen before. Some of the top riders spend time reconning important mountain stages of the Tour de France, but most don’t have that luxury because their busy racing somewhere else. I don’t know if the men in the lead group had ever been down the descent from the Col du Petit-Saint-Bernard before, but no doubt they were looking at the cars and motorcycles in front of them for information about the severity of upcoming turns.
You learn to watch the vehicle’s suspension and how early or late the brake lights come on, and from that information you can get a pretty good idea of whether the exit of the turn is shallow enough that you can conserve most of your speed, or so tight that you’re going to need two handfuls of brakes.
Once you’re through a corner, it’s imperative to get back up to speed quickly. A short, hard acceleration is necessary, even if you’re going to be braking again in 10 seconds or less in order to set up for the next corner.
These accelerations, along with the stress of cutting close to the apex of corners and then coming within inches of the guardrails (if there are any) on the exits, lead to a lot of fatigue. Today’s leading group of four was caught within the final two kilometers of the stage, and the yellow jersey group that started the descent two minutes behind Franco Pellizotti used its strength – particularly in the last few kilometers where the roads started to open up and straighten out – to pull back about a minute of that lead and cross the finish line 59 seconds behind the winner of the stage, Mikel Astarloza.
It’s hard to believe that today was Astarloza’s first individual victory in a road race as a pro. He’s been a professional since 2002 and he’s frequently a factor in breakaways and races that include big mountains. Today he was in the breakaway again, was dropped, and had to bridge up to the leading trio as they approached the summit. After bombing down the descent in a group of four, he attacked with about two kilometers to go. He’s known as a climber, but Astarloza showed today that sometimes there’s more to winning a mountain stage than reaching the summit first.
Mikel Astarloza’s first pro road win…can’t imagine a first time biking moment much better than that!
St.17: Tougher Than It Looks…And It Looks Pretty Tough
As for what’s coming up next, tomorrow’s stage makes today’s look like a ride to the coffee shop. Four Category 1 climbs, with a Category 2 added for good measure, over the course of 170 kilometers. I rode a good portion of Stage 17 today, and it’s going to be a very tough day for the peloton tomorrow. The final ascents average 8.9% and 8.5%, respectively, and the descent between them is not long enough to provide much in the way of recovery.
Stage 17 – that’s gonna hurt…
Stage 17 is a little deceptive because it doesn’t feature famous ascents that have been used frequently in the Tour (except maybe the Roseland and Colombiere), and it doesn’t have a summit finish. But underestimating Stage 17 would be a big mistake. When you have a day that consists of one climb after another, and then another, and more after that, things can go very bad very quickly and it’s difficult to make up lost ground. Furthermore, with the constant up and down it can be hard to find good times to eat enough calories on days like tomorrow, and that will become especially important on the final two climbs.
• Chris Carmichael has been Lance Armstrong’s coach for 20 years and is the founder of Carmichael Training Systems (CTS). Chris’s newest book, “The Time Crunched Cyclist: Fit, Fast, and Powerful in 6 Hours a Week” has just been released and signed copies are available at www.trainright.com. There you can also get 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. You should also follow Chris on Twitter.
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