By Chris Carmichael
The media has spent a lot of time talking about the potential conflicts that could arise within the Astana team, owing to the fact they arrived at the Tour de France with two men who have won the race and two other men who have finished on the podium. The flip side to those speculative stories is the fact that coming to the Tour de France with four men who have what it takes to win the yellow jersey means you have an unprecedented depth of talent and horsepower concentrated within one team. That was proven today in the team time trial, as Astana won and took significant time out of every other yellow jersey contender.
But how do you manage a team time trial when you have a squad that includes support riders as well as men who have either won or finished in the top five in individual time trials at the Tour de France? Mostly it comes down to managing the length of each rider’s pulls at the front of the team. Ideally, you want to keep your team together for the entire event, or at least as much of it as possible. That means keeping the pace high, but steady, because nothing rips a team apart faster than repeated surges. To do this within a group of riders who have varying abilities against the clock, you have the weaker riders take shorter pulls and the stronger riders take longer ones.
Much of the actual timing of how long each rider stays on the front is left up to the riders themselves. They all know that maximum speed is the ultimate goal for the event, and with changes in terrain and wind conditions it’s impossible to structure time at the front of the team. As a rider, you have to know yourself and read the conditions during each effort to determine when it’s the right time to pull off. If you dig too deep trying to stay on the front, the consequences can be drastic. With everyone riding at their maximum, you only have one chance to latch onto the back of the train after your pull. The draft behind a rider on a TT bike is not as easy to find or benefit from compared to the draft behind a rider on a normal ride bike and in a more upright position, and it’s surprisingly easy to get tailed off the back of the team after a hard pull at the front.
Astana did well to keep most of the team together for the duration of the team time trial. They lost Gregory Rast and Dmitriy Muravyev relatively early, and Yaroslav Popovych dropped off the back in the closing kilometers after giving one last monster pull, but that was far better than Garmin-Slipstream, who were down to just five men by the halfway point of the stage. All things considered, Garmin-Slipstream may have had the best ride of the day, though.
Their 4 time trial strongmen, Bradley Wiggins, Dave Zabriskie, David Millar, and Christian Vande Velde, along with Ryder Hesjedal, managed to finish just 18 seconds slower than Astana and more than two minutes faster than Cadel Evans’ Silence-Lotto team. The stripped-down Garmin-Slipstream squad even beat Fabian Cancellara’s Saxo Bank squad, a team that was among the favorites to win the stage.
Team Columbia-HTC was another favorite for the team time trial that didn’t quite have the ride they were looking for. Perhaps that’s understandable, however, based on the tremendous effort they put forth yesterday to split the peloton and drive a 27-man breakaway for the final 30 kilometers of Stage 3. Their efforts over the first two road stages netted them two stage wins for Mark Cavendish, but may have taken some of the edge off their top-end speed for the team time trial.
At the Tour de France, you have to remember that every action has a reaction; every effort you commit to has repercussions later in the race. Columbia’s performance today was decent, and there’s no doubt that the energy costs required to support Cavendish over the past two days were well worth the cost of being a bit slower in the team time trial. After all, they still beat Silence-Lotto and Cervelo, two teams that needed to do well and should have been far more rested than Columbia-HTC.
The Tour de France was not won or lost today, by anyone, but it had definitely put the Astana team in the best of all situations. In a stage race, having rivals behind you in the standings is always better than having them in front of you, regardless of how wide or narrow the margin. Two seconds ahead is better than two seconds behind, because at the end of the day, if you’re two seconds ahead all you have to do to stay ahead is stick with your rival and finish in the same time.
As it stands now, there’s not a single significant yellow jersey threat within 1:16 (Vande Velde) of Astana’s top-placed rider (Armstrong) and all four of Astana’s yellow jersey threats are ahead of the top-placed GC contenders from all the other teams in the race. There’s still plenty of racing left and anything can happen, but rather than looking for places to recoup lost time, at any point in a Grand Tour, it’s always better to go forward with time in your pocket.
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 at www.twitter.com/trainright.