– By Chris Carmichael –
Five hours of racing while you’re soaking wet and cold is a lot more difficult than completing the same route, in the same amount of time, when it’s warm and dry.
Just a few days, I was talking about the impact heat has on an athlete’s ability to control his core temperature, and the detrimental impact that rising core temperature has on performance. Well, conditions change quickly at the Tour de France and riding in cold weather can also diminish an athlete’s performance.
In the not so fast moving peloton, keeping warm was paramount.
Instead of worrying about keeping core temperature from rising too high, on a day like today we’re worried about keeping a rider’s core temperature from falling too low. And that’s saying a lot, considering how much heat these guys are producing as they ride. But with five hours of being soaking wet, air temperatures reaching as low as 55 degrees Fahrenheit, and wind constantly moving over your body as you travel at an average speed of 25 miles an hour (slightly less for the main peloton), you can see how it becomes difficult for riders to stay warm.
As core temperature goes down, the body starts restricting bloodflow to the extremities and focusing on circulating warm blood to vital organs. This is obviously not ideal when you’re trying to use your legs to power up a mountain. The situation gets worse when you have long descents. The increased speed and reduced workload causes you to lose body heat rapidly, and it’s not uncommon for a rider’s legs to feel pretty bad at the bottom of a long and cold descent.
Clothing is about the only thing riders can use to combat the cold weather. Today riders wore more layers, especially on their torsos, to keep their core temperatures from falling. In moderate temperatures (compared to really cold winter days), keeping the torso warm is the primary concern and many riders will go without knee or leg warmers. Since it was clear that the riders would be in the rain all day, some may have used “Belgian knee warmers”, or combinations of liniments and oils that attempt to create a barrier that seals out moisture and seals in heat. Similarly, keeping the hands warm with waterproof gloves (but no slippery creams) is essential because cold hands lose their dexterity, and have stiff and cold fingers doesn’t build confidence for handling fast and slippery descents.
Keeping warm wasn’t too much of an issue in the break.
While the extra clothing layers helped keep the riders warm, water-logged shoes and a few extra vests or jackets also adds a few pounds of weight. While the conditions are equal for everyone, this added weight is one of the reasons why rainy days in the mountains cost the riders more energy. Working to stay warm is the other major reason.
Rainy days spent riding in a large pack over narrow roads are not calming in any way. The climbs aren’t too bad, but the corners, railroad crossings, and descents are sources of stress. So is a lack of visibility. A rider’s ability to see the road and riders ahead of him is critical, not only to winning but also to staying safe, and the spray coming up off the road makes it harder to see. Over the course of five hours, stress builds from all of these sources and adds to the fatigue riders feel after the stage.
On a side note, modern eyewear and hydrophobic (water hating/fearing) lens treatments can help riders see more clearly in rainy conditions, as long as the lenses don’t fog up. To combat fogging, glasses – like the Smith Optics I wear – are specifically shaped to permit enough airflow between your face and the lens to prevent condensation from accumulating (but not so much airflow that you’re feeling the wind in your eyes). Nevertheless, despite having advanced eyewear, many riders in the peloton today rode with their glasses on their helmets. The danger there, as always, is that you’ll get something dangerous in your eye, and that danger increases in the rain because the spray coming off the wheels in front of you brings a lot more crud than usual up into your face.
Confidence Wins The Day
Heinrich Haussler isn’t the first guy you think of when it comes to likely winners of a mountain stage in the Tour de France, but he showed today that he has the resilience to battle through rain and over significant climbs as he soloed to victory in Stage 13. Though he was initially in a three-man breakaway group with Ruben Perez (Euskaltel Euskadi) and Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step), the Cervelo rider crossed the summit of the day’s biggest climb, the Col du Platzerwasen, alone. On the descent, Haussler opened up a significant lead over Chavanel and never looked back.
Chavanel’s not a bad descender, but Haussler is better, and the Cervelo rider took significant risks on the wet descents from the Platzerwasel, Bannstein, and Firstplan climbs to maintain or even build on his lead without additional work. Great descending skills are like having free speed. Although I think Chavanel was dropped on the Platzerwasel because he was exhausted or hungry, he’s normally a guy who’s pretty hard to drop. Not knowing whether Chavanel had the power to chase him down, Haussler used superior descending skills to bomb the descent and open a big gap to the Quick Step rider before the bottom. Normally it would take a lot of power to create a gap like that on Chavanel, but instead of power, Haussler used gravity, better lines, and a healthy dose of courage to get that gap today. In the end it didn’t really matter, because Chavanel didn’t have the power to chase anyway, but those same descending skills ensured Haussler wasn’t caught by anyone else either.
Behind him, the battle for the yellow jersey was pretty much a non-issue today. It was a difficult day in the saddle for the yellow jersey contenders. The climbs were hard, but the weather and the 60 kilometers between the summit of the Platzerwasel’s summit and the finish line discouraged the race’s biggest protagonists from launching attacks. The majority of those kilometers were downhill, even considering the Cat 3 and Cat 1 climbs in that portion of the course, but no one wanted to push their luck on wet descents in an effort to gain some time. That means Rinaldo Nocentini held on to the yellow jersey for another day, and the next mountain showdown is coming on Sunday’s stage to Verbier.
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.