By Chris Carmichael
Inside the final 30km of Stage 3, the Columbia-HTC team was performing the normal work of pulling back the day’s long breakaway when the peloton turned into an 18-20mph crosswind from the left. Apparently angered by the lack of cooperation they were receiving from other sprinters’ teams, they moved to the right side of the road, which deprived a large portion of the peloton from getting a draft and put everybody in the gutter. Then they opened the throttle and ripped the race to pieces.
The power of the Columbia-HTC team in the crosswinds today was incredible.
In all, 27 riders, including the entire Columbia-HTC team, Lance Armstrong, Yaroslav Popovych, and Haimar Zubeldia from Astana, and current Tour leader Fabian Cancellara were attentive enough and in the right position to be able to stay in the front group. Caught behind the widening split were the majority of the sprinters who had hoped to challenge Columbia-HTC’s Mark Cavendish for the stage win, as well as major yellow jersey contenders Carlos Sastre, Cadel Evans, Andy Schleck, and Alberto Contador. In fact, besides Cavendish, the only sprinter of note who made the front group was Cervelo’s Thor Hushovd.
Days like today are the reason coaches and directors keep talking about the need to stay near the front of the peloton. When you’re in the gutter 80 riders back in the pack and the pack splits 50 riders ahead of you, there’s nothing you can do to make it into that front group. But if you’re close to the front and paying attention to the fact that you’re about to turn into a strong crosswind, then the chances are pretty good that you’ll be on the better side of the split.
And look who made it into the leading group, besides team Columbia-HTC who were there because they were the pace-setters at the time: Fabian Cancellara, Thor Hushovd, and Lance Armstrong; three riders who are known for being very smart as well as strong. For Hushovd, getting into the front group meant eliminating all of his primary rivals for the stage win, except of course Cavendish. For Cancellara and Armstrong, the 41 seconds gained over the peloton at the finish line was pretty much free time. Both men stayed in the draft during the run to the finish, and as a result their energy output during that time wasn’t very different than it was for Evans, Contador, Sastre, or Schleck, who were all sitting in the draft back in the pack.
Gaining time during the Tour de France typically requires a tremendous effort, like attacking on a mountain stage or giving your all during an individual time trial. But today Armstrong and Cancellara gained 41 seconds without having to commit to any giant efforts. And because Astana and Saxo Bank had general classification riders in the front group (even if they’re not the teams’ solitary leaders), the rest of the team was under no real pressure to chase and close the gap. That may be important during tomorrow’s team time trial. Columbia-HTC did a lot of work today, and were rewarded with the stage win for their efforts, but they’re also a favorite for the Stage 4 team time trial and the work they did today could negatively impact their speed tomorrow. In contrast, Saxo Bank and Astana, two of the other teams favored to win the team time trial, didn’t expend a ton of energy chasing the late split and may have more in the tank for a great performance in the team time trial.
Alberto Contador and the rest of the favorites missed a big opportunity today. Only Armstrong managed to make the crucial split.
As a rider, whether you’re in the Tour de France or a local race, there are innumerable variables in a bike race that are beyond your control (wind, temperature, narrow roads, roundabouts, the other riders in the pack, etc.). The things you have the most control over are where you’re going to ride within the peloton and how vigilant you’re going to be. Stage 3 of the 2009 Tour de France illustrates that there can be serious consequences to letting your guard down and sitting at the back of the pack, expecting others to do the work. Lance Armstrong just moved up from 10th into third place in the overall classification, purely as a result of recognizing a situation that had the potential to split the race and putting himself in a position to be on the better side of that split if it happened.
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.