– By Chris Carmichael –
Alberto Contador has now won the Tour de France three times. In two of those victories, he’s won by fewer than 40 seconds (23 seconds in 2007 and 39 seconds in 2010), and in 2009 he beat Andy Schleck by 4:11. Winning is what matters most, but especially this year, Contador never had a secure lead in the yellow jersey until the final 10 kilometers of the Stage 19 time trial. That’s a stressful way to win the Tour, and a risky one.
Building a bigger lead in the yellow jersey is a great goal, but obviously it’s not so easy to accomplish. The biggest benefit of a large lead is security; you can afford to have an off day in the mountains or lose a little time in a time trial without losing the yellow jersey. Even though the leader of the race virtually never loses time to his rivals on purpose, the fact that you have a buffer of time you can afford to lose is a great help in reducing the leader’s stress level. It also relieves a lot of the stress in the rest of the team. This year the stress on Alberto Contador was unrelenting.
After losing time to Andy Schleck on Stage 3, he needed to get rid of the Saxo Bank man in the mountains, but couldn’t. He managed to take just 10 seconds back on the stage to Mende, and the next instance when he gained time (Stage 15) he drew criticism from some riders and members of the media who felt he took unfair advantage of a mishap suffered by Schleck. And on top of all of that, at one point during yesterday’s time trial, Schleck was inching closer to the yellow jersey instead of falling further behind. Contador won the 2010 Tour de France, but there were definitely times when you could argue he wasn’t the strongest man in the race.
But sometimes being challenged more significantly at the Tour de France makes you more motivated to train and return to the Tour even stronger. Back in 2003, Lance Armstrong’s form was a bit off when he started the Tour de France, and he suffered a great deal to win. It was hot that year, just like it was this year, and Lance suffered a hydration crisis and lost 1:36 to Jan Ullrich during a long individual time trial. His lead in the yellow jersey diminished to the point where he was only 15 seconds ahead of Ullrich, and then he crashed on the final climb of the race, the climb to Luz Ardiden. Lance eventually won the Tour in 2003, but it was his smallest margin of victory, just 1:01 over Ullrich.
He vowed that he start the 2004 Tour de France in better form, because he didn’t want to go through the stressful experience of such a narrow victory. Lance sharpened his focus between the 2003 and 2004 Tours, focused on maintaining a balanced lifestyle and avoiding too many distractions. He returned in 2004 a much stronger rider and built a final lead of 6:19 over Andreas Kloden in second place.
Alberto Contador won the 2010 Tour de France by 39 seconds, and it’s clear that the gap between him and Andy Schleck is closing. The smart money says that Schleck will be even better next year, when he’s a year older and has more time to optimize his time trial performance. He made great improvements in his abilities against the clock this year (the prologue notwithstanding, as that result appears to have been significantly impacted by weather), and it’s likely he’ll get even better. Contador can’t come to the Tour de France in 2011 with the same form he had this year, or he’ll lose. And after riding next to Schleck for the past three weeks, there’s no doubt Contador knows it, too.
So what can Contador do to fend off an improving Andy Schleck? One thing is to make sure he takes a mental break, but doesn’t let his fitness drop too much over the winter. You can’t maintain peak form year-round, but if you let yourself drop off too much, it takes too long during the spring to get back into top racing shape and that makes it difficult to reach optimal condition by the time the Tour rolls around. Maintaining a very high fitness level year round also helps to minimize the risks associated with unexpected illnesses or injuries. If you’re playing catch-up already and you then suffer an injury or illness that costs you a few weeks of training, you may not have time to bring your form around by the Tour.
Just as important, however, both Contador and Schleck need to be careful not to change too much about their Tour preparations. They are both looking to improve, but they were also immensely successful this year. That means that the primary components of their preparations were great, and it’s just small tweaks – on and off the bike – that may make the difference next year.
Of course, for Schleck, major changes could be on the way if he decides to change teams. He’s been racing under Bjarne Riis’s direction for most of his career, and moving to a new organization – especially a brand new one if he goes with a new team being launched in Luxembourg – can be a risky move.
Changing teams can breathe new life into a career by infusing riders with a new vision and new ideas, but it can backfire just as easily. And money is not enough; just look at Team Sky. They are a great team packed with talent and backed by a hefty budget and top technology, but their first year at the Tour de France didn’t go as planned. They failed to win a stage or really play a pivotal role in any of the competitions out on the road.
And with that, another year of Tour de France commentary comes to a close. Congratulations to Alberto Contador on his third Tour victory and all the riders for completing one of the hardest Tours in recent memory. And thanks to Richard Pestes and everyone at PezCycling News for allowing me to contribute to their top-notch coverage of the Tour de France. It’s been a real pleasure.
• Chris Carmichael is Founder and CEO of Carmichael Training Systems and coach to Lance Armstrong. In 2010, CTS is celebrating its 10th Anniversary of being the premier destination for coaching, camps, and performance testing. For information on what CTS can do for your performance, visit www.trainright.com, call 866-355-0645, or find us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carmichaeltrainingsystems.