- By Chris Carmichael –
While riders can absolutely improve their performances over time through training, optimizing their equipment, and maturing as racers, those changes take time. If you look back over a rider’s performances within about a year, you can get a good indication of what to expect from them right now. For instance, last year Andy Schleck lost 1:44 to Alberto Contador in the 2009 Tour de France’s final 40.5-kilometer time trial. In the prologue of this year’s Tour, he finished 42 seconds behind Contador in just 8.9 kilometers (weather needs to be factored into that one, though). Based purely on history, some would say that Schleck will lose about two minutes to Contador tomorrow.
But history is not always a true predictor of future results. Schleck has shown this year that he’s a stronger climber than he was last year, and the results of the prologue were definitely affected by weather. Schleck rode in much wetter and slipperier conditions than Contador. Is Contador still better against the clock? Almost certainly, but if Schleck has improved in the mountains and improved overall as a cyclist with another year of racing and training under his belt, he may very well be strong enough to ride a much better final time trial than he did in 2009.
But merely riding better than last year isn’t enough. Schleck needs to beat Contador in the final time trial to take the yellow jersey, and that’s a tall order. Which still begs the question, how can Contador be that much stronger than Schleck in the time trial when they are seemingly equal everywhere else?
Some of Contador’s advantage in the time trial could come down to position. I don’t have data on either rider, in terms of power or aerodynamics, but after spending plenty of time with athletes in wind tunnels, there are a few potential differences between the two riders. Schleck’s height can be both an advantage and a disadvantage. He has long legs, meaning he has the levers necessary to generate a lot of power, and when he gets into a long aerodynamic position over a time trial, the hole he needs to punch through the air is not that much bigger than the hole a shorter rider has to punch through the air.
Once tall riders get their backs and forearms as horizontal as possible, their frontal area diminishes pretty significantly. This is one of the reasons that tall and heavy riders are sometimes great time trialists – their size and muscle mass enables them to produce more power, but unlike in the mountains, in time trials their increased size doesn’t come with as much of a corresponding penalty. The problem is that Andy Schleck is tall and very skinny. That gives him a high power to weight ratio and great potential in the mountains, but he doesn’t really get the full benefit from the typical tall-man’s-advantage in the time trials.
For his part, one of Contador’s advantages in terms of time trial position is that he’s a shorter rider. He can more effectively tuck his head down into the gap formed by his upper arms because the distance between his shoulders and the aero bars is not so extreme. Levi Leipheimer and Dave Zabriskie are the current kings of this technique – Levi is small enough that he can essentially hide behind his hands, and Zabriskie is limber enough to drop his head quite far between his arms while still producing massive amounts of power.
Andy Schleck improved his climbing ability quite a bit from 2009 to 2010, as shown by the fact that Contador accelerated away from him in 2009 and couldn’t do the same in 2010. Improving against the clock takes focused practice. It’s not enough to have great fitness and good aerodynamic position in the wind tunnel. You have to spend a lot of time on the TT bike – at race paces and power outputs – to develop the ability to ride nearly 50 kmh for about an hour in a Tour de France time trial. Contador has a few years on Schleck in this regard, and I have no doubt that Schleck’s time trialing abilities will continue to improve (remember, he’s only 25 years old). Contador could continue to be better in time trials throughout their careers, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the gap between them diminishes over time.
There is something different about the mentality required to race a great time trial. It takes a different kind of focus than being a great sprinter or a superlative climber. There’s no pack to ride away from, no riders you can use to gauge your pace, and no rivals to stare down. It may sound silly, but even for highly-motivated professionals, it can be a struggle to maintain the intense focus needed to ride at your limit by yourself for an hour. Think about it this way, if Andy Schleck could go just half a second per kilometer faster than Albert Contador tomorrow, he’d move into the yellow jersey with an 18-second lead. Half a second every 1000 meters. If you lose focus for a few pedal strokes, or take a less-than-perfect line through a corner, you can lose more than half a second in just 50 meters. Behind Schleck and Contador, Sammy Sanchez has just a 21 second lead over Denis Menchov for third place, so both Sanchez and Menchov have to maintain a 100% focused effort on every kilometer as well.
The focus aspect of time trialing takes practice as well, and some riders are just naturally better suited to the mental component of this type of effort. You have to be focused on staying in the best aerodynamic tuck and adjusting it to fit the conditions (tuck into a more aero, but less sustainable position for descents and other high-speed areas; rise up a bit into a more powerful, but less aero position for climbs, etc.), and you can’t get complacent about your speed.
I think Andy Schleck will ride a great time trial tomorrow, and that even though Contador will beat him and win the 2010 Tour de France, the time gap between them on Stage 19 will be smaller than it was in the final time trial of the 2009 Tour de France. But if that’s the way it goes down, Contador will need to watch out for Schleck next year, because the two men could be even more closely matched in 2011 as Andy continues to mature and develop a stronger time trial. In the battle for third place, I think Denis Menchov will beat Sammy Sanchez by enough time to move into third place overall, but that Sanchez will ride well enough to maintain fourth place.
• 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.