By Chris Carmichael
The Tour de France made a wise move with the Stage 2 Team Time Trial in this year’s race. They didn’t make it a 50-55km test like we’ve seen before, but instead shortened it to just 23 kilometers. That doesn’t necessarily make the stage much easier for the riders, but it does limit the risk that any team will lose enough time to take their top rider completely out of contention for the overall victory.
Making the team trial shorter eliminated the need for artificially-adjusted results. A few years ago the team time trial rules were adjusted so that the competition itself just set the finishing order, but the time gaps between first and second, second and third, and so on were established by the rules rather than the actual finishing times. It was confusing for fans and not really in the spirit of the event, but the idea behind it was to prevent the team time trial from wrecking the overall chances for strong yellow jersey contenders on relatively weak teams. I think today’s shorter time trial was a much better solution – the fans got to enjoy one of the most exciting and beautiful types of bicycle racing, the results were based on actual finishing times, and the format reduced the risk that any team would lose massive chunks of time.
The downside of riding a shorter team time trial is the inevitable increase in intensity. It’s a matter of physiology: the shorter the effort, the harder you can push your body. The power output and pace you can sustain – on your own – for 25 minutes is 5% higher than you can sustain for 60 minutes. But when you are riding full-throttle in a rotating paceline, a shorter time trial means each pull at the front of the line can be 15-20% or more above the power you could sustain in an individual time trial. You could see that reflected in the winning speeds today, which set a new record at just a shave under 60 kilometers per hour. That’s an average speed of about 37 miles per hour, and teams were hitting speeds above 40mph in the longer straight sections of the course.
Another interesting thing about team time trials is that riders who are great in individual races against the clock are not always great in the team event. They’re still very good, but they don’t always provide the added speed you might expect. The reason is because of the on/off nature of the rotating paceline in a team time trial. The key to being a great individual time trialist is being able to minimize the fluctuations between extreme power outputs and low ones, but the team time trial requires huge turns of power at the front of the line. It can be difficult for time trial specialists to find a rhythm in the team event, and it’s sometimes the “rolleurs” – the big guys who love windy one-day races and watch over their team leaders at the Tour – who turn out to the biggest assets in team time trials. Since maintaining the team’s speed is the number one priority, the riders adjust the duration of their pulls. This is the same thing you should do in a group ride or race. If you have the strength, pull longer but not necessarily harder. If you don’t have the power, pull through and make sure you don’t let the speed drop, but pull off more quickly so you can get back into the draft and rest before your next pull.
The impact of the results
There were three riders for whom the team time trial was not a good day: defending champion Alberto Contador of the Saxo Bank – Sungaard team, Jurgen Van Den Broeck of the Omega Pharma-Lotto team, and Ivan Basso of Liquigas. Contador lost 1:20 in the final kilometers of Stage 1 and his team finished 28 seconds behind today’s stage winners from the Garmin Cervelo squad. That puts Contador 1:42 out of the yellow jersey right now,1:41 behind Cadel Evans, and 1:38 behind Andy Schleck. Keeping in mind that Contador won the 2007 Tour de France by 23 seconds over Evans and the 2010 Tour de France over Schleck by 38 seconds, the deficit he’s facing now must be worrisome. Of course, it’s not an insurmountable deficit for a rider like Contador and it will simply cause a change in his strategy in the mountains. Last year on the Col du Tourmalet, for instance, Contador only had to stay with Schleck in order to preserve his yellow jersey. This year he’ll have to attack, and with his explosive climbing style it is not out of the question for Contador to take back 30-60 seconds at a clip – or more – on summit finishes.
Jurgen Van Den Broeck finished fourth in the Tour de France last year, and the hopes of Belgium rest on his shoulders. His Omega Pharma-Lotto team started Stage 2 last because Philippe Gilbert won Stage 1 and with it the yellow jersey. The team is not known for its team trial prowess, but they managed a reasonably good ride today. Nonetheless, Van Den Broeck lost 39 seconds to Garmin-Cervelo and between 35-38 seconds on some of the other big contenders for the final podium in Paris. It wasn’t a disaster for him in any way, but three weeks from now it may be the difference between standing on the podium and missing out for a second year in a row.
Ivan Basso’s Liquigas team finished 57 seconds behind Garmin-Cervelo, which puts Basso nearly a minute behind the yellow jersey. He came into the Tour de France with an outside chance of challenging for the yellow jersey or a podium position, and although Stage 2 wasn’t a disaster, it wasn’t all that helpful for him either. Regaining more than 50 seconds against Andy Schleck and Cadel Evans is going to be very tough, especially because Basso hasn’t displayed the climbing speed he had in years past.
The biggest winner of the day? Garmin-Cervelo. Jonathan Vaughters’ team claimed its first stage win in any Tour de France in perhaps the most fitting possible way: as a team. Vaughters has worked very hard to cultivate a positive and collaborative environment on his team and today’s accomplishment is a testament to his efforts. The team is packed with talented time trial riders, including multi-time US National Time Trial Champion David Zabriskie and former British National TT Champion David Millar. And the only thing better than winning the TTT is the fact that they put current road race World Champion Thor Hushovd into the yellow jersey.
Now the race shifts back to favor the sprinters and opportunists for the next few stages, while the yellow jersey contenders largely bide their time, conserve their energy, and stay out of trouble. But as we saw yesterday – and today with team HTC-Highroad’s Bernhard Eisel, who crashed on the first corner of the course and had to ride almost the entire stage as an individual time trial – danger lurks in every corner.
Thanks to my good friend Graham Watson for sending some images from today's stage! All images copyright Graham Watson.
Chris Carmichael rode the Tour de France in 1986 with 7-Eleven and has been writing Tour de France commentary for the past 11 years. He is CEO and Head Coach of Carmichael Training Systems, the premier destination for coaching, training camps, and performance testing since 2000; and Official Coaching and Camps Partner of Ironman. Follow Chris on Twitter at www.twitter.com/trainright, on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carmichaeltrainingsystems, or www.trainright.com.