By Chris Carmichael
(This article was also posted on pezcyclingnews.com, where Chris will be posting a handful of updates during the 2012 Tour de France. – Ed.)
Ah, the long-awaited rest day at the Tour de France. For some riders, especially the battered and bandaged ones, the first week or so of the Tour de France probably seemed like an eternity. No matter how well prepared you are for the Tour de France, the intensity of the event – on and off the bike – comes as a shock to the system. The first rest day often serves as critical milestone, one that helps the peloton find the rhythm that will help it run more smoothly for the next two weeks.
The first rest day of the Tour de France is a little finish line all to itself. For first-year Tour riders and the very young Grand Tour racers, reaching the first rest day means achieving your first substantial Grand Tour goal. If you make it to the first rest day, it shows you came to the Tour with adequate fitness, that you have the skill and composure to handle yourself in the biggest show on earth, and that you can recover from day to day. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll make it to Paris, but for a Tour newbie it’s a good sign that you’re headed in the right direction.
For the sprinters, the first rest day is a good opportunity to evaluate your goals for the remainder of the Tour de France. From here on out, there aren’t many stages that are likely to end with a bunch sprint, and with the Olympics coming up shortly after the Tour de France, the sprinters will be weighing the costs and benefits of continuing at the Tour. Staying in the race can be great for a rider’s fitness, as there’s no training stimulus better than the Tour de France itself. On the other hand, if you’re already banged up (like Tyler Farrar and several others), you have to consider whether going home and recovering will be a better strategy before the Olympics. Tony Martin, the World Time Trial Champion, dropped out of the Tour de France following the Stage 9 time trial because he’s nursing injuries from first-week crashes and his TT performance wasn’t stellar. He’s one of the favorites for the Olympic Time Trial, so he’s decided it’s better to recover and train outside the Tour de France rather than stay in the race.
The rolleurs and domestiques are happy to reach the first rest day of the Tour de France because it hopefully signals the end of the chaos that reigns in the first week of the Tour. There are precious few riders in the peloton who have not already hit the deck in this year’s race. A day that allows for more rest, some massage, physical therapy, and a short ride can have incredible recuperative powers for riders healing from crashes. Even for the uninjured, the rest day is a turning point for the character of the race.
In the first week, every team feels the need to fight for position in the very front of the peloton. Everyone has fresh legs and the optimism to test them out. After 9 stages, there’s more fatigue in the peloton, and some teams have seen their GC hopes significantly diminished. This helps to establish more of a pecking order in the peloton; the sense of urgency and intensity doesn’t diminish, but riders are more willing to give each other an inch now that there’s a clearer picture of which teams are going well and in the hunt for jerseys, etc.
This year especially, the first rest day of the Tour de France is big milestone for the yellow jersey contenders. The first week of the Tour featured a prologue, two stages with significant climbing, and the first long individual time trial. There were a lot of things that had to go right in order for a yellow jersey contender to stay in or within reach of the leader’s jersey through the first week. First you had to avoid the crashes, which both Bradley Wiggins and Cadel Evans did to perfection. Other yellow jersey and podium contenders were not so fortunate, including Robert Gesink, Sammy Sanchez, Frank Schleck, Ryder Hesjedal, and Tom Danielson.
If contenders made it through the end of Stage 6 relatively unscathed, the next challenge was the finishing climb up to La Planche de Belles Filles. The first significant ascent of the Tour de France is always a shock to the system, even more so when it’s relatively short (6 kilometers) and features very steep (14%-20%) pitches. Team Sky executed a tactic that’s as risky as it can be effective. By charging into the steepest part of the final climb of Stage 7, Bradley Wiggins’ team ensured that anyone put into difficulty would immediately lose big chunks of time. A more conservative, watchful approach to the final climb would have allowed riders to ease into the climb or find their legs in time to stay with the lead group. This strategy is risky because it could just have easily caught Wiggins out, but he obviously felt he had the legs to pull it off. It worked brilliantly, cleaving a gap between him and the majority of the other yellow jersey contenders that ranged from 50 seconds to several minutes. The only man who could match the pace was the defending Tour Champion, Cadel Evans.
Stage 8 was classified as a ‘medium mountain’ stage, and while it didn’t produce any big changes in the top 10 overall, it gave us an indication as to how the rest of the mountain stages may unfold. Team Sky did not hesitate to take control of the race in defense of the Bradley Wiggins’ yellow jersey. They were also able to keep Chris Froome with Wiggins throughout the stage, while Evans was isolated by the summit of the final climb. Evans got away with being isolated in the finales of several stages last year, too, but at some point a mechanical issue or the need for an ally may work against him in that situation. With Evans and Wiggins, Vincenzo Nibali and Denis Menchov were in the right place to make the elite group, as were Radioshack’s Haimar Zubeldia, Frank Schleck, and Tony Gallopin.
In a Tour de France that’s been billed as favoring the time trialists, Stage 9 had been the subject of a ton of media hype. For some people, anything short of total domination would have been viewed as a failure for Bradley Wiggins, but he delivered the long individual Tour de France time trial we didn’t get to see him ride last year (he crashed out long before the Stage 20 ITT). Wiggins beat Evans by 1:43 to build a lead that currently stands at 1:53 to the defending champion. Evans has a big gap to recoup, but he also has two weeks, two mountain ranges, and one more time trial in which to do it.
Sitting at the first rest day, the script of the 2012 Tour de France has played out entirely as Team Sky has written it, and great days beget great days at the Tour de France, so they certainly have momentum, strength, and power on their side. Cadel Evans, Vincenzo Nibali, Denis Menchov, and perhaps Haimar Zubeldia from Radioshack have to figure out how to disrupt Team Sky’s plans, put them on the defensive, or force them to make a mistake. How do I think it will unfold after the rest day? I don’t see anyone riding through Wiggins if he’s able to dictate the tactics. If he gets to ride his race, on his terms, he wins. He’s not unbeatable, but he’s laid a great foundation for winning the Tour de France by building a nearly 2-minute lead before reaching the high mountains.
Chris Carmichael rode the Tour de France as part of the 1986 7-Eleven Pro Cycling Team and is the founder and CEO of Carmichael Training Systems, the Official Coaching and Sports Science Partner of the BMC-Hincapie Sportswear Development Team. For information on coaching, camps, and Epic Endurance Bucket List events, visit www.trainright.com or call +1 719-635-0645 x1.