TDF Stage 11: Endless Rain Makes Racing Harder, May Wreak Havoc in Mountains

By Chris Carmichael

I can’t remember the last time there was this much rain during the Tour de France. Normally there are a few rainy days, but the peloton has endured wet conditions in almost every stage of this year’s race. On the positive side, rain means athletes have less trouble staying hydrated because the wet clothing helps keep cool and they don’t lose quite as much fluid through sweat. But that’s about the only positive spin you can put on a week or more of racing in the rain. And as the race heads into the mountains, what has been merely unpleasant can turn downright treacherous.

One of the behind-the-scenes difficulties of racing in the rain involves the riders’ skin. We’ve all been swimming or stayed in the shower too long, and noticed the wrinked fingers and softening skin. Now imagine racing – with all the friction that occurs in your shoes, on your hands, and especially in your shorts – for 4-6 hours, day after day, soaking wet.

Rain during a stage race just adds to the workload that athletes, the mechanics, and the entire staff. Instead of merely cleaning and tuning up bikes, mechanics have to thoroughly wash and sometimes rebuild bikes after a rainy stage. Because there’s more clothing used by the riders, there’s more laundry to be done, and the riders and soigneurs have to work together to make sure the riders’ skin remains healthy.

Saddle sores, which often start as the result of a simple infection in a hair follicle, can take you out of a three-week race. They are most often located on the areas of your body that contact the saddle, because that’s where there’s a combination of pressure, friction, and moisture. Modern cycling shorts and saddles have reduced the risk of saddle sores by improving the ergonomics of pedaling and sitting on the bike, but prolonged periods of rainy weather increase the chances of developing sores. Thankfully, although riders’ feet might look like prunes after a long day in the rain, their feet don’t move much in their shoes, so the risks – and consequences – of blisters are very minor compared to runners or triathletes competing in the same conditions.

Beyond the physical hardships brought on by rain, it’s stressful to race over wet roads, and slick rail crossings, and through blinding spray. You have to think about every corner instead of just flowing down the road as you normally would. There’s a heightened sense of vigilance as well, as you watch out for the crash you expect will come at any moment.

But none of the stress or misery caused by rain in the first half of the Tour de France will compare to the impact that adverse weather conditions could have in the mountains. Tomorrow the Tour de France enters the Pyrenees, a mountain range in the south of France that is more famous for withering heat. But if the weather pattern continues as it has been thus far, the peloton could face cold rain, and even sleet or snow showers, at the highest elevations over the next few days.

Stage 12 tomorrow is the first major climbing stage, and the first opportunity for the yellow jersey contenders to whittle the peloton down to an elite group of climbers and really test each other to see who is strong and who is vulnerable. Alberto Contador is more than 1:40 behind Cadel Evans, and has only a slightly smaller deficit to Andy Schleck. These men will be watching each other closely, looking for an opportunity to attack and gain time. Contador has to attack to regain time lost in the opening week, but he also knows that Stage 12 is just the first of the mountain stages. He needs to regain time, but he doesn’t necessarily need to do it tomorrow.

If the weather is bad tomorrow and the peloton encounters rain in the second half of Stage 12, it could very seriously impact the results of the stage. Whereas the rain thus far has been pretty warm, the rain tomorrow will be cold, especially as the peloton climbs above 5,000 feet in elevation. Add to that the chilling effect of 12- to 15-mile descents between the major climbs, and riders may have quite a battle just to stay warm, let alone race.

Some athletes handle the transition from hot to cold quite well and it doesn’t really slow them down. Other riders, however, really struggle. They’ll refer to the sensation as feeling “blocked”, in that they feel like they have power, but they just can’t get their legs to turn over. If that happens to a yellow jersey contender, it can take them completely out of contention for victory. If it happens to his teammates, then he may find himself isolated and without support on the final two climbs of a very important stage.

I’m going to go out on a limb with a prediction for tomorrow’s stage, realizing that I could be completely wrong. But I think that Cadel Evans and Andy Schleck are going to wait and watch Alberto Contador instead of attacking him tomorrow. Since he’s the one who has to make up time on them, they’ll put the responsibility on him to initiate the challenge. But I don’t think Contador will take the bait tomorrow. Yes, he’s about 1:40 behind his biggest rivals, but there are a lot of mountains to be climbed before the race reaches Paris and I think he’ll throw a few accelerations just to see how the others are riding, but once he sees that Evans and Schleck are fresh and right there with him, he’ll settle down and the three will ride to the finish together. Contador will wait until the mountains have softened up the opposition before launching big attacks in an effort to gain big chunks of time.

The wildcard tomorrow will come from the darkhorse yellow jersey contenders, the riders who have an outside chance of challenging for the race lead. Men like Andreas Kloden (depending on how his back is healing), Levi Leipheimer, Tony Martin, Christian Vande Velde, Ivan Basso, Sammy Sanchez, and Robert Gesink – some of whom have time to make up as well – can’t be given a chance to gain minutes over Evans, Schleck, and Contador. If the darkhorse contenders are aggressive tomorrow, the big favorites are going to have to be aggressive as well.

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

2 Responses to “TDF Stage 11: Endless Rain Makes Racing Harder, May Wreak Havoc in Mountains”

  1. Roger Lynn on

    Do you think Tommy D will try and take one of the Mt. Stages.? Still remember watching that guy go by us citizens on Mt. Evans a few years ago when he set that record.

    Reply
  2. CTS on

    Depends on how the Garmin-Cervelo team goals are playing out. He looks good and he’s the best-placed American rider in the race at the moment, but they also have cards to play with other riders. Some of it will be decided on the fly in the mountains, when the riders and the team sees who has the legs to stay in the lead group on the final ascent.

    Chris

    Reply

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