By Chris Carmichael
Stage 13 of the 2011 Tour de France was the kind of stage that leaves some cycling fans scratching their heads. They understand that it was a mountain stage because of the climb of the Col d’Aubisque, but they question the rationale for putting the summit of the day’s major climb 40 kilometers from the finish line. Some fans go so far as to think that a stage like today’s is a waste of time – or a wasted opportunity – because the yellow jersey favorites typically ride a steady tempo instead of attacking and challenging each other. But all of those fans are wrong. Stages like today’s play an important role in the Tour de France.
The big picture
The Tour de France is all about attrition. The cumulative impact of more than 20 individual days of racing yields a single leader who has proven most able to manage his energy expenditure, optimize his recovery, and stay focused on being in the right position at the critical moments. The length and overall difficulty of the Tour de France also wears on each team’s support riders, and the teams of the yellow jersey contenders have to be careful to maintain as much collective strength as possible within the team. A race like Stage 13 is very hard, even if the yellow jersey contenders don’t attack each other. Today was another 4 hours in the saddle, with a major mountain climb, and that effort just adds to the fatigue that’s been building since Day 1.
You could construct a Tour de France that featured decisive challenges each and every day. You could make every mountain stage a summit finish, for instance. But you’d assassinate the entire peloton. Back in the very early days of the Tour de France, the stages were extremely long – sometimes 300-400 kilometers. The winning margins were sometimes 20-40 minutes, and the race was more about survival than tactics or one-on-one racing. There has to be a recognition that athletes are human and that races need to be humane, which is why race organizers try to balance extremely challenging stages with races that are hard but not soul- and body-crushing.
You could also look at Stage 13 as a set-up for Stage 14, which features six categorized climbs and a summit finish atop Plateau de Beille. Tomorrow’s stage is the last of three stages in the Pyrenees and it’s the hardest of the three. It’s the main entrée and Stages 12 and 13 were appetizers. Stage 12 sorted the climbers and yellow jersey contenders from the opportunists and sprinters who were still within reach of the yellow jersey. Stage 13 piled more climbing onto the riders to soften them up and induce more fatigue. And then tomorrow provides the conditions (multiple back-to-back climbs and a summit finish) for the best riders to rise to the occasion, while simultaneously denying anyone an opportunity to hide their weaknesses.
On Stage 12 yesterday we saw the yellow jersey favorites launch a few tentative attacks to test each other. Today they rode a steady tempo on the Col d’Aubisque and let the opportunists battle for the stage win. Tomorrow is when I expect we’ll see at least one yellow jersey contender attempt – and perhaps succeed – in launching a devastating attack to gain a minute or more over his nearest rival. And don’t be surprised if that rider is Alberto Contador. He has struggled thus far in the Tour de France, but he’s also one of the only riders in the world who has the explosive power and climbing speed to take back all of his 2-minute deficit to Cadel Evans and the Schleck brothers in one attack. He may not have the form to pull off that kind of effort this year – or he may have to wait for the Alps in the final week to pull it off – but the crucial thing that Evans, the Schlecks, Ivan Basso, and everyone else in the top 10 overall already know is that a 2-minute lead over Contador in the mountains is not an insurmountable gap for the 3-time Tour de France champion.
Thor Hushovd wins a mountain stage?
Tour de France fans tuning into the race in the evening may be shocked to see that World Champion and former green jersey champion Thor Hushovd won a stage that included a massive climb over the Col d’Aubisque. But there is precedent for today’s result. In the 2009 Tour de France, Hushovd joined a breakaway group on Stage 15, a tremendously hard day that featured five big climbs. The intermediate sprints were located after the first two big climbs, and Hushovd was in a tight battle with Mark Cavendish for the green jersey. Hushovd attacked the breakaway and rode solo through the big mountains to ensure he captured both intermediate sprints. He was then caught as the race for the yellow jersey heated up behind him, but his efforts on Stage 17 played a big role in securing victory in the green jersey points competition that year.
Today Hushovd may have been looking for green jersey points, but I think it’s more likely that he was just hunting for stage win – and the points were a bonus. As he’s matured, he admits he’s lost some of his top-end sprint speed, but he also acknowledges that he’s become a much better climber. He’s not going to challenge someone like Andy Schleck or Alberto Contador on a major mountain pass, but he climbs a lot faster than most riders of his size. A stage like today was a great opportunity for him for a number of reasons:
- The yellow jersey contenders weren’t going to chase. As I talked about earlier, today’s mountain stage wasn’t destined to be a battle among the yellow jersey contenders. That’s why the first hour of the race was so fast; everyone realized that if they could get in the breakaway there was a very good chance the breakaway would survive to the finish. Hushovd can climb reasonably well, but he needed the main peloton to have little to no incentive to chase in order for him to have a greater chance of reaching the summit of the Col d’Aubisque before getting caught.
- The finish was 40 kilometers from the Col d’Aubisque summit. Hushovd can go downhill like an avalanche, which is important because he had time to make up on Jeremy Roy and David Moncoutie after the summit. But the distance to the finish worked more to Hushovd’s advantage than the descent did. He caught Moncoutie on the descent and dramatically reduced his deficit to Roy as well, but once the three riders reached more level ground, Hushovd’s size and power swung the advantage heavily in his favor. Roy and Moncoutie are fast, but on relatively flat or slightly downhill terrain bigger riders can generate a lot more power while only punching a slightly larger hole in the air (frontal area doesn’t increase linearly with increased weight or height, which is part of the reason bigger or taller riders often excel in windy conditions and time trials).
- Hushovd is a fast finisher. Even tired, the world champion could out-sprint almost anyone who would be with him after the Col d’Aubisque. Roy and Moncoutie knew they couldn’t let the stage come down to a sprint against the world champion. As a result, both men played the cards they were dealt: Roy attempted to stay away solo all the way to the line, and Moncoutie refused to work with Hushovd so he could hopefully attack him in the closing kilometers. National pride may have impacted the tactics as well, since both Roy and Moncoutie are French – even if they ride for rival teams. If Moncoutie helped chase down Roy and then both were beaten by Hushovd, the French press would eviscerate Moncoutie for “depriving” them of a possible French stage win.
Thos Hushovd didn’t wait to let Moncoutie dictate the tactics. The world champion saw that the gap to Roy was stable, which meant that Roy didn’t have the power to go any faster. So Hushovd maintained the 15-18 second gap to Roy until he got closer to the finish line. This is something amateur racers can learn from: Hushovd waited until he could launch one big move to win the race. As a racer, you only have the energy for a handful of maximum-intensity efforts, and at the end of a hard day of racing you probably only have the energy left for one. Hushovd waited until he could attack Moncoutie, continue right past Roy, and make it all the way to the finish line in one prolonged effort. If had made his move earlier, there was a chance that one or both of the other riders could rejoin him, and then he might not have the energy left to make another big move.
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, orwww.trainright.com.