By Chris Carmichael
The climb up to Plateau de Beille is really difficult. By itself it’s as hard or harder than Luz-Ardiden, and when it’s preceded by 5 other big climbs in the Pyrenees, it transforms into a brutal ascent. But today in Stage 14, Plateau de Beille didn’t break the stranglehold that the yellow jersey favorites seem to have on one another. No one – not Frank or Andy Schleck, Alberto Contador, Cadel Evans, Ivan Basso, or Sammy Sanchez – gave an inch. No one showed any significant sign of weakness today, but on the other hand no one looked like they had anything more to give, either. Stage 14 had the potential to break the race wide open and establish a clear favorite for victory. It didn’t. In fact, the only thing we really learned today is that there is no dominant favorite this year; it looks like it’s going to be a close battle all the way to Paris.
When riders appear to be so closely matched, the tactics available to the members of the closely-knit leading group are different than when one or two riders are clearly much faster than everyone else. You could see examples of these tactics today:
With the Leopard-Trek team burning through support riders on the lower slopes of the Plateau de Beille, there was no doubt about what was coming. The brothers Schleck were going to attack and try to gain time over everybody. But every time Andy or Frank twitched, the response from Thomas Voeckler in the yellow jersey, Ivan Basso, Cadel Evans, and Alberto Contador was immediate. Nobody looked at each other to see if someone else was going to do the work; they didn’t hesitate to latch onto the wheel of whichever Schleck was accelerating off the front.
Responding rapidly was the right tactic to use today, because it had the effect of quickly shutting down the individual attacks and discouraging more of them. The riders in the lead group spend a lot of time checking each other for signs of weakness, and hesitation is a sign of weakness. If you hesitate and let a gap open, and then take 30 seconds to reel in the attacker, you’ve provided an incentive for him to hit you again. He’s thinking you’re on the ropes, and perhaps the next time you won’t make it back at all. But if you’re right there when he looks over his shoulder after launching an attack, the psychological damage goes the other way; he pushed himself into the red zone and you didn’t flinch. That can make him think that perhaps the next time, you’ll counterattack and he’ll be dropped.
The size of the group helped make the immediate response to the Schlecks’ attack an effective strategy. It wasn’t always the same rider chasing them down, and because there were around 10 riders in the group, gaps didn’t really appear even if individual riders actually lost ground. Cadel Evans or Alberto Contador could lose 5-7 bike lengths to Andy Schleck, and yet not lose contact with the group. If the group had only been the two Schlecks, Contador, and Evans, those accelerations would have yielded gaps that seemed more significant, and that could have encouraged the brothers to keep going instead of sitting up. When you’re in a very small group, especially if you’re a climber who is better at maintaining a fast tempo rather than launching explosive accelerations, it’s often a better tactic to let the explosive riders attack and open a small gap while you more gradually increase your pace and reel them back in.
Keep the pace high between attacks
Although Ivan Basso and Thomas Voeckler are very different riders, they both seemed to understand the necessity of keeping the pace high in the times between the attacks today. Both men could be seen going to the front of the yellow jersey contenders’ group to keep the pressure on while Frank or Andy Schleck retreated into the group to plot their next move. Rhythm is important on very long climbs, and the Schleck/Contador/Evans battles over the past few years have sometimes devolved into staring contests at a near-standstill before someone accelerated like he was shot out of a cannon. Responding to that kind of extreme acceleration and coping with such wild fluctuations in speed on a major climb is very difficult. From a physiological standpoint your heart rate and power output come down during the “staring contest”, and then you experience a huge spike in power – with the resulting spike in heart rate as your cardiovascular system tries to catch up with the extreme workload your legs just performed. When you minimize the amplitude of those fluctuations, the consequences of the harder efforts aren’t as dramatic (they still hurt, but since the acceleration isn’t as extreme).
Keeping the pace high between attacks also deprives the attackers from having as much of an opportunity to recover. Attacks generate a tremendous amount of lactate, and when you slow down your body reintegrates the lactate into the normal process of aerobic metabolism and breaks it down to usable energy. But if you don’t let the attacker slow down as much, it takes longer for that lactate to be processed. Subsequent attacks from the same rider may not be as powerful or as prolonged because you’ve deprived him of recovery. Similarly, you’ve also softened him up so that he may not be able to effectively chase you if you launch an attack of your own. Over time, the consistency shown by Basso and Voeckler driving at the front may have actually blunted the ability of the Schlecks to launch the devastating attack everyone was anticipating. As a result, Voeckler’s term as the leader of the Tour de France continues, which is as much of a surprise to him as it is to everyone else.
Take advantage of the infighting
Jelle Vanendert of Omega Pharma-Lotto found himself in a very opportune position. He was the only rider in the elite group of climbers and yellow jersey contenders who was no threat to anyone and who had no responsibilities to anyone. Thomas Voeckler had a teammate in the group for support, and everyone else was a marked man. So Jelle took off. No one was going to chase him because he was more than 12 minutes behind Voeckler in the race for the yellow jersey. If the fight between the contenders heated up and they surged through the final few kilometers, maybe they’d catch and pass him. But if they kept watching each other and regrouping after every short surge, then maybe he’d win the stage. At the top, the Belgian rider crossed the finish line to notch the first win of his professional career 21 seconds ahead of Sammy Sanchez, who had attacked the yellow jersey group and regained 25 from Andy Schleck and 27 seconds from all the other contenders.
This same tactic can be used by amateur riders in criteriums and road races. If there are rival teams in your area or a few riders everyone always watches, watch to see if they are racing or pre-occupied with another racer or team. If they are, take advantage of it and attack. There’s a decent chance they’ll each wait for the other to pick up the chase, and you might ride away with a win like Jelle Vanendert.
To be honest, I expected Stage 14 to be more decisive. The conditions were there, with the six categorized climbs, a summit finish, and the fact it was the third consecutive mountain stage in the Pyrenees. But the group of yellow jersey contenders is very evenly matched this year, and the number of evenly-matched yellow jersey contenders is higher than last year – at least in the mountains. That means the lead group is relatively large, which means you can’t just focus on finding and exploiting one rider’s weakness. If you’re a Schleck brother, while you’re focused on Contador or Evans, someone like Basso is focused on finding your weakness. When no one has the power to whittle the group down to 3-4 riders, or go away on his own, the tactics quickly get complicated and a race can become a stalemate despite aggressive riding from everyone involved.
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.