TDF Stage 17: Descending Skills Take Center Stage in Exciting Finale

By Chris Carmichael

What goes up must come down, and while Stage 17 of the 2011 Tour de France featured some very big ascents, it was the descents that had the biggest impact on the race.

Of the final 62 kilometers of Stage 17, only 8 kilometers were uphill and there may have been another 5-10 kilometers that were flat. The majority of the descending was from the summit of Sestrieres to the town of Villa Peros, a 1560-meter (5118 foot) drop in elevation over 46 kilometers. Almost immediately the race took a right-hand turn and headed up a very narrow and steep climb through the forest for 8 kilometers before plummeting down to the finish in Pinerolo on a narrow, twisting, and harrowing descent.

On any day at the Tour de France, the final results are influenced by both fitness and skill, but some days tilt the balance in favor of one or the other. Today was definitely a day when the riders’ skills were put to the test. Most riders passed the test, and a few even aced it, which is very good because the penalty for failure today could have been very bad.

Four men put on a descending clinic for all Tour de France viewers today: Ruben Perez (Euskaltel – Euskadi), Edvald Boasson Hagen (Team Sky), Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank – Sungaard), and Sammy Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi). Perez attacked the 14-man breakaway on Sestrieres and headed down the long descent alone. With complete freedom to use the entire road and no other riders near him, he sliced through the corners on the wide-open descent from Sestrieres. He maintained most of his slim lead over the chasers until the bottom of the descent, and for the first part of the descent the chasers maintained a sizable gap over the peloton.

Once a solo rider or a breakaway reaches the descent it becomes more difficult for a chasing group to catch up. The speeds are so high – whether you’re alone or with a group – that it’s difficult to increase the speed even more in the chase group. There’s a limit to how fast anyone can go on these descents. Air resistance increases exponentially as you go faster, meaning it requires a lot more power to increase your speed from 60 to 70 kilometers per hour compared to 40 to 50 kilometers per hour.  At a point, you both run out of gear and out of power to propel yourself any faster. This is the reason you see riders attack on the final few kilometers of a climb. They try to build an advantage on the climb because they know that they will be able to maintain the majority of that gap – or even extend it – on the descent. Many times, the chasers have to wait until the roads level out in the valley to really be able to make up ground.

Edvald Boasson Hagen used this tactic to perfection today, and crossed the finish line in Pinerolo alone to win his second stage of this year’s Tour de France. He was second yesterday, behind fellow Norwegian Thor Hushovd, and went out today to avenge his near miss. Boasson Hagen is a big guy who typically excels in races like the one-day Classics in the spring. When he won Stage 6 in the first week of the Tour it was in a sprint against Matt Goss, Hushovd, Roman Feillu, JJ Rojas, and Philippe Gilbert – all top sprinters and Classics riders. But in the last two days, he’s done a lot more than just drag himself over some big mountain passes; he’s ridden intelligently and powerfully and finished 2nd and 1st in stages he wouldn’t typically be favored to win. Today, specifically, he was in the large 14-man breakaway that reached the summit of Sestrieres with about a 7-minute lead over the peloton and a 1-minute deficit to Perez. By the foot of the final climb of the Cote de Pra Martino, Perez was caught and the attacks started flying. Since he’s a bigger man, Boasson Hagen struggles with repeated accelerations and prefers to be able to set his own pace. So after a few attacks, the Norwegian launched his own acceleration and quickly moved into the lead. From there he powered up the climb alone, before blitzing the descent. And even though he was working hard to keep his speed high on the descent, he was still able to get enough recovery that he had the power for the final flat push to the finish line.

When the peloton reached the base of the Cote de Pra Martino, the yellow jersey contenders didn’t wait very long before launching big moves. When Alberto Contador accelerated, it looked like he was shot out of a cannon, but despite aggressive riding on the climb, the group containing all the men in the top 10 overall reached the summit together. But they wouldn’t reach the bottom together.

Sammy Sanchez and Alberto Contador attacked the descent like the devil was coming after them, and as a result they opened a gap to everyone else by the time they emerged into the valley. The others didn’t necessarily make mistakes, they just weren’t as aggressive. The only rider from the contenders’ group to really make a big mistake on the descent was Thomas Voeckler. The yellow jersey leader went off the road three times and was not only split off the back of the Contador/Sanchez duo, but also off the back of the Schlecks/Evans group. Contador and Sanchez worked hard to take advantage of the opportunity presented by the final descent, but behind them the chase quickly organized and within the final 200 meters of the stage the majority of the contenders’ group came back together and crossed the finish line in the same finishing time. The only men missing were Voeckler, Ivan Basso, and Tom Danielson, who finished together 27 seconds later.

Descending Skills Clinic

Sanchez, Contador, Boasson Hagen, and Perez illustrated the benefit of mastering the technical component of the descents. Everyone has to slow down for the corners, but the best riders take great lines, position themselves over their bikes perfectly, brake late and slow down the least; and those skills can either move you off the front of the pack or help you catch back on. If you go back and watch the descents today, here are some skills to watch for – and emulate the next time you go downhill:

  1. Think and look far ahead. Traveling at 60mph (Thor Hushovd reached 69mph on the descent of the Col d’Aubisque on his way to winning Stage 13), you cover approximately the length of a football field (300 feet) every 3.4 seconds. With corners, rocks, potholes, etc. coming at you that quickly, you have to pick your lines early. Ideally you want to set up wide as you enter a corner, cut through the apex, and exit wide. Choosing the wrong line on the entry makes it difficult – and sometimes impossible – to safely exit the turn and stay on the road.
  2. Brake before the corners. You want to make dramatic changes in speed on the straightaway before you enter a corner, using both brakes so you are complete control of your speed. You may still be on the brakes in the turn, but if you were going 40mph in the previous straightaway, you want to bring the speed down to a safe speed for the corner – say 25-30mph – before the turn rather than trying to dramatically slow down and change direction at the same time. If you go into a corner too hot and grab a fistful of brakes, you’ll either lock up the wheels and slide or crash; or your momentum will carry you so far to the outside of the turn that you’ll miss the exit and end up in the trees (or someone’s driveway, like both Jonathon Hivert and Thomas Voeckler did today).
  3. Look through the corner. Your bike goes where your eyes are pointed, so look through to the exit of the corner. Don’t focus on the potholes or the guardrail at the edge of the road unless that’s where you want your wheels to go.
  4. Plant your weight on your outside foot. To corner safely, you need your center of gravity to remain over your tires and your weight distributed appropriately across both wheels. With your body weight planted on the pedal facing the outside of the corner, you’re increasing the traction your tires have on the road.
  5. Lean your bike and not your body. This is relative. When you ride into a corner, both your body and bike lean to the inside of the turn, but you should lean the bike more than you lean your body. To do this, plant your weight on your outside leg and extend the arm facing the inside of the corner. As you extend your inside arm, you’ll notice the bike drops into the corner and your body weight feels like it is primarily directed through your outside leg and your inside arm. This is a very stable position and it provides a lot of traction; you just have to remember to be agile on the saddle so you can move and position the bike underneath you.

Cadel Evans on the final descent of Stage 16. Note the outside pedal is down, he’s pushing the bars to the inside of the turn while keeping his body closer to the line of his wheels, and he’s looking through the exit of the corner. Photo copyright Graham Watson

Knowing what a descent looks like makes a big difference in your ability to get down the hill or mountain faster. That’s why several riders, including Boasson Hagen and Contador, visited the final climb of Stage 17 in practiced the descent a few times in training. Today that knowledge helped them immensely, helping Boasson Hagen win the stage and giving Contador and Sanchez a chance to chip away at Voeckler’s lead in the yellow jersey. Unfortunately for the Spaniards, the Schleck brothers and Cadel Evans caught back up before the finish line; but it was still a good move for two riders who have to use every opportunity available to regain time they lost earlier in the Tour.

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

6 Responses to “TDF Stage 17: Descending Skills Take Center Stage in Exciting Finale”

  1. Chuck Carlson on

    I think Contador benefitted enormously by following the line of Sanchez, who is the better descender. They’ve done that on previous stages in this tour.

    Reply
  2. DP-San Diego on

    Very good article. You might add to #5 that you turn the bike by leaning it over – not so much by steering. Between leaning the bike over, pushing on the outside pedal, and pushing on the inside handlebar, it might even feel like you’re counter-steering. Counter-steering is actually necessary while mountain biking. A side note, some 0ff-road tires are designed to have low rolling resistance when the bike is upright, and high traction when the bike is leaned over. Trying to only steer though a corner with such tires means you don’t make the turn unless you’ve slowed way down.

    Reply
  3. Ron Pollock on

    While the article is about being aggressive, it appears that aggression by itself, without the skill and experience of a particular downhill doesn’t work in a biking world when the worlds best bikers are your competition. Voeckler was trying to be aggressive, but it didn’t work.

    Reply
    • CTS on

      The two aren’t mutually exclusive. Some people ride the brakes all the way down the descent, which means they never attain high speeds in the straightaways but they also don’t have to brake as hard when they enter the sharp corners. When you “brake late”, you essentially ride as much of the straightaway as possible at a higher speed, and wait until you’re closer the start of the sharp bend before using your brakes more aggressively to slow down to a speed safe enough to get through the corner. It’s certainly a more advanced and somewhat more dangerous way to descend, because you’re at a greater risk of misjudging your speed and not having enough braking power or room in your lane to make it through the corner while staying on the road. And for tight downhill turns, you’re going to still be on the brakes through the turn, or at least until you get to the apex of the turn. It’s not that you hit the brakes in the straightaway and have to release them before you lean the bike into the turn. It’s more that if you can get through a turn at 20mph, but you are approaching it at 40mph, you should do the majority of the slowing (say from 40-25) before you bank into the turn.

      Jim Rutberg
      Carmichael Training Systems

      Reply
  4. Don Macrae on

    Terrific article, very practical. But what do you think of the theoretical analysis of Jobst Brandt, especially with regard to braking in corners? The physics makes sense, but can you relate it to practice?

    Reply

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