Weekend Reading, Tour de France Edition: A Slightly Different Kind of Tour Preview

As the Centennial Tour de France gets underway this week, I’m happy to say that I’ll be contributing weekly articles to www.roadbikeaction.com. To give you a sense for what you can expect, I’m not going to be regurgitating news and stage results. There are plenty of places to get that. What’s more interesting to me these days is providing insights into how or why those results turned out the way they did. Sometimes it’ll be about tactics and strategy, other times about nutrition or hydration, and certainly I’ll be relating what you’re seeing to training and recovery. Whenever possible, I’ll also try to relate what’s going on at the Tour to usable and actionable ways you can improve your performance. Because one of the most powerful aspects of the Tour de France is its ability to inspire us to get out there and stomp on the pedals!

To kick off things off, Zapata Espinoza sent me a few questions. So let’s get to it:

If there are upwards of 600 World Tour team riders and 198 in the Tour, why is it that each year the discussion on potential winners always comes down to just 5-6 guys? What is it that makes so few guys potential contenders?

Let’s back up and first realize why there are 600 World Tour team riders. There’s a huge variety of races in pro cycling, and a range of roles that riders play on those teams. It’s only through building the best team that you give a Grand Tour contender the support necessary to actually win one. But getting back to your original question, the reason the discussion on potential winners always comes down to a handful of guys is because the combination of skill, intelligence, leadership, and versatility required to win the Tour de France is pretty rare. Making it onto a World Tour team doesn’t mean you have all of those qualities, nor does making it onto your team’s Tour de France squad.

Notice I didn’t mention power output, drag coefficient, or power-to-weight ratio. A huge engine and a slippery aero position are certainly necessary, but based on physical characteristics there are more athletes who would qualify as Tour contenders than there are athletes who actually have a realistic chance of wearing the yellow jersey in Paris. The 5-6 guys who earn that “contender” role do so by proving the ability to win big races, over and over again. It’s a progression that starts with short stage races featuring both climbs and time trials. Some athletes can win those but falter when facing the duration or pressure of longer and higher-pressure races. The great ones have the physical tools to win the Tour, the intelligence and champion’s instinct to know when to take the race into their own hands and go for the kill, and the resilience to shoulder the pressure of leading a team and enduring the attention of fans and the media. And there aren’t very many of those guys. 


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What sort of calories do the riders burn in a day on the bike and can they get them all back with their small portions of food? By race end have they been running a deficit in caloric intake?

In short, on the bike Tour riders virtually always burn more calories per hour than they ingest (and so do most amateur riders). During the stage riders typically burn between 4000-6000 calories. At some points in the stage riders are working harder than at others, meaning there are hours where their caloric burn might be 750 and other hours where they burn well over 1000 calories. And keep in mind that the stage is usually only 4-7 hours of the day, and that they still have their normal metabolism to account for during the rest of the day. To put the numbers in perspective, a moderately fit amateur cyclist riding at an endurance pace will typically burn about 500-600 calories per hour, and a hard interval workout will get that cyclist to 750-800 calories in one hour. But a Tour rider might burn 750-800 calories per hour for another three hours, with a 1000+ calorie hour thrown in there somewhere.

How would you describe your first TdF - as much as you knew about, did any of it still come as a shock?

We might have thought we knew about the Tour, but we didn’t. The intensity and the attention and the energy at the Tour de France were what shocked us. We’d been in a lot of big races in Europe prior to the Tour, and people kept saying, “The Tour is different.” They were right. It’s the sport’s biggest stage and the spotlight is never brighter than it is at the Tour de France.

How do you rate the Americans?

There are some very talented young American riders at the Tour this year. Tejay Van Garderen is obviously a huge talent and he’s been making good and consistent progress in terms of the races he’s won and leadership roles he’s taken. Andrew Talansky is another young guy with a lot of talent and some impressive results going into the Tour. Brent Bookwalter showed great form at US National Championships not long ago and he’s proven the ability to be a key player for his teammates as well as in time trials. And it’s great to see Ted King riding his first Tour de France for Cannondale. Of the Americans, I’d say Van Garderen will likely be the top GC finisher. Talansky might do reasonably well in the GC, but it’s also a big learning experience for him and there’s no reason to put any pressure on him for a big result. Bookwalter could make a difference in the race, in that his performance could impact the GC standings for Cadel Evans or Van Garderen. Everyone on a team contributes, but it’s important to have guys who can make a big impact, too. Tom Danielson and Christian Vande Velde are also in the race for Garmin and they’ve both finished top 10 at the Tour before. Garmin’s always been a team that seizes opportunities, so I think Danielson and Vande Velde will be active players in the hunt for stage wins and throw their support to the team’s best GC hope.

Who do you see atop the podium in Paris and why?   

It seems most people have Chris Froome picked as the most likely winner, and his recent performances certainly seem to back that up, but I don’t think he’s unbeatable. I think the race for yellow is pretty open. Both Cadel Evans and Alberto Contador have won before; they know how to get the job done. Evans won by being methodical and taking small bits of time whenever possible. Contador won with bigger, riskier moves in the mountains. Neither have looked as dominating as Froome this year, but you can’t underestimate the danger they pose. Ryder Hesjdahl won the Giro last year, and we didn’t see his best at the Giro this year because he got sick. He’s another guy that is willing to take big risks if it means an opportunity to win. Joaquim Rodriguez is maybe the biggest wildcard. This is his first year targeting the Tour de France, he’s finished third at the Vuelta and finished second at the Giro. And he loves to attack. I think it’s going to be a difficult race for Froome and Sky to control, and I think the other teams have to leverage that as much as possible in order to beat him.

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