3 Lessons from the Best Tour de France in Years

Have you been watching this Tour de France!? After years of formulaic racing this is a real old-school race! I haven’t been writing daily updates like I have in years past, but I can’t pass up the opportunity to take a closer look at the Tour de France up to this point.

That Downhill Attack

One of the highlights of the second week of the Tour de France was Chris Froome’s attack over the summit of the Peyresourde on Stage 8. Over the past several years we have become accustomed to conservative racing by general classification contenders, but Froome threw the playbook out the window and surged over the summit. Nairo Quintana was on his wheel when he went but failed to recognize the seriousness of the acceleration. By the time anyone realized what was happening, Froome had a gap and was driving toward the finish.

On a descent it is difficult to close a gap because everyone is going maximum speed. Unless you are willing to take significant risks, it can also be difficult to extend your lead. While Chris Froome looks ungainly on a bike most of the time, he is not a fearful descender. His post-race interview was telling; he said he was having fun. When you are confident in your abilities and not stressed, it shows in the way your ride.

One of the points I try to make to athletes who attend our climbing camps is that descents are free speed. Many cyclists are intimidated by going downhill and ride the brakes all the way down. You did all the work to get to the top of the climb; riding the brakes on the way down is just giving away the time you worked so hard to gain. That doesn’t mean you should throw caution to the wind and descend like a daredevil, but it does mean that you should focus on improving your downhill confidence so you can take advantage of the free speed.

Descending quickly and safely is all about fundamentals. Here are some quick tips:

  • Descend in the drops: You have more control in the drops and you will distribute your weight more equally between your wheels.
  • Weight your outside foot and inside arm: To get around a downhill corner safely, put your outside foot at the 6-o’clock position and plant your weight on that foot. At the same time, push your inside arm into the turn. You should be applying pressure to both the outside foot and inside arm; your outside foot maintains traction with the road, and your inside arm keeps your line tight.
  • Look where you want to go: If you look at the guardrail on the outside of the corner, that’s where you’ll end up. Instead, keep your eyes on the path you want to take.
  • Only tuck as far as you feel comfortable: Froome’s position over the handlebars, sitting on the top tube, is an advanced skill. It’s risky because you have so much weight on the front wheel that if you lose stability it is difficult to regain control. For most athletes, simply getting in the drops and lowering your shoulders will be sufficient to minimize air resistance and still maintain control.

Those Crosswinds

Stage 11 was supposed to be a sprinter stage and a relatively easy day for most of the peloton. But ripping crosswinds changed the plan entirely. In a strong crosswind, the draft is not directly behind the rider in front of you, but rather diagonally behind him. However, the road is only wide enough for 5-10 riders to fit in a diagonal line, and after that everyone behind is stuck in the gutter. All it takes for the field to split is for one person to lose the wheel in front of him. Over and over again during Stage 11, the field split into echelons, forcing riders caught behind the splits to chase like madmen to rejoin the front group.

With fewer than 20 kilometers to go, Peter Sagan and a Tinkoff teammate accelerated off the front by about 10 meters. Rather than gradually reel them in, Chris Froome surged across the gap in another uncharacteristic move. Only his Sky teammate Geraint Thomas was able to similarly cross the growing gap. A quick look around confirmed that this four-man group was worth driving. There were only two teams represented, each with a domestique and a team leader. Maciej Bodnar and Thomas had the freedom to bury themselves in support of their leaders, rather than having to save something for a chance to win the stage. Similarly, Sagan and Froome didn’t have to worry about losing the stage or losing time to a rider from a rival team. A breakaway situation like that almost never happens, but on Stage 11 it did, and it was beautiful.

No one likes crosswinds or fighting for position in the gutter. Not even the Belgians and Dutch, who are experts at it. But whether you’re a bike racer or you participate in non-competitive events, it’s absolutely imperative to learn how to ride in a crosswind. Here are some more quick tips:

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  • Watch the wind: You have to be in the right position before you turn into a crosswind, which means you have to anticipate where the crosswinds are going to hit.
  • Establish a second echelon immediately: If you get caught out, don’t waste time fighting in the gutter. When you establish the second echelon sooner, the gap between the two echelons will be smaller, which gives you a better chance of rejoining the front of the peloton when you change direction. Don’t be shy; take the initiative and put yourself in the wind to start the second, third, or fourth echelon. You – and a lot of other riders – will be grateful later.

The Running Man

When television cameras cut back to the yellow jersey group nearing the end of shortened Stage 12, I was as shocked as everyone else to see Chris Froome running up the road without a bicycle. Moments earlier, Ritchie Porte had crashed into the back of a motorbike that had stopped suddenly because fans were obstructing the road, and both Froome and Bauke Mollema had piled on top of him. Froome’s bike was broken when a trailing motorbike ran over it, and his team car was minutes further down the mountain, also delayed by traffic and fans. With no other option, he ditched the broken bike and started running toward the finish line.

Froome eventually crossed the finish line on a spare bike, but what was impressive was his composure. The lesson for amateur racers is that when the unimaginable happens, the worst thing you can do is lose your cool. Whatever happened is done; your first concerns are your health and safety, and following that figure out how to solve the problem. There will be time to be angry later. In the moment, anger isn’t productive. Focus on the problem immediately in front of you. Fix that problem and move on to the next one. Froome moved forward by foot because there was no other option. He got a spare from neutral support and continued moving forward, albeit awkwardly on a small bike with the wrong pedals. When his team car arrived he switched to his own spare and finished the stage. Each decision he made was moving forward. In contrast, some athletes throw temper tantrums instead of making rationale decisions, and after a tantrum you’re still right where you started. In the end, the race jury gave him a favorable judgment and he kept the yellow jersey, but even if they hadn’t, his rationale response to the crisis had already minimized the potential damage.

Prior to this year’s Tour de France, Chris Froome was a somewhat enigmatic character. His power on the bike was undeniable, but there was no personality behind the performance, and at the end of the day personality is what fans connect with. This year Froome is having fun, he’s racing with panache, and I think that means we are seeing him at the top of his game. As a perennial student and fan of the sport of cycling, there is nothing more inspirational than witnessing an athlete at the height of his or her career. If the third week of the 2016 Tour de France is a continuation of what we’ve seen thus far, this will go down as one of the most exciting and entertaining Tours in recent memory.

Have a Great Weekend!
Chris Carmichael
CEO and Head Coach of CTS

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Comments 17

  1. Chris. Thanks for the insights. Please do more comments on the stages as you have done in the past. It helps me to understand what I am watching and have watched. Ward

  2. Cool under pressure?? There was/is that simple rule regarding forward progress without your bike. I think he looked like a man freaked and lost composure all together. He could not even carry his 15 lb bike?? Two years ago I ran yes…ran 20 miles rolling my bike alongside after a chain break. I know the rules and adhere regardless. Sorry Froome..no respect.

    1. I commend you for your bike run, but disagree with your statement about Froome. My guess is that your decision to take your bike with you had more to do with the fact that since we are not professional cyclists that receive free bikes, you were protecting your investment.

      Also, its a good reminder to carry a small toolkit if you think a minor mechanical will sideline you. Froome’s frame was destroyed and unrepairable.

  3. One thing I would like to add on descending is NEVER exceed the road or your ability to stay on it. Good example is the road to Kitt Peak. The State and the Observatory staff have left it is a controlled state of disrepair. This keeps motorists from trying to race down the mountain. Sadly, it also forces bicyclists to slow as well. This might be a good thing, as meeting the mountain at 80 Kph usually is fatal. Also, planning what to do when the inevitable happens should be a part of your training. Fixing a flat, popping the chain back on, and other routine items should be practiced until you can do them “in your sleep”.

  4. I attended one of the CTS climbing camps in Tucson and what a difference it made. My friends consider me a daredevil but I’m really just using good technique. Thanks for the great tips!

  5. It does seem like fan “education” and crowd control are called for. It’s unacceptable to have fans jeopardizing racers.

  6. Chris, thanks for the article. I agree that this is one of the more interesting Tours in the last decade or so and am enjoying the yellow jersey being aggressive rather than ‘riding to the numbers’.

    I totally agree with your advice that you need to keep your composure when things go cactus. Chris Froome doing a Forest Gump impression certainty looks like keeping his composure it was still a semi-panicked reaction. As all bike racers (should) know it is against the rules to advance on the course without a bike. If Froome had slung his broken bike over his shoulder and run with it, that would have shown his complete composure while complying with the rules. His actual reaction under pressure could have resulted in his disqualification. Fortunately for Froome the race jury were reasonable in their application of the rules.

    It is worthwhile training yourself to think clearly when in the red zone.

  7. I agree with Mark. I’m sure the Tour organizers would have no problem getting volunteers to act as crowd control. All they’d have to do is give the volunteers a T-shirt or baseball cap with TdF on it, and maybe not even that. The TdCa. uses them every year, and as far as I know, there hasn’t been a fan vs. rider incident. The TdCa has far and away the most fans of any sporting event in California.

    1. Some audiences are fairly easy to control but fanatics do not obey rules nor volunteers, sometimes they even disobey policemen. Back in the sixties, I was once a sergeant, and in charge of a group of teenagers in military uniform and people watching a marathon would push them to have a closer look or take a picture of runners and fans even insulted the young soldiers when they tried to keep them back to leave a safe space for runners.

  8. as in life, so goes bike racing..
    ” whatever has happened is done..Focus on the problem in front of you, fix it and move on”
    Always have remembered your advice …
    “Just keep moving forward, no matter how slowly”

  9. Chris’ assessment is spot on. This is a much different Tour than years past. Another interesting fact is that the first rider to drop out was in Stage 8 which is very rare. The weather had a great deal to do with this situation. Chris Froome’s style change has thrown the other teams for a loop. Quintana was left shaking his head more than once. The sportsmanship is also present between the teams and friends like we saw on Stage 12 between Froome and Porte. It was unfortunate that the accent caused by aggressive, disrespectful fans ruined what was going to be a very exciting finish albeit 5-6 km below the peak. Fortunately the jury made the correct decision. I have thoroughly enjoyed watching the Tour this year.

    I have adopted Chris’ position a few times descending down our mountains. The lower body position lowers the center of gravity and improves my stability cornering a bit at high speeds. For my larger frame, it works quite well but it feels awkward and requires good core strength. I’m just evening up the score from what it cost me going up the hill–conservation of energy.

  10. CF keeping his cool under wild circumstances was amazing. I doubt I could have done so. One more thing: know the rules well so that instinctively you’d carry your busted bike with you if you’re forced to run. If CF ran across that finish line sans bike, he might have been denied his due for not having a bike. Thankfully, the judges were as fair as possible. Hats off to The Yellow Jersey.
    And poop to the race organizers for allowing stupid, attention-seeking morons (they don’t deserve to be called fans) to ruin an athletic competition. I do not buy the line, “the fans are part of the race” – that’s a cop-out which puts these athletes in danger. Want a kidney punch or be spat upon, anyone? Yes, there are practical limits to putting barricades along the whole course, but over and over we see spectators become “participants” and if I were blessed to be a TdF rider, I would not like subjecting myself to the crazies.

    1. I concur. Fans need to respect the riders, but it seems that some are there more for the party and their moment of potential fame. The race organizers and UCI need to provide crowd control and keep people off the road. They can use volunteers to politely keep zealous fans pushed back on the ascents.

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