Weekend Reading: Did Bradley Wiggins Take Yellow Too Early?

We’re roughly two weeks into the Tour de France, and through Stage 12 Bradley Wiggins of Team Sky has a vice grip on the yellow jersey. Earlier this week one of our athletes asked whether it was smart for Wiggins to have captured the yellow jersey on Stage 7. Was it too early? Was the pressure of having the jersey going to cost him and his teammates too much energy?

Winning the Tour de France is all about marshaling your resources. As a yellow jersey contender, you have a finite amount of energy and a limited number of all-out, race-winning efforts that you can tap into. Similarly, your teammates need to have the energy necessary to be by your side at critical moments, and endless days setting tempo at the front of the group isn’t always the best use of their collective horsepower.



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There is a lot to be said for riding conservatively and saving energy at every possible moment. Hiding in the peloton and maintaining a good position near the front helps to minimize your time in the wind and the amount of energy you have to waste fighting for position. Having a rider high up in the general classification puts your team car near the front of the caravan, which makes the task of fetching bottles easier for the domestiques. You do everything you can to do as little as possible.

But when the opportunity to grab the yellow jersey or gain time on a key rival presents itself, no matter how early in the race, you seize on the opportunity. Seconds gained are seconds your rivals have to take from you. Even if you’re just one second ahead, you’re in an infinitely better position than being one second behind. The guy who is one second behind has to drop you, but all you have to do to win is stay on his wheel.

Of course, riding to merely protect the slimmest of leads is not a smart strategy. Rather, you want to gradually build a more substantial lead; not because you need to show how great you are, but because a bigger lead gives you more insurance against time losses from cracking on a climb, an ill-timed flat tire, or an altogether bad day. For Bradley Wiggins, the steep climb to the finish of Stage 7 was the first significant opportunity to gain time on his rivals, and his team seized the opportunity. Then the Stage 9 time trial was perhaps Wiggins’ best opportunity to start building a really substantial lead in the yellow jersey, and for a true Tour de France contender, having a yellow jersey lead of nearly two minutes is beneficial no matter how early in the race it happens.

To see the benefits of being in yellow, just look at how the second week of the Tour de France unfolded after the time trial. Stages 10 and 11 were hard days in the Alps, and defending a lead in the mountains – while very difficult – is easier than trying to build one. Mountain attacks burn a lot of matches; you can recover reasonably well from day to day in the Tour, but severe efforts like full-fledged attacks in the mountains are so costly that once you play those cards you can never completely get them back. Wearing the yellow jersey in the mountains, with nearly two minutes in hand to your closest rival, means you can maintain a smoother effort level – even when responding to a rival’s attack – and minimize the giant power spikes that are so difficult to recover from.

Is there increased pressure from having to defend the yellow jersey? Absolutely. You have to deal with more media attention, you have to do a press conference after each stage, and stick around for the podium presentations. All of these things compromise your post-stage recovery. And your team has more responsibility for setting tempo and controlling the race, so there’s additional work for them as well. But for the true Tour de France contenders, the only time that it makes sense to purposely avoid defending the yellow jersey is when you get the yellow jersey in the opening prologue (or maybe during the first few sprinters’ stages). When you get it that early, the lead is typically only a few seconds over riders who don’t have a prayer of winning the Tour in Paris, so you can relinquish the responsibilities of the jersey without ceding time to GC rivals. Later in the race, there’s no benefit to relinquishing the jersey because at that point any rider who is close enough in the standings to take the jersey might actually be able to hold on to it.

With one week to go in the 2012 Tour de France, Bradley Wiggins is not invincible but he’s in a very strong position. He and his teammates have reduced the field of legitimate yellow jersey contenders to just a trio of riders: Vincenzo Nibali, Cadel Evans, and Jurgen Van Den Broeck. Barring accident or incident on the part of Wiggins, Nibali is the only one of the three who is close enough to overcome his deficit to Wiggins with a single effort in the Pyrenees. Both Evans and Van Den Broeck are between three and nearly five minutes behind, so their chances of taking yellow are pretty slim unless Wiggins has a total meltdown (which seems highly doubtful). The man I didn’t mention, though, is Chris Froome. Wiggins’ British teammate sits in second place, and looks like he has the strength to be Wiggins’ most dangerous opponent. But this isn’t 1985 and we’re not talking about Bernard Hinault and Greg Lemond. Froome signed on to do a very specific job for Wiggins in this Tour de France, and I believe both riders when they say there is no conflict over leadership of the team. Even so, with riders in first and second right now, Team Sky is in a great position to win the Tour even if Wiggins falters.

Today through Tuesday at the Tour should be exciting, as always, but not decisive in terms of the race for yellow. But whatever you do, don’t miss Stages 16 and 17 on Wednesday and Thursday. If anyone is going to crack Wiggins in the mountains, it’ll have to be on one of those two days.

Have a great weekend!
Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach
Carmichael Training Systems

Comments 2

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  2. Let’s hope that he doesn’t have a vice grip. Suspicions are already being mentioned, unfortunately, although I really couldn’t believe it of Wiggo and Sky.

    I think you meant vise.

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