Weekend Reading, Tour de France Edition: 3 Reasons a Crosswind can be a Game Changer

What a fascinating second week of racing at the 2013 Tour de France! After a hectic first week, this week featured a controversial knock-down in a sprint finish (an accident, in my view), the first long individual time trial (Holy Froome!), and an epic crosswind battle that exposed vulnerabilities in Chris Froome’s Sky team.

One thing I like about the Tour de France route this year is that they started in the south, hit the Pyrenees with relatively fresh legs, and then headed to the windy northern and central regions of France in the second week. Many times, the race starts in the north and everyone has fresh legs and full teams to battle the winds.

Wind can be decisive in a bike race, and in far less predictable ways than climbs or time trials, because you can never tell who will benefit and who will lose out on a windy day. During Friday’s stage, Omega Pharma-Quickstep was the first team, with the help of Belkin, to split the peloton in a strong crosswind. The real fireworks started later, when Saxo-Tinkoff rushed the front of the peloton, caught Team Sky and Chris Froome flat-footed, and created a decisive gap.

There are a few reasons why wind – particularly a crosswind – can be so decisive:

There’s no relief:
Big mountains have big descents, but crosswinds never end. The only way to get relief is to change direction, and some days you just don’t get that lucky. That can mean hours of battling for position, and in gusty sidewinds you also have to contend with increased risk of crossing wheels or tangling hips and handlebars. In short, it’s exhausting no matter where you are in the peloton.

You can use your whole team:
On big climbs you shed teammates as you go. But in the wind you can manage the workloads better and leverage your whole team when the time is right. When you’re going uphill it’s rare that a domestique can do a big turn at the front, drop back, recover and then come to the front again in the same climb. Sometimes they can come back during the descent and work again on the next climb, but even then it’s typically one longer effort and then you lose that teammate for the climb. In the wind, you can vary the length of pulls and keep the team together longer.

During Friday’s stage, Saxo-Tinkoff waited until the distance and the effort had worn down the peloton and then they massed at the front and opened the throttle. When you want to rip apart the peloton, you keep the pulls really short and rotate quickly. Each guy basically sprints into the wind as he pulls through and off. The result is speed that will put the peleton into a long line in the gutter, and from there the elastic will snap pretty quickly.

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There’s no coming back:
Mark Cavendish had the quote of the day on Friday. He said, “When echelons form it’s like falling through ice. You’ve got five seconds to save yourself or it’s all over.” He admitted that he barely made the front group when Saxo hit the gas, and with echelons it’s rare for a rider to bridge up or for a chase group to catch an echelon ahead of them (unless the road changes direction, out of the crosswind). It happens really fast, and the strongest guys are in the front and they get organized quickly.

With Saxo-Tinkoff, Belkin, and Omega Pharma-Quickstep charging at the front, the first echelon might reach speeds of 54-55kph. To catch that echelon, the chasing group has to go even faster, into that same crosswind, with riders who didn’t make the front group in the first place. In a block headwind or a full tailwind the advantage goes to the larger peloton. A crosswind minimizes that advantage and many times tips the table in favor of the smaller, more unified front group.

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One of the things you learn racing in Holland and Belgium is to set up echelons really quickly. You can’t wait until 100 riders are stretched out in the gutter, because once that wire breaks the second echelon will be 30 seconds behind the first one by the time it gets organized. Better to set up the second echelon voluntarily (before the elastic breaks) so you’re right on the heels of the first group.

That reminds me. . .
Last week I related Ted King’s experience in the team time trial to my own in the 1986 Tour de France. This week, Friday’s crosswind stage reminded me of the 1983 Coors Classic. I was riding on a team with Dale Stetina and Alexi Grewal (Aspen DC-DS, I think). Going into the final stage from Cheyenne, Wyoming to Denver, Colombian Luis Herrera had a pretty comfortable margin in the leader’s jersey. The East Germans were in the race and they brought their championship team time trial team. In a heavy crosswind the East Germans and 7-Eleven went to the front and put us all in the gutter. Dale, Alexi, and I made it into the front echelon, and as the gap grew I remember looking back to see the Steve Bauer halfway across. If I remember correctly, Bauer was high up in the overall and would have won the race if he made it across the gap and gained time. He got within 50-100 years, but once he stopped making forward progress I knew it was over for him. Sure enough, he went back to the chase group and the gap grew from there. By the time we reached Denver, it was my teammate Dale Stetina who had overcome a nearly 5-minute deficit to win the overall!

So, just a reminder to any of you who are looking for ways to win, especially against riders who are as strong or stronger than you: learn to take advantage of a crosswind and you can turn a race upside down.

Have a Great Weekend!
Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach
Carmichael Training Systems

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