Chris Carmichael

Firing on all cylinders

2009-07-08 15:56
Chris Carmichael (File)
Chris Carmichael

The Astana team and Lance Armstrong - who came within less than a second of the yellow jersey - put forth a valiant effort in Stage 4, says Chris Carmichael.

Lance, you couldn't go half a second faster?! Just cut one corner a little bit closer, push a little bit harder over one of those hills?!

I'm kidding, of course, because in reality the performance of Lance's Astana team could not have been more perfect than it was in Stage 4's 39km team time trial. They gained maximum time on everybody and won the stage, but they don't have the responsibility to defend the yellow jersey in the coming days. That's pretty much as good as it gets.

Team time trials are excruciating, and in some ways making the TTT shorter doesn't make it any better. Stage 4's test was only 39 kilometres long, which is far shorter than the 55-70 kilometre TTTs we've seen in the Tour de France over the last decade. You would think that shorter would be better, but it can actually make it much harder. In longer TTTs, the team starts out a bit slower and winds up the speed as the stage progresses. In a 39km TTT, you have to go full throttle from the very beginning. And when you combine the need to go all-out from the first pedal stroke with a very technical and narrow course, and some hills in the first half of the stage, it's not surprising that only a few teams managed to keep all nine men together for the entire distance.

One team that completely fell apart was Garmin-Slipstream, and the fact they finished the stage in second place is absolutely amazing. They shed four riders before the halfway point of the stage, bringing them down to five men. Since the time for the stage is taken when the fifth rider hits the finish line, they were in a very precarious situation. If they lost one more rider, they'd be forced to slow down and wait. At first I wondered if this was a strategy they'd adopted to maximise their speed (burn through four support riders early and then turn on the afterburners with Dave Zabriskie, Bradley Wiggins, David Millar, Ryder Hesjedal and Christian Vande Velde).

If so, I reasoned, that was a courageous and bold move. If it worked you could win, but if you got a flat tyre in the final half of the stage you'd lose a ton of time waiting for a bike switch - or worse yet, if someone crashed out you'd have to wait for a rider who you dropped several kilometers ago in order to have enough riders just to stop the clock. Then again, you have to be willing to take some risks if you're going to win at the Tour de France, and Garmin-Slipstream has always been open to trying bold tactics. In a post-race interview, however, Vande Velde revealed that riding the second half of the event with only five riders (four really, since Ryder was doing his best but had to skip pulls just to stay with his team-mates) wasn't the plan at all. Honestly, to me that makes their performance even more impressive. Faced with a very difficult situation, the remaining team members stepped up and still beat every team in the Tour de France except Astana.

Considering that Garmin-Slipstream came within 18 seconds of beating Astana with four riders doing the lion's share of the work, how bad must Silence-Lotto be feeling tonight after losing 2:38 over 39 kilometres? Where the Garmin boys stepped up, the Silence-Lotto team folded, and put their team leader in a hole he's going to struggle to climb out of. Cadel Evans, who finished second in the Tour de France last year, is now 2:59 behind Lance Armstrong and the time gaps to Alberto Contador, Andreas Kloden, and Levi Leipheimer aren't much smaller.

There's still plenty of racing left in the 2009 Tour de France, and Cadel's not out of contention yet, but he's not exactly the type of rider who's likely to attack on a mountain stage and take nearly three minutes out of any one of the four Astana riders mentioned above. And think of this way: even if he manages to pull back 2:59 on Armstrong or nearly 2:40 on Contador, that only gets him even on time with Astana's top riders. His race is not over by any means, but this is definitely not the scenario he was hoping for in the first week of the 2009 Tour de France.

For Carlos Sastre of the Cervelo team and Andy Schleck from Saxo Bank, Stage 4 wasn't a great day but at least they can console themselves with the knowledge they fared better than either Cadel Evans or Rabobank's Denis Menchov. Sastre is now 2:44 behind Armstrong and 2:20 behind Contador, and Andy Schleck is in a better position at 1:41 behind Armstrong and about 1:22 behind Contador. Now that Schleck has free reign to be the leader of Saxo Bank since Sastre moved to Cervelo (Andy rode in support of Carlos last year, even though it often appeared he was the stronger of the two), he may be one of the biggest threats to Astana when the race moves into the mountains.

Any way you slice it, yesterday was a great day for Astana. They proved they're the strongest team in the race, they don't have to defend the yellow jersey over the next few days, and the four men who have the potential to win the Tour de France all gained significant time over their major rivals. When I talked to Lance, he said that despite what a lot of the media is reporting about the inner workings of the squad, morale in the team is very high, and performances like Stage 4's will only build on that momentum.

Chris Carmichael has been Lance Armstrong's coach for 20 years and is the founder of Carmichael Training Systems (CTS).



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