Chris Carmichael

Wind, heat decisive in Stage 3

2009-07-07 09:52
Chris Carmichael (File)
Chris Carmichael

There's nothing like racing East to West along the coast of Southern France in the summer. The 100-degree heat radiating up off the softening pavement, the gusty and unrelenting winds, it might make some riders long for a day of racing in the rain at the Tour of California. Today it was a combination of the heat and those unforgiving winds that led to an exciting finale.

Thus far in the 2009 Tour de France, the heat has been a major issue, with temperatures in the 90s and sometimes tickling 100 degrees. In such conditions, riders have to spend an enormous amount of their time focused on obtaining and consuming fluids, and that impacts the race.

When temperatures are lower, eating and drinking are still very important, but these normally routine aspects of racing become more of an obsession as temperatures rise. It's simply a matter of timing. It takes time to get the bottles from the car to the riders in the pack, and the faster the riders are going through bottles, the more frequently you're either headed back to the car or looking for your teammate who's coming back from it. All of this takes energy, both physical and mental, and hence the racing tends to be mellower on really hot days.

Extreme heat also dampens the riders' enthusiasm for hard efforts. This is not difficult to understand, as we've all had the feeling of wilting under the beating sun on a hot day. Even in a field of seasoned professionals, there's plenty of attrition during long, hot stages. Toward the end of the day, especially, riders start getting complacent about positioning in the pack. It's small things, like pedaling while you're drinking instead of coasting. In more moderate temperatures, you grab a drink when you can but stay focused on maintaining your position. When it's really hot, riders are more likely to stop pedaling and really take a long slug on a bottle, not necessarily caring if they lose 5-10 places in the process.

When you're in the last hour of the second day of riding in 90-plus degree heat, and you hit a section of road with a strong crosswind from the left while there's a team on the front that's motivated to ride aggressively, all hell breaks loose. Tired riders let splits open up and the gap starts to grow fast. It takes time to assemble teammates at the front of the chasing peloton, and time to figure out who has the power in their legs to be effective in that chase. All the while, the gap to the leaders grows. The same scenario plays out in cold and moderate weather as well as extreme heat, but as athletes' core temperatures rise it gets more difficult for them to put forth the high-power efforts necessary to mount an effective chase.

Days like today are the reason that I've always recommended that riders maintain one strategy that underscores all race-day tactics: you have to ride as if any moment of any race could be the opportunity to win. Regardless of whether today was supposed to be a flat road race for the sprinters, the Columbia-HTC team decided to put the peloton in the gutter in an 18-20mph crosswind and rip the race the pieces. Only 27 riders made it into the lead group, and they made it because they were paying attention and put themselves in the right position at the right time. Everyone else lost time and lost the opportunity to contest the sprint for the win.

Stage 3 was a great day for the Columbia-HTC and Astana teams, an okay day for Saxo Bank, and a bad day for everyone else.

Lance Armstrong was in the front group with two team-mates, and as a result Lance gained 41 seconds on the yellow jersey contenders and strengthened Astana's overall position in the race.

Columbia came away with the stage win and moved Tony Martin up into second place overall. With a strong performance in Stage 4's team time trial, Martin could end up in the yellow jersey.

The big losers on the day were the sprinters who were behind the split, including Tom Boonen, who also missed out on an opportunity to sprint for the win in Stage 2 after he was taken off-course by an accident in the final 700 metres.

For the yellow jersey contenders, the day wasn't a disaster because pretty much every yellow jersey contender was stuck behind the split. The only exception was Lance Armstrong, but the time he gained really only compensated for the time he lost during the Stage 1 time trial, and he's only one of four Astana riders who have the potential to challenge for the yellow jersey.

Stage 3 should stand as a warning to everyone in the peloton, and indeed any competitive cyclist. There's no room for complacency in bike racing, and the more extreme the conditions become, the more vigilant and careful you have to be.


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

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