Welcome to the Science of Sport, where we bring you the second, third, and fourth level of analysis you will not find anywhere else.

Be it doping in sport, hot topics like Caster Semenya or Oscar Pistorius, or the dehydration myth, we try to translate the science behind sports and sports performance.

Consider a donation if you like what you see here!

Did you know?
We published The Runner's Body in May 2009. With an average 4.4/5 stars on Amazon.com, it has been receiving positive reviews from runners and non-runners alike.

Available for the Kindle and also in the traditional paper back. It will make a great gift for the runners you know, and helps support our work here on The Science of Sport.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Tour de France 2008 Stage 1

Valverde wins Stage 1: An early statement, but a physiological challenge awaits

Spain's Alejandro Valverde won the opening stage of the 2008 Tour de France today, winning a tough uphill sprint finish into Plumelec. The Spaniard is clearly in great form - he won Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Dauphine Libere earlier this season, and has carried that form into the first sprint finish of the Tour, though it was hardly a pure sprinter stage.

The tough finish ensured that most of the pure sprinters were dropped before the final kilometer, and a brief scan down the results shows that only Thor Hushovd and Fabian Cancellara (a sprinter at a stretch, admittedly) were able to remain in close proximity to the leaders. The final kilometer saw attack after attack going off the front of a relatively disordered peleton, and Kim Kirchen of Luxembourg looked to have made a decisive move with about 500m to go. But Valverde was able to bridge the gap and then move clear to take his stage victory, and also the leader's yellow jersey, since there were no time bonuses for the sprinters to snap up earlier on the stage.

Valverde's win, apart from confirmation that he is in great condition right at the moment, also presents him with a few conundrum's for the next couple of weeks, both tactical and physiological.

Firstly, to be in the leader's Yellow Jersey after day 1 of a Tour where he, along with Cadel Evans, is really the BIG favourite for the overall GC, means added pressure on him and his team. He was relatively dismissive of that pressure, saying that "I have no extra pressure now, I have already achieved two of my objectives in this Tour; wearing yellow and winning a stage".

And of course, defending that jersey will be far from the front of his mind right now, since there are fully two weeks to go before the Alpine stages begin, and that is likely where the Tour will be won and lost. I don't see any decisive days in the Pyrenees, at least for victory. The Tour may be lost in the Pyrenees, but it will be won in the Alps. So in that respect, Valverde is right.

Also, there is almost inevitably going to be a successful break-away in the first week, and given the tough, hilly nature of the first week, that break could well throw up the race's next maillot jaune. Failing that, the time-trial on Tuesday will probably see a change in leader, since it's a relatively short time-trial (29 km) and Cancellara is only seven seconds down.

Point is, Valverde's prospects of going wire to wire to win the race seem slim, tactically speaking. And this is a good thing, because to do this physiologically is very tough.

I must confess that I was initially surprised at the presence of both he and Cadel Evans at the very front of the peloton in the sprint today. Evans finished sixth, only one second back. However, the way the race unfolded, the strong men had to come to the front, because in the end, only thirteen men finished in the first group, with a further 35 back by 7 seconds. So on reflection, their presence is perhaps not that surprising, and is merely a reflection on the quality of the ride required to remain in contention on today's finish. However, what is still surprising to me is thier contention for the stage win.

As much as I'm not a Lance-apologist (sorry...), one thing (among many, admittedly) that Armstrong got right for the Tour de France was the allocation of effort over the three weeks of racing. Would he have fought hard for the win on the opening day of the Tour? Maybe...interesting to speculate without ever really figuring out an answer.

Physiologically, however, one has to look at Valverde and question whether it's possible to ride a three-week stage race effectively having won a single-day-classic earlier this year, then winning Dauphine Libere three weeks ago, and now racing at the sharp edge of the peloton on day ONE of the main race. That kind of sustained performance level is very difficult to achieve.

In his fantastic book "Lance Armstrong's War" (also released as "Tour de Force", in SA anyway), Daniel Coyle wrote about how cyclists remain "on the razor's edge" in their training - they are always a micrometer from going too hard, pushing beyond the limits of recovery and failing into what in physiology is called an "over-reached" state. Over-reaching rapidly becomes over-training, which I'm sure most readers will have heard of.

Now, it's impossible to say without any data, so we're speculating as wildly as the next person, but is it possible to be in Classics shape in April and May, then stage race shape in June, and still remain on top form well into July? I suspect not, and so my prediction for Valverde is that he features very highly in the first 10 days of the Tour - a Pyrenean mountain stage win is a distinct possibility, but his razor's edge will come in the Alps, when his challenge falls away. Evans, who has been showing signs of form the whole year, is likely, in my view, to get stronger as the race progresses, and I would pick him as the favourite.

Time will tell, however, and it promises to be a great race. Not to mention the other four or five big contenders, like Cunego (7 seconds down today) and Schleck. Tuesday should be the first real indication.



Jot said...

This one's easy. Take a look at all of the Stage 1 victories Lance accumulated during his big run.

I admit I only checked from 2000 on, but the total for those was 0. :)

Naturally, the Wikipedia has a really good historical list.


Anonymous said...

This years finish was unique for such an early stage. If you go back over the last 7 years, not including the prologue, which LA did claim a victory an numerous seconds in, all the stage one finishes have been flat bunch gallops. Lance would never have contested these. The last TDF champs to contest bunch sprints were the great ones, Lemond and Hinault. Evans, as well as all the top GC contenders stayed as close to the front as possible knowing that Valverde would be a threat here. See his performance at L-B-L as a precursor to this stage. This was no surprise. This stage was designed for the likes of Valverde.