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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Tour de France Alps preview

The high Pyrenees shake up the Tour. But what can we expect from the Alps?

As mentioned in our short post earlier this morning, the Tour de France has already passed its first rest day, after its excursion into the high Pyrenees, with Sunday and Monday stages that have shaken the general classification around somewhat.

Monday's stage in particular, finishing at the summit of Hautacam, was a significant day for the leaders. As we said in our Tour de France preview, no rider is going to win the Tour in the Pyrenees, but they can certainly lose it. And Alejandro Valverde, the first man to wear yellow in this year's Tour courtesy his stage 1 victory, was the unlucky loser, conceding over 5 minutes to his main rivals.

However, a blow by blow commentary of Monday's racing is old news, so I won't go into huge details (apologies for missing it "hot off the presses", but there are good reasons...especially on Jonathan's side, as you've seen above!). What I thought I'd do instead is look forward to the three days where the Tour WILL be won - the Alps.

Cadel Evans: In yellow, but bruised and physiologically stressed

Monday's shake up resulted in a change of yellow jerseys, for the fourth time in the race. Cadel Evans of Australia become maillot jaune number five in only ten stages of this year's race. That high turnover is testament to the fact that the race is wide open, as well as differently structured - no team-trial, and few pure sprint stages have meant the attrition is somewhat higher than usual.

But Evans threatens to be the final man to wear the yellow jersey. His efforts on Monday have been lauded as heroic and gutsy in the media, because on Sunday, he suffered an accident that left him bleeding and bruised.

The physiology of such an accident is interesting. Of course, any rider who crashes is lucky to escape without completely debilitating injuries (like Soler Hernandez earlier in the Tour, for example), but even a "minor" accident (bruising and skin loss) can have quite profound consequences for performance. This is because the body reacts to the "stress" of a crash quite indiscriminantly - it doesn't really distinguish the cause, and all the responses that are triggered by a crash are similar to those initiated when a rider has a virus, for example. There is inflammation, swelling, allocation of resources to the affected area etc.

Of course, riding 200km over high mountains under this "stress response" presents an additional challenge, and so the rider often suffers weakness, fatigue and performs poorly as a result. This may even be part of the explanation for why Valverde has been so lacklustre in the mountains, and it will be interesting to see how Evans recovers in the week after the accident. The worst may not yet be over.

Predicting the Tour: A hazard

Certainly, on Monday, Evans rode a controlled effort: He was able to get to the front of his chasing group and limit his time-losses to ensure he took yellow (by one second, admittedly). But at this stage, it's impossible to tell whether he was riding at a maximum level or not. Predicting the physiology of performance in the Tour is a gamble even I wouldn't wish to take!

Valverde's team is another great example of this - for about a week, they were hailed as "the strong team of this year's Tour", since they did much of the pace-setting in the low Pyrenees. On Monday, however, those "strong" riders vanished and crumbled under the pressure of CSC's pace-setting, demonstrating how a few days in the Tour may as well be a lifetime.

So Evans will have his work cut out to defend the lead, and he can expect attacks. The Italian riders on Saunier-Duval, Ricco and Piepoli, have won the last two stages. And the fact that the Tour finishes in Italy on Sunday's high mountain finish at Prato Nevoso is only going to encourage their aggression. Both are close enough to Evans that he'll have to respond. He might however feel reasonably comfortable conceding a minute or so to them, with a 50+km time-trial to come, and therefore control their leads as much as possible.

The Alps: A world away from the Pyrenees

What was noticable in Monday's climb was that Evans lacks the sudden acceleration of the pure climbers when attacked, and is much more of a steady climber (we knew this from last year's Tour though). The Alps are quite different from the Pyrenees in that they tend to have longer climbs (certainly, there are some incredibly long climbs this year) but with a more constant gradient. In the Pyrenees, a climb of say 9 km at 7% is in fact more likely to consist of about 20 sections, some downhill, and some at incredibly high grades. This changing grade lends itself to attacks and uneven pacing. My experience is that the Alps, as a result of their more "constant" grades (though no less steep on average) will be a little more in Evans' favour. Time will tell.

Frank Schleck, who lies in second place ONLY ONE SECOND back, poses perhaps the biggest threat to Evans, and looked decent in the Pyrenees. Whether he'll have strength to attack remains to be seen - he'll have fond memories of the Alps, however, having won the last stage to finish atop Alp d'Huez. He also has a superb team who can help him raise the pressure on Evans, and then perhaps he'll be able to feed of the "sniper" attacks of Saunier Duval and other riders trying to bag a prestigious stage win.

As for Valverde, a big disappointment. We wrote a while back that his early form was probably a BAD omen for his overall chances. I didn't expect him to disappear quite this quickly though, and so maybe he'll bounce back in the Alps with an aggressive breakaway win.

All in all, it should be a great few days in the Alps (once we get there, of course). We'll (try to) keep you up to date with some insight, hopefully as it unfolds!



Christopher Tassava said...

Great analysis, guys. One thing that I've always wondered about is why there is so little discussion of the effects of the high altitudes on the racers. Looking at track or at cross-country skiing, the altitude of the race venue is a critical consideration, determining all kinds of preparation (illegal and not) as well as race tactics and, often, winners.

But in cycling, even when a stage is run almost entirely at high altitude (like the upcoming Alpine stages), there's little or no such commentary. Why? Do the physiological demands of cycling - km-long rises and descents, the ability to rest the body systems, gearing - make a big enough difference?

Anonymous said...

"the responses that are triggered by a crash are similar to those initiated when a rider has a virus, for example. There is inflammation, swelling, allocation of resources to the affected area etc.

Of course, riding 200km over high mountains under this "stress response" presents an additional challenge"

Interesting analysis. On TV, I just heard Cadel say he was still suffering from the crash.