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Thursday, July 09, 2009

Tour 2009: Into the Mountains

The Pyrenees await the peloton: First mountain stage preview

The first week of the 2009 Tour has hardly been 'normal', with strong cross-winds, a team-time trial and intriguing team dynamics and the return of Lance Armstrong to the Tour, but tomorrow's first mountain finish represents one of perhaps three or four key moments in determining where the 2009 yellow jersey will ultimately end up.

The stage is a 224km haul from Barcelona into Andorra, and it finishes on the HC (hors categorie) climb of Arcalis. That climb is preceded by a Category 1 climb of the Col de Serra Seca, and two Cat 3 climbs. It's pretty much an uphill stage from start to finish, with the final 70km being a gradual pull to the base of Arcalis, and then the climb.

The stage profile is shown below, and immediately below that, a zoomed in version of the final 10.6 km climb at an average gradient of 7.1%.

A decisive day in the race?

We've become accustomed to these first mountain days being quite decisive in the overall bearing of the race. During the post-Indurain years, it was almost expected that the first day in the mountains, especially when the finish line was atop an HC climb, would be a battle between the "heads of state" (to borrow a term from Paul Sherwen) that would sort out the podium finishers from the "better luck next year" riders.

Whether or not this year will prove decisive is not so sure. I doubt it. Someone pointed out on a recent post that Astana may well have aspirations of taking all three podium places in this year's Tour, and with 4 riders in the top 5, that is a very realistic possibility, especially given how rivals have already lost time on them in week one (Evans and Sastre in particular).

An Astana tempo-train to the summit?

Given their strength, it's possible that Arcalis becomes a hard team ride simply to shed all other challengers and get these four to the top of the climb. If this is the case, then the scenario may be that Astana hits the front on the Cat 1 climb, stays there until the climb of Arcalis and then sets a fast enough tempo to prevent attacks from threats and get to the summit with Astana leap-frogging Cancellara to occupy the top four positions. I sincerely hope this isn't the case, because the Tour is already taking on quite a "narrow" focus - as I said the other day, the team time-trial made it increasingly difficult to see anyone other than an Astana rider winning this. So if Astana hold positions 1 through 4 by the weekend, then I fear it will become a much more controlled race to the finish.

The last few years, post-US Postal/Discovery's dominance, one of the highlights of the Tour has been the unpredictability, the frequency of attacks and the changes in overall leadership. Not withstanding the usual drug busts, the Tour has been entertaining to watch, and this year is just threatening to dampen that "randomness" slightly.

Because of the nature of that climb, as shown above, most damage is likely to happen at the bottom, where the first four kilometers are easily the steepest. So the action will be swift, either riders will fall off the pace quickly, or we'll see a relatively large group finishing together.

Fragmented attacks and aggressive racing?

Another possible scenario is that those riders who have lost time in the first week make their claims for the podium by instigating attacks at the bottom. In particular, the Schleck brothers, Carlos Sastre and Cadel Evans must be aware that this is one of perhaps three or four chances they will have to reclaim lost ground. Mitigating against this happening are that the second last day up Mont Ventoux will make many riders cautious, because most will realise that the Tour won't be won in the first mountain stage, but it can be lost. So I think many are likely to adopt a conservative approach, and that's why the scenario of Astana driving the pace is more likely than it would normally be.

It's really wide-open, but come tomorrow evening, it might have closed up completely (if Astana suddenly find themselves in the top 4 places and rivals have lost more time), or it might remain open a little while longer. I'm hoping for vicious attacks, attrition and high drama, and hopefully Alberto Contador is not under team instructions to hold anything back. I have a feeling he might be instructed to follow, but not initiate attacks himself. We shall see...part of the intrigue of the mountains, I guess.

There is also the expected breakaway, which is likely to come from someone with aspirations of winning the King of the Mountains title, and who wants to bag as many points as possible on the earlier climbs before being challenged. I can't see this succeeding, though it usually provides good theatre on the final climb of the day. Any bets Sylvain Chavanel is one of these riders...?

Power output evaluation - what does it take to climb with the pros?

From a scientific point of view, the mountains also provide great discussion, because it's here that power output stats become most meaningful, and the true physiological capacity is measurable! If you want to compare yourself to the Tour riders, the mountains is the place to do it!

I have some really interesting historical statistics and records of climbing times, power outputs and performance comparisons from the Tour over the years. But, this is a three-week race, and I have to pace myself, so I'll post on those next week, once we're in the mountains!

For now, though, some really fascinating data, and some great insight on them from someone who knows a fair bit can be found at the TrainingPeaks website, and also at VeloNews.

Trainingpeaks is a company based in Boulder, Colorado, and who I had the pleasure of visiting a few years ago. They've produced great software for coaching and monitoring training, logging heart rate, power output, running speed...you name it. You can see it in action through the measurement of two riders on the Saxo Bank team. It really is great for those who love the numbers and quantifying performance (and most cyclists do!). If you want to see the raw data, you have to have their software, but there is a free trial that you can download from their site. It's worth downloading just to play around with the software and see what it can do (you may well find it is worth investing in), but it also gives you a chance to view the Tour through the eyes of a Pro-Team exercise physiologist, since this is exactly what they work with in the teams.

Also on that page is a summary of the riders' stats and power outputs during the Tour so far. You might be interested to learn, for example, that on Stage 3, where the group was split and Contador lost time on Armstrong, the average power output of a rider finishing in the main pack was 188W, and that for a five-minute period, that rider (Nicki Sorensen) averaged 410W.

It's really very interesting analysis - I'm sure that over the coming mountain days, it will become even more intriguing.

Related to that is this commentary by Dirk Friel on VeloNews. Dirk is a co-founder of TrainingPeaks, and a former pro cyclist whose father, Joe Friel, authored the Cyclist's Training Bible (a book I'm sure many have read). It's a really good commentary on the race, also worth following in the coming days.

But of course, if you do visit those sites, don't forget to come back here for recaps and insights, and to see how accurate my crystal ball was on this occassion! And for those power output stats from Tours past!

Enjoy Arcalis!



Alan Sleath said...

There has to be a winner and if Team Astana is dominating, Contador should punish Lance in the hills,but then again Lance is an old campaigner and i believe if there is a gap he will take it.The question is,is Lance capable of those phenomal rides were he simply punished everybody in the climbs and i dont believe that Lance would deliberately let another win.The question is can Lance hang on.I so wish to see him deal out the hurt with that running on the bicycle style,awesome to watch.