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Sunday, July 03, 2011

Le Tour 2011, off with a bang and Contador's 'mountains'

The 2011 Tour starts with a bang (and clatter) as Contador's challenges grow

The 2011 Tour de France is underway, and Phillipe Gilbert is the owner of the race's first yellow jersey.  His win was his 12th in the last 16 races he has entered (and 7 out of 8 since mid-April), and even before the roads tilted slightly upward towards the finish on the Mont des Alouettes, he was the comprehensive favorite to take the stage and with it the yellow jersey. Fabian Cancellara challenged hard with about 500m to go, but Gilbert's response and the manner with which he accelerated away from the field underlined why he has been near unbeatable this year.  It would be fascinating to see some power output data from his SRM, but more on this below...

Contador concedes time

However, the big news of Stage 1 was the 1:20 time gap conceded by Alberto Contador, the pre-race favorite, who got caught up in an accident about 8.5km from the finish.  Astana's Maxim Iglinsky clipped a spectator on the right hand side of the road, 'bounced' back into the peloton and took maybe a dozen riders down, and held up anyone who wasn't in the front quarter of the race.

That included Contador, who tried to rally with his SaxoBank team-mates, but they were always fighting a losing battle.  The problem at that point is that the sprinter's teams have already gone to the front and in an attempt to prevent any late attacks, maintain a super high intensity.  That intensity is almost impossible to combat in a late, relatively disorganized chase, and so Contador's gap grew steadily from its initial 30 seconds.

It didn't help that he was slowed somewhat by another crash within 3km from the finish.  This crash actually allowed him to rejoin his big rivals, Andy Schleck among them, and so Contador and Schleck actually crossed the line in the same group.  However, pro cycling has the 3km rule, which means that any riders involved in accidents in the final 3 km are given the same time as the group they were in at the time of the accident.  Therefore, Contador may have physically rejoined Schleck, but he was 1:14 behind him in "real time".

The end result is that Gilbert will wear yellow during today's team time-trial, while Contador is 1:20 behind him, and 1:14 behind most of his major rivals, with a further time loss possible in today's TTT.

Contador's Tour - the subplot to the racing

Contador was, even before today's stage, the big talking point of the race, for many reasons.  As the defending champion and favorite, he would have been the focal point anyway.  But added to that is the the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) hearing that hangs over his head and threatens his titles in last year's Tour de France, this year's Giro, and, should he win this year, the 2011 Tour.  That all stems from the clenbuterol positive after the 2010 race, and the decision by the Spanish cycling federation to clear Contador after accepting his explanation that the failed test was due to contaminated beef.

That decision was appealed by the UCI, but CAS could not schedule the hearing before the Tour, and so Contador is clear to ride.  That's not his fault, certainly, but the problem is that he'll be followed by jeering crowds (as happened at the team presentations on Friday) and a great asterisk above his name because any wins may well be stripped once that CAS decision arrives.  Then again, they may not, and he may be cleared altogether.  It's a fragile, uneasy place for cycling to be in, with its biggest name a "lightning rod for discontent" as Bonnie Ford of ESPN put it in her excellent article on Contador (which is one of the best summaries you'll read)

Contador's recovery, heart rate and capacity to double - the cycling story

That's one part of the interest surrounding Contador.  The other is his ability to recover from his efforts in winning the Giro d'Italia in May.  His is not an entirely unprecedented double attempt - the Giro-Tour double has been done before, most recently by Marco Pantani in 1998.  I probably don't need to remind you that the late Pantani was one of the more notorious dopers and was rumored to have cycled with a hematocrit up in the 60s whenever he was successful.  Whether it's possible to do the same with anything like 'normal' physiology is the question.

The relatively short turnaround time (5 weeks) means the rider has to recover without losing conditioning, which compromises Tour specific training.  We know that a rider's condition at the end of a Grand Tour is significantly different from at the start - this study showed that a cyclist's hormone levels are significantly changed during the course of the Tour de France - the function of their pineal glands, adrenal glands and testes are all compromised by consecutive days of intense effort.  The same would be expected of the Giro, and regardless of how easily Contador won that race, controlling every mountain stage, he would have needed a period off to recover afterwards.  The question are: a) has it affected his conditioning going into the Tour, and b) will he have recovered sufficiently to remain competitive in the final 10 days of this Tour?

Contador has suggested as much either in interviews or through tweets in the last week or so.  He has said that his training has been restricted to lower intensity work since the race ended on May 29, and that his form is an unknown quantity, even to him (whether this is true, or whether Contador is perhaps playing games leading up to the Tour is difficult to say)

One tweet mentioned that his heart rate recovery had just returned to normal for the first time since early June.  Just to fill in the blanks, a person's heart rate is often cited as a measure of fitness and overtraining.  The more complete explanation is that the ability of the heart rate to return to resting values is largely determined by a balance between their sympathetic system (the fight or flight system that gets you going when you are stressed) and the parasympathetic system ("rest and digest" system).

This is why a pretty reliable test for whether you are recovering from training is to measure how much your heart rate decreases over a given time period (say, one minute after a standard exercise test), or to look at how long it takes to reach a given value after a standard exercise bout.

A backloaded race and implications for rider physiology - "underdone" may be better

So what Contador is suggesting is that his physiology was still in a state of 'stress' as recently as a week ago.  The intriguing question of his ability to recover is further compounded by the 2011 Tour route.  It's certainly a climber's route, with only one individual time-trial and a huge series of climbs in the Alps and Pyrenees.

The interesting aspect of the Tour for Contador is that this year's Tour is really "backloaded" - the mountains are all stacked into a very narrow band towards the end of the Tour.  The first big foray into the mountains comes on Stage 12 (Thurs 14 July) with a climb up Luz Ardiden.  That is followed by another two mountainous rides including a finish up Plateau de Beille, then a flat stage and rest day, and then it's into the Alps.  This year's Tour is a celebration of the Alps and so they feature some brutal climbs, including the 18th stage and three Hors Categorie climbs.

All in all, the last 10 days of the Tour are punishing, and so any rider who starts the Tour in peak condition may well find themselves clinging to that peak by the time they hit the Alps.  This, more than ever, may be a Tour where you want to start slightly underdone, using the first week and a half on the relatively flat roads to round off into your best condition.

For Contador, that may work both ways - if it's true that he hasn't done much quality training in June, the first week may be just what he needs.  Or conversely, the severe climbs towards the back of the race may be just what will reveal the after effects of his Giro.  It will be fascinating to watch.

The Science of Sport coverage

Then of course, Contador's triple challenges of the doping 'axe', the hostile crowds and media, and the recovery issue just got bigger with his time losses on the very first stage.  He now has three or four proverbial "mountains to climb", and that doesn't even include the likes of Plateau de Beille and Alp d'Huez.

It certainly adds even more drama to what will surely unfold in the Pyrenees and Alps and should make for a very attacking, drama-filled Tour de France.

Our plan is to analyze any physiological or scientific aspects of the race, as we've done in the past.  Within the first week, I'll bring you some analysis of the "Magic numbers of power output", the kind of power output that is required to compete in the sprints, on the mountains and to win the Tour de France.

We'll kick off there, and see where this race takes us.  We will bring you our own analysis of power output data that will be made available throughout the Tour, and try to interpret the why and how behind the what?

There will also be discussion of doping, it's sadly unavoidable, but we'll also focus on the riding and their performance (probably in that context...), so join us over the next 3 weeks for the Grand Tour, sports science style.

Recommended reads

Nobody does Tour de France coverage quite like the following, so they are our recommended reads for news coverage of le Tour:

If I come across any others, I'll be sure to post them.

Also, I'll be using our Twitter and Facebook pages to update you on links and other interesting stories, so do follow us if you're keen to stay in the loop a little more!

Enjoy the team time-trial!