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Monday, July 18, 2011

Tour de France: Post-Pyrenees state of the race

The Tour leaves the Pyrenees with more questions: State of the race and insights

The 2011 Tour de France has continued to throw up question after question, and today's finishing climb up Plateau de Beille has proved no different.  This was the stage that was supposed to bring the curtain down on Thomas Voeckler's reign in yellow.  But yet again, as has been the case the whole Tour, for every question that was answered, two new questions emerged and we are still no closer to knowing who will be wearing the final yellow jersey into Paris next Sunday.

The stage today included the brutal pull up the Plateau de Beille, 15.8 km at an average of 7.9%.  It's the hardest climb of the race so far, and it's the final climb of the Pyrenees.  Thomas Voeckler had 1:49 over the chasing group, and the general projection was that he'd be dropped near the base of the climb as a result of the aggressive racing between the Big 5.

Well, it turns out that Voeckler had other ideas, and the only thing we know tonight, as we head into some flat stages before the Alps, is that the Big 5 that consisted of Frank and Andy Schleck, Cadel Evans, Ivan Basso and Alberto Contador now has a new member.  And for the duration of the 2011 Tour, it's the Big 6 - Voeckler is now part of that group, whether by virtue of the amazing climbing form he showed today (he didn't just survive on the climb, he actually responded sharply to attacks and looked composed), or his 1:49 advantage.  And it sets the Alps up as fascinating for reasons that few could have foreseen before the race began.

The climb unpacked

More analysis of the climb will come tomorrow, as soon as SRM publish the data from Sorensen.  That will unfortunately add limited information, because Chris Anke Sorensen stayed with the head of the field for only a few kilometers of the final climb.  However, we'll take a look at that tomorrow.

Some of the estimates for the performance are in, however.  I can tell you that the main group did the climb (by my watch) in 46:53.  Jelle Vanendert, who claimed second on the climb to Luz Ardiden two days ago, went one better and won the stage with an attack about 7 km from the finish.  He did the climb in about 46:05.  Incidentally, the fastest performance on this climb belongs to Marco Pantani, a 43:30 back in 1998 (but this was on a slightly shorter time).  Other notable performances are a 44:17 by Contador and Michael Rasmussen in 2007, and a 45:40 by Armstrong and Basso in 2004.  So today was a slow climb - won in 46:05, with the big favourites doing 46:53.

Tactics, conditions?  Of course, but without wishing to focus a whole post on this, the climbing performances have clearly changed in the last two or three years.  Once-off slower performances on isolated climbs are easily explained by race situation or weather, but it has been two years, and about a dozen climbs, and we see a consistent increase in the time taken to ride these big climbs.  The pattern then is quite clear, and today's performances conformed to that pattern.

In terms of the power output estimates, for those interested, it projects to about 5.9 W/kg for Vanendert, with the chase group averaging around 5.7 W/kg (assuming 65kg riders - the range doesn't change too much).  As mentioned, I'll check the numbers more when the SRM data provide some context.

Tactical sparring

However, this was anything but a one-paced climb.  It was, as expected, Andy and Frank Schleck who were primarily responsible for the repeated attacks.  Those attacks were ultimately responsible for producing a fairly stop-start climb in that chase group, because as aggressive as the attacks were, they were short, and always followed by a lull in the pace as the group rejoined.  The result is that the attacks would stretch the top 10, even causing small splits, but it always came back together, and by around 5km to go, even riders dropped on the early slopes had rejoined the elite group.

Meanwhile, as it had been on Luz Ardiden, the time gap to the leaders out on the road told a good part of the story. At the start of the climb, the gap to Sandy Casar out ahead was 2:10. It was chipped by about 10 seconds per kilometer from then on, until Vanendert assumed the lead with 5km to go. From that point, Vanendert actually increased his lead, because the attack-then-sit up nature of the chase behind was allowing his steadier rhythm to move away.

Massive groups

It's been a long, long time since I've seen such large groups on HC climbs at the end of Tour stages.  The group was 24-strong at 4km gone, and there were 13 men battling it out only 4km from the summit of a finishing climb in the Tour de France (has it ever happened?).  The days of brutally hard tempo riding from the start of the climb, eliminating all but two or three rivals, seem a distant memory.

When you think about it logically, you would expect large groups because a) the differences between riders at this level should small at only a few percent, and b) there is a drafting benefit that is equal to or larger than the natural performance differences between riders at that, even on the climbs at relatively slower speeds of about 20km/hour.  This is what helps the peloton stay together so that 180 men can finish flat stages together, and I dare suggest it's normal for climbs to have so many men together, especially in the first mountain range because the cumulative fatigue effect is so much smaller.

Consider for example that in marathon running, lasting 125 minutes, the gap between the best in the world and 40th best is only 4%, and you realize that it's normal for elite performers to be bunched within a few percent of one another.  Then consider that a drafting effect of only 5% would offset a potential performance effect of 4%, and suddenly, the size of the groups is expected.  This doesn't take into account attacks and the ability to change pace quickly, but when the group is so big to begin with, even rapid accelerations are buffered because there are sufficient riders to gradually pull back attacks.  Only those at their limit are gapped permanently, and that's what we saw today - the top 5 or 6 were riding at one level, and those behind, in the elite group but not in the top 5, were benefitting from repeated accelerations and then slower periods of regrouping.  Had the pace been hard and consistent, that group would have thinned, but still, seven or eight at the front of the race, that's a large group.  But it's encouraging for the sport, and certainly adds to the intrigue of this year's Tour.

Neutralized attacks

Also gone is the destructiveness of the attacks.  Today, Andy Schleck attacked around five or six times (and the attacks came much sooner than on Luz Ardiden), with Frank Schleck making a couple of moves of his own, but each one was marked almost instantly and neutralized.  Only Ivan Basso joined in the attacks, until the final kilometer when Cadel Evans made something of a bid.  Again, they were neutralized almost immediately, and the group was glued together.  In the end, the only attacks that succeeded were those that were allowed to go - first Vanendert and then Sammy Sanchez.

Ivan Basso was actually critical of the Schlecks after the stage, saying that they needed to thin the group down to four or five and then make attacks, rather than attacking when the group consisted of twenty riders.  That's all good and well, but the Schlecks may not have the artillery to make that happen.  Today, the intensity on the early slopes was clearly higher than it had been on Luz Ardiden, but the group remained large - I counted 24 men still in the group a full 4km into the climb.  The Leopard-Trek effort was thus not sufficient to cut the group down.

I am not sure what the Schlecks, or anyone else, can do to cut that group to four or five, as Basso suggests.  The Schleck attacks could perhaps be sustained for longer - they have sat up very quickly after being marked, and perhaps the answer is to go off the front and hold that higher tempo for a few more minutes, to really test the followers.

But that is easy to say.  The question is: Can the elite riders go any faster?  I'm beginning to suspect the answer is no, not by as much as one may think.  The top 6 riders in the Tour (and yes, I'd include Voeckler in this based on today) are locked together so tightly, that I don't see anyone just riding a hard tempo and doing damage to anyone but themselves at the front.  Given how quickly attacks were followed, I wonder whether perhaps the group would form with five or six riders who would then be pulled along by whoever the "risk-taker" is, until he himself is burned off.  Perhaps the Schlecks will have to agree who this will be and the sacrifice can be made, because they will see Evans' time-trial as the big threat to their yellow aspirations.

The Alps - cumulative fatigue effects and look for bad days to eliminate riders, rather than great days to win it

This is what sets the Alps up so intriguingly.  Given how tight and competitive the racing on the climbs has been, it is beginning to appear (to me, anyway) that for any given rider, this Tour may be lost by a bad day, rather than won by a decisive move.  Within that group of 6 riders, one will be eliminated more by their inability to produce the power outputs we have seen in these two mountain top finishes than it is by one big attack and one remarkable performance.

Then there is the effect of cumulative fatigue - in the third week of any Grand Tour, it is fatigue resistance that makes a huge impact, and so we should expect to see a thinning of the numbers, because riders have limited energy and may have allocated a great deal to ride in that group of 12 on climbs like today.  So the group should thin, and perhaps Basso will have his wish of attacking against half a dozen.  But within the top 6, it really is taking the shape that one will be eliminated by a bad day where they lose time to the other five,  rather than by a great day where one of them rides away from the other five.

As the race hits the Alps, however, there'll be a good deal more desperation, longer attacks and less cagey tactics.  The individual time-trial that awaits next Saturday will start to dictate strategy more than the current time gaps do, and it may produce some more risky racing.

I think the Pyrenees have produced hard racing, probably not quite maximal, because of cagey tactical battles and conservatism.  That will end in the Alps, certainly by Alp d'Huez, but probably on Thursday's brutal stage.

Thomas Voeckler - can he hold on?

As for Voeckler, one is tempted to take the default option and say that he "survived" today's stage and kept his yellow jersey.  I think that this is incorrect.  He looked sprightly to me, and covered every move relatively quickly.  I'll watch the stage again, but I don't recall an occasion where he was pulled up to an attack by someone else - he did the work for himself and that suggests that he may not have been at his absolute limit.  If anything, he didn't need to ride as fast and as hard as he did today, and he might well have conserved a little more energy.  But had it been Andy Schleck or Alberto Contador in yellow, everyone would be saying how solidly they controlled the race and how composed they looked.  And Voeckler deserves to be spoken of as a realistic contender now.

As for the Alps, I expect that the intensity will be a little higher, particularly on the finishing climbs of the Galibier and Alp d'Huez.  If we work with the estimations from Luz Ardiden and today (and bear with me - the assumptions are applied to all riders, so it's relative), then it seems that the elite of the race are climbing at an average of 5.7 to 5.9 W/kg.  I expect that this will increase up to 6 to 6.1 W/kg at some point, either on Thursday or Friday (Alp d'Huez).

If we assume that Voeckler cannot match that increase, then he'll lose time, no question.  How much?  Well, over 40 minutes of climbing on Alp d'Huez, if Voeckler rides at 5.8 W/kg as has done in the Pyrenees, and the others ride at 6W/kg, then he'll lose approximately one minute on the climb.  In order to lose the entire 1:49 lead, he has to slow down far more relative to his performances in the Pyrenees - we're talking in the order of 5.5 W/kg, or the likes of Schleck, Evans and Basso have to find a huge increase in power output (which I don't believe is possible).

Of course, it's conceivable that Voeckler will break at some point.  If that happens, and he cracks, then he loses minutes and the race is back on between the big 5.  However, if he can just remain solid, and continue to hold the kind of level we have seen in the Pyrenees, then he looks a good bet to hold that yellow jersey all the way to the individual time-trial, because the main rivals probably have only a minute's worth of 'capacity' or 'reserve' to improve by.   One more day like today, and even a small time loss on the other big Alp day will see Voeckler ride the time trial in yellow.  And of course, there is no guarantee that Voeckler himself doesn't have the capacity to ride even faster than we saw today.  And what a story that would be!

A Tour of questions continues

We started this Tour, two weeks ago, with questions.  Was Andy Schleck timing his peak to perfection? Could Alberto Contador recover and peak again after the Giro?  Would Cadel Evans be able to avoid the one bad day that costs the Tour?  And here we are, 14 stages in, and we have no answers!

Every day, we get new questions.  We still wonder about Andy Schleck.  We still have doubts over Contador, who looked better today, but not back to his best or we would have seen at least one counter-attack.  Is he recovering from week 1 and the crashes, or is he just flat from the Giro?  We are none the wiser.  But we now have a host of new questions, most of them about a Frenchman in yellow who is not merely clinging to the jersey, but controlling it.

All in all, the Pyrenees may have produced some conservative racing, and maybe even frustration in observers wanting longer, more aggressive attacks.  Physiologically, that may not be possible.  But they produced enthralling racing, and that seems set to continue.  A few flatter days now, and a rest day, and then it's the decisive days.  Then again, we said that on Thurday and today!

More analysis tomorrow - will look briefly at Sorensen's data, because it has limited value - we already know the climb today was relatively slow and that the power outputs will be in the same range as they were on Luz Ardiden.  And so we wait for the Alps!


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