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Ric Stern

What it takes

By:
Cycling News
Published:
July 29, 2005, 1:00 BST,
Updated:
April 21, 2009, 11:59 BST

Index to all entries The Tour is now over and I've taken a few days to reflect on what's been an...

Index to all entries

The Tour is now over and I've taken a few days to reflect on what's been an exciting and interesting edition of the 2005 Tour de France. Before I go on to look at some (hopefully) interesting points about the Tour and what it (may) take, I'll briefly mention the last stage, which I haven't as yet commented on (apart from talking to my wife about it!)

Going into the final stage there were two important considerations prior to the Tour finishing. Would Thor Hushovd retain the maillot vert, or would Robbie or Stuart take it from him on the final day. Additionally, who would win the last stage and would the winner affect the outcome of the green jersey competition?

As we know, Alexandre 'I like to attack a lot' Vinokourov won the stage after jumping away with Brad McGee in the final kilometres. Here, Vino sat back a little behind McGee and maybe pretended he didn't have the legs. Then in the final metres went past McGee and won. Brilliantly. For me, it was the best stage of the Tour (and I've never thought that of the final stage before).

Thor Hushovd, in finishing seventh on the stage, won the maillot vert competition. Although he didn't take a stage win, he was, by definition, the most consistent daily finisher. Sprinting doesn't just have to be from a large peloton, but can also be done from a small breakaway group. Therefore, even non-sprinters should practice sprinting to try and maximise the chance of a victory (assuming you do bunched racing, as opposed to solo TTs only, which don't require any sprint training). While the tactics and skills of sprinting are too detailed to go into for this article, I'll briefly mention a couple of sprint training sessions to increase your peak power output.

There are two main sessions that I use; these being sprinting from a stationary start (or as close to stationary as you can get without toppling over) and sprinting from a moderate to high speed (and preferably in a group).

Scenario one has you starting in a small gear, no matter how fit you are (eg, 42 x 19). Stay stationary the whole time, and stomp down on the pedals as hard and as fast as you can, without getting out of the saddle. Duration is about 10 seconds, and as the power and speed increases you should find yourself pedalling 'out' the gear. Do not change up and remain seated during the sprint.

The second one is best attempted either in a small group at reasonable speed (about 40 km/h) or coming off a small descent. If you're in a group you can always practice tactics (eg, lead it out sometimes, and other times make someone else lead you out). As you start the sprint make sure you are in a moderate to large gear (depending on speed, eg, 53 x 16 - 13), get out of the saddle and give it some stick for 5 seconds, then sit down and continue sprinting maximally for a further 10 seconds.

Both these sessions will help you increase your peak power and get better at sprinting. The latter (when done in a group) will help you build skill and tactics, which are necessary to sprinting. I suggest leaving at least 10 minutes between sprints, and completing in the region of 5-10 of them. As with all sessions outdoors, you should always ensure that the roads are safe to practice sprinting on.

Over the course of the Tour de France, we see many riders succeed and fail. Some riders do well at sprinting, others do well at time trialling, and some perform best when climbing. The general classification riders need to perform very well in the last two aspects (whereas the former is almost completely unimportant to these riders).

So what makes a good rider? Well, firstly, it's imperative to state that all the riders in the Tour de France are good riders. In fact they're all pretty much the best endurance athletes. I can't think of any other sport that requires you to perform at near maximal levels on a daily basis for three weeks. There aren't many sports that require you to perform for 5 or 6 hours a day either!

Physiologically speaking, the riders require a very high lactate threshold, a very high VO2max, and high peak power (sprinting). Additionally, those that wish to excel for the overall classification, and/or do well in the mountains require a very high power to mass ratio.

It's likely that the very best overall general classification riders can sustain around 6.5W/kg (that's 6.5 watts per kilogram of body mass, and as such a 70kg rider would put out 455W) for approximately an hour. Your average first category male road racer of that mass may be able to put this power out for a minute at the end of a maximal aerobic power output test!

The best Tour GC riders will be able to generate about 5.7 W/kg at lactate threshold and will therefore be able to ride several mountains at this power. As an aside a second or third category male rider may be able to do this for a couple of minutes.

Riders like Armstrong, Basso, Ullrich, etc, will generate about 7.5 to 8.5W/kg at the end of a maximal aerobic power output test. This is an impressively huge number, and one that an average third cat male may be able to sustain for about 30 seconds to a minute in an 'all-out' time trial.

Additionally, it's probable that the minimal requirement for VO2max for the Tour de France is about 70 mL/kg/min. Although this figure may only be this 'low' if the rider is very efficient. I would estimate that most riders are above 75 mL/kg/min, and the best riders are between 80 and 90 mL/kg/min. It should be noted that VO2max, is not a great measure of rider ability; far better measures are power at lactate threshold, sustainable time trial power, and MAP.

Not only do the riders have to generate huge endurance power outputs, they also have to deal with being rather lean. It's unlikely that any rider is greater than 10% body fat, and most are likely between 6 and 9% body fat. Of course, riders also have to eat vast quantities of food to provide the energy to generate the power that they put out. Depending on the day, and the size of the rider most will need between 4000 and 8000 kcal per day. Certainly, at the upper end of the scale, it's painful to have to eat that amount of food. It's no mean task to eat that amount as starchy carbohydrates, which can be quite bulky in size.

In short, if you want to ride the Tour and do well you'll need a shed load of power, a lean body, and have to eat a huge quantity of food.

This concludes my Tour de France diaries, and I'd like to thank everyone who has taken the time to read them, and to thank Cyclingnews.com for giving me the opportunity of writing these pieces. I hope everyone has enjoyed them, and many thanks for all the wonderful comments I've received. Now get on your bikes, and train well, and maybe you'll be at the Tour one day!

July 23, 2005: Getting the TT right - and wrong

By:
Cycling News
Published:
July 24, 2005, 1:00 BST,
Updated:
April 21, 2009, 11:59 BST

Index to all entries Today's time trial was different in more ways than one to the opening time...

Index to all entries

Today's time trial was different in more ways than one to the opening time trial on stage one. This was a long time trial compared to the comparative shortness of stage 1. The time trial was up and down today compared to the virtually pan flat stage one, and Jan Ullrich didn't suffer a crushing defeat. However, of course there were some similarities - it required a huge effort by the riders, the riders used lots of aerodynamic equipment, and Michael Rasmussen put in another poor time trial performance (albeit, one hundred places better than the opening stage).

Whether it's a short time trial or a long one (assuming a TT is more than about 90-secs in duration) the limiting factors are very similar: sustainable power output. Of course, it's not just about power output, there are other factors as well: body shape, size and your position, bicycle equipment, body mass (in a hilly TT), bike handling skills and pacing skills.

We saw that Michael Rasmussen lacked some skills today, as well, as the raw power required to time trial at the highest level. Not only did he crash once due to poor handling skills on a descent, but it's possible that his first crash (note: I'm speculating. I do this a lot!) was due to anxiety. As Michael would have known he was under direct pressure from Jan, it's certainly possible that he started in a very anxious state. This would have meant he was possibly not in control - he was riding beyond either his physical limits at the early roundabout or his skill level (as he may have felt he would lose time in the corners) and this led to early demise.

Once you've experienced a crash under these circumstances it can be hard to rein your thoughts in and negative self-talk can cause further issues as panic sets in. If you do experience an episode like this, it can be crucial to take a second and a few deep breaths (even if that means coasting for a few seconds) and realign your thoughts and start to concentrate on what you need to do rather than worrying about other people (which is out of your control). For example, this could be thinking positive thoughts about pedalling smoothly or maintaining a specific power output or heart rate zone and then zoning in to your effort.

On a technical circuit such as stage 20, which twists and turns, and climbs and descends, it's especially important to pre ride the circuit and to make mental note of which lines you should take through a corner, or at what speed you can take a corner at. Ideally, you should also note road surfaces, areas where you may be exposed to winds, and how steep the climbs and descents are.

If you reconnoitre the circuit with plenty of time (as I suspect Lance and Jan did) you can then mentally play the circuit over in your head. This will allow you to 'practice' the corners and other difficult areas so that you know where to brake or accelerate, etc. We can see that several riders over-cooked a very sharp hairpin corner including Ivan Basso. This may have dented his confidence for later in the race.

Another skill that a good time triallist should possess is the ability to pace a course correctly. That is, they do not 'blow' before the finish. You should aim to arrive at the finish having exhausted yourself. This involves two aspects of TTing: learning how to do as much work as possible, and pacing the hills, the descents and the flats to the best of your ability.

In a flat time trial you should you should aim to ride at an even effort trying to maintain a constant power output at an effort you know you can just hold for the duration of the event. On a circuit like stage 20, or where there's variable winds it can pay dividends to ride at a varying intensity - higher than average TT power on the hills and into headwinds, and below average on descents. The exact intensity that you ride at will depend on many factors including your fitness, and ability to push past your average TT power and the exact topography of the course.

July 21, 2005: High intensity and fatigue

By:
Cycling News
Published:
July 23, 2005, 1:00 BST,
Updated:
April 21, 2009, 11:59 BST

Index to all entries A very tough stage in the Massif Centrale with numerous unclassified climbs and...

Index to all entries

A very tough stage in the Massif Centrale with numerous unclassified climbs and quite a few classified climbs, plus the leg sapping climb to the finish where Marcos Serrano won the stage. Due to this stage coming after the Pyrenees and the Alps it was always likely to favour a small breakaway group. The constant ups and downs of the road make this type of stage difficult for the riders, especially when they are fatigued.

The shortness of the hills allied to their steepness means that the intensity will be possibly somewhat higher than a longer climb where the riders can settle into a lower intensity. It's well known that intensity is inversely related to duration, and therefore the shorter climbs are ridden at a higher intensity than the longer ones.

The riders in the break would have had to work hard and share the workload as much as possible to enable the break to stay away. Of course, when a huge lead occurs as happened in stage 18 (and a couple of other stages) riders can ease off a little, as it's highly unlikely the peloton would come back to them. This type of scenario tends not to happen in amateur racing, as the style of racing is different.

When the main group hit the finish climb, the race splintered because of attacks from Ivan Basso. In this final breakaway of the stage we saw a select four-man group fight it out on the tough slopes of the Cote de la Croix Neuve. In the group were Basso, Cadel Evans, Lance Armstrong and Jan Ullrich. Seconds behind, but missing from the four was highly placed GC riders like Michael Rasmussen, Alexander Vinokourov, Levi Leipheimer and Floyd Landis. Although the time gaps weren't huge - between 37 and 49 seconds for selected riders, it may well be telling in the days to come.

On Saturday is the final time trial, and for certain Jan Ullrich will be trying to overhaul Michael Rasmussen for a place on the podium. Although it was possibly already likely that Jan would take maybe several minutes out of Michael, yesterday's stage shortened the time gap between third and fourth place from 2.49 minutes to 2.12 minutes. When you're highly placed on the general classification it's always important to try and maintain your position and not lose time, where at all possible. Of course, if Rasmussen does lose his third place position to Ullrich, he will still be on the podium (as the King of the Mountains).

As the leaders hit the final climb it takes them around 8 minutes to climb this steep brute. With such a short (compared to the Alps and Pyrenees) climb, the intensity on this climb could have been quite close to VO2max for these riders - especially as the GC four were really going for it. On the longer climbs the riders would have been closer to their sustainable maximum power (when, for example, climbing the last mountain of the day). Today it's closer to VO2max. Another very tough day of riding, and the riders will need to dig deep to maintain a high overall position or go for a stage win. There are no gifts in the Tour even when you'd be expecting them to decrease their efforts because of excessive fatigue.

July 22, 2005: The perfect break

By:
Cycling News
Published:
July 23, 2005, 1:00 BST,
Updated:
April 21, 2009, 11:59 BST

Index to all entries Today's route would be another tricky one, with plenty of up and down roads,...

Index to all entries

Today's route would be another tricky one, with plenty of up and down roads, several classified climbs including a second category ramp and a nice downhill to the finish. That was today's recipe for the Tour de France!

With the final time trial of the 2005 Tour de France coming up tomorrow it was highly likely that this would be a day for the GC riders to take it easy, and the last chance for a breakaway to organise itself, as the final stage is likely to be a big sprint fest!

As the big guns were taking it easy, and a break was up the road, the only other riders that really needed to work were the three riders aiming for the points classification - Thor Hushovd, Stuart O'Grady, and Robbie McEwen - and of course their team mates to hold it together for them in the final kilometres.

The breakaway group of the leading four riders - Giuseppe Guerini, Sandy Casar, Franco Pellizotti, and Oscar Pereiro worked well together all the time that they were away. They appeared to evenly share out the work and no one sat on and shirked their work. This is the secret to a breakaway riding well - when people 'sit on' and don't work, other riders can be annoyed and it can destroy the rhythm of the group. Of course, in some situations it is normal to sit on and not work - for example, if one rider in the break has a team-mate back in the main peloton who is highly placed on GC and one of the other riders in the break could threaten your team-mates GC position.

Behind the leading four the second group of riders seemed unable to organise a solid chase and there appeared to be plenty of infighting, where Salvatore Commesso would attack regularly and the rest would chase him down and once he was caught would ease up a little.

Back with the leading four as the riders came towards the finish, Guerini executed a perfect attack at 1400 metres to go. The small climber attacked hard, viciously hard, and drove it all the way to the line. Such an attack would've required a huge burst of initial effort, followed by a maximal effort to the line.

One of the ways to replicate such an attack in your training is to do a big effort - flat out - for around 30 seconds - followed by riding as hard as possible for a further 60 seconds. This type off effort really taxes your anaerobic power, and these types of intervals are very fatiguing. However, unlike the stage 16 report on sttacking, when you attack so close to the finish you don't need to modulate your effort. You have to give it all and not hesitate; else the remnants of a break will pull you back before the line.

Well, tomorrow I predict a huge battle between Lance and Jan, which is no real surprise! I predict that Lance will win the stage and Jan will overhaul Michael Rasmussen for third place. It should be a battle royale!

July 20, 2005: Maintaining an attack

By:
Cycling News
Published:
July 21, 2005, 1:00 BST,
Updated:
April 21, 2009, 11:59 BST

Index to all entries Stage 16, the final day in the Pyrenees. With the two big climbs of the Col de...

Index to all entries

Stage 16, the final day in the Pyrenees. With the two big climbs of the Col de Marie Blanque and the Col d'Aubisque, followed by a long descent and generally a gradual downhill into Pau, there was plenty of hard work for the riders. Having ridden this stage myself (albeit in the opposite direction) I knew it would be a tough stage; however, I wasn't expecting as many fireworks as the stage produced!

Firstly, we saw an excellent break go up the road, where Oscar Pereiro ended up with a stage win he deserved and Cadel Evans took time back on the GC contenders to move up from 11th to 7th on the GC.

However, it was back in the maillot jaune group where there were some surprises - or at least I wasn't necessarily expecting them. We saw repeated attacks from the man who has probably attacked more times than anyone else in the Tour this year - Alexandre Vinokourov, plus there were attacks from Roberto Heras, Andreas Kloden, Bobby Julich, Jan Ullrich and more attacks by Vino!

These constant attacking raids, especially by T-Mobile, were presumably to distance Michael Rasmussen, and/or anyone else who was feeling it. However, with such a long descent after the Aubisque it must have been a real gamble to put in so much aggressive riding.

One of the great things in this year's Tour has been the constant attacks by Vinokourov. He's repeatedly gone off the front and appears to have done his utmost to give as many riders an uncomfortable time as possible. Vinokourov is one of the few riders to make repeated attacks, unlike some of the other GC contenders. Yet his moves rarely stick and he often finds himself behind once his run at the front is over.

Other GC riders tend to only put in one attack, which appear to be less forceful than some of Vino's efforts. Riders like Armstrong and Basso then keep the pace high after the attack and pound their bikes to the finish line.

This makes me think that there are a few reasons why Vinokourov keeps doing what he does. Firstly, it could simply be that he is 'softening' the other riders up for a later attack by Ullrich. That is, as Vino is well placed on GC, riders such as Armstrong, Basso, Rasmussen, etc must chase after him so that he doesn't move too high up the GC. Of course that scenario would mean that Ullrich can then have a 'free' ride, riding on the wheels of the others without taking a turn (and thus saving energy) while Rasmussen, Basso, and Armstrong ride back to Vino. However, in a somewhat strange occurrence, it's been Ullrich leading them back to Vino on occasion.

Secondly, it could be that Vinokourov has a relatively good anaerobic capacity, which would allow him to attack 'hard' but wouldn't allow him to sustain a high intensity thereafter (without a high sustainable power to mass ratio). Vinokourov does, however, have a high power to mass ratio (otherwise he wouldn't be in the top 10 on GC), it's just not as high as the riders above him. Recovery between attacks is entirely dependent upon aerobic metabolism, and it's a high power at lactate threshold and a high MAP that allows excellent recovery.

Thirdly, it's possible that Vino simply either enjoys attacking or thinks that if he repeatedly attacks (and isn't a huge danger to the GC) he will eventually be allowed some leeway (i.e, they won't chase him straight away) and can therefore go for a stage win - which is what we saw on the stage into Briancon.

So, what does it take to make a successful attack? Paradoxically, the actual action of attacking isn't that difficult, and the power output required may not be that much different from lower category races. Surprising, as it may seem, the peak power outputs (i.e, sprints) of riders going for the GC may not be that different from a regular racer. In fact some of the pro cyclists may have lower peak power outputs than a mass matched lower category cyclist.

I'd hate to add up the number of races I've completed in the last 20 years or the number of races I've watched, but on many, many occasions I've seen far too many people attack well and gap the peloton, and then run out of steam about a minute later and go backwards rapidly. I've even made this dire mistake myself!

The important aspect is to modulate your effort (i.e, don't sprint for all your worth for 30 seconds and promptly slow up, unless there's only 30 or so seconds left in the race), and once a gap is established to settle into the highest rhythm that you can maintain. Once away - either by yourself or in a small group - it's all about working smoothly, (hopefully) sharing the turns between riders, and trying to take faster lines around corners and descents (assuming that traffic and race regulations allow this) than the main peloton. In a small group it's usually possible to ride faster round some corners than the main field and this can help with keeping the gap.

Back to the stage 16; we saw that although the constant attacks by T-Mobile and others caused a selection on the Aubisque, once on the descent and the long run into the finish, it all came together as a large group of about 40 or so riders arriving at the finish in the maillot jaune group. Remembering what I've just said about the advantages of being in a small group, especially if you're physiologically suited to attacking and maintaining that break the small breakaway group on this stage stayed away, being driven mainly by Cadel Evans who is indeed the type of rider able to sustain long efforts - we saw this all day in his inspired riding on what was otherwise a very sad day. As a results of this fantastic ride from Cadel he moved up to seventh on gc and displayed the qualitites we've all known he is capable of for a long time.

July 17, 2005: The Tour's biggest day

By:
Cycling News
Published:
July 19, 2005, 1:00 BST,
Updated:
April 21, 2009, 11:59 BST

Index to all entries An horrendous route greeted the riders for stage 15, with six big climbs for...

Index to all entries

An horrendous route greeted the riders for stage 15, with six big climbs for the riders to 'enjoy'! After a gently uphill route for the first 70 or so km, the rest of the route profile looked like a set of shark's teeth. Probably the only people who enjoyed today's stage were the massive crowds on the roadside, and those watching on TV.

The last couple of days I've been talking about fatigue (as well as other issues). We often see reports that this or that rider is feeling very tired. Robbie McEwen, as well as Cadel Evans has voiced this on several occasions and then of course there are other issues, such as illness. There have been quite a few reports that my near neighbour Magnus Backstedt isn't feeling too well - I hope he feels better soon.

However, we tend to see less discussion on the fatigue front from the top five GC riders - this is for obvious reasons (no need to tell your rivals that you're suffering; try to bluff your way through it). I therefore thought it might be interesting to see how the big GC riders compared in terms of estimated power output with stage 15 and the previous number crunching day of stage 10.

Additionally, people have contacted me and been interested to see how they would compare if they were riding the Tour de France and what they'd do on such a stage.

It's important to bear in mind that I am having to estimate a lot of figures, as certain data isn't (easily) available - for example, air density, the frontal area and drag of a rider (known as coefficient of aero drag - CdA), their actual mass (they could likely weigh less than normal due to losing a few kg in sweat etc), the actual mass of their bike, the mass of all the bits and pieces they have with them (e.g., clothing, helmet, shoes, energy bars, gels, drinks, and the radio/earpieces). I'm just doing these data for fun, if you really wanted to know the exact figures you'd have to collect some SRM data or Power Tap data from the top riders!

The reason I use data for mountain sections is two-fold. Firstly, the slower speeds on the climbs minimises the importance of the variables that we don't know, such as air temperature and density, the CdA of the riders and their masses, etc. The slower you are going the less these factors are important, as gravity is the dominant force that must be overcome. Secondly, people generally want to know how they would compare on a mountain stage - how much time, if any, would they lose to the pros?

Back on stage 10, I suggested that Lance Armstrong required about 453W to ride up the Courchevel climb in about 53 minutes. Jan Ullrich, who was approximately two minutes slower, required an estimated power output of 431W.

Back to stage 15, and it appears that Lance and Ivan Basso climbed the 10.3 km to Pla d'Adet (average grade of 8.3 %) in 29 minutes. That's an average velocity of 21.3 km/hr. Jan Ullrich came up 1 minute 24 seconds behind (30.5 minutes) for an average velocity of 20.3 km/hr.

With the limited amount of data, it would appear that Lance averaged 469W to Pla d'Adet. Using the same assumptions, Jan would have averaged 443W up the climb.

For both riders this is an increase of around 3% over the figures from stage 10. So, why are the figures higher when we are so much further into the Tour? Simply, it could be that somewhere I have miscalculated (either underestimated the time taken to climb up Pla d'Adet), or incorrectly assumed some other data. Of course the other option is simply that they rode harder on this climb. As intensity is inversely related to duration, and as this climb was shorter (around 30 minutes compared to around 53 minutes) it's certainly possible that the Armstrong, and Ullrich could have ridden harder and generated more power.

It's difficult to suggest exactly how an amateur racer or a sportif rider would do in an actual stage of the Tour de France. Certainly, having myself ridden some of the stages of previous Tours, I know from first hand experience that it's extremely difficult. The actual distance - never mind the climbs - has left me feeling fatigued, and then the intense heat, the climbs, and even the descents can leave you very tired.

The actual average intensity (power output) is likely not dissimilar to your average road race that many people take part in - after all average speed is often similar between amateur racers and pros. However, there are several fundamental differences, being:

1) Pro races are generally much longer than amateur - so a similar power is sustained for much greater periods of time.
2) They can often start easy (so a break can establish itself) and then finish off at a horrendous effort.
3) Your average amateur road race doesn't traverse a huge mountain range like the Pyrenees.

Okay, so a good 3rd category racer could have a maximal aerobic power of 385W, with a mass of 70kg, and they may be able to sustain 280W in a 1-hour TT. So where would they have arrived on the Pla d'Adet? I'll use the same assumptions as before, and remember these are just ballpark estimates!

Up the 10.3km long climb, I estimate that such a rider with that power will climb the Pla d'Adet at a velocity of 14.2 km/hr, which would take them 43.5 minutes, or approximately 14 or so minutes behind Lance and Ivan. Additionally, you should realise that this is just on the one climb and that there was another 195.2 km on the stage, with another five major climbs! On the other climbs it's possible that the amateur racer would lose similar amounts of time, as well as losing time on the flat sections and on the descents to! It's quite possible that the amateur cyclist could be a couple of hours behind at the end of the stage! Of course a trip to next years Etape may help give you a better idea.

Author
Ric Stern

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