The evolution in the pathway to grand tour contention
We've been used to hearing about the marginal gains from Team Sky but that doesn't explain the big step forward in Bradley Wiggins’ performances this season. Five stage race starts three wins and a second is more than impressive because they have all been important rendezvous and the apparent ease with which Sky have controlled everything has added to their confidence. Of course the micro percentages thinking isn't anything new, it’s what the best teams and riders have always done, looking for an edge be it through things like faster equipment, better clothing , hotel rooms, diet or race program. It's all been done before in hope of achieving the big objectives.
Lately we've got used to the big stars racing less than was seen in the past; the days of turning up at the Tour de France with 70 days of competition are no more for the GC contenders. Armstrong and Contador started the trend to less racing and more training, but even they did some of the smaller stage races and a few one day events. That hasn't happened with Wiggins as he's only done big races and by the time he turns up on the TdF start line in Liege, he'll only have raced twenty odd days days.
So why have Sky changed the big game plan, the one that has been followed for years?
To the traditional old school teams (read French, Belgian, Dutch) it must almost be heresy, to them not having their big stars at every race is unthinkable. Their only way has been racing into form, all those little three day stage races , the hilly semi-classic one dayers that's their way to get ready.
But now for anyone with GC ambitions at the major Tours those days are over and here's why.
Racing at pro level is toxic, it doesn't build you up. On the contrary it hurts and you rarely get time to recover properly before you are sent to do it again. Things like a different bed every night don't help, cheap hotel food when the organiser has allowed a five Euros per person budget is generally crap, travelling to and from events is tiring and even though it may look exciting and glamorous sitting on a shiny team bus in reality it's not that great when you're trying to recuperate from being dragged round the typical race route. Added to the physical beating there's the mental aspect of racing to deal with, the fighting for position, dodging street furniture, crashes and general expectation that you'll turn yourself inside out even for the smallest event chips away at the rider. Every weekend there's a race that's important to someone, be it team, rider or sponsor.
So with so much racing and so much demanded of a top contender arriving at the big Tours fresh mentally and physically used to be more about damage limitation than actually building form.
What Sky has done with Wiggins is to remove most of those unnecessary stresses and use the time between each marker to train properly. That might seem a strange thing to say but during the pro season for most riders training is more about recovering from the previous race than it is about working on any weaknesses. You might get the odd weekend off as a treat for doing well or occasionally a week long training camp checking out mountain stages or time trials but usually it's the next race that awaits.
- Robert Millar
Robert Millar was one of the last pure climbers of the Tour de France, winning several stages in the mountain stages and finishing fourth overall in 1984. He is also the only English speaker to have ever won the prestigious polka-dot jersey climber's competition jersey. Millar retired in 1995 but has continued to follow the sport closely. He was often critical of the media and quickly cuts through the excuses and spin to understand why and how riders win and lose.
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