The art of peaking for the Tour de France

A close friend of mine recently asked me what was going through my mind during the month leading up to the Tour de France. My thoughts varied from year to year. In my best years (1984, 1985 and 1986), I was in such good shape that my only concerns were to maintain my health, stay out of crashes and get plenty of rest and sleep.

By the start of the Tour, I would typically have had 70 to 80 days of racing in that year. My training during the final month before the Tour was planned almost a year in advance. The goal was to do most of the hard training well before the last month. More often than not this ended with the Giro. The goal was almost to over-train and then taper off during the final month. The hardest training is destructive and the body needs time to recover.

Most people think that there is more and more progression can be gained by training intensely for racing right up to the start of the race, but that is not true. Peaking is an art. It is part intuition, part experience and part trial and error.

Luck also plays a very important part. One ill- timed crash could prove disastrous. My worst experience, and one that was truly a nightmare, occurred prior to the 1992 Tour de France that began in San Sebastian, Spain.

Typically, a team gets together three days prior to the start of the Tour, wherever that start will be. In 1992, I lived in Belgium, which was usually just a short flight away from the start. That year, however, the French airlines were on strike. I was also at the end of a three-year contract with Team Z, which was the team that I had won my last Tour with in 1990. It was a team that had paid me handsomely and expected me to perform.

By 1991, however, my performance had begun to wane. I finished seventh and was devastated because I did not believe that I could lose the Tour de France if I arrived at the start in good condition, as I did that year.

But something had changed in cycling. The speeds were faster and riders that I had easily out performed were now dropping me. At the time, the team I was on, Team Z, became more and more demanding, more and more concerned about my training, my diet and my dedication to the sport.

From all outside appearances, one might believe there was some reason for concern. The reality was that my ability and desire had not changed.

Our sponsor was disappointed and the pressure to perform in 1992 was intense. We were at the end of a three year sponsorship run and our Team was looking for a new sponsor. The worse I raced, the more they wanted me to do. The more I did, the more over-trained I became and by June of 1992, I was fried and the team had little confidence in my ability to race well in that year’s Tour.

Five days before the Tour started, a week that is so carefully planned for rest, where no distraction is welcome, someone at Team Z decided that they were not getting their money’s worth. At the last minute, I was told to go to Paris for a television appearance two days before the start of the Tour at San Sebastian.

Because of the airlines strike, my wife and I were forced to take a train to Paris from Belgium, with the hope that the strike would end. When it did not, we had to take a train to Bordeaux. The team did not get us tickets on the TGV, but rather a train that stopped in nearly every village on the route.

I missed a full night’s sleep and when we arrived in Bordeaux, I was picked up by the team car. Then, on the two-hour car ride to San Sebastian we had a flat tyre and discovered there was no spare. There I was, marooned on the side of the autoroute halfway between Bordeaux and San Sebastian. Fortunately, another team’s car stopped and offered to tow us to a gas station where our tyre was fixed.

Imagine suffering from the worst jet lag the day before the Tour began. That's basically how I felt. I started the 1992 Tour de France more tired than I felt at any the end of any of the other Tours that I completed. I am not sure what was worse, the loss of a night’s sleep or the worry over the lost sleep. Not the way to begin a Tour.

My favourite for this year’s Tour is Alberto Contador. Last year, he not only had to beat all of his competitors, but he also had to race against his own team, for which he deserves another yellow jersey.

My Lance Armstrong prediction? Either he will not start or he will pull out just before the race enters France. I have a feeling that the world of cycling is about to change for the better.

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