Tour de France 2011: 4

Lance Armstrong always focused on details, little things that could gain seconds here and there in a bike race.  Whether it was wind tunnel testing for the most aerodynamic position on the bike, riding in energy-efficient patterns, or never missing a break in the peloton, he was on top of it.  His mantra (and title of his second book) was “every second counts.”

Yesterday’s stage of the TdF is a good example of why such attention is necessary.  It was a 172 km lumpy roll through Brittany ending with an ascent of the Mûr-de-Bretagne (“Wall of Brittany”), a short (2km) abrupt straight hill with some grades of 15%.  Such short, hard climbs to the finish are quite different for a rider compared to the long, demanding gradients of the Pyrenees or Alps.  Mountain climbs demand incredible stamina and power over the long haul.  the rider can get into a rhythm, plan the best time to attack a tiring foe, surge ahead to change the pace and test his rivals, or pace another rider until the best time to up the tempo.  On a short, steep hill there’s no time for complex tactics or for pacing oneself.  Riders have to have enough strength to go all-out for what amounts to a severely uphill “sprint” of about 1.3 miles to the finish line.  Gotta give the Tour organizers credit for giving us some interesting stages in the first week, instead of 4 or 5 “sprinters’ stages” in a row.

Predictably, as the lead group yesterday charged down a gentle downhill toward the base of the Mûr all the main contenders for the overall Tour victory were present, along with a few “hard men” whose ample skills do not include long mountain stages–David Millar and Phillipe Gilbert for example.  George Hincapie of BMC pounded toward the ascent, stringing out the peloton into a long, thin line and tailing off a few pretenders from the rear.  Top riders from Leopard-Trek, Radioshack, Saxo-Bank were all there, with BMC’s Cadel Evans seemingly lagging near the end of the group.  Once on the climb, Gilbert attacked and then Contador went, testing whether he could distance the field.  But he ran out of gas pretty fast, and found himself among a small group of those eager to match his time on this furious charge.  Gilbert and Evans each had their own short bursts ahead,  And then Evans went for good only a couple of hundred meters from the line, holding off Contador for a “photo-finish” win by about 20 cm.  The whole lead bunch was awarded the same time as Evans.

So Evans held on to all his lead over Contador, as did Fränk Schleck, Andreas Klöden, Vinokourov, and a few others.  But the rest of the main contenders allowed Contador to take back 8 seconds of time on a stage that was not conducive to big time gaps.  Eight seconds doesn’t sound like much, but Andy Schleck should know by now that he needs every second of advantage he can get, because he will lose time to Contador later in the race in the Individual Time Trial, never mind the contests in the mountains.  Yesterday Andy finished 23rd, just ahead of Cyril Gautier.  One more little bit of information about his form.  Evans, on the other hand, looks like he could be a surprising force, except that his past history hints at a really bad day in the mountains sooner or later.

Every second counts, Andy, whether it’s on Stage 4 or Stage 12.  You’ll wish you had those seconds on Luz Ardiden.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.

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