Sunday, July 22, 2007

Outstanding, Blue Team, Outstanding!

Ah, the mountains.

In the Tour de France, as an individual rider, your job is to stay hair-trigger sensitive to exactly how much more you can do. Especially in the mountains, you want to put in every ounce of energy you’ve got. But it’s just as important not to go beyond your limit. Physiologically, most of us have the ability to reach down deep into ourselves and pull out an exceptional performance . . . but the price is that we take time to recover.

Someone who’s fit has an optimum level of highest performance, where the lungs are working as efficiently as they can and the heart rate stays sustainable. Someone less fit has a somewhat lower level, but the same program applies. As you put in months of training, the exercise improves your lung efficiency and increases the amount of oxygen your blood can deliver to your muscles.

What about a burst of energy? Any of us has experienced a time when we outstripped ourselves, when we went beyond that limit. You dig deep in and put in that extra ounce, and it feels good if it helps you get to wherever you were reaching for. (This is also good for training; as long as you don’t overdo it, it has a long-term effect of increasing your body’s ability.)

Then there’s payback. Your heart has to go past its comfort zone to reach this output, and your muscles work harder than what they’ve got oxygen for. The chemical reaction that lets them push a little harder leaves their waste products in the muscle tissue; now the muscles lose some efficiency. The blood has to carry lactic acid away from the muscles; the blood loses some of its capacity to carry oxygen to the muscles.

After you put in that extra push, your body retracts to maybe 80% of what its optimum output was before. A great athlete’s body recovers quickly, and comes back up to 100% fast. Most of us ordinary mortals take longer. There’s an immediate recovery period, where you simply can’t work as hard. And there’s a longer recovery period, over the next few days, where you’re not quite up to what you could do yesterday.

As long as you don’t push into the “red zone,” where your muscles are working harder than your lungs and heart can sustain, you can come back tomorrow and pretty much put in the same amount of effort. Months and years of training let an athlete push their capacity higher and higher. We working stiffs, who are lucky if we get 30 minutes a day to train, tend to stay at around the same level. Someone training for a marathon (or a century ride) puts in both endurance practice and speed bursts, where they try to raise their body’s limits.

You can feel all of this in your body without complicated electronics to tell you what’s going on. Recent research in sport medicine confirms what athletes have known for centuries. Today you can buy a heart monitor to help guide you into the zone of maximum output without going over the limit. But listening to your body’s cues is just as important. The heart monitor doesn’t know how you’re feeling that day. Part of training is learning to recognize the markers your body uses to let you know when you’re pushing too hard or when you’ve got more to give.

In the Tour de France, which lasts three weeks, riders have to be careful not to push into the red zone at the wrong moment. It’s tempting to surge ahead and gain time on your rivals at key moments. But if you do it right before a long climb, you risk losing major headway on the climb, as your body recovers. Push too hard the day before a hard stage, and your performance on the next day’s stage will suffer. It’s unusual for a rider to win two tough stages in a row.

Tactically, though, you can push yourself into the red zone toward the end of a climb, if you know you’ve got a 20-minute downhill ride ahead to recover. (Some of us take longer to return to optimum output.)

And sometimes, obviously, it feels as if you have no choice. If you’re ranked at a high level in the race, and someone passes you, you feel as if you have to give it all you’ve got to preserve your position.

The result, of course, is often that you give it all you’ve got for as long as your body can take it, and then you drop like a rock to the back position, because your body’s performance plummets. If you hold to just under that intangible red line, you might get away with losing only a position or two.

The mountains slam everyone hard.

Today we watched Alexander Vinokourov go into the red zone and drop out on the second climb of the day, the Pailhères, before the third big climb, the one that ended at the finish line. One minute he’s riding with all the other top contenders. The next minute you turn around and he’s dropping off the back of the pack, sweat pouring from his forehead, face red, breathing hard through an open mouth. He’s gone from running on eight cylinders to running on six, and he no longer can keep up. He lost more than 8 minutes on that climb alone. Earlier in the climb, Moreau had also dropped for good.

Vino did outstandingly well in yesterday’s time trial, which he needed to do to get himself back into position for the rest of the Tour. Today he may have paid for that effort.

Then, for the riders who were still at the front, came the final climb, Plateau de Beille, an “hors categorie” climb, which means it’s tougher than the classification system can describe. (Normally Cat 1 is as hard as it gets; Cat 2 and 3 and 4 are easier.) That means longer and steeper and twistier than anyone’s going to like.

The remaining contenders started the climb roughly together. A few riders were off in front of the group, but none of them was in the running for the overall victory. George Hincapie had dropped a bit on the first climb but was leading the group again by the time the second climb started, when he dropped right off.

Evans, Leipheimer, Rasmussen, Klöden, Sastre, Valverde, and Contador all cycled through leadership positions at the foot of the plateau. Another man with them was Mauricio Soler, who’s been impressing everyone with his performance at this Tour, the first for Team Barloworld (from South Africa). Discovery’s Popovych rode back to the team car and brought water forward for Leipheimer and Contador, then set the pace on the early part of the climb before peeling off. (Since he and Hincapie are not expected to win, they can let themselves ride into the red zone if it benefits Discovery’s outcome.) Rasmussen had a bunch of guys from his Rabobank squad to help him up the lower slopes.

As the race sailed into the Pyrenees, to Spain and the Basque homeland, orange became the predominant clothing color along the side of the road. The Basque people love their cyclists. Orange is their home color. (The Euskatel team, which is as close as the Basque country has to a national team, wears orange. Their man Txurruka was one of the handful of riders who were in front of the pack as the final climb began.)

Iban Mayo dropped out of the group with the contenders early on the last climb. Then Klöden, then Valverde. Rasmussen had incentive to gain time on everyone today, and in the next two mountain stages. He kept attacking, leading out from the front of the group, then getting reeled back in as the rest of the group caught up. Contador kept riding up after him. Leipheimer never took part in the attacks; he rode patiently along behind and never got out of sight. Every time, he caught back up to the attackers.

Taking a charge off the front of the group expends precious energy, and it takes energy too to ride out and catch the guy who’s trying to get away. This is where you have to be a careful (but aggressive) judge of how much fuel is in your tank. You could use up your reserves catching a guy who attacks on the lower slopes, then hit the wall and not be able to muscle your way up the rest of the hill with the group. Suddenly you drop and lose minutes from your old position.

Leipheimer has played a steady game through the Tour of watching and waiting, making a science of keeping up without racing ahead. One by one his competitors drop, leaving him with fewer contenders to try to eliminate. He’s never been far from the front of the pack, but he’s never gone out on a limb either.

Contador and Rasmussen (and sometimes Evans and Soler) fought it out up the side of the plateau. Finally Contador and Rasmussen broke away and rode maybe 25 seconds ahead of Leipheimer, Soler, Sastre and Evans—not out of sight, but far enough to make them hard to catch. Since Contador is Leipheimer’s teammate, Levi didn’t have a lot of incentive to ride out and catch them. That left Sastre, Soler and Evans doing a lot of the heavy pulling, with Leipheimer content to ride their wheels.

Mayo was gone. Klöden was gone. Vino was gone. Moreau was gone. Valverde was gone. Next was Evans. You watch a guy suffer, and suffer, and fall back then catch up, then fall back again then really pour it on and catch up—and then, finally, his body cracks, and he falls back rapidly from the rest of the climbers who are still doggedly going at it. Leipheimer was suffering, but he kept steadily going uphill today. Soler was hurting, but he kept charging forward. Evans finally just dropped back, after giving it every drop of effort he had. He’d been in the red zone too long, too many times. He kept riding, and he didn’t drop much further back in the riding order, but with every pedal stroke, he started losing precious seconds, as the gap between him and the other riders stretched. (Klöden too kept riding up the mountain; even after he dropped from the group of contenders, he didn’t crack completely. He finished in the top 10, behind Sastre, before Evans.)

Right near the top, Leipheimer pulled a little ahead of Sastre. Levi may have been saving his moment of courage, or Sastre may have started to fade. Soler attacked all the way to the top, and Leipheimer tailed him, but they never had a chance against Contador and Rasmussen, who mostly worked together until the finish, where Contador ran out to take the stage victory.

With only a handful of contenders left, Rasmussen knows he’s got to keep winning every second he can to keep his advantage over guys who are likely to win minutes back in the next time trial. Whoever wins the stage gets a time bonus as well, with seconds shaved off his overall time. Contador did well to take the time advantage from Rasmussen. Contador beat Rasmussen in the last time trial by only 37 seconds, so he needs to get closer to the great Dane if he wants any chance of passing him in the next time trial.

But Rasmussen should be pretty pleased with the stage results too. Many of his biggest threats aren’t threats anymore. Against them, all Rasmussen has to do is ride a competent race, not an outstanding race, in order to stay ahead for the rest of the game. Guys who are still within grabbing distance will have to work hard, take risks, ride into the red zone, just to come close to Rasmussen’s position. Vino struggled valiantly yesterday to ride himself back into the competition, and it cost him dearly today.

And Leipheimer’s not in the yellow yet, by a decent margin, but he’s got to be pretty happy with today’s stage too. A lot of the contenders who were between him and Rasmussen have dropped out. Levi and Contador are on the same team, and, like Rasmussen, they’re both good mountain riders, so they can play tactics and strategy against him. Popovych finished in the top 10, even after all the errand work he put in on the lower slopes, so Discovery comes out with a strong team still riding for victory.

A mountain stage tomorrow, then a rest day, and then another mountain stage, will test the riders who are left. The top five now:

1. Rasmussen
2. Contador, 2:23 behind
3. Evans, 3:04 behind
4. Leipheimer, 4:25 behind
5. Klöden, 4:38 behind.

Sastre’s the next one back, at 5:50 behind Rasmussen. As long as Rasmussen doesn’t blow out, he’s got a fair shot at winning this race. If he can ride the next time trial the way he rode the last time trial, he’ll stay ahead of Evans: Evans beat Rasmussen by only 1:41 in yesterday’s trial, and all the others had even less of an advantage on the Dane.

It’s hard to tell how much of their energy Rasmussen and Evans were saving in yesterday’s time trial, knowing that this stage came right after it. After the next time trial, there will be no more mountains—only Paris.

So Evans, Leipheimer, Contador, and Klöden have their work cut out for them. The positions aren’t likely to change much in the flat stages after the mountains. None of these guys beat Rasmussen by enough margin in the last time trial to make up for how far behind him they are now. If anyone wants to top Team Rabobank’s leader, they’re going to have to bring it to him in the Pyrenees, and with his history in the mountains, that’s going to be a tough job. It’s not unheard of—exploits in years past have recovered several minutes of time—but Rasmussen has made it clear with today’s ride that he’s not going to give it up easily.

Overall, though, a great day for Team Discovery. If Leipheimer rides as well tomorrow against Cadel Evans as he did today, he’ll pass Evans, and Discovery will be riding with the No. 2 and No. 3 overall race leaders. Popovych is still coming on strong, finishing No. 10 in today’s stage and holding on to the No. 10 position in the overall competition too. Contador is going to keep making sure Rasmussen is working hard to maintain what lead he’s got. Klöden is hanging on to Levi’s wheel for now, only 15 seconds behind him, but that means he’s steadily losing ground, and his team is spent, with all its strong riders struggling just to keep in the race.

So the carefully wrought plan of old Belgian master Bruyneel is starting to pay out. In the words of Robert Duvall, “Get you a case of beer for that one.”

1 comment:

CaliforniaGirl said...

You really know how to distract me when I am trying to focus. Both boys watched the video with me after FedEx left. They watched Sunday. I will put Monday on tonight. I know how it ends, and I still want to see it, and I know they are resting today. What will Vinokourov pull next. He is the king of no rules racing, with a healthy dose of revenge thrown in for spice.