Thursday, July 23, 2009

TT Performance Shows the Difference Between Good and Great

By Chris Carmichael

Although his performances in the mountains proved he is the strongest climber in the race, Alberto Contador's victory in today's Stage 18 individual time trial in Annecy went one step further and proved that he is the strongest man in the race. Period. What you're watching is a man at his peak, and he's young enough that he may be able to return to the Tour de France with similar strength for the next few years.

When he was winning the Tour de France, Lance Armstrong always said he wanted to win the final time trial as a means of showing that the leader of the race was truly the strongest man. And in the seven Tours he won, he finished first in the final time trial six times (the exception was 2003, when he slowed down and rode carefully over rain-slicked roads once he knew his position in yellow was safe). Since his first Tour de France victory in 2007, Alberto Contador has significantly improved his time trial performance, and it showed today. Back in 07, he rode a good final time trial to defend his yellow jersey and minimize his time losses to Cadel Evans and Levi Leipheimer, but this year he gained time on everybody in the race and his performance in the final time trial was a stamp of authority.

That the man in the yellow jersey can win the final time trial ahead of specialists like Fabian Cancellara, Gustav Laarson (silver medalist in the time trial at the 2008 Olympics), and even Bradley Wiggins – who is both a time trial specialist and a contender for the yellow jersey, is a testament to what happens to a Tour de France champion in the third week of the race.

Fatigue is a factor in everybody's performance, especially after nearly three weeks of racing. But the winner of the Tour de France is the man who can cope with the fatigue better than anyone else. A lot of times I talk about riders getting “stronger” in the third week of a Grand Tour. In reality that may not be the best choice of words. The top men in the overall standings start gaining serious time over everybody else in the race because they are better able to adapt to the fatigue. They are, in effect, slowing down less. And the riders at the very top of the leader board (Contador, Andy Schleck, and now Armstrong in third place) are coping with the fatigue better than the men immediately behind them in the rest of the top ten.

For Lance, today's time trial performance was good, but not great. He gained enough time to overtake Frank Schleck and move into third place overall, and he rode well enough to hold off Bradley Wiggins (who is now in fourth, 11 seconds behind Lance). But his performance wasn't enough to challenge either Contador or Andy Schleck.

For years it has been difficult to explain how narrow the difference is between great and good performances at the Tour de France. Lance's performance today was good, but on a percentage basis, the additional fitness he would have needed to rival Contador and Schleck in the time trial is tiny, somewhere around 1%. What the results show, however, is how critical that tiny difference can be, and the time gaps that difference can translate to on the road. When I say that Lance is not far off from where he was when he was winning the Tour de France, I mean it. But now you can see why it was so important for him to be at his absolute best during those years. The men Lance beat weren't significantly weaker than him, but the fact he was just that little bit better allowed him to gradually open up large time gaps. At the top end of the sport, you have to be at your absolute best to win. Just a tiny bit less, and somebody else can take time out of you at key places in the race and build a significant lead.

The big question for many people is whether Armstrong can hold off Bradley Wiggins for the third position on the podium. And I'm not just being Lance-centric because he's American or because I've worked with him for 20 years. The truth is, there's not much question about who's going to win the 2009 Tour de France. Barring incident or illness, Contador's lead is pretty much unassailable by Andy Schleck or anyone else (although, as the old saying goes, anything is possible at any point in the Tour de France).

The real battle in the 2009 Tour de France will be for the second and third place positions on the final podium. Behind Contador, Schleck is still within range of Armstrong if the American has a very good day on Mont Ventoux, and I'm confident he'll be able to either leave Wiggins behind or at least stay with him on the last major climb of the race. Interestingly, Wiggins started Stage 17 just 9 seconds behind Lance in the standings, and Lance extended that 9 seconds to 62 after he accelerated away from the Brit on the Col du Colombiere. Today, Wiggins rode faster than Lance in the time trial and took back all but 11 seconds of the gap between the two riders. As a result, they'll start Stage 19 in basically the same situation that they began Stage 17. It just goes to show you how important seconds can be on each and every stage.

Plus, don't forget about Andreas Kloden. He's been strong and consistent throughout the race, and even though he was dropped from the lead group on the Col du Colombiere yesterday, he may have enough punch in his legs to ride away from Wiggins as well.

Looking Forward
With the announcement that Lance Armstrong will be riding again in 2010 with Radio Shack as a new sponsor, I've already been getting questions about whether Lance can return to the Tour de France a few months before his 39th birthday and perform as well or better than he has in this year's race. I think he can, because the 2009 Tour of Italy and the 2009 Tour de France are huge components of his training for 2010. During the years from 1999-2005, the Tour de France was not only a goal event, but also a huge component of Lance's preparation for the following year's Tour. But before we get too far into thinking about 2010, there's a lot of racing left in this year's Tour de France, and it still remains to be seen how Lance performs on Mont Ventoux. He's long said he has unfinished business with this ascent, and with a relatively easy course tomorrow (although not necessarily an easy stage, depending on how the racers contest it), I think we'll see a lot out of him on the slopes of the Giant of Provence.

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