My departure for this year’s Tour de France is still a few days away, but my thoughts are already wired for all things bike and all things Tour. Check out this article that I recently wrote for Versus–and be sure to check back as I’ll be writing there on a variety of cycling topics while I’m abroad.
Success at the Tour for many teams is more important than success in all the year’s other races combined. The emphasis placed on the Tour by team sponsors and managers has really changed the way riders prepare for the racing season. Preparing for the Tour is an all-year process. Back in the day when teams were smaller and riders did more races, Tour prep took a couple of months and the Tour team was comprised of the cyclists riding the best during the two weeks before the Tour started. Now, with bigger teams and more specific goals, the Tour “long team” is picked a year or two in advance and the Tour de France training prep starts just weeks after it finishes.
This changes things a bunch for teams. The selection process for talent is different and the subsequent training process is much different. Traditionally the riders raced all spring and summer and rested a little before the Tour so they would have fresh legs to start the race. With LeMond, and even more so with Lance’s run, preparing for the Tour became a year-long process in which the entire spring-summer racing and training campaign is geared 100% around the Tour. And it is this way for as many as 12 riders from each team, of which only 9 will compete. When Lance started, he liked a slower start to the season with personal training camps on the same roads he would be racing in July. He spent time reckoning the TTs and all mountain stages a month before the big race, making his preparation as specific as he could get it. He would ride what he thought were the most decisive stages sometimes in there entirety and it would not be unusual for Lance to climb the hardest climbs 3 and 4 times in a day until he knew the climb and what areas would be ideal for attacking. Lance would also dissect the TT courses by riding them over and over again. Understanding every turn, potential wind directions and every road service to give himself every advantage over his rivals.
In recent years Tour preparation has since taken even more steps forward by having the entire team reckon many of the challenging Tour stages, not once, but twice in the spring and early summer. These training camps have become the focal point of Tour de France preparation. The riders can imitate similar Tour conditions with all the necessary support to allow them to train harder, more specifically and smarter than they would if they were racing.
Plain and simple, the racers are training more and racing less in the modern arena. We have learned how tired racing makes a cyclist and sometimes the type of racing available is not the ideal preparation for goal races. The Tour is such a unique race, with racing demands that cannot be duplicated in other races, that riders choose to do training camps to prepare rather than races. Racing however is necessary for all athletes doing the Tour. Racing puts the finishing touches on the Tour contenders. It is impossible to get the speeds and intensities while riding alone that riders get when racing. They also need to get that little extra pressure that comes with racing. More experienced racers may need less race days to feel that race speed, while some perform better with more race days. Finding the perfect balance takes time and experimentation.
The other big change in preparation for the Tour is the exact understanding of what types of efforts are required to be successful. We can measure things much better now with power meters and by timing climbs since we have better technology to measure distance, gradient and total meters climbed. Understanding the type of sustainable power necessary to climb with the leaders, as well as power-to-weight ratios for given time periods, allows us to gauge where athletes are and what type of training needs to be done to achieve those efforts. By testing athletes’ power for certain time periods we can figure out what energy systems need the most work to be successful at the Tour.
The approach to the Tour for the GC contenders and their teams has changed throughout the years and will continue to evolve as the technology and popularity of this great race continues to grow. I continue to be impressed with how the riders devote their entire seasons to the Tour. This is risky: if they get sick or injured, then they must scramble to get back on form for the Vuelta or World Championships. Either way the Tour has become so big that the juice is worth the squeeze for many of the GC riders and all that matters to them is winning this incredible race.
*Note: italicized text reprinted from versus.com