RECOVERY: THE KEY TO WINNING GRAND TOURS
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June 20, 2015 – With the 2015 Tour de France only two weeks away, the candidates for the yellow jersey are more aware than ever that they need to be rested and on their very best form when the race starts in the Dutch city of Utrecht on July 4. The “rested” part of that formula means rested from their efforts at pre-Tour altitude training camps and FROM recent stage races such as the just-completed Critérium du Dauphiné, this week’s Tour de Suisse and Route du Sud…and last month’s Giro d’Italia.
Written by John Wilcockson/ Photos by Yuzuru Sunada
Last week saw another spectacular edition of the Dauphiné, not unlike last year’s race, when the Garmin team’s Andrew Talansky pulled a rabbit from the hat on the final stage to usurp two Tour winners, Chris Froome and Albert Contador. This year, Froome, after perfectly pacing his efforts all race long, took a last-minute, morale-boosting victory at the Dauphiné from an ever-improving Tejay van Garderen; and Contador, still recovering from his Giro win, is using the Route du Sud as a leg-stretcher prior to his final Tour preparations.
Also competing in the four-day Route du Sud is another Giro “refugee” with ambitions at the Tour de France, Ryder Hesjedal, along with the man that many tip to win the Tour, Nairo Quintana—who enjoyed five weeks of altitude training back home in the Andes after racing 23 days in an eight-week stretch in Europe this spring. The other major Tour favorite, defending champion Vincenzo Nibali, is again following an erratic course toward July—and he had another reminder about the importance of recovery in last week’s wonderfully unpredictable Dauphiné.
The last four stages were all in the Alps and all featured uphill finishes. It was a perfect rehearsal for the Tour riders—especially as the first of these stages, from Digne-les-Bains to Pra-Loup, was identical to the one they will be doing on July 22. French climber Romain Bardet of AG2R La Mondiale won the stage after making a bold attack over the summit of the Col d’Allos and gaining 90 seconds on the danger-filled 16-kilometer descent. That downhill should make great viewing at the Tour! At the Dauphiné stage finish, atop the not overly difficult 6-kilometer climb to Pra-Loup, Bardet had 40 seconds in hand over Froome and van Garderen—who had ridden away from Nibali and the other favorites.
Nibali was unhappy with his performance (23rd on the stage, 1:20 behind Froome), but that didn’t deter him from going on the attack the following day. In wet and windy conditions, with a succession of nagging climbs and tricky descents, Nibali took advantage of an aggressive start to the stage. With 115 kilometers still to race, the Italian broke clear on the descent of the day’s third climb; he consolidated his lead on the next short climb; and he was joined on the following, lengthy downhill by three men who’d finished alongside him at Pra-Loup: Alejandro Valverde of Movistar, Rui Costa of Lampre-Merida and Tony Gallopin of Lotto-Soudal.
Those four men, riding as if they were in a one-day classic not the sixth stage of a tough stage race, made their breakaway stick for the best part of three hours. They moved out to a lead of three and a half minutes over a disintegrating peloton before race leader van Garderen’s strongest BMC teammates cut the deficit to around two minutes by the finish in Villard-de-Lans. Costa, who’d worked less than his breakaway companions, won the stage from Nibali (who took over the yellow jersey), with Valverde (who’ll be riding for teammate Quintana next month) in third. Even though van Garderen and Froome had to chase hard in the last 10 kilometers after their teammates were spent, they expended a minuscule amount of energy compared with the efforts made by Nibali and Valverde.
A day later, on another mountain stage with a plethora of steep climbs, Froome’s Team Sky set a wicked tempo. “We were expecting Nibali and Valverde to pay for their efforts of yesterday,” Froome said at the finish after winning the stage, 17 seconds ahead of van Garderen. “That’s why we wanted to make the race hard.” Bardet, who’d lost time after crashing on the rain-soaked run-in to Villard-de-Lans, observed: “I’ve rarely been in a race that fast. I was impressed.” Nibali stayed with the leaders until the second-last climb, with 12 kilometers left in the stage; but then, still not recovered from his previous day’s exertions, the race leader was unable to follow the fierce pace Sky set on the climb’s double-digit gradients. Nibali lost four minutes by the finish at Le Bettex; Valverde didn’t get gapped until the final uphill and conceded two minutes; and the fresher Costa finished top 10 on the stage, 1:34 down, and remained in contention for the final podium.
Valverde’s and Nibali’s losses were a dramatic confirmation of the importance of recovery in a stage race. Their breakaway with Costa and Gallopin on the road to Villard-de-Lans was spectacular for the race followers and fans, but it took too much out of them right before another tough stage. In contrast, Froome (the eventual Dauphiné winner) and van Garderen paced their efforts perfectly, both over the course of the week and on every stage. Their diligence was emphasized right after the uphill finish to Le Bettex, where the Englishman and the American warmed down on turbo trainers facing each other beneath the same canopy.
Froome was even contemplating making use of the infamous Team Sky motor home as a recovery aid at the Tour de France. His team manager Dave Brailsford explained: “In the Tour, you can find yourself in hotels without air conditioning or with not-great sanitation. To sleep every night in the same bed can make a big difference.” Froome’s teammate Richie Porte slept in the motor home (instead of the team’s hotels) at last month’s Giro d’Italia until crashes and injury put him out of the race. That is now a one-off experiment because on Friday the UCI banned any further use of motor homes at UCI-sanctioned events, including grand tours.
It’s been three weeks since the Giro finished, and it’s easy to forget that many of the events at the year’s first grand tour will have an influence on what will happen in the next one, the Tour de France, starting on July 4. That’s particularly true for the two protagonists mentioned above: Contador of Tinkoff-Saxo and Hesjedal of Cannondale-Garmin.
The Giro was a great success for Contador, who comfortably set up his goal of doing a Giro-Tour double. As for those who finished right behind him, Fabio Aru enhanced his reputation as a plucky fighter with the Italian tifosi but he won’t make his Tour debut this year. And there’ll be no Tour this year for his Astana teammate Mikel Landa, the other podium finisher, who made a startling breakthrough to delight his Basque countrymen; nor for fourth-place Andrey Amador, who was given a chance to shine by his Movistar team and put Costa Rica on the mainstream cycling map for the first time.
But what about Hesjedal? Absent a shaky start to the Giro’s three weeks—he said his five-minute deficit on stage 4 was his own fault—the Canadian would almost certainly have finished on the podium. He had a spectacular race, always attacking and never holding back—but he still kept a keen eye on his recovery every day. Hesjedal was by far the most aggressive rider in the Giro, and in the final week he was the match of (and often better than) race winner Contador, even though the Cannondale leader had previously driven marathon-length breakaways on stage 9 to San Giorgio del Sannio and stage 11 to Imola.
An indication of Hesjedal’s growing form came on stage 14, the 59.4-kilometer time trial, when changing winds favored the early starters and allowed Sky’s Belorussian Vasil Kiryienka to take the stage win. Of the top-20 riders, Contador was the fastest in 1:18:04, followed by Jurgen Van den Broeck (at 1:13), Leopold König (at 1:32), Amador (at 1:36) and Hesjedal (at 1:46). An analysis of the split times shows that the two fastest riders over the final 10 kilometers (which included a climb and a tricky downhill) were Contador and, yes, Hesjedal. Coming strong at the end of a long, long time trial is typical of the Canadian, who’s well known for his “diesel engine” speed—which also enables him to get stronger in the last week of a grand tour.
After the time trial, and with all the Giro’s toughest mountain stages to come, Hesjedal was lying 15th overall, 8:05 behind race leader Contador. Twenty-four hours later, after the mountain stage to Madonna di Campiglio, his deficit became 11:17. That three-minute loss on a stage he could have won was arguably Hesjedal’s biggest disappointment of the Giro—and it shouldn’t have happened.
His time loss was due to an incident on a fast, technical descent—a major danger point of any mountain stage in any grand tour, a fact that often gets ignored when virtually all the focus goes to the climbs. In fact, when riders go for pre-Tour training rides on key stages, it’s usually the descents they pay the most attention to. Such was the case before the Giro with the Polish rider Sylwester Szmyd, the CCC Sprandi team leader who had high hopes of doing well in the mountains. One of the stages he scouted was the stage to Madonna di Campiglio, which included the nasty descent from the summit of the Passo Daone that would cause Hesjedal’s problems immediately preceding the climb to the finish.
“That descent was very twisty and narrow, but I knew it very well,” Szmyd told his team website. “I came here for recon a few weeks ago, to check out today’s and Tuesday’s stage. I rode down the hill on my bike and I even recorded the downhill on video. I prepared well for the stage but you can’t predict everything. During the descent from Passo Daone, I was riding at the back of the leading group when the field split in front of [Benat] Intxausti…. I wasn’t able to pass him and I lost contact with the leaders.”
Team Movistar’s Intxausti, who was leading the KOM standings, went over the Passo Daone summit just ahead of a 30-strong group that contained the race leaders. It seemed that they would all reach the start of the final climb together. But besides Intxausti sitting up after scoring his KOM points (he’d finish the stage 11 minutes back), another break in the line of riders was caused by his teammate Igor Anton skidding out on a fast, twisting section between tall pine trees that caused two others to fall: Contador’s teammate Roman Kreuziger and BMC Racing’s Darwin Atapuma.
Hesjedal was caught behind the split and on reaching the valley floor, he, Szmyd and the other delayed riders were almost a minute behind the front half of the group, now being pulled by five blue-shirted Astana riders. With no one willing to help chase, Hesjedal took off alone with 14 uphill kilometers still to race. He initially started to gain on the Astana-led group, and held the gap at a minute for half the climb—but one man against the Giro’s strongest team was an unwinnable task. By stage end, Hesjedal conceded three minutes to the Contador group but still managed to gain more than two minutes on riders who were in the top five overall that morning, including Rigoberto Urán and Jurgen Van den Broeck.
After that unrewarded effort to Madonna di Campiglio, Hesjedal had a rest day in which to recover. And he was ready to go for “his” stage win the next day on the Giro’s toughest stage through the Dolomites from Pinzolo to Aprica. Hesjedal got into the stage’s early breakaway but was upset that Contador’s Tinkoff team pegged the gap at two minutes despite his being the best-placed rider in the front group more than 11 minutes back. As a result, with the gap falling, the Canadian raced away solo before the top of the day’s third climb at Aprica, despite knowing the final loop of 75 kilometers included the mighty Passo del Mortirolo and another ascent to Aprica.
Hesjedal’s bold move might have paid off, but all sorts of incidents in the peloton, including Contador changing a wheel on the Aprica descent, changed the dynamics of the stage. While Hesjedal stormed away alone for 30 kilometers, he couldn’t gain more than 90 seconds because he was being chased by a small group led by the Katusha team for Yury Trofimov that was being chased by another group headed by the Astana riders, while behind them Contador was using up all of his Tinkoff men, including a charging Michael Rogers, to catch back to his rivals.
All that action saw Hesjedal caught and Contador riding alone a minute behind the Aru-Landa-Trofimov group at the foot of the Mortirolo. Contador then put in one of the greatest rides of his career to defend his pink jersey. The Spanish superstar’s subsequent effort to close his gap on the Mortirolo and Landa’s eventual stage win grabbed the headlines, but of equal merit was the performance by Hesjedal—who’d been riding hard at the head of the race for almost five hours. He not only held up strong on the Mortirolo, eventually riding over the summit with Trofimov and Amador, he also led the chase for most of the second Aprica climb and finished the stage in sixth place, 90 seconds behind Contador and 40 seconds ahead of Aru.
Hesjedal used the next day’s short stage to Lugano to aid his recovery…and he was ready for three more remarkable rides on the last three (consecutive) mountain stages. On stage 18, he was the only one of the leaders to chase after Contador when the Spaniard attacked on the day’s only climb, the Monte Ologno, 45 kilometers from the finish. Hesjedal not only chased and caught Contador on the steep climb, he then worked with the race leader all the way to the finish in Verbania, to gain 1:13 on the Aru-Landa-Amador chase group. In stage 19, which finished on the 18-kilometer climb to Cervinia, Hesjedal attacked solo a couple of times before he got away from the group of leaders—but a rejuvenated Aru chased him down and then sprinted away near the finish to take the win, with Hesjedal taking second, 50 seconds ahead of Contador and Landa.
Even with those multiple long and strong efforts in his legs, not to mention 19 days of racing, Hesjedal went searching for a stage win on stage 20—which was dominated by the Giro’s longest, highest climb, the Colle delle Finestre, with its second half on gravel. As an ex-mountain biker, Hesjedal was eager to test the opposition on the dirt. He did as he promised, making constant accelerations, along with Landa and the Dutch surprise, Steven Kruijswijk of Lotto NL-Jumbo. Their efforts saw Contador get dropped on one of the steep hairpin turns, and the race leader had to chase alone all the way to the finish at Sestriere. In the end, Aru made the winning attack for Astana, while Landa marked Hesjedal—who still managed to break clear and finish second again.
Given Hesjedal’s outstanding efforts over the final week, it was clear that he was riding at as high (or an even higher) level as he did to win the Giro in 2012. The difference between then and now is that the Canadian had two very American teammates to help in the mountains: Christian Vande Velde (now retired) and Peter Stetina (now with BMC Racing). If he had had that sort of support, he would certainly have challenged Contador and Aru for the pink jersey. So it will be of great interest at the Tour de France to see if Hesjedal can get the backing he deserves from his current Cannondale teammates, Dan Martin and Talansky, to shoot for the yellow jersey.
But I’ll look more closely next week at the prospects of all the Tour favorites, including Hesjedal, Contador, Quintana (and Valverde), Froome, van Garderen, Nibali, Bardet—and his fellow French climber Thibaut Pinot of fdj.fr, who scored a brilliant stage win on the only true mountaintop finish at this week’s Tour de Suisse. Granted, the Tour de Suisse is not the Tour de France, but neither is the Dauphiné or the Giro, but what they all have in common is the imperative need of making a strong recovery after every day’s efforts. Just ask Nibali, Valverde…or even Contador.
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