So our heroes are taking a well deserved rest day today, not that they won't get out and ride for a couple of hours just to keep the legs moving.
The last few days have been very interesting, watching the GC contenders watching each other and apparently not knowing what to do. I expected at least one of them to use the Pyrenees as a spring board and launch an attack on the rest of the contenders and maybe pull out a decent lead. I expected wrong. What the indecision from the favourites has done however, is leave Thomas Voeckler in the yellow jersey. It has now reached the stage where everyone (except Tommy himself) thinks he can do the whole hog and win the Tour. The Alps will be extremely telling. If Tommy can dig in and hang on in the Alps like he has in the Pyrenees, the favourites will have to do him in the individual time trial on the penultimate day.
It was nice to see Jens Voigt doing what Jens Voigt does best the other day. Two unscheduled dismounts and he still gets back on board and makes the rest of the peleton feel pain. I love that guy!
A Layman's (or Laywoman's) guide to the Tour de France part the second.
Just about every road stage in the Tour involves one or more riders launching themselves off the front of the peleton after a few kilometres in a break. Why? Well, sometimes this is for commercial reasons. A lone rider (or small group) gets a lot of airtime on TV and this is very good exposure for the team sponsors. Other breaks are for good tactical reasons. The protagonists might be feeling good and believe they have a chance to win the stage. Generally, if there is no one in the breakaway that is a GC threat, the peleton will allow them to build up a considerable time advantage only for a team to start upping the pace to reel them in. More often than not, this reeling in process is completed in the last 3-5 kilometres however, sometimes it can go right down to the wire, with the break getting swallowed up in the final few hundred meters. Occasionally, the break will succeed and one of them wins the stage. I believe this was more prevalent in the days before all the riders were in radio contact with the team cars. A break could launch and the peleton might get its calculations wrong in the chase, or they might think they had caught the breakaway but not realise that a lone rider had broken away from the breakaway. Technology is progress though, right?
By this I mean the practice of riders following each other very closely. Why? Well, apart form the sections of a stage where a climb is going on, the most difficult thing for a rider to do is cut through the air. If a line of cyclists are riding along, each rider only separated by a couple of inches between back and front wheels, the lead rider is probably putting in as much as 20% more effort than the rider behind him/ her. If you look at the peleton closely, the riders across the front of the bunch may all be down on the drops of their handlebars, pedalling hard to make progress. Those in the middle of the bunch may well be sitting up on the hoods, hardly turning a pedal, chatting away. This is because their effort level to maintain the pace does not include breaking through the air.
In a small group of riders, you will see them in a file, riding what is known as through and off. In this instance, the lead rider will stay on the front for a few hundred meters and then you will see him/ her flick their arm as a signal for the following rider to come through to the front as they peel off and tag on at the back for a slight rest. As the group progresses they take repeating turns at the front.
Some riders may abuse this slightly to increase their chance of a win by feigning fatigue and either taking very short stints at the front or just hanging on at the back or wheel sucking.
The ultimate exhibition of drafting is the Lead Out Train. This is a tactic used by the teams who have a sprinter to challenge for a stage win. They will probably be the teams that are dictating the pace of the peleton in the chase to reel in the breakaway. In the last couple of kilometres you will see the team trying to hold a line with their sprinter at the back. The lead rider of the line will ride as hard as they can to keep the pace high, limiting the opportunities for a last minute lone rider break. As they run out of steam they break off and the next rider keeps the pace going. This repeats until the last 500 meters or so when the last lead out rider goes hell for leather with the sprinter right behind him/ her. Their mission is to use all their energy to deliver their sprinter to a position where he/ she can kick out from behind them and take the stage win. HTC are prime examples of this skill with Mark Renshaw being the man who delivers Mark Cavendish to the line. Cav can (and does) win stages by following the wheel of other sprinters but, his team have become experts at bossing the peleton and putting mark on the launch pad. He rarely lets them down and his appreciation of their hard work is evident in his interviews.
These are diagonal lines of riders combating cross winds. A cross wind is very disruptive to the peleton as shelter from a headwind is easier to find and organise- just get riders in front and swap out regularly. Having a diagonal line only works for the riders in that line. Once the edge of the road is reached, another echelon has to be formed for the tactic to be effective. Because of this, an astute team can cause chaos and, with a perfectly timed acceleration, cause a split in the bunch. The reason a split occurs is because concentration lapses with fatigue and combating a cross wind is hard work.