55,645 Kilometers Per Hour! That’s 34.6 miles an hour. That’s the AVERAGE speed of Garmin-Cervélo in the short 23-kilometer (14.3 mile) Team Time Trial contested on the streets of Les Essarts, France on Sunday. Team RadioShack, just 10 seconds back, were close to that speed as well. Given the perfect convergence of a bunch of factors; the unusually short distance, relatively flat terrain, not very technical course (translation-not many tight turns), pretty fresh legs, and the leader’s yellow jersey in play, blistering speeds were predicted. But lets put that in perspective.
For most of us, a nice Sunday ride on our bike, enjoying the scenery, slowing for traffic, getting up and down annoyingly small hills that grow in size when not transversed in a motorized vehicle, we average about 18-20 km/h. The more serious riders (translation -someone who shelled out money for an odometer) hope to clock a 30 km/h over a reasonable distance, perhaps with bursts of 40- to 45-kmh on the flats. On Sunday, almost every team hit bursts of 70 km/h on downhills so slight you might as well call them flats. If not for 6 or 7 somewhat tight turns that slowed them down, the average speed would likely have been closer to 60 km/h! That’s twice the average speed limit on most European city streets. Going 30 km/h over the speed limit here gets your driver’s license confiscated. I know, I’ve had that pointed out to …err, people I know.
The thing about many popular spectator sports is fans often relate to their stars’ efforts with semi-delusional thoughts that go something like, “on a good day, I could do that.” And whose to say, maybe on a given day you could make that golf shot, hit that pitch, return that serve, kick that goal, or catch that pass. But unless you’re one of a handful of elite cyclists, in the peak of conditioning, sitting on one of the most technically advanced bikes in the world, surrounded by equally skilled and trained professionals….don’t kid yourself. YOU CAN’T DO THIS!
Heck, it turns out many of them can’t do it either. Everyone was in the red Sunday, pushing each other beyond previous limits for about a ½ hour of all out, gut-busting exertion. Many top riders dropped off the back of their team’s train gasping for air, and hoping the lactic acid build up in their thighs wouldn’t cause their spandex shorts to spontaneously combust in front of a world-wide television audience. Because the TTT measures the time that the 5th rider of your 9-member team crosses the finish line, many teams knowingly launch out at a pace that several members can’t maintain, calculating – at least theoretically – that almost half the team could completely bonk and the ride could still be successful.
But there’s a lot more strategy going on than just sacrificing the egos of a few guys who, lets admit it, tend to look a bit wimpy when their teammates leave them in the dust.
First and foremost perhaps is the rest between pulls. When you have 9 guys in a train, the front man is killing himself with every muscle fiber to part the sea of air that refuses to flow gently across his bulk. Thanks to him, the next guy through has a much easier time with the aerodynamics. Next guy through has an even easier time, and so on. That’s why it’s been referred to as ‘sucking wheel,’ the vortex created by your compadres giving you super-human powers. Rotating between 9 guys lets you rest a good deal, before it’s your turn to punch the air back at the front. Rotating with fewer teammates simply burns legs up quicker.
Secondly, equipment failures are all too common. These are finely tuned, knife-thin, somewhat fragile machines they’re sitting atop and things go wrong. No mechanic in the world, no matter how fast, can save such a short time trial effort with a speedy equipment change. The more riders you have out there, the more chances you have of immediately swapping a bike to the faster guy, on the spot, maybe one that even suits his physique, sacrificing the slower guy to wait for the team car’s help. Just one of the many reasons for the term “protected riders.”
However, there’s another big issue and that simply is, there can be no slackers out there, everyone has to be within 30% of the team’s final time or they’re bounced out of the Tour de France. Pretty harsh, but there it is, you can’t just have a few rabbits out there like they do in some track events, who drop by the wayside and call-it-a-day after a hard stint at the front. Cause they’ll be on a plane for home having called-it-a-month! This is where the professionalism and judgment of the domestiques and team directors comes to play. They have to gauge the effort to make sure the rider has enough left in the tank to make it to the finish line in a reasonable time, knowing they’ve lost the subsonic airflow of the pack. Not even Lance Armstrong could go 70 km/h on his own on semi-flat land.
There’s a lot more going on too but those are the biggest reasons why the TTT exemplifies, better than any other stage, why this is such a team sport. Even the best rider needs to be surrounded by power, judgment and experience to be successful at this level, and Team RadioShack ranks at the top of each category.
With 4 GC contenders on this team looking in top form, and 5 other riders that would be serious stage contenders if not riding in support, these 9 guys have a collective 105 years of pro cycling to their credit. The coaches, much more. They’ve all tasted victory many times over and know full well what it takes to win at the Tour. Power, judgment, experience, stamina, attitude, form – check, check and check. And oh yeah, one more thing, a little luck doesn’t hurt. You have to believe a Johann Bruyneel team has done everything humanly possible to prepare, now let’s hope the racing gods give them their shot. I, for one, would love to see the Contador, Schleck, Evans predictions turned on their ear with a little Red-White-and-Shack-Black.
By George Hurst, staff writer