Dissecting The Alpe d’Huez Time Trial

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The Pyrenees did a lot of damage to the Tour de France peloton and to several riders’ chances of challenging for the yellow jersey. Nevertheless, there are still a lot of very strong men left in the race, and the next major challenge before them is the Stage 16 individual time trial up Alpe d’Huez.

The fabled climb and its 21 numbered switchbacks will make for a very difficult and technically demanding time trial course. However, since it’s only 15.5 kilometers long and it’s not coming at the end of a long road stage, I don’t expect any top rider to gain a big chunk of time over his rivals. Riding by themselves, in their own rhythms and without having to respond to surges from other riders, the top men in the Tour de France should climb at reasonably similar speeds. I wouldn’t be surprised if the top three riders finished within 30 seconds of one another, and the top five within one minute.

Since the individual climbing abilities of the top riders are somewhat similar, the most critical task on Stage 16 may be to just avoid having a bad day. If the scenario from the Stage 13 individual time trial last year had occurred on Alpe d’Huez, Lance Armstrong would most likely have lost five minutes or more. He is in better condition this year, and he is not suffering from chronic dehydration either, so I expect him to finish in the top three on Stage 16 and ride faster than several of his main rivals in the process.

Early in the Day
To ride up to his potential, Lance Armstrong is going to have to be very focused in the hours before the race. In terms of nutrition, his breakfast will be similar to what he eats on most days of the Tour de France. However, since his start time will be around 5:00 pm, he’ll go out for a 2-3 hour ride in the late morning. Like the ride on the rest day, this medium-length ride helps to maintain the routines the body has become accustomed to over more than two weeks of racing. The intensity for the ride will be moderate, but will also include a few reasonably hard efforts as well.

Upon returning to the hotel after his ride, Lance will consume his last big meal about three hours before he starts the time trial. The meal will consist mainly of carbohydrates from some combination of rice, pasta, potatoes and other vegetables. There will also be a small amount of protein in the meal, but he won’t eat too much meat, cheese, or egg prior to the time trial. The meal isn’t going to be huge either. While he will likely burn more than 1,000 calories in about 32-35 minutes of effort, plus the energy he’ll burn during his warm up, Lance would like to start the time trial feeling a little hungry rather than feeling full.

After eating his last large meal, Lance will continue eating small snacks, drinking water, and sipping sports drinks during the next few hours. Within the last hour prior to his start time, during his warm up, Lance will most likely consume a PowerGel and a full bottle of sports drink as well as at least one additional bottle of water.

The Warm Up
Warming up for any time trial is important, and it is even more critical when the time trial twists its way up the side of a mountain. The climb up Alpe d’Huez takes about 13.8 of the total 15.5 kilometers in Stage 16. With just 1.7 kilometers of flat road before the steepest part of the entire climb, there will be no time for riders to settle in and find their legs; they have to be there from the start.

Lance Armstrong’s warm up will take about 45 minutes to an hour and contain efforts ranging from easy to full-throttle. The harder efforts are a necessary part of starting the lactic acid buffering and clearance process. These systems will play a huge role in allowing Lance to maintain the intensity he needs to possibly win the time trial, and they have to be activated and primed during the warm up.

Cadence is going to be as important as overall intensity prior to Stage 16. While he climbs at a very high cadence, he will perform several low-cadence, high-power efforts during his warm up in order to maximize the recruitment of fast-twitch muscle fibers. With the high power demands of the climb, and the necessity to accelerate sharply out of particularly tight turns, Lance is going to need all the anaerobic power his fast-twitch muscle fibers can deliver. Though fast-twitch fibers are more suited to producing power anaerobically for sprints, they can also produce a small amount of energy aerobically. In an all-out race to the top of Alpe d’Huez, every little bit of aerobic energy helps.

Hard efforts during a long warm up increase a rider’s core temperature and sweat rate, which can lead to dehydration and diminished performance. If the temperatures continue to be as warm as they have been the last few days, you may see Lance using a special vest developed by Nike as he warms up. The idea of the vest is not just to keep Lance’s core temperature from rising too high, but to actually pre-cool his body.

The concept of pre-cooling the body prior to steady and intense exercise revolves around the idea that there is a critical upper limit to body temperature, above which performance suffers dramatically. By cooling the body, you in essence increase the amount of heat that can build up in your body before you reach that critical internal temperature limit. Studies have shown distance runners increase the distance they can cover in a 30-minute time trial after pre-cooling. Similar techniques have been used by the Australian Olympic Rowing Team as well.

Lance had the vest at the beginning of the Tour de France, but did not use it prior to the Prologue because the air was anything but hot. We’ll have to wait and see if the weather conditions on Wednesday favor its use this time.

The Ride Itself
Even though 15.5 kilometers is short for an individual time trial in the Tour de France, riders are going to have to carefully adjust their pace to avoid losing time at the top of the mountain. The hardest part of the stage is in the first six kilometers, but the fastest portion of the stage is in the final four kilometers. If you go too hard at the beginning, you may have a great first time split, but burn so much energy you can’t reach the higher speeds necessary to finish the top portion of the climb quickly. On the other hand, if you take it too easy on the steeper bottom section of the climb, you’ll run out of road before you can make up the time you lost. This is part of the reason riders, including Lance Armstrong, visited the mountain in training. Lance rode up Alpe d’Huez four times in one day to get better acquainted with the climb and figure out the best way to get to the top fastest.

The switchbacks are the most famous aspect of Alpe d’Huez, and they will play a significant role in the stage winner’s performance. Lance has looked at the turns and knows the lines he wants to take through them. He wants to accelerate through the switchbacks but not necessarily follow the shortest line in the inside of the corner. The inside line is also the steepest pitch, and that leads to a big spike in power output. Repeated and frequent changes in power output lead to fatigue more quickly than maintaining the same average power with a more steady effort. Though Lance wants to accelerate through the corner, he will be balancing the energy costs and the performance benefits of doing so.

As you approach the top of the climb, the pitch levels out so much that aerodynamics can become a factor. Lance will have aerobars on his bike, but his overall position on the bike will be in between his road and flat time trial positions. For the climb, his aero position will be higher than on his fully-aero time trial bike. The relative positions of the pelvis, lower back, and upper body that lead to maximum power production are different when you’re climbing than they are on flat ground. Since everything leads back to the ability to produce more power, Lance has a special aero setup just for the climbing time trial.

How Will It Turn Out
While I expect the main favorites, including Lance Armstrong, Ivan Basso, Jan Ullrich, Andreas Kloden, and Francisco Mancebo to occupy most of the top positions on the stage, I believe there will be at least one unexpected rider in the top five. Roberto Heras may have struggled a great deal during this Tour de France, but perhaps he can pull out good a performance to salvage something positive out of this race.

Lance Armstrong stands a good chance of winning Stage 16 and taking at least a little more time out of Basso. For Jan Ullrich, this time trial might be his best chance to stay near Armstrong on Alpe d’Huez because he can ride his own pace and can’t fall victim to anyone’s sudden attack. With a very hard day on Stage 17 and a long time trial on Stage 19, however, the Tour de France will not be completely won on Wednesday.