Good Show Today, Whole New Race Tomorrow

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While Oscar Freire, Robbie McEwen, Erik Zabel, and Tom Boonen went hunting for the last sprint stage victory we'll see for a while, the major contenders for overall victory in the 2006 Tour de France played it cool today because their first major mountain test is on tap for tomorrow.

No one, not even the riders themselves, knows exactly what's going to happen on the first major ascent tomorrow afternoon. Coaches and physiologists are fond of saying that “a watt is a watt is a watt,” referring to the power that a rider can put out today versus tomorrow and the next day. The trouble is, there's a difference between producing 400 watts while pedaling at 120 rpm and traveling 35 miles per hour, and producing 400 watts while pedaling at 75 rpm and traveling 12 mph. Some riders are able to make the transition from riding fast on flat ground to riding fast uphill, while others struggle.

Lance Armstrong's high cadence pedaling style helped him make the transition from the flat stages to the mountains by minimizing the change in his pedaling speed. And while high-speed pedaling works better for some athletes than for others, consistency between flat-ground pedaling and uphill pedaling seems to be important for making a successful transition from one terrain to the other.

The Good News
While Stage 10 is going to be hard for everyone, the good news for riders who might struggle on the first major mountain passes of the Tour is that there's a long valley between the day's two major climbs, and the finish line is nearly 40 kilometers away from the summit of the Col de Marie Blanque. The race is certain to break up on the climbs, but dropped riders have a good chance of making it back to the lead group by the finish.

The nature of tomorrow's course makes it very important for riders who are struggling to avoid the temptation of digging deep to stay with the lead group. It's the hardest thing in cycling to watch a group of riders leave you behind on a long climb, but it's often smarter to back off one to two percent and ride at a pace you can sustain. You'll often reach the top within one minute of the leaders, and have the strength in your legs to catch up on the descent and in the valley. When you overextend yourself to stay with the group, it's like driving your car with the engine redlined. It'll work for a while, but when the engine overheats you'll slow to a crawl and lose so much time that you may never be able to catch up.

The Bad News
The bad news about tomorrow's stage is that even if dropped riders have a good chance to make it back to the lead group before the finish, their performances will reveal their true strengths and weaknesses. Every year at the Tour de France, there are riders who are expected to excel in the mountains who fail dramatically on the first mountain pass. There are almost always one or a few riders who surprise everyone by climbing better than anticipated. Either way, there will be no place to hide on the slopes of the Col de Soudet tomorrow; riders with a chance to win the yellow jersey will be in the lead group, and everyone else will be varying distances behind them.

Beyond individual performances, everyone will be watching how the different teams fare on the major climbs. The T-Mobile team showed incredible power and depth in the Stage 7 individual time trial, and now everyone is waiting to see if they are just as strong in the mountains. It's a big advantage to have three or more riders with your team leader as the lead group goes over the summits of mountain passes. The teammates are there to set a steady pace in the valleys, help control the tempo on the next climb, and chase down attacks from rival teams. Lance Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service and Discovery Channel teams excelled in this capacity and were key to delivering Armstrong to the base of the final climb of the day in a great strategic position and with the power to take advantage of it.

What to Expect
With 25 miles (40 kilometers) of racing between the summit of the last climb and the finish, it's unlikely that any yellow jersey contender will have the opportunity to grab major chunks of time tomorrow. There's a good chance, however, that a breakaway group looking for points in the climbers' polka dot jersey competition will make it to the finish line to capture the stage win.

We're likely to see Floyd Landis's Phonak team or the T-Mobile team setting the pace at the bottom of the Col de Soudet, and then all hell is going to break loose as riders start surging and attacking to see who has the power to stay with the lead group. About 6.2 miles (ten kilometers) into the first climb, the elite group of climbers will probably have sorted themselves out and then they'll ride together to the top. A similar scenario is likely to play out on the shorter and steeper second climb, this time to see which riders can handle the pressure more than once.

In the end, though, Stage 10 is likely to be a dress rehearsal for the real action on Thursday's stage to Pla-de-Beret. After seeing how riders perform tomorrow, teams will devise new strategies for opening up big time gaps on their rivals on the summit finish the following day.

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