Plenty of Drama Ahead in Final Time Trial

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

When you’re a professional cyclist, you often race over the same course several times in your career. There aren’t that many roads in the mountains, so riders get very well acquainted with passes like the Col du Galibier and the Col d’Aubisque. They race over them in the Tour de France, and also sometimes in the Dauphine Libere and other smaller stages races throughout the year. Individual time trial courses are not repeated quite as often, but tomorrow’s Stage 20 course should look pretty familiar to Jan Ullrich. He won here in 1997 on a course very similar to this one.

Lance Armstrong wasn’t racing the Tour de France in 1997 because he was still recovering from cancer. Ullrich stormed over the course, winning the 55-km time trial by more than three minutes over climbers Richard Virenque and the late Marco Pantani. Eight Tours later, we’re back to St Etienne for an individual time trial, but Ullrich is up against men better suited to the discipline this time.

Ullrich could challenge Armstrong for the stage victory tomorrow, but the German will actually be aiming more to take back his 2:12 deficit to third place rider Mickael Rasmussen. To do so, Ullrich has to ride the 55.5-kilometer time trial 1.5 kph faster than Rasmussen. That means covering each kilometer 2.4 seconds faster. Based on times from the 1997 time trial here, and considering equipment and aerodynamics have gotten better since then, Ullrich has a very good chance of making up more than enough time to capture the last podium position from Rasmussen.

Further up the classification, Armstrong has to ride a great time trial to win tomorrow, but Ivan Basso, in second place overall, would need the ride of a lifetime to even come close to challenging Armstrong’s position in the yellow jersey. With a 2:46 deficit to Armstrong, Basso would have to ride three seconds faster for every kilometer of the 55.5-kilometer course. That means he has to maintain a speed that’s two kph faster than Armstrong.

To understand what it would take to ride two kilometers per hour faster at time trial speeds, consider this: wind resistance increases exponentially with speed. To overcome this, Basso would have to increase his power output by about 40 watts over what he can normally produce in a time trial. That’s a very tall order, and is probably only possible if Armstrong suffers mechanical trouble, a flat tire, or a crash.

However, since Armstrong wants the stage win, and he understands that a mechanical problem could cost him significant time at any point during the time trial, he will leave the start house at full power and stay at that intensity as long as he can. Everyone slows down in the final ten kilometers, and the final time gaps often open significantly during that period. The man who slows the least is often the winner, and maintaining a high speed is going to be even more important to the men still fighting for positions in the lower half of the top ten.

Chris Carmichael is Lance Armstrong’s personal coach and founder of Carmichael Training Systems, Inc. (CTS). His latest book, Chris Carmichael’s Fitness Cookbook, is now available and you can register for a chance to win a ride with the Discovery Channel Pro Cycling Team at