Smooth Sailing

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It’s good to have the first road stage of the Tour de France in the bag. These opening days are always chaotic, and the risk of crashing is much greater than the chance of seizing an opportunity to gain time. For Lance Armstrong and the other primary yellow jersey contenders, the main goal was to stay out of trouble today. With one road stage out of the way, the hope is always that the peloton will relax and become a less nervous and dangerous place to be.

When I caught up with Lance after the stage today, he was smiling and as relaxed as I’ve ever seen him at the Tour de France. He said his legs have never felt better, and that even though it was relatively chaotic in the field, it was a lot of fun to ride with such good legs. He was slowed a bit by the crash in the final kilometer, and there was a small gap to the front group that contained Jan Ullrich, but neither Lance nor any of the other contenders lost any time.

There is a rule that says that in the event of a mishap in the final three kilometers of racing, all riders in the affected group will receive the same finishing time as the group they were originally riding with. In other words, since the whole peloton was together when today’s crash happened, everyone received the same finish time as the stage winner. The rule was put in place for the riders’ safety; it reduces the urgency to get up or around crashed riders, which prevents additional injuries.

Today’s 113 miles were covered very quickly, at an average speed of 29 mph. Tomorrow’s stage may be even faster because the course travels west for many of its 132 miles. With the prevailing winds coming off the Atlantic, the riders may contest most of the stage with significant tailwinds, and there’s a chance we’ll see the fastest Tour de France stage ever.

It may seem easy to ride as part of the big peloton, no matter how fast it is going, but that is far from true. The peloton is always changing shape in response to shifting winds, accelerations, varying road widths, and traffic islands. The faster the group is moving, the faster you have to react to these changes, and the greater the negative implications of getting caught off guard. For instance, it is worse to find yourself out in the wind when you’re going 35 mph than when you’re going 26 mph. The effort required to maintain your speed and get back into the draft increases exponentially with speed.

With the field rolling towards the town of Tours at nearly 30 mph tomorrow, it will be difficult for a breakaway to split from the group, and even more unlikely that they could stay out front to the finish line. Stage 3 will almost certainly end in a field sprint, and barring incidents, there should be no change in the top of the General Classification standings.

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