Time for One Last Dance

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After three weeks of drama, the winner of the 2006 Tour de France will be decided by the Stage 19 individual time trial. Floyd Landis is the clear favorite to take the stage and the yellow jersey, but there’s a lot more to this time trial than meets the eye.

A Little History
It’s very easy to make comparisons between tomorrow’s time trial and the final stage of the 1989 Tour de France, where Greg LeMond overcame a 50-second deficit to Laurent Fignon in just 24 kilometers (15 miles). However, a more accurate comparison would be to LeMond’s third Tour victory in 1990. That year, he started the final time trial behind Claudio Chiappucci, an Italian rider who, like Oscar Pereiro, rode himself into contention with a long-range breakaway and then rode well to defend his unexpected position. LeMond steamrolled over Chiappucci in the time trial and went on to win the Tour by more than two minutes.

It’s been 16 years since anyone has come from behind to win the Tour de France in the final time trial. Jan Ullrich had a chance to do it in 2003, when he started 65 seconds behind Lance Armstrong in the overall classification. Since he had beaten Lance by 1:36 in the Stage 12 time trial earlier in the race, it had to be considered plausible that he could ride himself into the jersey again. If he was going to be successful, however, he had to take a lot of risks, diving into wet corners and pushing the pace through roundabouts. At one point he pushed a little too hard and his wheels slid out from under him, and with them his chances of winning the yellow jersey.

If there’s a lesson for Landis in Ullrich’s time trial performance from 2003, it’s that he needs to drive or ride the whole course tonight or tomorrow morning, and has to be careful about the risks he takes in the race. Ullrich didn’t look at the course or get information from his teammates who rode before him, whereas Armstrong benefited from both. Landis can’t afford to ride too conservatively because Oscar Pereiro isn’t going to just roll over and give him the yellow jersey, but he also needs to know where on the course he can push the limit and where he needs to be careful.

Getting the Job Done
Landis has 30 seconds to make up over 57 kilometers (35 miles), which is a little more than half a second per kilometer. Two weeks ago, in the Stage 7 individual time trial, Landis rode two seconds per kilometer faster than Pereiro and finished 1:40 ahead of him. Even with the increased motivation that comes from defending the yellow jersey in the final time trial of the Tour de France, Pereiro is going to have a tough time holding off an equally-motivated Landis.

The length of the Stage 19 time trial is also going to be a big factor in the final results. Fifty-seven kilometers is a long way to ride at full-throttle, especially after nearly three weeks of racing. It’s also loaded with rolling hills that will make it difficult for riders to find a consistent rhythm. Anyone who starts out too hard runs a significant risk of cracking in the final 15 kilometers (nine miles), and that’s where the time gaps are likely to go from a handful of seconds to one minute or more.

If Pereiro and Sastre have one advantage over Landis, it’s that they will each start behind him. As a result, they’ll know how fast he’s riding and be able to gauge their efforts. Of course, if he’s crushing them the information won’t do them much good, but if the time gaps are still tight inside the final ten kilometers (6.2 miles), knowing Landis’s split times could give them the extra gear they need to stay in the fight.

For Landis, I think the wise plan is to ride tomorrow’s time trial as if he’s three minutes behind the yellow jersey instead of just 30 seconds. That doesn’t mean he should take crazy risks in the corners and descents, but it does mean staying on the throttle even if he’s in the yellow jersey by a minute at the halfway point in the stage. Forget the fact that you only need 30 seconds; go for maximum time gains throughout the stage. Not only is it a good to win, it also builds up a time buffer in case there’s a mechanical problem later in the stage.

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