The Tour De France is the world’s premier bike race, and this year’s edition is proving to be particularly interesting. Running two months late under the threat of pandemic, riders are arriving at the start line with fewer race days in their legs than normal. The route itself is exceptionally challenging, and the absence of riders like Chris Froome leaves the podium wide open. It’s a racing fan’s dream come true.
More importantly for us everyday cyclists, there are some themes emerging that we can learn from, too. So apart from the intrigue of the race itself, what lessons can we draw from the 2020 Tour De France to help us get faster?
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Lesson 1: Every Bike Racer Needs To Practice Sprinting
Regardless of your preferred discipline or riding style, if you race bikes you should practice sprinting. In the 12 stages that have occurred as of this article’s posting, 9 have involved some type of bunch sprint for the podium. Even climbers such as Primoz Roglic and Tadej Pogačar have sprinted at the end of mountain stages.
So far, classics specialist and former Cyclocross world champion Wout Van Aert has won two sprints. While Van Aert is known for versatility, the fact that he can consistently beat even the world’s top sprinters proves an important fact: sprinting is often more about execution than raw watts. During stage 5, Van Aert used this principle to make his own opportunity, positioning himself in 4th wheel behind an opposing team’s leadout train. By taking advantage and timing his sprint perfectly, he beat a field of more powerful riders to the line.
Another example of smart execution was Caleb Ewan’s decision to move back in the bunch during the closing moments of stage 3, allowing himself to launch his sprint slightly later.
“I was too far forward in the last km so I dropped back into the wheels. Coming from behind is a bit of a risk but I found my way,” he explained after the stage. By recovering slightly and drafting until the last possible moment, Ewan was fresher and faster in the end.
Lesson 2: It’s all About That Base Fitness
Whether in the Tour De France or in the local crit, the pivotal moment in a bike race ususally comes during high-intensity anaerobic attacks. But these crucial efforts tend to come late in a race, and if you’re already worn out from the preceding hours you won’t have what it takes. With good base fitness you have the endurance to be there when it counts.
Once again, an excellent example is Wout Van Aert. He’s consistently able to work hard at the front on all terrain. Yet even after a hard stage, he arrives at the finish with plenty of gas, a clear sign of an exceptionally robust aerobic engine. His comments after winning stage 7 confirmed this.
“Straight from the gun it was all out … everybody feared the crosswinds but in the final we saw it was worth it to put a lot of energy into position(ing).” Van Aert needed to burn a few matches to stay in position, but the gamble paid off. Superior aerobic fitness allowed him to recover and win the sprint soon after.
Marc Hirschi’s extraordinary 78km solo breakaway on stage 9 also proves this point. Efforts of this length are almost purely aerobic and it’s likely Hirschi was riding at sweet spot for most of the day. Maintaining this steady output for hours over varied terrain requires incredible aerobic fitness and steady fueling. Hirschi could be seen taking gels and bottles from his team car on a regular basis (and notably appeared to drop a gel late in the stage).
Marc Hirschi was eventually caught with 1.6km to go, and whether underfueling was an issue is unclear. Still, his eventual sprint for 3rd capped an awe-inspiring performance and was a strong testament to the power of aerobic conditioning.
Lesson 3: Know the Course and Practice Your Technique
Arriving in good shape is only part of the battle. Knowing the specifics of the race course and having the technical skills your event demands are the other keys to success, and the 2020 tour has shown this repeatedly.
Take Stages 1 and 10 as examples. In stage 1, wet weather and extremely slick roads made for dangerous cornering and descending. In stage 10, roundabouts and center islands caused havoc, with riders losing ground and sometimes crashing in key moments. Crashing is always a risk in racing and is sometimes out of your control, but rain is rarely a surprise, so check the weather forecast carefully. Also plan ahead and ride or drive your course in advance, both to identify dangers and also possible opportunities to attack or cause splits.
Technical skills can also hold you back if you are unprepared. On several occasions this year, riders have been dropped from breakaways and lost opportunities due to poor descending technique. There’s nothing more frustrating than having the fitness to win but being unable to apply it effectively on a challenging course, but luckily this is easily remedied; Outside Workouts are a great way to incorporate skills into your workouts. Whether your race is in the Pyrenees or just on a local cyclocross circuit, make sure you practice the techniques your event demands.
Lesson 4: Pro Racing is Different
Sometimes, the inevitable conclusion watching the Tour is just how much there is that can’t be compared to amateur competition. An obvious example is breakaways. For reasons specific to pro racing, breakaways are sometimes purposely allowed to escape and stay away. In amateur races, almost every breakaway will be vigorously chased as every rider wants to win (especially in the lower categories). It’s best to consider breakaways in pro races as categorically different from those you see in the local crit.
One final important difference is in the risks riders take. Caleb Ewan weaving through the pack and along the barriers during the stage 3 sprint is a perfect example, Marc Hirschi’s breathtaking, high-speed descending is another. These types of dangerous maneuvers should never be attempted in an amateur field. Pros are pros for a reason, and they are paid to take risks and get results. Chances are you’re just doing this for fun, so maintain a safe perspective and remember that going home safely to race another day should be your most important goal of all.
Header photo credit: Russ Ellis