Tour de France
REIMS FRANCE - JULY 09: The peloton makes its way...

What’s the key to surviving the Tour? Avoiding fatigue in the early stages

The Tour's first week is full of stresses, and riders work hard to eliminate unnecessary fatigue. The hardest days have yet to come, and cracks are already starting to appear.

NANCY (VN) – Pre-race nerves in the Tour de France peloton have given way to a new threat for riders: The building fatigue in their minds and bodies from racing day after day.

In such a tough event, a rider’s every effort—a burst of speed in the peloton, or climbing the stairs to one’s hotel room—costs valuable energy. Add to that, there is the constant ‘white noise’ of Tour hype to cope with. Hence, every single effort during these three weeks must be made with a purpose.

The accumulative effects will soon start to take hold, for both the strongest and weakest riders in the race. The cracks always appear slightly at first, and then widen as the toll of the Tour mounts. Thus, at the moment the overall contenders are making sure they expend as little energy as possible in the build up to their first real test; Thursday’s 160.5km sixth stage from Mulhouse to the summit of La Planche des Belles Filles. It’s the second of two stages in the Vosges that includes six major climbs before the brutally steep ascent to the finish.

With this hurdle looming on the horizon, Wednesday’s stage cannot be overlooked. It is far from being a transition leg with a pair of third category and one fourth category climbs presenting a prime opportunity to the hill climbers not in the hunt for general classification to make a mark.

Pending how it is raced, the top GC riders may handle it well, but a furious race by the stage hunters – or a GC contender willing to dare – could leave many others digging too deep. Even if Friday’s seventh stage from Belfort to Chalon-sur-Saône is suited for the sprinters, these days in the Voseges will add to the mounting fatigue for the entire peloton.

Crashes are sometimes a sign that riders are battling fatigue. Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Signs of fatigue from a rested peloton

Australian rider Simon Clarke (EF-Education First), 32, is in his fifth Tour and 13th grand tour. Clarke is road captain for his team that is riding for 2017 Tour runner-up, Colombian Rigoberto Uran. He says he has not seen any major sign of riders starting to feel the effects of the last four days; but he expects that to change on and after La Planche des Belles Filles on Thursday.

“It’s still a little bit early,” Clarke said. “You don’t just rock up to the Tour not having ridden hard bike races.

“Everyone’s raced the Dauphiné, Tour de Suisse a couple weeks ago. Okay, there’s a bit more stress here but, everyone’s still pretty confident in themselves. “After [Thursday] it will be a pretty big re-check on how you’re feeling, how much energy you’ve spent.”

Asked what the key signs of a rider weakening are, Clarke said it’s often small cues, like a lack of concentration, or a delay in a rider’s reaction time.

“Guys unintentionally swerving over the road. Sure, they don’t mean it but, it’s just those reactions, that little feeling when you get tired.

“You know when you see those big block ups we have and guys just straight lining it and not reacting. You know they’re on their way to being in another place.”

Clarke says he tries to limit his efforts with the peloton. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Belgian Thomas De Gendt (Lotto-Soudal), 32, is in his seventh Tour and 16th grand tour. He has a wealth of experience in marathon energy sapping breakaways, of which he plans to feature in this year’s Tour once he is given the latitude outside of the Belgian team’s priorities to help Australian Caleb Ewan try to win a sprint stage and compatriot Tim Willems defend the King of the Mountains jersey for as long as possible.

So, De Gendt is one who knows his body and how it reacts to the fatigue of a Tour, and how others do too.

“I don’t really see it with other riders yet, usually because there are gaps, bigger gaps than usual at the end of the stage,” De Gendt said. “Stage six will be where you can see who is fatigued and who isn’t.”

Asked what are the potential pitfalls for a rider this far into a Tour, De Gendt cited not eating, hydrating or resting enough.

“It could be all of these things. Or it could be if you did too many efforts the day before,” he said. “It can all be small things adding up to one big thing.”

UAE-Team Emirates head sports director Neil Stephens has already seen discreet signs of cracks with some riders.

“Little dents which are not apparent to everybody,” said Stephens, citing Sunday’s stage two team time trial in Brussels and Monday’s third stage to Épernay.

“Some of the leaders didn’t look all that comfortable, even though they might have done some good times [in the team time trial],” Stephens said. “Some other teams may have underperformed, and trying to work out why they underperformed, as well. Even yesterday [stage three], watching a bit of footage, some people tended to move up into place easily and some people didn’t.”

Stephens also believes that riders can lose energy by overthinking about what has happened if the stage has not gone according to plan and what is ahead, such as a stage like Thursday’s to La Planche des Belles Filles.

“It’s a bit hard because people are getting focused for six hours [of racing] day after day after day,” Stephens said. We already started to see a few little cracks.

“That’s a very important part of the role of a director, as well, to try and take that out of it; realize what’s happening, allow the riders to discuss it and reflect on what’s happening; but to not get too involved in it.”

Saying that, for riders to have clear minds their teams need to have defined strategies explained simply and clearly, especially for potentially complicated stages such as Thursday’s to LA Planches des Belles Filles.

“When you look at the stage like that I don’t think it’s any secret that there’s potential questions all day,” Stephens said. “If you go into the race thinking, ‘Okay it’s a crosswind day, it’s going to be a real big battle all the way through the day.’ You don’t expend a lot of energy. But you’ve got to work out where you’ve got to spend energy. There’s no point going out on this day, getting ready for a big battle and the battle doesn’t happen and you’ve already spent a lot of energy.”

Heat and wind beat down on the peloton every day. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Do as little work as possible

Clarke subscribes to that philosophy. He tries to simply his life both on and off the bicycle, and eliminate unnecessary stresses wherever he goes. Do as little work as possible, and then only do it when the team needs it.

“It wasn’t until 30 km to go that things were going to heat up. So, I really took a back seat until then,” Clarke said about Wednesday’s fourth stage. “The other boys did a great job looking after ‘Rigo’ and I knew that it was on me from 30 km’s to go. I just focused on that and then it’s only stressful for an hour. I know what I’m doing. I know where I need to be, and where the boys need to be.”

“If you simplify it, don’t try and roll out from the start thinking, ‘I’ve got to keep this under control for 210km,’ you can make life a lot easier for yourself.”

However you look at it, Tour riders require physical and psychological monitoring and management.

As Jarrad Van Zuydam, the UAE Team Emirates doctor, said it’s easy for riders to get caught up in the furious riding too early in the Tour.

“Everyone, every single rider in the race, is gradually going to get worse and worse as the race goes on, and that’s just the nature of it, so everyone gets fatigued,” Van Zuydam said. “So, the idea is to try to optimize our riders’ recovery, so that they don’t deteriorate as fast as some other riders, to try and preserve some of that performance.

“That involves a whole bunch of monitoring, as well as a whole host of things which we monitor, including the weight, the hydration, exactly what the riders are eating, as well as their power data from the races, their heart rate data, sleep scores. So, all of it is then integrated and then we can advise the directors on who’s going well, and who maybe is a little bit tired.”

However, collated data – or “objective measures,” as he calls them – are not all that Van Zuydam relies on.

“Sometimes the subjective measures are actually more accurate, about how a rider feels,” he said. “I see them every morning and chat them and say, ‘How are you feeling this morning? How’s your muscle soreness?’

“Answers to those questions are sometimes more informative than some advanced data we collect.”

Nonetheless, Van Zuydam does not underestimate a rider’s ability to look after themselves in a race either.

“They’ve been picked in the first place [because] they really are in good condition,” he said. “We know they’re coming into the race in really top condition.

“Of course, the fatigue does start from day one, but we really start seeing those physical signs from the second week, into the third week, especially. So, for now, all is good, but definitely fatigue accumulates day by day.”