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Tour de France

Power analysis: The power it takes to win a Tour de France mountain stage

We look at the wattages of Sepp Kuss and Richard Carapaz on Tour stages 17 and 18.

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The third week of this year’s Tour de France was a weird one. Questionable team tactics, a hotel raid, and a five-minute lead for the yellow jersey were just a few of the oddities. It all started on stage 16, a 170km stage that included four categorized climbs, one of them being the 13km long Col de la Core – yet, it all came down to a massive breakaway featuring some of the peloton’s strongest rouleurs in Kasper Asgreen (Deceuninck-Quick-Step), Toms Skujiņš (Trek-Segafredo), and Christopher Juul-Jensen (Team BikeExchange). Chaos ensued, and at the end of the day, Bora-Hansgrohe’s Patrick Konrad took the solo stage win.

Next was stage 17, which finished atop the hardest climb in this year’s Tour, the Col du Portet (16.4km at 8.6 percent). Already in the yellow jersey with a comfortable lead, Tadej Pogačar (UAE-Team Emirates) was the favorite for the stage, but no one really knew about Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma). The young Dane was originally a domestique for Primož Roglič, but after the 24-year-old’s third place in the stage 5 time trial, many were talking about Vingegaard as a legitimate podium threat.

Before the riders faced the Col du Portet, they first had to climb the Col du Peyresourde (13.3km at 6.9 percent) and the Col de Val Louron-Azet (6.8km at 8.1 percent). A relatively weak break went away at the beginning of the stage, and UAE-Team Emirates kept them in check with the likes of Davide Formolo and Brandon McNulty pulling huge turns on the major climbs. From the power file of race favorite Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers), we can see just how hot the pace was on these preview climbs – the toughest was yet to come.

Richard Carapaz power data from the Col du Peyresourde and Col de Val Louron-Azet.
Richard Carapaz power data from the Col du Peyresourde and Col de Val Louron-Azet.

Carapaz – Col du Peyresourde:
Time: 36:05
Average Power: 335w (5.6w/kg)
Normalized Power: 351w (5.9w/kg)

Carapaz – Col de Val Louron-Azet
Time: 22:25
Average Power: 346w (5.8w/kg)
Normalized Power: 355w (5.9w/kg)

On the final climb of the Col du Porter, Rafał Majka (UAE-Team Emirates) took over with 12km to go, finishing his turn after a false flat section at 8.5km to go. Pogačar attacked immediately, stamping on the pedals, and hardly wincing at over 600w. Vingegaard clung to Pogačar’s wheel along with Ben O’Connor (AG2R-Citroën) and Rigoberto Urán (EF Education-Nippo). Carapaz was initially dropped but soon made it back to the front group.

What happened next was a fascinating blend of art and sport. Pogačar kept on attacking, intent to show that he was far and away the strongest rider in the world, Vingegaard stayed on his wheel, and Carapaz switched sports from cycling to poker. The Ecuadorian gritted his teeth so much so that I hoped his dentist wasn’t watching, and refused to take a single pull.

After the stage, Pogačar said that he thought Carapaz was bluffing, and he was right. With 1.3km to go, Carapaz attacked from behind and led until 220m to go. Vingegaard took his time clawing his way back, but as soon as he did, Pogačar sprinted off the front and took an easy win atop the Col du Portet. The trio’s battle on the Col du Portet is one of the most incredible climbing performances we’ve seen in recent years, as all three riders climbed at more than 6w/kg for nearly an hour.

Richard Carapaz data from the ascent of the Col du Portet.
Richard Carapaz’s data from the ascent of the Col du Portet.

Carapaz – Col du Portet:
Time: 48:53
Average Power: 364w (6.1w/kg)
Normalized Power: 374w (6.2w/kg)

Final 8.5km following Pogačar’s attacks
Time: 25:08
Average Power: 370w (6.2w/kg)
Normalized Power: 386w (6.4w/kg)

Final 2km
Time: 5:53
Average Power: 402w (6.7w/kg)
Normalized Power: 446w (7.4w/kg)

Carapaz’s power file is so unique because it actually trends upwards. Normally, for a climb of this length (>40 minutes), we’d see the strongest rider’s power either stay the same or slightly increase over the course of the climb. But on the Col du Portet, Carapaz, Vingegaard, and Pogačar were riding so easily compared to everyone else, despite tens of riders were going out the back.

In the first half of the climb, Carapaz was riding at “only” 350w – 360w, and we can see how much he had left in the tank by how much his power increased in the second half. And to finish off the last 2km at nearly 7w/kg, that’s what makes a world-class climber. On top of all that, the last 3km of the Col du Portet climbs above 2,000m elevation. Any normal rider would begin to suffer at such an altitude, and see a slow drop-off in power, but not the podium of this year’s Tour de France.

Stage 18 — up Tourmalet and Luz Ardiden

Stage 18 was set to be the last mountain stage of this year’s Tour, and the last opportunity for major GC moves to be made ahead of the Stage 20 time trial. The 130km stage included two cat 4 climbs, plus the epic Col du Tourmalet (17km at 7.4 percent) and Luz Ardiden (13.4km at 7.5 percent). Although the climbs weren’t as hard or as steep as the previous day, the peloton raced them as it were the last day of the Tour.

Before the major mountains, Team BikeExchange lit it up on the second cat 4, the Côte de Loucrup, in an attempt to drop Mark Cavendish (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) before the intermediate sprint. Sepp Kuss (Jumbo-Visma) laid waiting in the peloton, as he would be Vingegaard’s superdomestique in the second half of the stage. At nearly 7w/kg, this is a huge effort to make with hours of racing to go.

Kuss – Côte de Loucrup:
Time: 4:22
Average Power: 409w (6.7w/kg)

On the Col du Tourmalet, Dylan Van Baarle (Ineos Grenadiers) sat on the front of the peloton for nearly an hour, trying to tire out the field for Carapaz. Not much would happen in terms of excitement, but one glance at Kuss’ power file and we can see just how big of an effort the Tourmalet was.

Sepp Kuss' power data from the Col du Tourmalet.
Sepp Kuss’ power data from the Col du Tourmalet.

Kuss – Col du Tourmalet:
Time: 51:09
Average Power: 333w (5.5w/kg)

As the peloton hit the bottom of Luz Ardiden, Van Baarle was still – somehow – on the front. After a good number of turns from Ineos, Majka took over again, this time until less than 4km to go. Pogačar attacked straight off his teammate’s wheel, and Kuss was there to help close the gap for Vingegaard. Kuss then went to the front and set a strong pace until 1km to go, keeping the group together to protect Vingegaard’s 2nd place in GC.

Sepp Kuss' power data from the ascent to Luz Ardiden.
Sepp Kuss’ power data from the ascent to Luz Ardiden.

Kuss – 4km to go to 1km to go on Luz Ardiden:
Time: 5:44
Average Power: 390w (6.4w/kg)

Sepp Kuss climbing Luz Ardiden.
Sepp Kuss lead the climb to Luz Ardiden. The American was closely followed by Tadej Pogačar, Richard Carapaz, Jonas Vingegaard, and Enric Mas. Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images

When Enric Mas (Team Movistar) attacked inside the red kite, Kuss was done – he would go on to finish 6th on the stage – and it was Pogačar again who attacked and attacked until there was no one left. The yellow jersey took his second consecutive stage win — and with it the lead of the mountains jersey with — as well as a five-plus-minute lead into the final three stages.

Kuss – Luz Ardiden:
Time: 35:58
Average Power: 359w (5.9w/kg)

Here again, we can see that the best riders in the Tour were actually able to accelerate in the final few kilometers of these summit finishes. The riders sitting 5th to 20th in GC were hanging on for dear life, while Kuss, Vingegaard, Carapaz, and Pogačar were all just waiting to make their move. It’s not just about holding 6w/kg for 30 minutes – it’s about holding 5.5 – 5.8w/kg for 30 minutes, and then doing 6.5-7w/kg for the last 5-10 minutes, and finishing it off with a sprint. This is how you win a mountain stage at the Tour de France.

Sepp Kuss power data from stage 18 of the 20201 Tour de France.
Sepp Kuss power data from stage 18 of the 20201 Tour de France.

Kuss – Tour de France stage 18 (excluding neutral zone):
Time: 3:40:50
Average Power: 278w (4.6w/kg)
Normalized Power: 313w (5.1w/kg)
Max Power: 930w (15.3w/kg)
Elevation Gain: 3,535m (11,598ft)
Work: 3,679kJs
Peak 2-min Power: 434w (7.1w/kg)
Peak 5-min Power: 399w (6.5w/kg)
Peak 10-min Power: 374w (6.1w/kg)
Peak 30-min Power: 363w (6w/kg)

Power Analysis data courtesy of Strava and  Strava Sauce extension.

Richard Carapaz
Sepp Kuss