CHAMONIX, France (VN) — Some are complaining the 2016 Tour de France is a snore-fest. With Team Sky and Chris Froome dominating, there doesn’t seem to be much spark in this year’s race.
There are several reasons why — Sky’s bigger budget, other team’s inability to challenge Froome, the higher stakes at the Tour, and Froome’s superiority — but one factor that stands out is the ever-increasing parity among the top favorites. Going into Thursday’s stage, Froome’s big differences this year have come in the stage 13 time trial, and his unorthodox attacks in the crosswinds and descents. In the mountains, Froome hasn’t taken that much time against his top rivals.
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And in the Tour peloton, the overall level is even higher, with the domestiques nearly in as fast as GC captains. With so much at stake for teams and sponsors, riders have to be at their absolute best to earn one of the nine spots on their team.
Markel Irizar, a domestique on Trek – Segafredo, is typical in the bunch. The veteran Spaniard said the level is so high at the Tour he has to train as if he were aiming to win the yellow jersey.
“Even to finish in the group, you need to eat, train, and recover as if you’re trying to win the Tour,” Irizar told VeloNews. “Even if I am not going for the GC, the level is so high, everyone is doing the maximum to be ready at the peak level for the Tour.”
In today’s hyper-competitive peloton, even the worker bees are living like GC leaders, hitting altitude camps to spend long training periods in Europe’s highest mountains, looking for a competitive edge.
Before the 2016 Tour started, Markel Irizar and Trek teammate Haimar Zubeldia camped out for two weeks high in the French Pyrénées, sleeping in a ski lodge at nearly 2,000 meters. Why? Neither is aiming to win the Tour, but the Basque helpers need to be at their absolute best to help podium challenger Bauke Mollema.
“The level is incredibly high. You can see now on the climbs how fast everyone is going,” Irizar continued. “Today, nothing is left to chance. If you are not at a very high level, you will not be selected for the Tour.”
Irizar, 35, is back for his fifth Tour. Nothing’s new for the 13-year veteran, but he has noticed the overall level of the peloton inching up every successive season. A half-decade ago, Team Sky seemed to have a monopoly on the “marginal gains” concept, but these days, every team across the peloton is looking for competitive edges in nutrition, clothing, equipment, training, and recovery.
“Before, a team might have one trainer, now we have three, and other teams even more,” Irizar said. “We have chefs, nutritionists, more support staff. Everything is evolving, and that means you as the cyclists have to be even better prepared. You have to pay attention to every detail.”
Altitude training used to be the realm for the elite GC leaders of the peloton. Tenerife, Bormio, Mount Etna, and Sierra Nevada are favored destinations.
These days, entire squads will spend weeks camped out on the sides of Europe’s highest mountains. In January, for example, Cannondale – Drapac sent a core group of its Giro d’Italia-bound riders to Tenerife, not just GC captain Rigoberto Urán, but nearly a dozen riders. Even classics riders are getting in on the act. Peter Sagan (Tinkoff), Mat Hayman (Orica – BikeExchange), and Enrico Gasparotto (Wanty – Group Gobert) all spent time at altitude before winning their respective spring classics.
How does altitude training help a rider like Irizar, who’s main work is done on the flats and lesser climbs? Irizar said it’s all about preparation.
“Even the pace on the flats is so high in the Tour,” he said. “My job is to protect Mollema. I will bring him clothes, water bottles, block the wind, and help him with position. When we get to the mountains, it’s the turn of the other riders, and I ride up with the gruppetto, trying to save my strength for the next day.”
Irizar says today even the gruppetto is harder than it used to be, even when everyone knows they’re safely inside the time cut.
“Before, the gruppetto was easy to manage, because we had some big captains to arrange everything,” he said. “Today it is not like that. There is no one taking control, and the riders do not respect one another. Riders are attacking out of the gruppetto! For what? To finish 10 places ahead?”
In the Tour, everything counts.