ALBI (VN) – Daryl Impey was ready for a rest.
It was Sunday morning, several hours before Impey would win his first career stage of the Tour de France. The South African champion admitted to VeloNews that he wished the Tour’s rest day fell on Monday, and not Tuesday.
“It’s been a pretty demanding Tour. It has taken its toll on everyone,” Impey said. “We will all be looking forward to a rest day. Against the two other Tours I’ve done this is probably one of the hardest first weeks.”
Even a stage winner was ready for a break.
This year the Tour de France’s first rest day falls a day later than normal, and it comes after a particularly punishing opening week of hilly and mountainous stages. The reason behind the one-day shift was purely pragmatic. Organizers felt the accommodation options were better for teams in Albi and its surrounding, compared to Brioude, where Sunday’s stage finished.
Albi also submitted a strong pitch to host the Tour for the finish of stage 10, the rest day and stage 11 start.
Thus, Impey and the other Tour riders had to race an extra day before resting their legs.
“Definitely, it would be nice to have a rest day tomorrow (Monday),” Impey said. Add to the recovery time it would have provided, that day off on Monday would also have offered Impey more time to savor his first Tour stage victory that came his way four hours later, when he out sprinted Belgian breakaway companion Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal).
Nevertheless, Impey could also see the benefit of racing almost half of the Tour before getting that first day off. The second half of this year’s race is broken into two short blocks, of which the first is five days and includes a stage 13 time trial, which is a rest day for some riders.
“[After Tuesday] we’ve got a nice short week following with five days, including the time trial,” Impey said. “So that’s something to look forward to.”
The Tour has certainly been an active and unpredictable one thanks to the route organizers have set, and to the peloton embracing the opportunities it has presented.
From the first nine stages, this Tour had four high-octane bunch sprints, won by Mike Teunissen (Jumbo-Visma), Elia Viviani (Deceuninck-Quick Step), Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), and Dylan Groenewegen (Jumbo-Visma; a near record speed team time trial (Jumbo-Visma); an Ardennes-style finish won off a solo attack by Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick Step); an action packed summit finale won by Dylan Teuns (Bahrain-Merida) and two other breakaway wins by Thomas De Gendt (Lotto-Soudal) and Impey.
Then came Monday’s 217.5km 10th stage, Saint Flour to Albi when the top overall classification was given a major shake-up. It came after Deceuninck-Quick Step and Team Ineos drilled the group of favorites into strong cross winds that blew over the last 35km towards Albi.
In a normal year, Monday would have been a day off for the riders. Instead, the entire peloton pushed themselves to the limit to try and hold the wheel. Some riders simply could not.
Five of the pre-race favorites lost huge amounts of time: Australian Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo), Colombian Rigoberto Urán (EF Education First), Frenchman Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) and Dane Jakob Fuglsang (Astana). Mikel Landa (Movistar) initially made the front group, but then crashed, and lost more than two minutes.
For them, Tuesday’s rest day came a day too late. They will undoubtedly use the day off for psychological recovery as much as physical.
“It is certainly not boring for anyone, that’s for sure,” Impey said. “But it’s a Tour de France. Any day is tough. Also, the way they designed the course these days, even on a flat day, there’s still some kind of obstacles, such as the wind. Then there’s always some little climb or some narrow roads which create stress in the bunch. So over here, we’ve got 21 stressful days.”
Riders are usually conditioned for the rigors of a Tour, at least up until this point of the race. Most start after having raced eight or 10-day long tours, so their bodies are physiologically adapted to the stresses they face. However, at the Tour, the pressure ramps up, both in and out of the race; and with all the white noise of its hype as the biggest bike race in the world, the pressure of it can still exhaust.
On Sunday, Latvian rider Tom Skujins (Trek-Segafredo) posted on Twitter about the number of riders in this Tour who are already one hour down on the general classification: “One of the crazy stats of the Tour. 2018 after stage 9 there were 2 guys more then one hour down on GC. 2019 there’s 70 guys …”
After Monday’s 10th stage, 84 riders were at one hour or more behind Alaphilippe, who retained the race lead. Last year after 10 stages on a route that had included less climbing, there were 45 riders at one hour or more.
In 2017, 97 riders were that far down at the same point, but in a peloton that had more riders — there were 22 teams of nine riders each last year, while this year the 22 teams contain eight a piece.
Albeit, such figures could indicate one of two things. The first is that a large number of riders in this year’s Tour are already a long way off the pace, as a result of being unable to follow the action up front. Or, they are deliberately letting themselves fall back, to conserve energies they will need when the race tackles the Pyrenees and Alps.
Or the figures may just serve as a simple point of discussion over the toll of the Tour nearing half-way.
What is certain is that rider management is paramount in the Tour, and not reliant on two rest days.
Physical stress is also not always defined by time and distance. How any Tour is raced day-in, day-out also impacts a rider’s condition. And there has been no shortage of activity this year, especially with Alaphilippe. It was he who lit up the race to win stage 3 at Épernay and take the overall leader’s yellow jersey.
It was he who almost defended it on stage 6 to La Planche des Belles Filles in the Vosges, losing it to Italian Giulio Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo) by a meager six seconds. It was he who took the jersey back on stage 8 to Saint Étienne after attacking with Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) to place third and second respectively. six seconds down to a winning De Gendt and finish 26 seconds ahead of the GC contenders.
The benefits of a rest day are also not the same for every rider. For some riders, early rest days can be detrimental.
“Especially with older riders, it’s like actually more of a hinderance than help, the rest day,” says Charly Wegelius, head sports director at EF Education First. “They just get into the rhythm. I think often the rest day after three, four, five days in isn’t really the best anyway for good riders.”
Wegelius also said teams vying for the overall classification, as his team did with Uran as leader, set aside easier racing days for riders.
“We try to split out the work in a rational way, so that we’re not just piling everything on one guy,” he said. “Also for their mind, it’s good to know that if we push them a bit today there’s going to be something relatively easier later on.”
It is a similar situation for teams that are targeting stage victories, such as CCC Team.
Because they can choose their opportunities — rather than be attentive for every moment of the race — they can decide when to have riders race hard or not.
“We don’t have any obligation to pull, so we’re not sacrificing riders to carry the work,” said Team CCC principal Jim Ochowicz. “When we’re on the attack, if we get any chance to attack, we’ll do it.”
Team CCC rider Micky Schar believes it is all in the mind, rather than the body. In Macon, before stage 8 on Saturday, Schar admitted that during the six hours it took to race Friday’s seventh stage to Chalon sur Saône, Tuesday’s first rest day seemed a long way away.
“It was a long day out there and then you start thinking, ‘Ahhh, there are still three days to go,’” Schar told VeloNews. “But it works out. It’s just a mindset, if you are willing to do it. If your mindset is on Tuesday and not Monday, you’re fine. “