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Chris Carmichael Diary: Building Breakaway Power – Stage 5

Looking at the weather as Stage 5 was about to begin this afternoon, I almost felt sorry for the small group of riders I knew would inevitably strike out on their own for the day’s long breakaway. Working in a break for the majority of a stage is hard enough, but doing it in driving rain and a terrible headwind is absolutely miserable. Of course, a Tour stage win and the prospect of taking Lance Armstrong’s yellow jersey, which he was more than happy to put up for grabs, are strong motivators. Sure enough, a five-man breakaway left the field behind before the 20th kilometer and never looked

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By Chris Carmichael

Looking at the weather as Stage 5 was about to begin this afternoon, I almost felt sorry for the small group of riders I knew would inevitably strike out on their own for the day’s long breakaway. Working in a break for the majority of a stage is hard enough, but doing it in driving rain and a terrible headwind is absolutely miserable.

Of course, a Tour stage win and the prospect of taking Lance Armstrong’s yellow jersey, which he was more than happy to put up for grabs, are strong motivators. Sure enough, a five-man breakaway left the field behind before the 20th kilometer and never looked back. The fact that the peloton behind did not mount a serious chase shouldn’t take anything away from the supreme effort Magnus Backstedt, Jackob Piil, Thomas Voeckler, Sandy Casar, and Stuart O’Grady put in today.

One of the keys to preparing for long breakaways is increasing the amount of power you can produce while primarily relying on your aerobic engine for energy. The more you have to call upon your anaerobic energy system for energy, the faster you burn through stored carbohydrate in your body and the faster you fatigue. Since the aerobic system burns a mixture of carbohydrate and fat (with a small amount of protein as well), relying on it for the majority of your energy enables you to maintain your power for a longer period of time.

However, if the power you’re able to produce with your aerobic engine is too low to maintain the speed necessary to stay with the breakaway, then you’re going to chip away at your energy reserves faster than the other riders, and accumulate more lactic acid than they will, and eventually you’re likely to fall of the back of the group. The stamina to stay with a long breakaway comes from having a highly-developed aerobic engine that allows you to produce more power while still relying primarily on your aerobic system.

You can use specific workouts to increase the power your aerobic engine can produce. These workouts are not overly intense because you’re targeting the aerobic engine and not the anaerobic system. Rather, duration is the key to these workouts and the intensity is more moderate. One of the most effective workouts for developing aerobic power is a Tempo workout. Long, uninterrupted Tempo intervals at 81% of your 10-minute maximum sustainable power output (plus and minus 5 watts to create a range), or 88% of your maximum sustainable heart rate (plus 4 beats to make a range) if you’re not using a power meter, are just what you need. Less experienced cyclists and Cat 4/5 racers might start out with 20-30 minutes at this intensity with a cadence of about 70-75 rpm. More experienced riders should increase the duration of their Tempo workouts, aiming for 45-60 consistent minutes at this intensity and 70-75 rpm cadence. Riders like George Hincapie sometimes complete a 120-minute long Tempo interval during the course of a 4+ hour endurance ride.

Not only will increasing your aerobic power improve your chances of staying with a breakaway, it will help you have some energy left for the final kick to the finish line. When you run low on carbohydrate, your ability to initiate and respond to strong attacks diminishes drastically. Magnus Backstedt is bigger and stronger than the other four riders he was with in Stage 5’s breakaway. However, by the time the group got within five kilometers of the finish line, Backstedt couldn’t respond to the attacks and was essentially out of contention for the stage win. He could have just been tired, in which case more carbohydrate may not have helped, but it’s also possible that his size (he’s the biggest rider in the peloton at 6-foot-4 and 198 pounds) increased the relative amount of energy he expended during the stage because it’s difficult for such a big rider to get a good draft from smaller riders.

When it came time to put in maximal efforts at the end of the day, efforts that are powered primarily by carbohydrate, the men with the most carbohydrate left in the tank are always going to be the ones with the best finishing kick. Back in April at Paris-Roubaix, it was Backstedt. Today though, it was Stuart O’Grady who had the fuel to get across the finish line first. Chris Carmichael is Lance Armstrong’s coach and author of “Chris Carmichael’s Food For Fitness: Eat Right to Train Right” (available July 2004)

© 2004, Carmichael Training Systems, Inc.