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By Chris Carmichael, Carmichael Training Systems
After three long and hot days in the Alps, the peloton was more than happy to let a nine-man breakaway build a massive lead and contest the tenth stage of the 2003 Tour de France.
Behind them, the U.S. Postal Service and Euskaltel teams set a controlled tempo on the front of the main field. Even when the pace is not blistering, riding tempo at the front of the Tour de France takes a lot of energy.
Staying aerobic is the key to riding tempo on the front of the peloton, and riders who know the task falls in their job descriptions train specifically to handle the demands. The goal is to increase the power a rider can produce with the aerobic system so he can stay as far below lactate threshold as possible while pulling into the wind.
To accomplish this, riders like Postal’s George Hincapie do a lot of tempo workouts in training. These workouts are usually one long, uninterrupted interval at an intensity near the upper end of his aerobic range. Using a power meter, we can test his maximum sustainable power at lactate threshold, and from racing we know the power he needs to be able to maintain in order to set tempo at the front of the peloton. I use these and other pieces of information to establish a specific power range for his tempo workouts.
The duration of the tempo workout is the most important factor for gaining a training adaptation. Since we are targeting the aerobic system, there is an upper limit to how hard the effort can be. Above this limit, he starts to recruit the anaerobic energy system to supply additional energy, and that is counter to the goal of the workout. Since we can’t increase the intensity, we have to increase the volume in order to stress his aerobic system and get the adaptation we are looking for. George already has an enormous aerobic engine, so this means his tempo workouts are often upwards of 120 minutes.
The cadence and gearing also play a role in the effectiveness of tempo workouts. I like to keep the cadence relatively low, 70-75 rpm, and the gearing relatively high. This increases the tension on the leg muscles and helps develop the strength and neuromuscular patterns that increase the athlete’s efficiency.
The concepts tempo workouts are based on are so universal for developing the aerobic engine that I apply them to every athlete I work with across multiple sports. For amateur cyclists, I prescribe the same workout George does, but I reduce the duration based on their aerobic development. A typical Category 3 or Masters racer in the US should be able to do tempo workouts of 60-75 minutes, and more advanced amateur racers should aim to complete 90-minute tempo workouts.
Setting tempo at the front of the peloton is a hard and often thankless job, but it is essential to a team’s ability to control the race. The Postal team knows how to sit on the front for days at a time, and if they do it well enough, they’ll get the chance to lead Lance Armstrong onto the Champs-Elysées in yellow.