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By Chris Carmichael, Carmichael Training Systems
Stages 17 and 18 of the 2003 Tour de France have been destined to be battles between the sprinters and the opportunists. The point jersey competition is now extremely close, and the opportunists are running out of days to get a stage win, so today’s attack from the start line made sense.
Over 180 kilometers later, the opportunists triumphed over the sprinters and Servais Knaven won his first Tour stage in much the same fashion he won Paris Roubaix a few years ago. Tomorrow is another flat stage, and the sprinters’ teams are not likely to be outfoxed again.
With the Tour de France as close as it has been this year, Lance Armstrong has relied heavily on his teammates’ strengths and their skills to help him pursue his goal of a fifth consecutive win. As in previous Tours, the US Postal Service is one of the strongest teams in the race, and that strength has been essential for keeping Lance in the lead. One of the most important roles teammates play is that of a faithful Sherpa, ferrying clothing, food and bottles from the team car so everyone on the team has the energy, fluids, and equipment they need in order to race at their best.
One of the most important nuances professional cyclists have to master is the art of riding in the race caravan. The caravan is the flotilla of bicycle-laden team vehicles following behind the peloton, but going back to your team car and getting back into the field takes skill, patience, and great handling skills.
Getting back to the team car is relatively easy; you just stop pedaling and slow down. Once you pick up food, bottles, or clothing for yourself and teammates, you have to figure out how to get those supplies back to the peloton, and that can be much trickier.
One of the biggest mistakes amateurs and inexperienced professionals make in the caravan is trying to get back to the field too quickly. They associate being in the caravan with being dropped by the field, and they desperately want to be back in the group where they belong. The problem is, the race comissaire usually leaves about 200 meters between the back of the peloton and the beginning of the caravan. If you’re sprinting through the caravan, you won’t have the energy left to cross the gap to the peloton through the wind.
It is better to have patience in the caravan and move forwards when the time is right. How do you know when to leapfrog from one car bumper to the next? It’s all a matter of momentum. When the cars slow down due to corners or because the field is starting to go uphill, riders swing out from behind a car, maintain their speed, and pass as many cars as they can. When the caravan speeds up again, they swing back in behind a car to get a draft. If the cars accelerate really fast, several may completely pass the riders before they can catch a draft again. Sometimes you will see riders yo-yo through the caravan; you can gain and lose ground several times and still make it back to the group.
You have to be a little careful about drafting in the caravan. The race referees generally don’t mind riders using the draft to help them get back into the peloton, as long as they are actively trying to move forward. If they feel you are just sitting behind the cars instead of trying to get back into the field, they can give you a time penalty and a fine.
It’s important to think ahead when planning a trip back to the team car. You want to go back when the peloton is going slow, not when the whole field is strung out in a long line chasing down an attack. If there is a significant climb coming up, you also want to make sure you have enough time to get back to the field and distribute bottles or clothing to your teammates before the road tilts toward the sky. Riding while loaded with bottles is bad enough, climbing a mountain loaded with bottles is sheer misery.
Whenever Lance Armstrong is asked about his performance in the Tour de France, he acknowledges the efforts and sacrifices his teammates make in support of the team’s goals. Lance is a great rider, but he knows you have to have an awesome team to win the Tour de France. Part of the motivation he has for winning the final individual time trial and wearing the yellow jersey all the way to Paris is based on his desire to finish the job his teammates have worked so hard to support.