Simon Yates hinted in an interview with The Cycling Podcast following a disastrous performance in the Stage 9 time trial that his lack of form could be due to detraining following his pre-race taper combined with the incredibly easy racing in the first half of the race. Since Yates declared himself the outright favorite and claimed his rivals should be shitting themselves with fear in the days leading into the race, one presumes that he possessed incredible form. Just over a week later, we were all left asking where that form had gone.
It is hard to imagine that a week of ‘easy’ riding (remember, they are riding close to full gas for the last 20-30 minutes to hold their position for the finish) contributed to a significant lack of form, especially since every rider in the race is subject to the same circumstance.
But with the 14 days between the start of the race and the first mountain stage, it begs the questions of it was a better idea to come into the Giro fatigued from training vs tapered and rested. Yates seemed to hint that his taper plus the easy days detrained him and was a mistake.
Lionel Birnie of The Cycling Podcast proposed (half-jokingly and knowing how crazy the idea sounded) potentially going back to the team hotel for an hour-long workout after the stage. Somewhat shockingly, when Birnie floated this idea to Sunweb coach Matt Winston, it wasn’t immediately shot down and Winston seemed to genuinely consider it a viable idea.
However, this approach seems incredibly misguided, as the name of the game in a grand tour is minimizing the total work you do over three weeks. In theory, you would never want to add riding time to three consecutive 30-hour weeks. However, in today’s cycling, where teams are chasing any ‘marginal gain’ (whether they actually help or not) it isn’t particularly difficult to imagine this actually happening.
Just because it could happen doesn’t mean it is a particularly good idea. A major issue is that despite what the roadbook says, it is impossible to predict the events or difficulty of a stage before it happens. There is the possibility of doing a hard workout on the trainer following an ‘easy’ stage, and then an unforeseen incident like a flat, crash, or crosswind echelon occur the following day and the rider’s legs are tired from the workout and make them unable to ride at the necessary intensity and see them lose significant time.
Furthermore, we have heard ad nauseum that Simon Yates spectacular collapse at the end of last year’s Giro was due to doing too much work in the early stages of the race. Thus, it seems somewhat insane to purposely replicate that same scenario. At the end of the day, the goal of a rider in a Grand Tour should be to do the least amount of work as possible whenever possible. The amount of work they will need to perform in the future will only be known when said future arrives, and how their body will react is equally unknown, so it is imperative to save as much energy as possible for the unknown future expenditures.
If a rider was really concerned about losing conditioning during a grand tour, they could strategically put their nose in the wind in the final 40km, or god, forbid, actually try to split the field and take time.
This begs the question of if we are thinking about this the wrong way. The overanalysis of this problem has smart people considering having a rider do extra training outside of the race, instead of riding harder in the race in an attempt to gain time on one’s opponents to, you know, actually win the race.
Since Yates blamed the easy first week as well as his taper prior to the race for his lackluster form at the Stage 9 TT. A potential bulwark against fitness atrophy would be to enter the race with red-hot form, or even slightly overextended, and then use the easy first week to allow your body to ‘rest’ before it enters the mountains. The race course has been public for a while and these neverending days of laid back riding should not be a surprise to Yates and his Mitchelton team.
I’ve been slightly concerned if Roglic can hold the incredible form he displayed in weeks prior, but in retrospect, I wonder if this was actually a calculated strategy to take time in the early tests and use the docile first half to let his body recover. By next week, we will know if Roglic was savy to come into the race so fit or if he has completely overshot the target.
The fact remains that nothing is guaranteed in a Grand Tour and the race profile isn’t necessarily indicative of the importance or difficulty of a stage. Treating a multi-dimensional and incredibly dynamic stage race like a static training lab is the height of cycling hubris and would likely result in unintended consequences and public embarrassment.
Still, don’t be surprised when we hear the hum of trainers coming from the riders’ hotel rooms following stages at the next Grand Tour.