What's Cool In Road Cycling

Carmichael Sez: Attacks Get Personal In the Mountains

TDF Stage 14 Analysis – You remember that loner in high school who always ate lunch by himself and didn’t have any friends? In professional cycling, they’re the climbing specialists. They spend long hours training by themselves on desolate mountain roads, talking to themselves and thinking only about the damage they can do when races enter their turf. And on the ascent to Plateau de Beille today, Alberto Contador and Michael Rasmussen inflicted a lot of damage.

– By Chris Carmichael –

Attacking in the mountains is personal. You’re not accelerating out of a big pack, where it’s you-against-them. This is you-against-him, toe-to-toe in the center of the ring, and you have to be vicious to be successful. You have to hit a man when he’s vulnerable, put him against the ropes and keep hammering at him until he goes down. And if you don’t finish him when you have the chance, he’ll come back and finish you.

When I was recording an audio workout with Lance Armstrong for the Do The Tour… Stay At Home™ training series, I asked Lance to describe how he chose the best time to attack in the mountains, and he said he looked for a hard and steep section of the climb and watched his rivals to see when they were struggling.

It pays to know a person well at this point, because to borrow a word from poker, everyone has their “tells” that indicate they’re in trouble. It could be the way they grip the bars or how they rock their shoulders or point their toes. Lance said that when he saw riders struggling at a hard portion of the climb, that was the best time to go. Rasmussen and Contador used the same tactics to leave their rivals behind today, and you can do the same in your races.

Step 1: Keep the pace high.
In the valley between the Port de Pailheres and the base of the ascent to Plateau de Beille, the Discovery Channel and Rabobank teams put men on the front of the lead group to keep the pace high. Not only did they want to make sure that dropped riders didn’t make it back to the front of the race, but they also wanted to make the leaders of rival team work harder before and during the initial kilometers of the final ascent. This is the advantage of having strong teammates like George Hincapie and Yaroslav Popovych for Discovery Channel and Michael Boogerd and Thomas Dekker for Rabobank. They set a pace that Rasmussen and Contador could sustain, but that was hard enough to soften up riders like Andreas Kloden and Carlos Sastre.

When you attack while the pace is very high on a climb, it’s more difficult for your rivals to respond because they’re already working close to their maximum. This is important because uphill accelerations cost a lot of energy and don’t last very long before you have to slow down to a sustainable pace again. If you attack when your rivals aren’t already going as fast as they can, they may have the energy to match your acceleration or raise their effort to reel you back in.

Step 2: Attack when the climb is steepest.
It’s also important to use the mountain itself to maximize the impact of your attack. An explosive climber like Contador has a high power–to-weight ratio, and his advantage over other climbers increases as the pitches get steeper. When he applies maximum power to attack, he has less weight to lift against gravity, so he can accelerate faster than others. That means that all other things being equal, he’ll create a bigger gap with a 30-second effort on a 12% grade than the same effort on a 7% grade.

The bigger the gap, the harder it is for your rivals to respond, and if you can get a sizable gap quickly, your rivals will have to think long and hard about coming after you. Mentally, if you’re only a few meters behind someone, you’re still within reach, but if that person just took 50 meters out of you in a matter of seconds, you just got dropped. If you can deliver that kind of psychological blow to your rivals, it can be enough to disrupt their rhythm and they’ll just go backwards.

Step 3: Jump hard, then settle in.
A lot of riders make the mistake of launching half-hearted attacks in the mountains because they want to keep some energy in reserve in case they get caught. But attacking at half-mast all but guarantees that you won’t get a big enough initial gap to keep the chasers from reeling you in. Remember, the harder you attack, the harder they have to work to catch you. You’re burning a lot of energy no matter what happens, so if it’s going to hurt you anyway, make sure it hurts them as well.

Once you have a gap, it’s important to settle down into a pace and rhythm you can maintain. What normally happens is that the initial acceleration gets you 50-70 meters up the road, and that gap stabilizes as the chasers try to raise the intensity to come after you. If they don’t reach you in a minute or two, however, the gap will often start to widen again because the riders behind you will have to return to a pace they can sustain. Then it’s a race to see who can time trial uphill faster.

The next audio workout in the Do The Tour… Stay At Home™ series is Stage 15, a workout designed to prepare you for a fast finish after a long climb. Visit TrainRight.com and download it to your iPod today so you have it for tomorrow.

Chris Carmichael coached Lance Armstrong throughout his 15-year cycling career. For more information on Carmichael Training Systems’ 9+3 Coaching Offer, the Do the Tour…Stay at Home_ audio workouts with Lance Armstrong, and our free Tour de France Newsletter, visit TrainRight.com.

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