What's Cool In Road Cycling

Carmichael Sez: The Alps Factor

Race Analysis Stage 9 – It may seem like all mountain passes are relatively similar, but a lot of details that make the Alps very different from the Pyrenees. It’s not so much that one mountain range is easier or harder than the other – the climbs are very difficult in both – but the conditions in the Alps favor certain riders more than others.

– By Chris Carmichael –

The passes in the Alps tend to be longer, on wider roads that are also straighter and more open. This means you can see riders in the distance more easily. Unfortunately, it also means that you’re more exposed to wind, and that can significantly change the difficulty of a climb. When you’re climbing into a headwind, drafting really does come into play and it’s easier for riders who are struggling to stay with the lead group. And when you’re climbing in a tailwind, the strongest riders in the group can really turn the screws and make life exceedingly hard for everyone behind them. To make matters worse, the road is constantly changing direction as you snake your way up the mountain, so the wind switches from being in your face to at your back multiple times. This leads to changes in the tempo of the group, and it’s the accelerations that can really sap a rider’s energy.


The Alpine climbs tend to be straighter and more open than the Pyrenees.

The smooth road surfaces in the Alps also make these climbs very different from the ascents in the Pyrenees. You can often ride a gear or two higher in the Alps because the road isn’t killing your momentum as much, and that can be both a blessing and a curse. If you’re strong in the Alps and you have the power to turn over a big gear, you can fly uphill. But if you’re struggling, the difference between the speed you can hold and the speed the leaders are maintaining can lead to big time gaps very quickly.

The Alps favor powerful climbers who can maintain a high power output for long periods of time, but they don’t offer as many opportunities for explosive climbers like Alejandro Valverde and Alberto Contador to break their rivals’ legs. Despite this fact, Contador put in a huge acceleration on the Galibier and opened up a significant gap on the yellow jersey group by the summit.

But just as the climbs are long, the descents are too. Contador couldn’t really make the most of his explosive climbing power because there was a nearly 40-kilometer descent between the summit of the Galibier and the finish line. Even with the help of his teammate, Yaroslav Popovych, the yellow jersey group coalesced before the final small climb to the finish and the time gaps between most of the favorites were just a few seconds.


The back side of the mountain is just like the front, so descending is also more wide open.

Now that the Alps are behind them, the favorites have a few flat and hot stages in the south of France before the first long individual time trial and the Pyrenees this weekend. The climbs coming up favor the explosive talents of Contador and Valverde, and after today, they have to be considered the major favorites for the summit finishes of Stages 15 and 16.

The next audio workout in the Do The Tour… Stay At Home™ series is Stage 13, a workout designed to prepare you for long individual time trials. But today, there’s a text workout available that mimics the long, steady efforts riders faced today on the two giant climbs of the Col du l’Iseran and Col du Galibier. Check them out and download Stage 13 to your iPod at TrainRight.com.



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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