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Analyzing data and making adjustments is a key factor in Lance Armstrong’s Tour preparation
By Chris Carmichael, Carmichael Training Systems
With each passing year, winning the Tour de France gets more and more difficult for Lance Armstrong. To win, Lance has to be prepared to handle every racing strategy devised to defeat him.
One of my jobs as his coach is to work with him in collecting and analyzing data each year. Some of our most useful information came two years ago during Lance’s victory in stage 10.
Before the Tour that year, Lance selected the Alpe d’Huez stage as one he really wanted to win. As someone with a true appreciation for cycling history, Lance saw winning on the Alpe as a way to honor the race and the great champions that he admires.
When he attacked near the start of the climb, Lance did so because the first kilometers of Alpe d’Huez feature the steepest pitches. His advantage over Jan Ullrich was his higher power-to-weight ratio — the greater the pitch, the more advantage he had. Power-to-weight ratios greatly affect a rider’s ability to accelerate on climbs, and we knew Lance could accelerate faster than Ullrich on those steeps. He attacked hard and quickly opened a significant gap as Ullrich struggled to accelerate. The gap grew to two minutes in about 6km, but then the gap stabilized and remained virtually the same for the remaining 7km of the climb, which meant that when the grade eased Ullrich could maintain the same pace as Lance.
THE GOLDEN RULE
The gap had been established, the damage had been done, but afterward the data revealed a significant flaw in our plan. The energy cost of winning stage 10 was too high. When I saw Lance later that same evening and downloaded his heart-rate information from the stage, I concentrated most of my attention on the data from the final climb. His average heart rate for the climb was 188 beats per minute, and comparing that data with baseline information, gathered over several years of monitoring, it was clear that he was working extremely hard over the last 3km.
Our conversations following the stage confirmed this; Lance said his perceived effort steadily increased toward the end of the stage, and his heart rate climbed to an average of 191 bpm, even though his actual advantage stayed the same. His hard work was not adding to his lead over Ullrich; rather, he was struggling to maintain his advantage.
I didn’t think there was a problem with his fitness or his ability to produce power, but there was a problem with economy of energy. Success in stage races comes down to following the golden rule: Accomplish your objectives using as little energy as possible.
Lance won the stage, and went on to win his third Tour de France, but we had broken the golden rule.
CHANGE IN STRATEGY
The data we collected that day helped change our strategy for future mountain stages. On scouting trips prior to the following year’s Tour de France, we looked for places closer to the summits of big climbs to launch decisive attacks. We figured Lance could gain the time advantages he needed without burning as much energy if he waited longer before attacking.
Why expend the energy to maintain a gap for 10km when you have already gained your maximum advantage in the first five? It would be better to attack higher up the mountain, take time from opponents, and get to the line before the gap stabilized. Waiting to attack would allow Lance to climb the majority of the hardest climbs in the Tour at a more reasonable pace, and thus conserve energy.
To take full advantage of this strategy, Lance and I worked even more on improving his climbing efficiency for the 2002 Tour. I had him ride repeated climbing efforts under-geared to apply an even higher training load on his aerobic system. High-cadence climbing increases the stress on the aerobic system, but reduces the stress on leg muscles. Since the consequences of muscular fatigue in the legs are reduced power output and shorter time to exhaustion, it is better for the cardiovascular system to bear as much of the stress of climbing as possible. The goal of under-geared climbing efforts was to improve Lance’s aerobic efficiency so he could primarily rely on his aerobic system for energy as he climbed with the leaders.
One of the main reasons I wanted Lance to derive most of his energy aerobically on extended climbs was to conserve glycogen, the stored carbohydrate fuel necessary for sustaining attacks. The strategy of attacking close to the finish line had one major risk associated with it. If Lance’s attacks weren’t strong enough, he wouldn’t put enough distance between himself and his competition before crossing the finish line. Conserving glycogen was the key to addressing this risk because the more fuel he had for the final surge to the finish, the larger the gaps he would open. The other concern was ensuring Lance had sufficient explosive power to forge the decisive breakaway with one attack. The close proximity to the finish line didn’t allow for the possibility of regrouping and launching a second attack, so I incorporated a few very specific workouts into Lance’s schedule to improve his ability to surge after already climbing for 10km to 15km.
Specific intervals were perhaps the most important of these workouts. During these interval sessions, Lance would ride slightly below his time trial power output for several minutes, then increase his intensity to about 110 percent of his time trial power for four to six minutes. But instead of taking time to recover after the hard effort, he would only reduce his effort back to the starting power, slightly below his time trial power. He would repeat this cycle three to five times per set, spin lightly for about 15 minutes, and repeat the set.
Depending on the volume and intensity of the rest of his program, he would complete three to five sets of these “over-under” intervals. Sometimes these workouts were performed on flat ground, other times on extended climbs, and I have to say I have never seen any athlete handle as much over-under work as Lance. His ability to sustain these efforts is due to his enormous aerobic engine and his incredible ability to process and tolerate lactic acid.
To make these workouts more race-specific, I asked Johan Bruyneel, directeur sportif of Lance’s U.S. Postal Service team, to keep the interval sets unpredictable. He would drive behind Lance and give the orders to accelerate or decelerate at irregular times. In competition, you must accelerate when the conditions are right, not just when you pass certain landmarks.
PUT TO THE TEST
Prior to last year’s Tour de France, it looked like the strategies of Lance’s opponents would put his training to the ultimate test. Several teams vowed to attack Lance incessantly in the mountains. Responding to those accelerations would produce demands similar to those he faced in training. Lance took the attacks in stride and was still able to deliver his decisive attacks in the closing kilometers of the climbing stages.
There was one unfortunate consequence to the changes I made to Lance’s 2002 Tour preparation. Increasing the focus on climbing efforts meant sacrificing training time targeting his time-trial performance. Santiago Botero won the stage 9 time trial, during which Lance struggled and conceded time over the last 15km.
He rebounded to win the final time trial, but even that wasn’t the dominating performance he is capable of. I knew the risk we were taking, and deemed it acceptable based on the predominance of mountain stages in last year’s race. In the end, my decision may have cost Lance some time in time-trial stages, but it enhanced his overall chances to win his fourth Tour de France.
Coaching Lance Armstrong is all about making sure he is totally prepared for the Tour de France. Using the information gathered during last year’s Tour, I again made some adjustments to his training this year to reestablish the balance between climbing work and time-trial preparation. A couple of months before the start in Paris, all signs indicated that Lance would start the 90th Tour de France with the power and fitness to become the second man in history to win five consecutive Tours.
Chris Carmichael is Lance Armstrong’s personal coach and president of Carmichael Training Systems. He can be reached at www.trainright.com. Carmichael will be sending daily reports to VeloNews.com throughout the 2003 Tour de France.