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By Chris Carmichael, Carmichael Training Systems
The Tour de France is an exhausting event for everyone involved. It’s obvious the riders could use a break after racing for two weeks, but this short rest is also important for the journalists, the support crews and the thousands of people who make this three-week traveling circus run smoothly. The brief lull in the action is just the relief everyone needs to make the final push to Paris.
Just as on the first rest day, the riders will go out for a two-plus hour ride today to keep their legs fresh and maintain the routines their bodies have become accustomed to. This is even more important during the second rest day, as there is one more mountain stage in the Pyrénées awaiting everyone tomorrow. Stage 16 shouldn’t be very decisive in the overall standings, though, because the peloton should regroup in the 80 kilometers remaining after the Tour de France’s last major climb.
Following the outstanding performances from Lance Armstrong and Jan Ullrich over the past few days in the mountains, the two men will be watching each other closely over the coming days. The 2003 Tour de France is the closest race we’ve seen in many years, and the two principle protagonists are continuing to gain strength.
There is an odd phenomenon in three-week stage races. While it is natural for riders to fatigue and get slower as the race wears on, some riders actually adapt to the stress and get better as the race enters its third week. There are two ways to finish a three-week stage race: either you finish with great form, or you finish as a shadow of the man who started the race.
To finish more strongly than you started, you have to come into the Tour in great shape so you don’t have to dig deep into your reserves during the first ten days of racing. This scenario is most often applies to the contenders for the overall victory. They are the strongest men in the race, and the nature of the first week of the race is usually such that they don’t have to work very hard. But since the constant speed and intensity of the Tour is hard to replicate in training, the first week of road stages stress their physiological systems and lead to adaptations. Lance Armstrong has been pointing out to journalists that Jan Ullrich has a history of racing the second half of the Tour better than he raced the first half. He adapts to the stress of racing and gets stronger from it, and so does Armstrong.
Barring anymore bizarre incidents, the time gap between Armstrong and Ullrich is likely to remain more or less unchanged from now until Saturday’s final individual time trial. Yet, even though the Team Bianchi and US Postal leaders will be an inseparable pair on the roads through the French countryside, there will be plenty of action to keep fans on the edges of their seats. Richard Virenque may have sown up the King of the Mountains competition, and Denis Menchov is leading the young riders competition by over 42 minutes, but the points competition is still being hotly disputed.
Fdjeux.com’s Baden Cooke is currently in the green jersey as the leader of the points competition, but the defending points champion is not far behind. It is doubtful either of the two men will be in contention for the two intermediate sprints in Stage 16, as they come right after the descent from the Tour’s final major climb, but between the start of Stage 17 and the finish on the Champs Elysees, there are seven intermediate sprints and three road stage finishes where they can battle for points.
There’s going to be a huge party in Paris when the Centenary Tour de France rolls into town. About a third of the way through Stage 16, the Tour turns north and starts heading in the direction of the French capital. The 2003 Tour de France is far from over, but for weary riders and support crews, a turn to the north is a turn in the right direction.