Tour de France 2009: Team TT  //  Cancellara hangs onto the Maillot Jaune...by a whisker

07 Jul 2009 Posted by
Fabian Cancellara has survived in yellow for at least another day. But only just. After yesterday’s dramatic split that saw Lance Armstrong gain time on all the other GC contenders, today’s team time-trial was always going to be about whether Astana had the firepower to overhaul the starting deficit of 40 seconds, which would see Armstrong, on his comeback to the sport, start stage 5 wearing the yellow jersey.

And Astana did possess the firepower – exactly. For by the time the 39.5km had been completed in Montpellier, Astana crossed the line as stage victors, EXACTLY 40 seconds ahead of Saxo Bank, with Garmin Slipstream separating the two, 18 seconds down on Astana.

Those 40 seconds meant that deciding who got yellow went down to fractions of a second, and it was Fabian Cancellara who hung on, denying Armstrong a return to yellow in the comeback Tour.

There was a moment, on the open road, when Armstrong was in “virtual yellow”, when Astana having actually gained a lead of 41 seconds over Saxo Bank, and it was only in the final 9km that Saxo Bank and Cancellara were able to find that half-second that sees him in the maillot jaune tomorrow.

Analysing pacing of the team time-trial

It’s always interesting (especially for me with my research background on pacing) to examine how time-trials are paced. Given the very tiny margins between victory and defeat (shown by the tiny gap that kept Cancellara in yellow today, for example), errors in pacing strategy can have huge implications. This is particularly true in a team time-trial, because pacing must take into account the weaker riders’ abilities. If the early pace is carried by stronger riders, then weaker riders will experience a much more dramatic slow down in the second half. The general principle in pacing is that whatever you gain by starting too fast is generally paid back in duplicate (at least) in the second half of the trial!

For example, Caisse d’Epargne shot out of the start gates today and have the fastest time at Checkpoint 1, by 7 seconds. By Checkpoint 2, they’re down to 5th, and by the finish, down in 7th place, having lost over a minute to teams over the final half of the course.

Tour de France 2009 Stage 4 profile.

Tour de France 2009 Stage 4 profile.

So below is a basic analysis of the pacing strategy adopted by Astana and Saxo Bank in the time-trial today. Remember the course profile, shown on the right – tough first half, with a lot of uphill sections, and then a tricky second half with descending and tight turns. The strong winds, narrow roads and terrain made this TTT one of the more attritional in recent years – just ask Boygues Telecom who at one stage had four men off the road in a grass field.

Below is a graph comparing the speeds achieved by Astana (in blue) to those of Saxo-Bank (in yellow since they had Cancellara) over the four intermediate splits. In an ideal world, we’d be able to plot power output, not speed, to take into account the variable terrain and wind, but this is mostly for comparison between the two teams anyway, so it’s passable. I’ve indicated on the graph the time difference between Astana and Saxo Bank for each interval, and at the bottom, in black, is the difference between Armstrong and Cancellara on the road, given that Cancellara started the day with a 40 sec lead on Armstrong.

TTT-pacing-strategy

What probably jumps out right away is that the eventual difference between Astana and Saxo Bank was created in the first half of the race. To be precise, Astana beat Saxo Bank by exactly 40 seconds, and 38 of those came in the first half. There was, as I mentioned above, a point at Checkpoint 3, where Cancellara had lost the yellow jersey by one second.

However, as you’ll see on the graph, Saxo Bank did the fourth interval 1 second faster than Astana, and it was this 1 second, in the final 9km of the trial, that sees the Swiss champion in yellow for tomorrow’s stage. It’s difficult to fault the pacing strategy of either team, however. Neither of them “blew it” to the same extent that Caisse d’Epargne did in the second half.

Astana’s big move came between 10 and 20km – it was here that they did all the damage, and actually won the stage. Garmin-Slipstream, who finished second on the stage, did this interval in 13 min 8 seconds, Astana did it in 12 min 45 seconds, 23 seconds faster.

So Astana were considerably faster than anyone else in this second inverval on the route, and their stage win was ultimately the result of this effort. Whether this was because the course was particularly challenging here, or the team had decided that this was the moment to turn the intensity up a gear or two, I don’t know. If you refer back to the route profile, you’ll see that the second interval from 10 to 20km was certainly the most difficult part of the route. The average speeds shown in the graph above confirm this – stage 2 was considerably slower.

Tour momentum builds for the mountains

In any event, the result means that Cancellara can sleep with the yellow jersey under his pillow for at least another night. Given that the next two days look good for sprinters, that Mark Cavendish and his team are hungry for more wins, and that other teams who haven’t had a look in on a sprint finish will be keen to do so before the mountains, I don’t see breaks being successful.

It therefore seems likely that Friday’s first mountains will be ushered in with Cancellara in yellow, and then it will be a battle to see who from Astana emerges. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to see anyone other than an Astana rider winning. Today, Cadel Evans lost 2:35 to Contador and Armstrong, and Carlos Sastre 1:37, making their lives very difficult. Perhaps the Schleck brothers have a shot, though I can’t see them doing enough in the climbs to make up for what should be time lost in the individual time-trial.

Astana team leadership – Armstrong in yellow equals would have meant more problems for Contador

The real talking point, as many have thought it would be, is how Astana work out team leadership. One man who might be a little relieved that Astana didn’t find another half a second today is Alberto Contador. The prospect of hitting the mountains with his supposed “domestique” Lance Armstrong wearing yellow would hardly have done him much good.

The fact that Armstrong and two team-mates were at the front driving the pace on in yesterday’s split sent a pretty strong message that any promised support for Contador is entirely conditional, and only if Contador is winning the race clearly will he be able to rely on Armstrong’s support.

Had Armstrong been in yellow, and if the race were able to reach the first big mountain stage on Friday with that situation, then the Astana team meetings would be very interesting indeed. Would they have allowed Contador to attack the yellow jersey in his own team? It’s one thing to attack when you have a team-mate ahead of you in the overall race, quite another when he is wearing the race leader’s jersey. Contador might therefore be a little relieved that this is not the case.

Certainly, quotes by Contador yesterday do not suggest a rider at ease within his own team. He was quoted after yesterday’s stage as saying “I don’t want to express an opinion on the tactics of the team. I’ll let everyone draw their own conclusions”.

Your conclusions are welcome!

Next few days

Nothing is predictable in the Tour, as we saw yesterday, but the ‘script’ for the next few days calls for early break-aways, chasing pelotons, and sprint finishes, which should not be too eventful in the grand scheme of the race. The next big rendezvous is in Andorra on Friday, the first mountain top finish of the race, and time-permitting, I’ll do a post ahead of that looking at the power outputs of Tour riders on those climbs.

Enjoy the sprint finishes!

— Ross

This post is part of the following threads: Tour de France Analysis, Tour de France timeline – ongoing stories on this site. View the thread timelines for more context on this post.