Saturday features the time trial that, as usual, definitively settles the race for the Maillot Jaune, as well as the best young rider and team classifications. Technically, things are very much in doubt, with Alberto Contador maintaining a slim eight second lead coming into the stage of Saxo Bank's Andy Schleck, but Contador has proven himself to be the superior time triallist and is expected to win handily in their two-man battle. Maybe the stage too.
The reason why the time trial is given such a prominent role in deciding the outcome is that this discipline has long been known as the "race of truth." Maybe not ultimate, comprehensive truth -- strong riders can be lousy time trialists. But the corollary is never the case -- lesser riders have no chance in the race against the watch. This is the discipline for guys who pack a lot of power.
Some technical stuff: Saturday's event is 53km. This is about as long as a time trial ever gets nowadays. The Giro had a 62km event last year, one of the hardest bike races ever (won by Denis Menchov, hint hint), but typically something in the 50's is the magic number for the Tour. This distance sets it apart from almost every other race, as the Giro and the Vuelta tend to utilize time trials in the 25-40 km range. One reason 50km is a magic number is that some guys (Sammy Sanchez comes to mind) are potential winners in the shorter events, but get weeded out in the 50km range. [Or, have, in the past. Sammy could shock me this time around.] In short, even among the race-of-truthers, the 50km distance is for the truly elite. Befitting of the Tour de France.
I can think of a couple reasons why some great riders like Andy Schleck aren't great time triallists, which is a good way of reviewing what it takes to win. On the flip...
- Pure power -- Andy Schleck may have the most watts per kilogram, the key determinant in who wins on the climbs, but a lot of time trials are on flatter surfaces, so the kilogram denominator in that equation isn't so important. In fact, throw in some winds and extra weight might be an advantage, for maintaining momentum. What really matters is the numerator: watts. Fabian Cancellara, pictured above, is one of the bigger guys and puts out a ton of raw power. He's the Cavendish of the time trials, a dominant #1 who only loses when there are other goals in the way. His current world championship reign is his third in four years.
- Positioning -- The usual limiting factor, wind friction, is especially important in a time trial, ridden alone. That's why so much money is invested in prototype bike designs aimed to get riders low and reduce the wind drag of the bike itself. Not everyone can get in the ideal position and stay there, though intensive coaching and wind tunnels are in vogue now to help a Tour contender's cause. I may be off but what I understand is you want to see a guy's back look pretty flat. If it's tipped at an angle, he's not in a good position. A caveat is that the position can't undermine the rider's power. There's a famous story about the secret bike Trek was designing for Lance Armstrong in the 2003 Tour, which had a narrow Q-factor (distance between the feet when clipped in the pedals). Narrower is better, but in testing Armstrong's power dropped steadily as the race went on compared to his normal ITT bike, so the project was scrapped. A more mundane version of this story is that some guys just aren't comfortable in their ideal crono position. [Crono = Italian, cronometro, for watch race.] Which brings us to...
- Practice! Often you will see riders improve dramatically in their time trialling over the course of their career. It's simply a matter of doing it enough to develop the position, the comfort, the rhythm, and the feel for how to maintain your effort over the length of the race. Ideally one would go out a bit slower than your maximum effort in a longer event, so that you finish up really strongly, or at least so that you don't run out of power before the end, which is disastrous. Anyway, guys don't usually set out to be time trial specialists in their teens and early pro years, so they don't tend to practice the discipline as much until life gives them a reason to. Schleck is an example, as a climber he probably avoided his TT bike a fair amount. Now he's gotten a bit better, undoubtedly with practice, since he's now a legitimate Tour contender and the discipline is now crucial to his success.
Photo by Spencer Platt, Getty Images Sport