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59th Vuelta a España, September 4-26, 2004

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Dr Michele Ferrari
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Doctor's orders: The Dr Michele Ferrari Journal

Dr Michele Ferrari, coach to cycling greats including Moser, Bugno, Argentin and Rominger, in addition to six-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, has never been afraid to push the boundaries of sports science.

For the 2004 Vuelta, cycling's most controversial sports doctor will once again provide Cyclingnews readers with his unique insight into the mental and physical attributes that make or break champions.

Stage 21 - September 26: Madrid - Madrid (I.T.T.), 28.2 km


The class of Roberto Heras was decisive in today's time trial in Madrid, the final stage of this beautiful Vuelta. Roberto showed very good position on the bike and an ideal pedaling cadence (100-110 rpm); his determination did the rest.

His rival Santi Perez took the stage win, thanks to an amazing condition, but in my opinion he still has to improve his position on the bike (he support of the elbows on the handlebaris a bit too wide) and raise his pedaling cadence, which was around 85-95 rpm today.

The best four performances in the TT, enclosed in 13 seconds, were made by 'climbers'. This confirms that, after 21 stages, freshness and physical condition are more relevant than technical characteristics and specialization.

Stage 20 - September 25: La Vega de Alcobendas - Puerto de Navacerrada, 178 km

Simply hors categorie!

A striking performance from Santiago Perez, who devoured the 560m of elevation of the last 6.5km of Puerto de Novaserrada with an amazing VAM = 2067 m/h!

The effort was relatively short and half the climb was done drafting from other riders, but the performance is simply HORS CATEGORIE!

Roberto Heras bravely tried to hang on to his wheels as long as possible, but eventually he gave up about 30" in just 1.5 km: a sudden and merciless crash.

A sharp difference in power output between the two rivals: Roberto simply had to hang on, notwithstanding the speed developed by Perez (24 km/h); drafting at such speed even when climbing saves about 30-40 watts.

Tomorrow's TT will obviously be the decisive stage for the final victory; from what we've seen in this last week of racing, the logic would put the prediction on Perez, but the experience and determination of Heras render the challenge all the more uncertain.

Stage 17 - September 22: Plasencia - Estación de Esquí La Covatilla (Béjar), 170 km

Liberty causes trouble

Once again an amazing stage full of surprises in the Vuelta 2004. We are now in the final week of the race. Today it was a hot day (30-32° C) and the very hard course profile made a sharp and merciless selection. The Liberty Seguros team set a fast pace on all the climbs, putting a lot of riders into serious trouble from the first uphill phases. After 2 Cols of 1st Category, the following one, a 3rd Category climb, forced many valuable riders to give up: Damiano Cunego, the winner of the last Giro d'Italia was among them (losing over 19 minutes).

On the final climb to Covatilla the strongest was once again Santiago Perez, who climbed the 12 km in 29'04" (VAM = 1717 m/h). The last 8 km, the steepest with a gradient of 8 percent, were climbed in 21'30", producing a VAM of 1800 m/h. Impressive performances indeed, especially if we consider the altitude and the wind, which seemed rather strong.

Heras gave in 32 seconds in less than 2 km: probably some bonking issues for him in the end, considering that he was exchanging pulls with Perez quite actively along the final climb.

"Die-hard" Mancebo gave in only a few seconds to Roberto, while Valverde paid the toll for the fatigue accumulated in the last days' efforts as well as for the crash and most likely the torrid heat.

Four riders enclosed in 2 minutes gap can still aspire to the final victory: it's really the Vuelta of surprises, and the biggest one may be yet to come...

Stage 15 - September 19: Granada - Sierra Nevada (I.T.T.), 29.6 km

Steady ascent

Analyzing the intermediate times of the excellent performance of Santi Perez in Sunday's uphill time trial, we get some pretty interesting data. The Phonak rider rode the first 6.7 km of easy uphill (gradient of 2 percent) in about 9'30", while he took 20'30" to climb up to km 13 of the Alto de Monachil ascent, with a difference in height of 610 m. Therefore his VAM on this distance was 1785 m/h, visibly inferior to his performance yesterday (1878 m/h) on the same climb, at the end of a 167 km stage. This might seem strange and surprising, but not really so: let's remember Lance Armstrong's time trial performances on l'Alpe d'Huez or Mont Ventoux, which also resulted in inferior times to other attempts at the end of longer stages in the past.

Apart from possible external factors (such as wind and temperature), we should remember that in a normal stage the first part of the final climb is usually ridden drafting from other riders, thus saving about 15-30 watts, depending on speed. Another factor could be the body weight of the rider, which after 4 hours of racing has usually decreased by 1-2 kg, compared to a time trial situation. Two kg corresponds more or less to 3 percent of the uphill performance: on a VAM of 1800 m/h it makes a difference of more than 50 m/h.

Furthermore, the long duration of today's time trial (more than an hour) suggested a certain prudence in the distribution of the effort, with a different approach to the hard ramps of the Alto de Monachil, also taking into consideration the altitude of 2100m at the finish line in Sierra Nevada.

Stage 14 - September 18: Málaga - Granada, 167 km


An impressive 'number' that of Santi Perez on the climb to Alto de Monachil: he took a 30-second advantage on the group of the best ones in the final 5 km of the ascent (with a VAM of 1878 m/h!), and was able to cut the finish line first after 20 km of flat and downhill distances with a gap of 46 seconds, notwithstanding the hard chase behind him. Valverde really wanted to take the stage, but there was nothing to do against such a Perez. Even on the flats the 27 year-old Asturian rider showed some remarkable pedaling efficiency and an impeccable position on the bike.

Tomorrow's time trial, after a first flat part, will feature today's climb once again plus some 'endless' 15 km of lower gradients, but all exposed to winds, up to the finish line in Sierra Nevada. A hardest trial that will surely promote big surprises..."

Stage 11 - September 14: San Vicente del Raspeig - Caravaca de la Cruz, 165 km

Absolute endurance

A stage victory, some 160 kilometres of lone breakaway, a perfect position on the bike, an ideal pedaling cadence (95-100 RPM): finally David Zabriskie showed his talent in a Grand Tour. And finally a performance of "absolute endurance", just the kind of action that is getting more and more rare to see nowadays.

A continuous effort of 4 hours, with no "recovery breaks" by drafting from other riders, puts forward the big issue of distributing the intensity of the exertion. The athlete must be able to choose the ideal one that would not be too energy expensive, while at the same time be performing as much as possible. We can dare say that an average power output of 12-15% below the anaerobic threshold level is the right one, provided that the rider has trained proficiently his endurance skills; this is the only way to avoid running out of fuel (glycogen stores) too soon and be able to keep a good pace up to the finish line.

Furthermore, it is always necessary to consider the (re)action of the group chasing: it is useful to give an impression of being "less strong" than the reality, saving precious energy in the central phases of the breakaway action, in order to speed up in the final part when the peloton really begins the big chase.

Nutrition and hydration strategies become crucial: the caloric consumption reaches up to 1000 Kcal/hour, half of which at least have to be reintegrated during the race with the intake of about 80-100g of carbohydrates every hour. On top of this, it is necessary to add 600-1000 ml of isotonic fluids, especially if the temperature is high.

Watching Zabriskie on TV at the end of the stage, he appeared decidedly spent and dehydrated; it is most useful in such cases to check the body weight: every kg lost in the effort needs to be integrated with 1.5 l of fluids (see related article on 53x12.com for more insights about Rehydration).

Tomorrow's rest day should be enough to recuperate.

Stage 10 - September 13: Alcoi - Xorret de Catí (Castalla-Alicante), 174.5 km

Xorret de Catí VAM analysis

13 minutes and 10 seconds was the time that Jorge Ferrio took to climb the 460 m of elevation at 10.6 percent average gradient of the Alto de Xorret del Catì, producing a VAM of 2096 m/hour. Not so far back came Valverde, Geras and Piepoli with 2070 m/h.

A little behind these were Sastre and Nozal (1995 m/h), Mancebo (1971 m/h) and Landis (1948 m/h).

Excellent performances indeed, but not amazing ones if we consider the rather short duration of the effort and the high average gradient of the climb: both these factors in fact allow much higher VAM values in comparison with longer and less steep ascents. A climb with such characteristics favors climbers of small build and low weight with remarkable anaerobic capacities, while it certainly penalizes heavier riders with less explosiveness.

Stage 9 - September 12: Xátiva - Alto de Aitana (Alicante), 170 km


Bravo Leonardo Piepoli, who was finally able to win a stage in a Grand Tour. Bravo Roberto Heras, who gained precious seconds over his main GC adversaries. But perhaps the strongest of all today on the climb to Aitana was Isidro Nozal.

The rider of Liberty Seguros made the selection, taking the group of the favorites through a long progression and opening the road for Heras' attack in the final kms. On top of such a great job, he cut the finish line third, only six seconds behind his captain.

The relatively low gradient in the first part and some headwind affected the VAM on the last climb, just below 1600 m/h, while at the same time favored drafting, somewhat limiting the gaps till the top.

I also liked Mancebo's performance, a great fighter always present in the general classifications of the Grand Tours, as he was able to regain some ground in the final phases of the climb.

Stage 8 - September 11: Factoría FORD - Factoría FORD (I.T.T.), 41 km

Now for the recovery

As predicted, today's TT proposed some surprises as well as important gaps.

Tyler Hamilton took the stage win flying at 51 km/h, managing an optimal distribution of the effort and a most ideal pedaling cadence (98-102 RPM). Floyd Landis, albeit author of an excellent performance, probably paid the toll of a little too exuberant start as well as a quite low cadence (85-88 RPM).

Manuel Beltran was the best among the 'climbers' and author of a superlative performance (he gave in only 1 second/km), with a cadence between 95-100 RPM. Excellent were Mancebo, Sastre and Heras too.

The profile of tomorrow's stage hangs over the fatigue of the riders: 162 very nervous km, with the final climb of Alto de Aitana.

We are only at the beginning of the second week of racing. Recovery skills from the physical and nervous exertion will be decisive in the next few days: today's time trial does charge up in motivation, but also in responsibilities for those who intend to win the Vuelta."

Preview: Crucial preparation for the time trial

Tomorrow's individual time trial will undoubtedly put under the spotlight all the favorites for the final victory in this Vuelta a España; we'll surely see some remarkable adjustments in a so far inscrutable general classification.

A flat course of 40 km, likely to be blown by quite strong winds, will produce some noticeable gaps, favoring the specialists and those riders with the best form.

The approach to such a demanding and crucial trial is going to be decisive, as usual.

Nutrition for tonight and tomorrow has to be well balanced: avoid excessively heavy and large meals so to prevent the riders from 'flooding' their engine, as well as provide a rich source in carbohydrates (at least 400 g within the 24 hours prior to the race) so to saturate both muscular and hepatic glycogen stores, glycogen being the preferred fuel for tomorrow's time trial.

The pre-race warm up in the morning (about an hour to an hour and a half) will be of moderate intensity, so not to break into the glycogen saved during the night. Those riders inclined to use higher gear ratios and lower pedaling cadences (probably because of predominance in white muscle fibers) might feel like performing 3-4 intervals of a couple of minutes at 50-60 RPM, at medium intensity, in order to stimulate elevated muscular tensions, 'awakening' their motor units. More 'agile' riders (predominance in red fibers) might instead prefer to pedal at higher cadences, so to better activate their neuro-muscular automatisms.

The pre-race meal, consumed at least 3 hours before the start, has to be light: 400-600 Kcal in total, with a majority of carbohydrates (pasta, rice, potatoes).

The real warm-up is going to begin 60 to 80 minutes before the start: 30 to 40 minutes at moderate intensity, followed by two progressions of four to six minutes each reaching up to anaerobic threshold level, with a three to four minutes of recovery between. If the heart rate rises up easily during the progression, then the athlete is ready; otherwise, if the pulse finds it quite hard to reach the AT level, it is preferable to add another four- to six-minute progression. In any case, the last one has to precede the start by at least 12 to 15 minutes, during which the intensity of the effort has to be low, just to keep oneself moving. It is fundamental to have a proper hydration all along the warm-up phases.

Personally, I always prefer the warm-up to be done on the road, either pedaling uphill or on flats; the trainer is preferable in the last minutes while waiting for the start.

Stages 1-5

First skirmishes at the Vuelta

The first 4 stages of this Vuelta a Espana 2004 did not show any particularly furious competition, probably because of the courses, mostly flat and developed over large and straight roads, not suitable to make a selection. After the show of USPS in the team time trial, the 'flashes' of Petacchi and Valverde reminded us all anyway the remarkable technical level of the participants.

Today's fifth stage finally saw a departure from the big national routes and developed on narrow, rolling and winding roads in the province of Castellon. Vinokourov and some other team mates in T-Mobile had some major problems today, probably due to food poisoning, always a trap for any rider in the wandering carovana of a stage race...

The Puerto de Torremiro, a second category climb, selected about 20 among the strongest riders in the front; Denis Menchov took the stage win on the final ascent to Morella, with all the favorites contained in a few seconds gap anyway.

VAM - Dr Ferrari often discusses 'VAM'. This stands for Velocita Ascensionale Media [average climbing speed], and is a measure of the rider's rate of ascent. In mountain stages of races such as the Vuelta, most of the work a rider does goes to overcome gravity, so VAM is a useful indicator of the rider's form on that day.