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Dr Michele Ferrari
Photo: © CN/Tim Maloney

Doctor's orders: The Dr Michele Ferrari Journal

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

In this very special edition of Le Tour, cycling's most controversial sports doctor will be providing Cyclingnews readers with his unique insight into the mindset of what makes or breaks a champion.

Editor's Note: 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 Tour, 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. See part I of the interview mentioned above for more detail.

Stage 20 - A special Tour

Special. So the Centenary edition of the Tour de France seemed to me. Special in reminding us all what this race is and what it might be. Always similar but different.

The level and preparation of the participants is usually very high, but this year it was really impressive, as the average speed record and the daily battles on the roads showed us.

The parcours was a harsh one indeed, with long stages, focusing more on a competition of endurance than of power. The stifling heat of July did the rest, showing unusual racing conditions, and a series of problems and fatigue to this new generation of cyclists, but quite usual for the Tour de France suiveurs.

In such a context, every mistake, even a little one, be it tactical or technical, is paid for dearly and exaggerated exponentially.

Armstrong did make mistakes, more than once. Fortunately for him, Ullrich made some too.

In the end, I believe the best rider won, in a very balanced situation that amazed and excited us all, but also quite common in the history of this wonderful race.

Stage 19 - The rain changes everything

It hasn't rained for more than 20 days on the roads of the Tour de France; it did today, heavily influencing the much awaited final time trial.

The parcours, described as 'easy', hyper-fast and with just a few curves, proved itself to be really tricky, especially for those riders who used too thin or inflated tyres, in search of the maximum speed.

The gaps today were not so considerable, mainly because it is a lot harder indeed to gain 1 or 2 seconds/km at 54 km/h than at 46 km/h.

After a quite prudent beginning, Armstrong gave everybody the impression that he was easily controlling a hard-pushing Ullrich. Jan's crash and Lance's prudence towards the end deprived us of the pleasure of a breathtaking finale, uncertain of the results until the end of the time trial.

Congratulations to Millar, worthy of the win, and once again great admiration for a superlative Tyler Hamilton, showing remarkable recovery skills after his exploit in Bayonne.

Stage 18 - The effects of tri-bars

The introduction of triathlon handlebars was one of the most important innovations in cycling history. Only the introduction of gear shifting brought more significant improvements in cycling performances.

Initially snubbed, it conquered the scene after Greg Lemond's victory in the Tour de France of 1989. The advantage of the new position, with elbows resting narrowly on the handlebar, immediately showed remarkable results: between 2 and 3 seconds per km, especially when riding longer time trial events.

The "Triathlon position" especially favours those riders who, anatomically predisposed, are able to "wrap up" the neck and head with the shoulders, keeping a sort of "egg" position.

Evgeni Berzin was probably the rider that got the maximum aerodynamic advantage from this new position, favoured by his collar bones' conformation and his small and flexible shoulders. He rested his elbows on a rather high handlebar, projecting his arms as forward as possible, with close elbows: a very comfortable aerodynamic position that allowed him a fluid and efficient pedal stroke. A similar position has been used by Tony Rominger, Miguel Indurain and Lance Armstrong as well.

Riders with larger shoulders can't maintain this position proficiently, tending to lower the handlebar as much as possible: Boardman, Olano and Ullrich are good examples.

Undoubtedly a position with a low-elbow profile puts a bigger stress on the spine: quite an important factor for the first half of the Tour, but a lot less determining when just a few km from Paris.

Stage 17 - Endurance riders reign

17 minutes and 54 seconds was the time to ride the final 15 km solo, after a 180 km breakaway in the company of nine other riders in today's 17th stage of the Tour de France.

With a good position on the bike and a cadence of 100-105 RPM, Servais Knaven shot out like a bullet and managed to keep a speed over 50 km/h for more than 20 minutes. Endurance-skilled and 'classy' athletes got out of the Pyrenees in rather good condition, and are still capable of excellent performances.

On the other hand, the few sprinters still left in the peloton look a lot less brilliant: their very delicate muscle fibres paid a considerable heavy toll to the extreme aerobic efforts in the last mountain stages by protein catabolism typical of three week stage races.

Stage 16 - A significant athletic exploit

One hour and twenty three minutes was the time to 'fly' over the final 64 hilly km of the 16th stage of the Tour: an astonishing average speed of 46.2 km/h!

After being in front for 140 km, pedaling alone for more than 100, with a total difference in altitude of 2500 m, Tyler Hamilton put his signature on one of the most significant athletic exploits we have seen so far in the Tour de France.


Stage 15 - Adrenaline powered climbing

Today Lance Armstrong attacked after only 13 minutes from the start of the ascent to Luz-Ardiden: Jan Ullrich dropped back a little, looked back and immediately decided to climb up his own pace, and a good pace indeed.

A rather big adrenalin rush for Armstrong after another crash today ("It was my fault, I was pedaling too close to the public"). He immediately sped up to catch the main group, attacked and rapidly dropped everyone. Another 20 minutes of furious climbing awaits him till the top.

Armstrong decreased his pace in the final kilometres, almost running out of sugars: he never took a single sip from his bottle during the whole climb.

On the previous mountain, the Tourmalet, Ullrich set another fierce tempo with his typical full and powerful pushes on the pedals: a time of 44'30", with a VAM of 1700 m/h. Armstrong replied with a VAM of 1740 m/h towards Luz-Ardiden: a total time of 35'05".

Impressive performances, for a total effort of more than 1h20'00: the big load of endurance workouts that Armstrong made this last year paid off today, even though the Texan rider is surely not at his best yet, after an endless series of more or less important inconveniences.

Stage 14 - Less heat = faster race

A little less hot today on the roads of the Tour, and immediately we see higher VAM values, confirming the strong influence that temperatures have on uphill performances.

Vinokourov and Mayo climbed the 13 km of Col de Peyresourde in 30'20", with a VAM of 1800 [vertical] m/h. The group with Ullrich, Armstrong, Basso and Zubeldia climbed in 31'15", performing a VAM of 1747 m/h.

Remarkable performances indeed, if we consider that the average gradient of the climb is 7%. With a steeper climb, VAM values would have been higher: about 50 m/h of VAM for every additional degree of the incline.

Stage 13 - A still dehydrated Lance?

Another stifling hot day in the Tour de France. In such conditions, it is possible to lose more than two liters every hour through perspiration, especially when climbing.

The maximum fluids absorption capability of the body is not above one liter/hour, so the risk of dehydration then is always around the corner. Lance Armstrong had a severe case of dehydration in yesterday's time trial; surely he didn't pre-hydrate himself sufficiently before and during the warm up.

A night might not be enough to restore such dehydration status, and the cellular stress could indeed leave longer and deeper signs on the metabolic efficiency. Water is a sort of "lubricant" for cellular activity, as well as for muscular and articular frictions. 23'07" was the time of Jan Ullrich on top of Plateau de Bonascre: a VAM of 1701 m/h.

Stage 12 - Ullrich spins it up

Finally pushing higher-than-usual pedaling cadences, Jan Ullrich dominated the 12th stage of Tour de France.

I checked and evaluated his cadence 12 times today: 94 RPM was the average cadence I could estimate. Good position on the bike, a full and powerful push on the pedals, Ullrich had no rivals today: Lance Armstrong placed second, 1 minute 36 seconds behind at the end of the time trial.

The German rider set an outstanding performance with an average speed of 48.2 km/h, while Armstrong rode at 46.9 km/h: a difference in power output of about 5%. A more that considerable difference indeed. The Yellow Jersey visibly decreased his tempo in the second part of the parcours, looking also visibly dehydrated at the finish line. A severe dehydration might then explain a performance below his usual capabilities.

Stage 9 - Beloki's crash

Harsh. Brutal. Cycling has always been this and much more. The history of this discipline has been made with dramatic episodes like the one of Joseba Beloki in yesterday's stage, sometimes with even worse consequences.

Just a little error, or simply bad luck and the toll is very often a high one to pay, sometimes too high. Even more cruel to happen in a stage race, where the sense of previous day's fatigue is nullified. That's a real pity, especially if we consider that Beloki was much stronger and more focused than last year: remarkable general and uphill improvements since 2001 season indeed.

This Tour de France will still be a very demanding and bitter one. It takes prudence and respect from the most expert riders to finish the Tour, being conscious that thoughtlessness, every parcours-circumstances-capabilities evaluation error extracts a heavy toll.

Stage 8 - Heat-affected zone

Thirty-five degrees Celsius: this was the temperature at the beginning of the climb to Alpe d'Huez. It easily went up to 40° in some places for the riders, pedaling under the sun and on the French asphalt roads.

With such high temperatures, the thermostatic temperature control of the body becomes a determining factor; a bigger volume of blood is sent right under the skin in order to lose heat with sweat, taking away oxygen from the muscles.

The body's temperature tends to increase, sometimes reaching or even exceeding 39° C. If 39° C is exceeded, heat stroke might happen, with even more serious outcomes.

Heavier riders have a smaller bodily surface if compared to their mass, thus it is harder for them to lose heat than lighter riders.

Performances are indeed very affected by high temperatures: just think of how much slower athletes run marathons during summer months, in comparison with winter and spring events.

In fact, en excellent Iban Mayo climbed the final ascent in 39:05 (VAM of 1735 m/h), two minutes slower than Marco Pantani's record.

Farther back come Armstrong and the group of the best riders (VAM of 1640 m/h).They were all controlling each other, trying to avoid risks to keep something in reserve for the next few days, beginning with tomorrow¹s 9th stage, with Lautaret and Izoard, ending in Gap, one of the hottest places in France.

Stage 7 - Endurance prodigy

What a prodigy of endurance is Richard Virenque!

After almost 200 km of being in front in this "African heat" stage, with a total difference in altitude of more than 3000 m, he really deserved to cross the line first in Morzine and wear the Maillot Jaune.

Even though Virenque has been pushing hard for 6 hours, he could climb the Col de la Ramaz in 39 minutes, with a VAM of 1538 m/h: indeed a remarkable performance, considering the length of the ascent and the not so considerable gradient (6.9%). The peloton with Lance Armstrong climbed it in about 36 minutes, with a VAM of approximately 1650 m/h.

As always the impact with the first mountain stage has been harsher than expected: a lot of riders paid the toll for the furious battles during the first 6 "flat" stages and the stifling heat. Here is the difference between Le Tour and the other big stage races...

Freshness, endurance skills and recovery will be the most crucial issues in the next 2 weeks; this is only stage 7!

Stage 5 - At the speed of light

Thursday, July 10, 2003

Today we saw another not-so-flat stage at the speed of light, in the full heat of this French summer.

The peloton imposed a very high pace from the beginning, slowing down just a little bit towards the final kilometres, only to get ready for the sprint, once again dominated by a Petacchi, who is indeed HORS CATEGORIE.

But...Marzio BRUSEGHIN was the one rider that really impressed me during these first stages of the Tour: pulling fiercely at the head of the group, he amazed me with his power and continuity. Today we saw him on the front pulling alone for so many hours, and surely the cycling connoisseurs know exactly what it means to be at the mercy of the strong wind while the average speed is over 47 km/h!

Stage 4 - How to ride a perfect TTT

Wednesday, July 9, 2003

Photo: © Olympia Photo

Giro d'Italia, 1984: Lucca-Pietrasanta, a 55 km Team Time Trial. The captain of Gis-TucLu, the amazing and generous time-trialist Francesco Moser, is leading his teammates with unbelievably fierce pulls. After 15 km there the little climb of Mount Quiesa: 1.5 km with a gradient of 6%. Half of Moser's team drops off and the captain has to wait for his teammates to catch up, losing 30 precious seconds and eventually, the stage (Fignon's Renault-Elf squad won that TTT).

Apart from homogeneity and team spirit, the secret of a good TTT is to keep a CONSTANT SPEED, which obviously has also to be high! Every acceleration extracts a heavy toll on all the riders, especially the ones in the back who have just finished their own pull.

The best and strongest riders should perform longer pulls, but not increase the speed, limiting the accelerations instead. This tactic is more easily achieved riding together in a single row, rather than a double one. Although for very high speeds (i.e. downhill or tailwind) I find the latter to be more efficient.

A high pedaling cadence (around 100-110 RPM) helps the rider to keep up with the sudden accelerations, and definitely saves the legs for the following days.

The distribution and timing of the effort over a one hour plus time trial is also determining: it is better to start prudently so that every rider in the team has the necessary time to get into the race.

The US Postal Service team time trial of today was indeed perfect.

Stage 3 - The crisis of the third day

Tuesday, July 8, 2003

The third or the fourth day of a stage race is often a difficult one for a lot of riders indeed, when it's time to starting dealing with an increased muscles soreness in the legs and a more general sense of discomfort, uneasiness or tiredness.

This little crisis usually lasts one-two days maximum, and it is due to an adaptation of the body (a sort of "over-reaching" phenomenon) to the furious paces of the first week of racing. The first stages of Tour de France are never to be considered as "tranfer stages" to the mountains; the parcours is often very hilly, and a lot of riders are taking advantage of their fresh legs because the first week is perhaps their only chance to get results before the second (and more challenging) week arrives.

Petacchi, perhaps, had his third day crisis yesterday. And today he showed everybody to have fully recovered! His wonderful progressing sprint was really impressive, worthy to be compared to the best of Cipollini's.

Stage 1 - Crashes at the Tour de France

Sunday, July 6, 2003

Photo: © AFP

The consequences of a crash during a stage race could be much more important than we usually tend to think.

Excluding major injuries such as bone fractures and concussions, even the seeming most insignificant crash might have a negative consequence such as postural problems, with unusual extra load for muscles, tendons and joints.

The everyday struggles to finish the stages only worsen such imbalance, and the more this increases, the more it decreases the rider's performance ability, eventually forcing him to give up.

Internal muscular-fascial and articular frictions can also remarkably increase, raising the energy expenditure of certain muscular groups and subjecting tendon structure to excess work.

This fascial tension around the muscular fibers even decreases the very vascularization of the involved muscles.

Also the diaphragm is subjected to such tensions (miofascial tensions), compromising the whole respiratory efficiency.

Therefore a crash, even if trivial, can truly be an AGGRESSOR to the harmony of the athlete's organism: it should never be underestimated and it should be properly treated and solved as soon as possible.

Prologue - The winning formula

Saturday July 5, 2003

It was 7 minutes and 30 seconds of effort; just like a 3000m race in athletics, so what you need to win is good resistance to high speeds and maximum aerobic power (VO2max), as well as the ability to tolerate and sustain high lactic acid concentrations.

With pavè on more than half of the prologue's 6.5 km course, this required specific strength and technique to win. So a rider's anaerobic threshold and endurance were not so decisive, but they will be in the for those who want to win the Tour de France.

In yesterday's prologue, we saw a great balance between all the great names that aspire for the final victory. And it was close, with just a few seconds gap between all the contenders. Welcome back Jan and welcome Gilberto too!

The secrets to Tour success

Friday July 4, 2003

Here are some of the most important strategies for success that any rider must use and be aware of to win the Tour de France.

RECOVERY. This is the most important need for a rider during the three weeks of the Tour de France. The prologue is when the start of the Tour truly becomes a relief for the riders after all tension created by the media and the sponsors prior to the prologue. The rider's attitude toward dealing with the pressure, as well as the experience from years of professional cycling, can lessen the pain of waiting.

SAVING ENERGY during the race is vital, by carefully moving within the peloton, using your own race knowledge and the with help from other teammates. Pedal at the front of the group; that's fundamental for day-to-day recovery, as well as having proper nutrition and hydration strategies.

CONTROLLING YOUR NERVES, especially in the first fast flat stages of the Tour is very important. Nobody wants to touch the brakes in the merciless fight for position, so steady nerves reduces the risk of hard crashes during that first week.

CRAVING for the mountains. Once the Alps and Pyrenees actually come under the wheels of the riders with a reordering on general classification, the tension subsides. After the craving, there's then some regret when muscles complain about the sudden strain and pain caused by furious climbing.

CHANGES IN TEMPERATURE, typical of mountain-top altitudes, add more stress, fatigue and suffering to the already huge efforts of competing in the biggest stage race in the world. It's not only a matter of lungs, heart and muscles, but also the digestive system and kidneys, which are constantly under extremely stressful conditions throughout the Tour.

QUALITY OF SLEEP is crucial, especially during the second half of the Tour. Fatigue accumulates day after day in the Tour, and in the last week, it feels like you're carrying a huge boulder on your back, like the famous saying of the monkey one's back.

RESTORING YOUR SUPPLY OF ENERGY in just a few hours gets harder and more important after each stage. Riders get more and more vulnerable to external factors, and even coming down with just an ordinary stomach ache or cold can jeopardize months of hard work and sacrifice.

MAKING IT TO PARIS! That's the name of the game for those that suffer each day on end in the peloton, striving to just finish within the time limit. Up front, the best riders shoot their last shots to consolidate and reinforce their position on general classification.

Without a doubt, all the riders that make it through the final stage and finish on the Champs Elysées are winners.

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