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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 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: Superb time trialling

Heras grabs his second victory in the Vuelta a Espaņa, thanks to a superb time trial performance, being able to climb the 600 m altitude difference in 22'28" (I subtracted from his final time the 2'40" it took him to ride the flat 2 km of the parcours). His VAM was 1600 m/h, a remarkable one considering the not-so-steep gradient of the climb.

Nozal, a worthy adversary, collapsed probably more under the stressful responsibilities of the leadership than the fatigue over the three weeks of racing.

Today in Italy there was the 86th edition of Giro dell' Emilia: a tough race with a tough final climb, the Colle di San Luca (220 m altitude difference over 2 km with an average gradient of 11%) which was to be climbed four times.

The group with the best riders rode the first three ascents in: 6'08" (VAM of 2152 m/h), 6'12" (VAM of 2129 m/h), 6'15" (VAM of 2112 m/h). The last one was flown in 5'55" (VAM of 2230 m/h). Such a performance blows away Jan Ullrich's in 2001: 6'10" in a wonderful fight with Casagrande and Rebellin.

It simply cannot be proposed to compare these VAM values with Vuelta's, but it subtly suggests the difference in intensity between one-day classic races and big stage races.

Stage 19: Theory vs. reality

The climb in tomorrow's uphill TT, the Alto de Abantos, and the final ascent in today's 19th stage of the Vuelta have the same difference in altitude (600 m) as well as the same average gradient (about 6%).

In today's climb, Nozal lost 1 minute 26" to Heras. Theoretically tomorrow's difference between the two rivals should confirm such a gap. It might happen, but theory is often far from reality.

In fact, there is a fine difference between a 20-25 minutes all-out effort in a time-trial and the final climb of a stage, after 3 weeks of furious racing, when you feel that the fuel is running out.

Tomorrow's result will be also strongly affected by recovery abilities after today's strains and by how both riders cope with pre-race stress.

Exceeding tension or anxiety may actually make the riders burn precious energies, both nervous and metabolic: it is like an engine of a car with a low idling speed that has to be on for 20 hours straight, risking starting the race with an almost empty tank.

Stage 16: Power saving in the mountains

As expected, today's climbing of Sierra Nevada hasn't substantially changed the general classification. The group of the best riders rode over the 30 km of the climb (1800 m difference in altitude, with an average gradient of 6%) in 1 hour 8 minutes, at the average speed of 26.4 km/h.

At such speeds, drafting from another rider means saving about 50 watts, corresponding to approximately 15% of the average power output of the riders when pedaling uphill. Saved watts seriously increase if "protected" by a group of several riders.

Such difference in power wattage is quite remarkable, corresponding to the difference between Soglia Intensity (threshold pace) and Medio Intensity (medium pace).

Stage 15: TT vs. climbing ability trade off

Heras and Cardenas climbed the Sierra de la Pandera in today's stage in 22'30": 680 m of difference in altitude, over 7.3 km of climbing is a VAM of 1813 m/h.

Nozal defended his leadership very well, reaching the top in 23'42", a VAM of 1721 m/h. Heras's performance was thus 5.3% faster than Nozal's, while the difference in power output between them in Friday's time trial was about 5% higher for the ONCE rider.

Heras's time on Pandera was 50" slower than last year's, confirming the impression that the USPS rider has improved his time trialing, to the detriment of his climbing performing capabilities.

This was probably a deliberate choice, considering that the parcours of this edition of the Vuelta favours time trialists.

Stage 13 : An important step to victory

Isidro Nozal confirmed himself to be the strongest time trialist and took an important step towards the final victory in the Vuelta. With his perfect aerodynamic position and pedaling cadence (100-105 RPM), he truly reminds me of the best Olano, winner of one Vuelta and twice present on the final podium of the Giro d'Italia.

Roberto Heras probably raced his best time trial ever, limiting the gap to 1'45", thus losing about 2" per km.

Heras, even if he's 5 minutes behind, is the most dangerous adversary for Nozal: he'll surely try to outrun the young ONCE rider on the climbs, considering Nozal's lack of experience on stage races.

All the US Postal team, seemingly in a constant crescendo of performance, will have to try and keep the race hard in the mountains, far enough from the finish line to wear down the rivals, even though the remaining stages don't seem appropriate to this intent.

Stages 11-12: The wind takes its toll

Endless straights being swept by the furious wind: this was the exciting scenario towards the finish of the 12th stage of the Vuelta a Espaņa. Yesterday the peloton broke into several pieces, thanks to the weather and the altitude (the whole parcours was at an elevation of approximately 1000 m, where air density decreases by about 5%): the average speed was in fact 50 km/h! Beltran, Scarponi and Perez were among those who paid rather a heavy toll, losing about 1 minute.

Today the US Postal team started the "Danza dei Ventagli" (oblique drafting rows, from cross winds), keeping a high tempo for about a hour. The two captains of Fassa Bortolo, Frigo and Gonzalez, lost some ground to the first riders, together with the young and promising Kelme rider, Valverde (7th in GC).

It was a fierce fight, kilometre after kilometre, between the front riders and the pursuers that surely left "deep scars" in the legs of the athletes for tomorrow's time-trial.

A very happy Petacchi wins his third stage in this year's Vuelta; a little less seemed Frigo and Gonzalez, dropping 1 minute back in the general classification.

Ironically, these last two flat stages put more difference between the race leaders than all the 12,000 meters of climbing of the previous mountain stages.

Stages 7-8 - Tangled tactics

Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano seems to be the choice for captain of ONCE for the general classification, since after Heras' attack on the Col du Aubisque, golden jersey Isidro Nozal himself led the chase over the last 60 km of the stage, with Gonzalez the Galdeano drafting right behind him.

And once again the performance of this young Spaniard has been outstanding, being able to limit the gap from 1'15" to Heras' group on top of the Col du Aubisque, eventually closing in on them on the decent and especially on the false-flats that preceded the final ascent of Cauterets, where he dropped back slightly without losing the golden jersey.

As for US Postal, Roberto Heras has proved to be the best rider in the mountains so far. His attack was very firm and courageous, selecting a group with the most brilliant climbers, his pace being so high that only Perez (very fresh and powerful) could help him. The wind and the not-so-steep gradients surely hindered his attempt, spending precious energy that might have been useful in the final ascent.

So Beltran, his closest wing man who rode behind the wheels of the ONCE rivals, could take an advantage over his captain, sliding up to second place on GC.

In Fassa Bortolo, Dario Frigo rode very wisely, attacking in the last km and able to gain precious seconds over his closest rivals and his teammate, Vuelta 2002 winner Aitor Gonzalez.

And today, in the 8th stage, it was Aitor Gonzalez who repeatedly "pulled the necks" of the golden jersey pretenders.

Balance and uncertainty so far in the big Spanish race, maybe because of the rather affordable slopes and the long false-flats between each climb that facilitate recovery.

Stage 6 - The mathematics of time trialing

The average speed of the best riders in today's time trial might seem low. But it is not.

The whole parcours was hilly, with many slightly uphill and downhill sections, and a strong wind disturbed the pace of the riders all the time: the start and the finish line were very close in altitude. Even though the roads were wide and straight, riders, whenever they are going downhill, never recover the time they lose on the climbs.

For example, if the athlete keeps an average speed of 36 km/h in all uphill sections, and subsequently he rides at 64 km/h in all downhill distances, his final average speed won't be 50 km/h, as we might be tempted to think (36 + 64 = 100; 100/2 = 50). Instead it will be only 46 km/h. In fact, it takes 1'40" for every km at 36 km/h, while it takes 56" to ride a km at 64 km/h: every 2 km is 156", that is 78"/km which equals an average speed of 46 km/h.

Isidro Nozal's performance today was superlative, considering he triumphed with an average speed of 49 km/h, despite the strong wind: indeed one of the most promising young Spanish riders in the international cycling scene.

Stage 5 - Tour vs Vuelta & Petacchi vs Petacchi

Ten stages of more than 190 km in the Tour, none in this edition of the Vuelta. That's a remarkable difference between the two stage races and it puts under the spotlight totally different riders and training methods.

The Tour demands riders with supreme endurance qualities, while the Vuelta advantages a more explosive kind of rider. The shorter stages "make a present" of at least two hours of recovery every day, and so riders glycogen stores rarely empty completely. The result is very high average speeds and the most brutal accelerations during the race. In the Vuelta the start of each stage is quite later than usual, too, around 1 pm or 2 pm. This allows the muscles to better store the carbohydrates that riders got at breakfast.

It is rather unsurprising that Alessandro Petacchi, the most explosive and uncontrollable rider in sprints so far, suffers so much as soon as the road goes uphill, even though he proudly defended himself whenever climbing in the past racing seasons.

The great enhancement of Petacchi's sprinting abilities has come out exactly at the same time of his worsening of climbing qualities. In fact he has been able to transform part of his 'intermediate' muscle fibers into fast twitch ones, improving his sprint to the detriment of his aerobic power.

Stage 3 - Another rainy day at the Vuelta

After the demanding TTT of day one and the furious pace of the first two stages, surely the riders will feel deep soreness in their legs in the next few days.

Yesterday ONCE and Kelme 'stretched' the whole peloton, keeping a tempo of 60 km/h for long flat distances (I timed 13 km in 13'00!), and today an uphill start with the first hour of racing 'pancia a terra' (belly on the ground) all the time, and a final average speed of about 45 km/h.

While the rain and the cold temperatures stiffen the muscles, the rider tends to push higher gears, with lower pedaling cadences, straining tendons and joints with the risk of tendonitis and inflammations. Cold also increases energetic expenditure, so it is opportune to eat more during the race, especially in the first half of the stage, increasing the usual fats intake.

Stage 1 - Harmony is the key

The Team Time Trial is a complex and fascinating specialty of cycling. There are so many variable factors that only a perfect amalgamation of all these can bring to success. Obviously the quality and athletic predisposition of every single rider is very important to the outcome, but it might not be enough.

A big sized rider (195 cm / 80 kg), when pedaling at 54 km/h in front with no wind blowing, has to push 540 watts, while for a medium sized rider (175 cm / 65 kg) it is sufficient to push 420 watts. Such riders, when drafting a similar sized athlete save about 25-30% of power output: the numbers get down to 400 watts and 310 watts respectively.

If the team is homogeneous and rides in single row, each rider will be in front for X-time and will draft for a 7-8 X-time. It is better not to pull in front for more than 20-25 seconds, so not to accumulate excessive lactic acid.

It takes experience and harmony in the team to ride a good TTT, and it is not by mere chance that the best performances are often made by those few same teams.

US Postal probably started too prudently today, losing 16 seconds in the first 3.6 km of the race to ONCE-Eroski, that did not hesitate to drop two teammates in the slightly uphill start, knowing how hard it is to recover 10-13 seconds at such high speeds in 'just' 28 km.

More Vuelta a España diaries