A time trial in the Tour de France is one of the most grueling and technical tests in all of sports, but, when well executed, it can also be one of the most rewarding. Unlike most mass-start stages of the Tour, in the TT each rider races individually, and the winner is the guy who can complete the course in the fastest time.
Le contre le montre, the race against the clock, is a physical and mental discipline that demands thorough reconnaissance and sharp focus, for the rider and his sports director. It's not unusual for TT's to be decided by a handful of seconds or even hundredths of a second. After Greg LeMond completed the most famous TT in cycling history, he won the 1989 race by eight seconds.
A rider has to leave it all on the road, but he should finish with his energy and power spent evenly. If he goes too hard too early, he might implode and pay for his efforts later in the race; if he goes too easy, he risks running a slower time and missing the opportunity to give his all. Winners meter out effort over the duration.
Most of the 198 riders in this year's Tour took to the start line for the stage-one time trial in the rain. Overall favorites raced in hopes of striking an early blow to their general-classification rivals, many just wanted to finish the race safely, and a handful of specialists raced to win the day.
Business Insider rode in the follow car of Cannondale-Drapac team leader Rigoberto Urán. From the backseat we got a look at how his sports director, Charly Wegelius, helped Urán do his best race and begin to lay the foundation for a high overall finish in Paris 23 days later.
A flat, fast course in the rain with lots of turns and slippery road surfaces.
The 104th Tour de France got underway in the rain, which changed the mood of a race and made the riders nervous. Those in the hunt for a high overall place in Paris 23 days later had to decide whether they were going to take risks to try to gain time on rivals or play it safe and just finish without crashing. They say you can't win the Tour on a day like this, but that you can lose it. Spain's Alejandro Valverde, a race favorite, rode too fast and crashed out after going down in a slick corner and shattering a kneecap. His Tour was over in minutes.
A well-executed time trial requires detailed planning and a thorough reconnaissance of the course.
Rigoberto Urán is a gifted climber who has finished second overall in the Giro d'Italia on two occasions and won a time trial in that race. Charly Wegelius is a former pro cyclist turned sports director. Urán came into this Tour fresh, and the team had expectations for him to finish high in the general classification. Wegelius told Business Insider that the objective for Urán in the opening TT was to avoid crashing in the rain.
To get ready, Urán completed a specific warmup out on the course prerace and then another on his stationary trainer right before the event.
"When you come into the first stage like that, when you come in fresh after a few days of rest, the warmup can be longer, especially because the temperature wasn't particularly high, so his core body temperature isn't going to haywire," Wegelius told Business Insider. "He would have ridden in the morning an hour or so, on the road when he looked at the course. Then he eats, then he rests. His actual warmup would have been 45 minutes. As for efforts during warmup, every rider finds their way, and a lot of that is deeply psychological. But what you're looking at is getting the body going and then a couple of journeys slowly building up to race intensity, holding it for a few minutes, coming down, going up again. You're getting that engine going and getting that system going and firing off. And then some pretty quick efforts to wake the body up."
Every curve and every corner on the course is studied carefully, over and over.
In addition to studying the TT course on paper before race day (the Tour route is revealed a year before the race), and discussing objectives with the riders, Wegelius drives the course the morning of the race and takes detailed "pace notes," which he uses to plan a strategy.
"There's a time before the race when the roads are closed and somebody else drives for me," Wegelius told Business Insider. "I start at kilometer zero, and I write notes about how I see the course. You try to have a dry run through the corners at the pace you expect a rider to go at. And you say, 'OK, this is a corner you could do without coming off the skis [aerobars] or here you might have to brake. Then I try to fit that together with a fairly rigid terminology, kind of how they do in rally driving."
Urán heads to the start house ...
On course, Urán quickly gets up to speed, sprinting to 55 kph (34 mph) and holding it there.
Urán wears a radio earpiece so that he can hear Wegelius, and the two speak Italian with each other.
When it comes to communication between rider and director, Wegelius says there are two things at play: the technical and the psychological.
"If you think about today's race, that was the first 14 kilometers of the Tour," he says. "It was about lots of corners and how to approach them. A rider can ride the course [before the race], but when he's riding hard and there are a lot of people on the side of the road and the whole thing looks different, it's not always easy to remember what's coming — this corner closes or this corner opens."
When a corner "closes," a rider has to slow and perhaps brake, but when it "opens," he can speed through.
"The other side of it is psychological. You have to know the rider and measure his psychology, because pushing a rider a lot in his ear can be an irritation, and it can also be counterproductive because if you can give a really strong input, it can raise his output of power for a short time, but if it's not sustainable, it won't go anywhere, and that's the balance you have to hit."
Nice job, Rigo — a good start ...
But just because you can talk into a rider's ear doesn't mean you have to.
"You have to realize you have a powerful tool in your hand, in that if you push that button, you're going into the ear of someone who's in a really private space and doing something really important and really intense, and there's lot of stuff coming in," Wegelius says.
"And if you push that button, you're not just venting your own emotions, but you try to add something. You have to think about how that rider reacts to it, and what else is coming into his ears, like from the public. Sometimes they need to be left alone, and sometimes they have to be pushed. It's not always easy to hit the balance."
Bene, Rigo. Curva a destra ... Well done, Rigo. Next, right turn.
Aligning views: Both the rider and the sports director must see the course through the same lens.
Wegelius and Urán had met before the TT and reviewed the plan.
"I take the pace notes that I make to him, and I try to standardize the terminology. Because how you describe a corner should remain within a framework. I look at the course and he rides the course [prerace], and I take my notes to him after and I say, 'There's this corner at this kilometer,' so that we're on the same page."
Importantly, Wegelius explained that earlier in the morning the riders had ridden the course in the wet, "but it should have been dry later in the day, according to the weather forecast when they rode it," he said. It wasn't, and rain kept falling on the Tour de France.
That meant they had to make alterations to the race plan.
"So, for example, after 9.2 kilometers, there was a chicane, and if that would have been dry, you could have just gone through it without taking your hands of the [aero] bars. For one rider it might feel OK to ride through it like that, and for another it wouldn't. You have to look at what's the net gain from doing that."
"It's a question of verifying that you saw the same thing as him, based on his riding style. The rest of it is just trying to feel when he's dying a bit or adjusting things maybe with his body position or his cadence, and trying to give the right input."
Bravo, Rigo ...
A little voice can help.
"Your mind can wander in a race," Wegelius says. "You can be a kilometer out and think you're never going to make it, but perhaps a little voice can help you do it ... For Rigo today, he needed to finish the race without falling off. That was the first objective, considering the weather. It was an urban circuit, different road surfaces, painted roads, wet weather, a lot of stress, so there's big potential to throw away a lot.
"You have to look at it kind of cold-hearted and say, 'OK, can you win the Tour today?' 'No.' 'Can you win the stage?' 'No.' 'Right, so the other objective is to get through the stage unscathed as best you can.' Rigo did that."
Postrace, Wegelius and Urán review how the performance went.
"It's a check-in to see and verify that I saw the same thing that he saw," Wegelius says." Checking how he felt, his position on the bike felt, how his body reacted to that effort. It's a debrief. He was happy with how his legs were. For him, it was always a bit of a stress, with the rain, becuase we didn't expect the weather to be like that. We were hoping for dry roads.
"So it's just to check that he went OK and he's where he thinks he should be and that we're on the same track. The rider, after a long period of training and preparation, he's still looking for some kind of answer for where he's at, to break through the race and say, 'I'm good,' 'I'm bad,' whatever. So he got through the corners and everything was fine.
"He got a feeling in the last part of the race that his legs were where they needed to be. That was a good base for his confidence going forward."
Urán finished in 95th place out of 198 starters, a minute down on stage winner Geraint Thomas. Most important, he stayed upright.
As of the second rest day, July 17, Urán sits in fourth place overall, 29 seconds behind defending champion Chris Froome. He's just six seconds behind third-placed Romain Bardet and only 11 seconds behind second-placed Fabio Aru. The last week will decide who ends up on the podium in Paris, but each day contributes to that result in its own way, as did the opening TT.
How 'Rigo' is different from other riders.
"He's really like a plug-and-play rider," Wegelius said. "He's just an absolute consummate professional. He's really good at just taking things that aren't relevant to him or his performance and he just puts them to the side. Some people may think they put them to the side, but it's still there. If it doesn't contribute to his performance, he just put things aside and goes in a straight line. Just the noise around races, and teams, and media-based things. He does exactly what he has to do. He knows what counts and what doesn't. That's the thing.
"He know what adds to his performance and what doesn't. He knows what's expected. If he has to go to a team presentation or have his picture taken, he'll do it. If he asks for something and pushes for something, you can be sure it's performance-related. It's not just hot air."
A former Tour rider himself, Wegelius says he still gets excited when he's behind the wheel at the race.
"The whole part of this sports-director thing, it's a whole mix of the best experiences you've had with good sports directors and the worst," Wegelius said. "You work out what you really don't want to have, and you have to realize also that it's not just applied to someone with your psychology or physiology, but a whole range of riders. It's not easy, but you can find your way.
"You know, we had another guest in the car and she asked me before the start if I still get nervous. I do. If I'm standing at the side of the road just to give a bidon [water bottle] to a rider, or even watching a race, when I hear the helicopter and the motorbikes coming, I still get the same sense of anticipation and that build-up that I got when I was a 12-year-old watching the Leeds Classic in the UK.
"You get cynical and pissed off, but I can't fight it. It's nice."