Topic Author's Original Post - Jul 19, 2006 - 09:51pm PT
Stage 16: Everybody Bonks Sometime
Landis joins an elite group of cyclists
By Chris Carmichael
Earlier in the 2006 Tour de France, Floyd Landis joined a very elite group as the fifth American to ever wear the yellow jersey. Today on the climb up to La Toussuire, he joined a different kind of club, one that includes some of the sport's biggest names, including Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, and Lance Armstrong. All of these men, and now Landis too, lost big chunks of time while wearing the yellow jersey because they ran out of fuel on a major mountain climb.
Landis almost definitely lost any chance of winning the 2006 Tour de France when he ran out of energy, or bonked, in the final 20 kilometers of Stage 16. If there's one consolation to take away from the experience it may be that he's not the first man, nor will he be the last, to lose the Tour because of and empty gas tank. The same thing happened to the greatest cyclist of all time, Eddy Merckx, and in 1986 five-time Tour champion Bernard Hinault cracked on the final climb of Stage 13, lost almost his entire lead over a young Greg LeMond, and conceded the yellow jersey for good to the American a few days later.
Lance Armstrong didn't lose the 2000 Tour de France when he bonked on the Col de Joux-Plane, but he would have if he had run out of energy a few kilometers sooner. With Jan Ullrich, Roberto Heras, and Richard Virenque all pouring on the pressure, Armstrong slowed dramatically about half way up the climb. With his primary rivals riding away from him, Armstrong did his best to limit his losses on the climb and the descent that followed, and only conceded about one and half minutes to Ullrich by the finish in Morzine. It was enough to keep the yellow jersey and live to fight another day.
Landis wasn't as fortunate when he cracked today. He was more than 15 kilometers away from the finish line, all of them uphill. He could do nothing but watch as CSC's Carlos Sastre attacked, followed by a rapid acceleration from T-Mobile, who still had two riders pushing the pace for their leader, Andreas Kloden. In the blink of an eye, 30 seconds of his lead were gone, then one minute, and then the whole thing.
Riders slow so dramatically when they bonk because carbohydrate is the primary fuel for high performance. When you ride at a moderate pace, you burn a pretty balanced mixture of fat and carbohydrate for energy, with a little bit of protein thrown into the mix. As the intensity increases and your energy output, per minute, goes up, carbohydrate is the only fuel that can be burned rapidly enough to meet the demand. Landis needed to be able to ride at and even slightly above his lactate threshold to stay with his rivals on the final climb today, but without enough carbohydrate in his body, he simply couldn't deliver enough fuel his muscles and brain.
To make matters worse for Landis, his team car couldn't help him. According to the rules, riders cannot get water or food from their team cars within the final 20 kilometers of a stage. The sugar Floyd so desperately needed was just a few feet away in the car, but he couldn't take it. Instead, he had to keep riding and wait for his teammate, Axel Merckx to catch up and give him whatever food he had left, if he had any at all.
The yellow jersey may be out of Landis's reach, but the Tour de France doesn't have to be over for him. He's the strongest rider in the race, and that didn't change today. He lost a lot of time because he ran out of gas, not because his rivals suddenly got stronger. Bonking takes a lot out of a rider because it makes him have to dig deep into his energy reserves to get to the finish line, but Landis can recover to ride very hard tomorrow. An elite athlete's body is very good at replenishing depleted carbohydrate stores and tonight he'll eat a lot of calories and consume a great deal of fluid, and there's a good chance we'll see an entirely different Floyd Landis tomorrow.
Stage 17, which ironically finishes using the same route as the day that almost cost Armstrong the Tour in 2000 (over the Joux-Plane and down into Morzine), is going to be a very hard day. It's also the last chance for any of the strong climbers to gain time on their rivals before the final individual time trial on Saturday. Well down in the overall classification now, Landis has nothing to lose and everything to gain by attacking and going for the stage win tomorrow. If he can recover tonight, I think there's a decent chance Landis will go on the offensive on the Joux-Plane to try and win the stage and reclaim a position in the top ten overall. If there's one thing to learn from the champions who have bonked before him in this race, it's that he has to stay focused on the opportunities ahead of him, not the defeats behind him. The body will recover, but if the mind doesn't, your performance will continue to suffer.