Monday, 16 July 2012

Rest Days

There are some pretty amazing statistics associated with the Tour de France. This year the competitors will cycle 3,479 kilometres over 21 days, during this time they will burn an average of 6000 calories per day and put an incredible strain on their bodies. Many will fall and get back up and keep on cycling, many will push through pain and muscle strains, and many will simply drop out due to sheer exhaustion. It’s a tough event, there’s no denying it, it’s an incredible human feat to just finish a Tour de France; this is why the race is so famous.

But the cyclists do get some respite over the three weeks. Two rest days are scheduled into the three-week race, this year the first comes after the stage 9 individual time-trial, and the second comes after the relatively short and flat 15th stage. After sticking to a strict racing routine for so many days, after so many hours in the saddle, and after living off protein bars, energy gels and carbohydrate loaded isotonic sports fluids for so long, what exactly are the cyclists meant to do on a rest day?    

If it were me, I know exactly what I would be doing. I’d place the ‘do not disturb’ sign on my hotel door, grab myself a bucket of KFC chicken, and then sleep the day away! Unfortunately, the TdF cyclists don't get to enjoy this level of self-indulgence, and eating whatever they please is definitely off the cards. Afterall, it was a rest day back in 2010 when Contador supposedly ate a steak, that came from a clenbuterol addicted cow, that led to his failed drug test.

The cyclists will continue their strict diet of carefully prepared foods that are assembled by team cooks, under strict instruction from team nutritionists and physicians. On a rest day, if anything, they will eat a little more than usual to re-stock their calorie ‘bank’. For example, a 180km stage will require ingestion of approximately 5500 calories, if a rider fails to take on enough food during the days riding (say, 4000), they may finish the race ok but their bodies will ‘remember’ the remaining 1500 calories that were not ingested. Continual under-eating will build up and the rider will eventually exhaust all their energy stores, effectively ending their Tour campaign.

The day will be spent adjusting game plans and going over future tactics. Physically, the team directors will allow their riders some moments of reprieve on a rest day, they will get to catch up on a little sleep and they will spend time with team masseuses and medics, easing strained muscles and treating their various war-wounds. However, there is no real time for true lengthy rest during a TdF, and yes, you guessed it, a ride is a must. The teams will gather for a two-three hour formation ride, keeping an easy pace, but one that would still leave any weekend warrior for dead. To stay off the bike would be to send the wrong message to the body.

Though, there are some exceptions to the rule. Many will remember the horrific crash during stage 9 of the 2011 TdF involving Johnny Hoogerland, Juan Antonio Flecha and a sideswiping French television car that left Hoogerland with deep cuts to his legs, requiring 33 stitches. Luckily for Flecha and Hoogerland, the following day was a rest day, which would have been spent tending to their various cuts and bruises – there would have been no cycling for them that day.  

And, as there always is with with all facets of the TdF, there are tactics and politics that come into play on the rest days. With the intense eyes of the French press and the worlds media watching, the cyclists will make sure that they go for a decent ride on the rest days, even if they are hurting, as a show of strength. They want to show their competition that their legs are fresh - even if the truth of the matter is quite the opposite.
A rest day on the 1930 Tour de France
 Also, there’s the matter of the media obligations for the jersey wearers. On a rest day it is expected that the current holders of the various jerseys will spend much of the day talking to sports journalists from all over the world. They are singled out as the Tour’s current leaders, and with that comes some responsibility - of course those responsibilities can be shirked, but cycling is a sport of tradition and to do so would be counter to the long-standing customs, and therefore, unsportsmanlike. The French press, in particular, can be ruthless when it comes to matters of tradition, and many a cyclist has been burned on the pages of L’Equipe, for acts even less trivial than ditching an interview.

These responsibilities are an unwelcome distraction from the tasks at hand on a rest day, ie. recovery, planning and rehabilitation. Therefore, it is not uncommon for cyclists to delay their attempts at taking control of the GC till after a rest day. Last year it was widely reported that Cadel was more than happy to have Voeckler retain the maillot jaune for this exact reason.    

But all of this is inconsequential, what really matters here is that we get a night off, and a well-earned chance to catch up on some sleep!

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