Prologue: Ric Stern’s analysis

What does it take to win the Tour's opening stage?


It’s here: the greatest annual sporting event – the Tour de France. For many bike fanatics they’ve been waiting for this day since the end of the ’09 Tour. Rotterdam has been preparing for the event and put on a fantastic circuit with what appeared to be huge crowds.


The prologue starts the Tour off and allows you the spectator, and the riders to see where everyone is in terms of fitness. For some of the riders, those who have no chance of winning a time trial, or no chance of being a general classification rider then they’ll perhaps not dig too deep – why waste energy when you have no realistic chance? After all the Tour is about conserving energy … three weeks is a long time to race for!

So, I’m going to try and do a Tour de France blog every day.  That’s a mammoth amount of writing for me. I’m sure there will be the odd day I won’t be able to write and in fact, I’m scheduling a rest weekend on the 16 to 18th July already (sorry family stuff). I’m hoping that Alex Simmons, the other RST Performance Director will get a chance to write a sentence or two most days.

I’m going to attempt to provide some information on the physiology, psychology and the physics of each stage along with the skill and tactics required. I’ll provide some numbers and data, and I’ll also try to take a stab at what Joe Average 3rd Category racer would do under the same conditions. This is just a bit of fun, so please don’t send me a million messages saying that you could have done 5 W more ;-)!!

Right, let’s have a look at the prologue: a pan-flat circuit of 8.9km that in dry weather wouldn’t have been technical. However, today for what appeared the most part it poured down with rain for a significant number of competitors, which really caused havoc for some.

Physiology wise, the 8.9km would be over in about 10ish minutes. That’s not quite a VO2max effort, but also not a functional threshold test. It’s somewhere in-between. That is, a VO2max effort would need to be shorter – around 5-mins or so, like a 4-km pursuit (keep that in mind), and a functional threshold power test would need to be way longer at around 60-minutes.

Obviously, for this type of effort the prologue will favour someone with a high VO2max and a high threshold. So, it’s no surprise that Cancellara was odds on favourite to win the stage as the current world time trial champion. It’s highly likely that he has both a very high absolute VO2max, and a high sustainable power output (functional threshold).

With the prologue being only 10-minutes or so long you’d expect riders who are good pursuiters to have a good crack at it. Previously Chris Boardman set the fastest time in a prologue (more on a Chris related bit later) in 1994 and still holds the world record for the fastest ever 4km pursuit. However, this year there is a big British contingent of eight riders riding the Tour and the current world pursuit champion (Geraint Thomas) and current Olympic pursuit champion (Bradley Wiggins).

Geraint Thomas did a superb ride to split Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador for fifth place in his first Tour, while Bradley came home with what I feel was a disappointing time, not that I guess he cares what I write.

Dave Brailsford the boss at Team Sky had decided along with Wiggins that he’d go off early to avoid the rain, and unfortunately this backfired as it was drier later in the event. Wiggins took the corners easy and ended up losing a fair amount of time. Luckily he stayed upright and didn’t crash, a la Boardman back in 1995.

Psychologically, the prologue is an intense time for the riders. Media interest is huge, and the weight of expectations can land heavily on the team leader’s shoulders. Being able to cope with pressure is immensely important, as is being able to relax prior to the start. If you’re uptight and stiff, the bike won’t flow well around the corners and you’re perhaps more likely to crash.

The riders have done the 8.9km now, plus several hours training/warming up before it and cooling down afterwards. The event has started and they’ll be happier that it’s underway – the build up before the Tour in the final week before it starts is huge.

If you’ve got a power meter you’ll likely know what sort of power you can put out over 10ish minutes. But what *approximately* were the top five likely doing at the Tour? Well very approximately, for any of them who are about 70 kg, it’s likely that they were at the top of the 400W range, but likely under 500W.  And Joe Average third cat? Well he could probably manage about 350 W over the prologue, or ride at the Tour level for maybe a minute or two…

Now the riders need to look forward to a hard opening week. Some of the stages are technical, and if there’s rain, directional islands (roundabouts) and everyone hunting for that elusive stage win then as always, there’s going to be a few choice pile ups.

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s blog.



Ric Stern ( is a full time British ABCC coach. During this year’s Tour de France, he will be providing a physiological insight into the challenges that face the riders in each stage.