How to Win the Tour Prologue
According Brad McGee, winning a stage of the Tour de France pretty much justifies a team's budget for a year. As a rider, it's also pretty rewarding. Aside from the sporting satisfaction, it'll almost certainly guarantee you a contract -probably a bigger one- for the next few years.
So, there you go! Get a win at the Tour de France and our work is done for the season in one single day. Easy money.
And stages of the Tour don't come much easier than the prologue! Just look at the facts: It comes at the start of the race with no cumulative fatigue in your legs. It's always less than 8km long (by definition, the 19km opening time trial in 2005 wasn't a prologue). It's usually flat. And because it's the opening salvo of the Tour when public, media and rider enthusiasm is at fever pitch, the prestige you generate from winning the prologue will have far greater longevity than that of winning a lazy mid-race stage from one forgettable provincial town to another on a day that the bunch couldn't be bothered to chase.
Here then -with some advice from Mr McGee who won it in the centenary year of 2003- is our step by step guide to winning the Tour de France prologue.
Check your ability
Before we start, can we just confirm you're up to this task? The Tour prologue is not for your average Joe. Are you capable of riding a seven or eight kilometre urban circuit time trial at an average speed well in excess of 50kmh? Will you ride faster than overall Tour contenders hoping to get their campaigns off to the best possible start? If not, go home, get training and come back again next year.
Get on your team's Tour squad
While we're running over these preliminaries, are you likely to get on your team's nine man tour squad? Unless you're an absolute dead-cert for the prologue, you're going to need to convince the boss that you'll make a valuable contribution in helping the team fulfil its objectives throughout the three week race.
Can you get a round a Grand Tour? Can you pull on the front? Lead out? Might you win a mountain stage? You need to justify your place on the team with more than just some vague comment that you fancy your chances in a short blast around town.
Set your goal...
Brad McGee recalls of his win in the Tour de France prologue win in Paris: "It was decided a long time beforehand that the prologue would be the big one. I remember [team manager] Marc Madiot coming to me early in the season and saying 'I really believe you can take it out'. I really had no other goals for the Tour - it was all about the prologue."
That said, McGee -a winner of a road stage in the previous year's Tour- could justify his place on the team for the rest of the race (see above). "I knew that preparing for the prologue would give me very good legs for the flatter stages, lead-outs and breakaways. The focus was definitely 100% on the prologue but it's not like I was considering stopping after the first day."
...and train especially for it
The prologue is a very specific intense effort of less than ten minutes. Your normal road programme alone will not be enough to be competitive.
"I always valued what I learnt from track racing," explains McGee. "I've implemented that into my road training; using the home trainer and the power cranks."
In 2003 McGee's specific prologue training involved a lot short intervals; one minute flat out efforts with timed recovery in between.
"When I was a track rider I'd do longer efforts of 10km or 5km but if you're being effective in your road races -not just flapping in the wind down the back of the bunch- all those bases are covered. I just had to focus on that final top-end of delivery."
Do your coursework
Tour prologues typically take place in busy city centres which for the rest of the year are overrun with heavy traffic and littered with street furniture. Try a race paced practice run of this year's prologue course in London on a normal weekday and you'll find yourself under a double decker bus, wrapped around a bollard or in the cross-hairs of anti-terror police who've mistaken you for a suicide bomber charging at high speed towards the Houses of Parliament. All the same, there is a certain value to checking out the course several months in advance.
"I've done it a few times," says McGee. "I can't say it helped me get round the course much quicker but it can help you slowly focus in on an event. I do a lot of mental rehearsal. Using the actual course in your imagery -rather than one you've created in your mind- helps a lot."
Practice for perfection
The best time to examine the course in detail is in the days and hours leading up to the event. Roads will be closed and time is allotted for riders to practice.
"I'll go round and focus on any tricky bits, lumps and corners," explains McGee. "Sometimes I'll go up and down the one stretch, or over the same corner, several times. Instead of doing sixteen loops I might do five loops but go over that one corner an extra five or six times until I feel I've got it.
"If the course allows it, I'll have everything down to my gear ratios and changes pre-planned."
Identify key parts of the course
"You know where the good parts are and which are the other parts you just have to dig in and get through," says McGee. "I know that I'm very effective after a long ramp accelerating back to top speed again. I can blow all sorts of levels of lactate and power output there."
Know your schedule
To win a prologue you've got to get as much effort out of your body as you possibly can in a very limited time. Mental preparation is essential to make the most of the ride. You want a minimum of distractions from the task in hand.
"I have quite a regimented routine," says McGee. "I get into a zone where everything gets very meticulous. What time we're meeting, where I'm going to eat, when I'm going to go out on the road."
Food is important. You have to eat for energy but choose your meals carefully.
"I just steer clear of anything that's going to be upsetting my stomach," says McGee. "It's going to be turning knots anyway so I try not to eat too much fibre or anything too heavy. But I avoid eating like a rabbit too. You need something to soak all that acid and stress up. I find rice or potatoes are pretty good. Maybe a bit of yoghurt."
Take it easy
In order to be your best in the race, you don't want to be flapping about wasting energy beforehand. Resting before you start psyching up will help you focus.
"I always make sure I have some downtime three or four hours out from the start time," says McGee. "I'll have an hour of either sleeping or be in some sort of zombie state with my eyes shut."
Your team hotel will be the best place to do this but McGee's not fussy. "I'll find anywhere," he says. "Believe me."
Don't get too comfortable in your zombie state. "You've got to slowly come out of it and start ramping up the concentration; really focusing in on the event."
You might use music to help you. "When I was younger I used to listen to a lot of heavy metal and hard house music," recalls McGee. "Nowadays it's anything relaxing. I still listen to a lot of electronic music - I'm not looking for a lot of change in rhythm."
It's all good and well talking psychology but it's your legs that are going to have to do the work. McGee usually loosens up his with a morning spin of up to two hours before he has his downtime. The proper warm up starts afterwards and it's crucial. You've got to be ready to fire on all cylinders as soon as you start your race.
"I try to do about 20 or 25 minutes on the home trainer building up. I'll stop that about 20 mins from the start."
Stay far from the madding crowds
Riding a home trainer may be as dull as watching a Miguel Indurain Tour win but don't try and warm up on the road. You just won't find the space around a modern Tour prologue and there'll be far too many distractions to exercise with any structure or maintain focus. This is not the time to do PR. Remain in your zone - both the team's designated enclosure and your intense psychological one.
Add the finishing touches
"After finishing your warm up, get everything together," says McGee. "Change shoes. New socks. Get a wipe down. Come out in battle gear about ten minutes before the start. Get back on the home trainer again just to twiddle your legs over."
Don't do a Pedro!.
Being organised, you will have already synchronised your watch with the official race time. Roll up to the starting ramp a minute or two before you're due off. Don't miss the start like defending champion Pedro Delgardo did in 1989. No amount of pleas or excuses will get your lost time back.
Up on the ramp someone will hold you. Sit upright. Breath deeply. Crack your knuckles. Whatever. But keep focus.
Drop into your starting position when you're ready. You'll get the count down. Roll off the ramp with care. There have been some embarrassing accidents in the past.
...go go (but not too fast)
You need to get up to speed quickly but don't completely nail yourself from the gun. You're at your freshest and will lose a lot of time and energy if you overexert yourself by accelerating too quickly from the start. The first few hundred metres are a dangerous time.
"You want to run like a bull at a red rag," says McGee. "If you're not excited and jumping out of your skin at the Tour de France prologue then there's something wrong with you. But you have to control that."
Once you've got up to pace, then comes the time to step on the gas.
"I remember in Paris I went off really easy and ramped up through the gears,"recalls McGee. "We turned left after about 300m and hit a bit of a climb. After that it was all about laying the power down up that hill and powering over the top. I'd been over that climb a few times in training and hit it hard, but in the race it was like I was going 10kmh quicker."
You should be burying yourself. Your rivals will be. When McGee rides a prologue his heart will be pumping blood around his body at between 200 and 205 beats per minute. He'll be putting over 500 watts of power through the cranks.
Recover where possible
If you're doing things properly you'll be way above your aerobic capacity - riding on borrowed time. At any given opportunity -a slight downhill, a momentary freewheel into a corner- suck in an extra breath of air. You need it.
Corner like a demon...
Prologues are won by split seconds and since you'll be going as fast as you can on the straights, it'll be in the corners where you might win or lose the race. From your reconnaissance work, you'll know them inside out and every line that you're going take. Go through every bend as fast as possible, making full use of the width of the road.
McGee is not exaggerating when he says he skims the kerbs: "More often than not I'll come back with my skinsuit rubbed and marks on my feet and elbows."
Of course you can overcook it like Chris Boardman in the 1995 prologue. A specialist in the discipline, his race ended when he came off on a wet corner and got struck from behind by his team car.
...and get back up to speed
"Out of the corners, you've got to bang it straight up to pace," says McGee. "I'm almost ready to spring up out of the corner before I'm into it."
Hang on 'til the finish
If you find yourself sprinting for the line then you probably haven't paced it right. "Normally by the last minute it's just a case of holding on," says McGee.
Cross the line. Collapse
"If I've really delivered well, then I'm in this state where my eyes are rolling back in my head," notes McGee. "You can't get enough oxygen in. You can't talk, let alone stand up. Your legs are just like tree trunks."
Once recovered, attend to your professional duties.
If all has gone to plan, you'll have a test tube to wee into, media to talk to and some podium girls to impress. It'll be a busy time and a lot of demands will be made.
To win you'll have ridden like there's no tomorrow. The only problem is that there is. In case you've forgotten the prologue is just the entree to a three week festival of pain. Forget all the earlier talk about prologues being easy money, that was just a sales pitch to get your attention. The next day exists and you'll be spending it dodging traffic islands and contesting time bonus sprints with strapping sprinters who posted surprisingly fast prologue times.
You haven't just won the Tour prologue. You have the yellow jersey and all the responsibilities that go with it.
"If I pulled out a good prologue or time trial performance when I was younger, then I'd be useless the next day," admits McGee. "Now I realise there's professional things to do -media and drug testing- but then you have to make sure you eat properly, get your quiet time and shut it down early that night."
That means go easy on the champagne.
Manchester/Suffolk, March 2007