For yellow jersey contenders, the first week of the Tour de France is a contest to see who can use the least energy. Currently, it seems that Floyd Landis of the Phonak team and Levi Leipheimer from Gerolsteiner are winning this competition, and Iban Mayo of the Euskaltel Euskadi team is losing it.
Landis and Leipheimer have barely shown their faces over the past four days, and today was no exception. They've been hiding in the field, carefully staying in the draft and conserving energy. At the same time though, they've been attentive and avoided all the crashes and stayed ahead of all the field splits that could have meant losing precious time to their rivals. One such rider, Discovery Channel's George Hincapie, exerted himself a little bit during the first stage in order to earn a few bonus seconds and move into the race lead for a day. Since losing the yellow jersey at the end of the second stage, however, Hincapie has been quietly staying out of trouble and in the draft.
Mayo, on the other hand, has had trouble conserving energy. He had a flat tire in the final hour of Stage 3 and was caught in a minor crash in the closing kilometers of Stage 4 today. In both instances, he had to chase back to the peloton when the race was flying along at close to 40 mph, which is much harder than if he had suffered the same misfortunes in the early parts of the stage when the pace was not so high. Not only did he have to exert a lot of energy himself, but his teammates also had to drop back out of the peloton to help pace him back to the main group. This means more exertion for everyone on the team.
Of course, it's not that chasing back to the pack after a flat or minor crash is a massive effort in and of itself, but that having to do it repeatedly makes a rider reach into energy reserves he'd rather have for later. Energy used to chase back to the pack is energy you can't use to launch attacks in the mountains or hold a race-winning pace in an individual time trial.
We often refer to hard efforts as burning matches. Everyone starts the race with a full box of matches, and each time he has to dig deep for a big effort, he's burning one of them. Ideally, you want to be very careful about where you use your matches, because once they're gone, you're done for. Contenders like Hincapie, Landis, Leipheimer, and Mayo are trying to save their matches for the individual time trial a few days and the mountains coming up in the second and third weeks of the Tour. If Mayo wants to have a chance to challenge for the yellow jersey in the mountains, he has to do everything he can to hide in the peloton like the others.
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