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Adventure : Athletes

Tested: Maximalist Shoes of 2014

There are few debates more polarized in the running world than the one between maximalists and minimalists. It seems everyone either subscribes to the super-cushioned cult or the minimal movement, and there’s not much common ground in between.

After the minimalist craze of the past few years, more top shoe brands are entering the maximalist fray. So we reviewed the latest beefed-up options to get to the bottom of the dispute. Or at least add more fuel to the flame.

Hoka One One Conquest ($170)

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Intended for: Road

This is the Cadillac of road runners. The Conquest—the latest edition from the brand known for its trademark giant foam—is Hoka’s first attempt at a road shoe. Perched on a 29mm stack, the Conquest has twice the cushion of most normal road trainers. This makes it a great option for runners who log a lot of miles and want some extra cush or for those returning from injury.

Noticeably narrower and slightly less cumbersome than Hoka’s trail-shoe options, the Conquest still has a boxy, stilt-like effect. With that said, it’s also astonishingly stable thanks to a new Rmat® midsole-suspended cradle system that cups your foot. This shoe is laterally stiff and so cushioned that there's very little ground-feel, which might turn off some runners.

I found the shoe to be quite comfortable thanks to a seamless upper. Take note: the collar and tongue are uncushioned, and although I didn't have any problems with this, it could chafe some runners. All the more reason to try before you buy. The Conquest's Race-Lace system (similar to Salomon's Speedlaces) did cut into the top of my foot, but this was easily fixed by swapping in a pair of normal laces (included with every pair of shoes).  

The Conquest’s 4mm drop and rockered forefoot accelerate your transition from ground-strike to push-off, delivering on the promised feeling of “weightlessness.” Hoka devotees will notice the new foam is less plush than that in other Hokas, but this shoe is still a great combination of cushion and responsiveness for the road. Alberto Salazar told us, ”The more you run, the more support your foot needs.” This is a big-mileage shoe for any road runner looking to extend their long run in search of racing glory.

Important note: Hokas run at least a half size larger than the number on the box, so be sure to try these on for sizing before you buy.

Weight: 11.8 oz.; Drop: 4mm; Geometry: 25/29mm

Brooks Transcend ($160)

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Intended for: Road

The Brooks Transcend, the company’s first foray into the maximalist market, looks a bit like it arrived on a spaceship from the future. The Brooks Super DNA midsole is 25 percent more cushioned than any of Brooks’ other offerings. Its rounded heel and 8mm drop helps you roll through your gait cycle and allows the shoe to maintain Brooks’ quick-footed lightweight feel. It’s a traditional road shoe that doesn’t compromise its midsole responsiveness for unnecessary cushion. 

For this shoe Brooks departed from a traditional shoe post—designed to keep you in proper biomechanical alignment—in favor of a new technology it calls “Guide Rails” to protect against pronation and supination. These rails are specialized plates along the upper on the outside of the shoe. The rails act like bumpers, so if your foot doesn't roll in or out, you won't notice them. If it does, they'll keep you from over-pronating or over-supinating.

The shoe’s plush upper feels downright luxurious, but I found the shoe could use a little more room in the toe-box. Runners with narrow feet shouldn't have any problem with the fit, but if you have wide feet, definitely try before you buy. The Transcend is a wonderful option for a focused road runner who wants a bit more cushion, but who isn't ready to make the jump to a Hoka One One.

Weight: 12.2 oz.; Drop: 8mm; Geometry: 22/30mm

Altra Olympus ($130)

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Intended for: Trail

Named after a peak on the edge of the Salt Lake valley, the Altra Olympus is the first maximally cushioned, zero-drop shoe. The heel is at the same height as your forefoot, as it would be if you were running barefoot. Altra believes this promotes proper biomechanics.

The wide toe box allows your toes to naturally splay, good for anyone with wide feet or runners who battle neuromas. The foot feel is soft and slipper-like, even without socks (if you choose to go that route). 

The Olympus forefoot rocker—like a early-rise ski tip—helps initiate your stride. And the Olympus’ wide platform makes it a very stable ride despite its relatively high stack height. If you charge downhill, or hope to, the Olympus will gobble up terrain like no other. The price for that, however, is less return of energy from the midsole. At times this shoe feels like riding uphill on your big travel freeride bike: the shock absorption is great until you have to climb. That means it can have a wet-shoe feel on the flats.

Our major gripe? The Olympus' tread looks more like what you'd expect on a road shoe. It wasn’t tacky enough for rock, and it wasn’t toothy enough for steep dirt trails. Finally, I found its tongue needed to be a bit longer and wider, or it needed an offset loop, to keep debris out. On long runs, I inevitably got rocks in the shoe.

Weight: 11 oz.; Drop: 0mm; Geometry: 32mm

New Balance Fresh Foam 980 ($110)

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Intended for: Road

Of all the new maximal shoes this year, the Fresh Foam 980 doesn’t feel like it belongs in the super-cush category. It has the slimmest profile of the crop and really doesn’t comply with it’s marketing copy of “soft, pillowy, and cloudlike.” What this shoe lacks in “pillowy” however, it makes up for in proprioception. That means it provides superior ground-feel than its competitors. Combine that with how light this shoe is, and you have a fast, lightly cushioned racer. 

Fresh Foam 980’s 4mm drop encourages a mid-foot strike and a quick cadence. A comfortable fit with a thick cushioned tongue, it features an elegant single-piece midsole and outsole that provide long-term durability (a technique made possible by new 3D-printing technology). The breathable upper uses welded overlays to eliminate seams and possible hot spots for blisters. It has a narrow forefoot, and sizes a little small—you should probably size up at least a half size when you buy.

The Fresh Foam 980 is the fleetest maximal shoe on the market today. It’s super responsive, light, cushioned, and wonderfully flexible for a maximal shoe with a lot of midsole. When your training volume increases and your long runs get really long, this is the high-mileage workhorse you’ll be happy to own. 

Weight: 8.8 oz.; Drop: 4mm; Geometry: 22/26mm

Vasque Ultra ShapeShifter ($170)

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Intended for: Trail

The “Ultra” in the name denotes who this shoe was made for—ultrarunners. The super-cushioned ShapeShifter subverts the traditional construction methods (and associated construction waste) by attaching the shoe’s upper directly to a one-piece injection-molded EVA outsole. This method eliminates the midsole and the insole entirely. Take note: that also means this shoe won't work for those who run with orthotics.

The Ultra ShapeShifter features a roomy stretch mesh sock upper and the Boa L5 lacing system. The latter is brilliant for on-the-run customization, and anyone who prefers their shoes loose for uphills and tight for downhills. Simply bend down and twist the mechanism to tighten your shoe to your preferred snugness. Because the laces are thin (about the size of fishing wire), they can cut into the top of your foot if they're too tight. 

The one-piece sole is malleable and conforms to the trail, and I found it gave me great traction even on loose kitty litter. It’s also a fantastic buffer between you and the hard ground, which increased my downhill running speed. Eliminating the layering comes with the added benefit of giving the ShapeShifter good trail feel for a shoe that lifts you 28mm off the ground. 

The biggest downside: I found the fit to be quite odd. The front of the arch/midfoot was much narrower than any other shoe I've worn. I couldn't run more than a few miles in this shoe, and if you have wide feet, either consider another option or definitely try before you buy. 

Weight: 10.6 oz.; Drop: 6mm; Geometry: 22/28mm

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Levi Leipheimer's Life After Doping

On a spectacular day for a bike ride in Sonoma County, Levi Leipheimer is sitting on the side of the road adjusting his cleat position. We are in a group of five riders and less than an hour into a sixty-something mile route from the wine country town of Healdsburg to the Pacific Coast, but this is already the third time he has stopped to fine-tune some aspect of his setup. As a pro racer, Leipheimer was notorious for obsessively tinkering with his bike, so much so that he required a trusted personal mechanic in addition to the staff mechanics of his racing teams. He’s apparently unable to stop fiddling now, even in retirement, even on a casual ride with guys he could drop if he was pedaling a Big Wheel.

He’s also unable to stop riding. Though he’s been retired from professional cycling for more than a year, Leipheimer still spends 15 to 20 hours a week on a bike, split evenly between road biking and mountain biking. He weighs the same as he did at the peak of his career (135 pounds). Arguably the best American rider over the last 15 years not named Lance Armstrong, Leipheimer finished third in the 2007 Tour de France, won the Tour of California three consecutive times between 2007 and 2010, took a bronze medal in the time trial at the Beijing Olympics, and won the inaugural USA Pro Cycling Challenge, in 2011. He probably had two years of racing left when the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) served him with a six-month suspension in October 2012 for admitting to using performance enhancing drugs during the investigation of Armstrong and the US Postal Service pro cycling team. Leipheimer, who rode for US Postal early in his career, confessed to doping from 2000 to 2007, when he claims he abruptly stopped due to fears that he’d be caught by improved testing methods.

Shortly after USADA announced the suspension, Leipheimer’s team at the time, Omega Pharma-Quick Step, fired him. Many cycling pundits were furious, arguing that Leipheimer and others shouldn’t be punished for telling the truth, while others complained that the riders who testified in the USADA probe got off too easy. Either way, the expectation was that Leipheimer would find a new team and resume racing in the spring. But while many cyclists caught up in the investigation did exactly that, no team signed him and he announced his retirement in May 2013, at age 39.

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Since then, Leipheimer has been unemployed and, like other American cyclists who have bee tainted as dopers, trying to move forward. Retirement is of course difficult for any professional athlete. Cyclists, who don’t typically earn the kind of money that can last a lifetime, need to find new sources of income and often aren’t very employable outside the biking industry. This puts Leipheimer and the other confessed cheaters of his generation—a list that includes Tyler Hamilton, George Hincapie, Floyd Landis, Christian Vande Velde, and David Zabriskie—in a particularly challenging position. The automatic move of a former pro is to capitalize on the image and associations he developed while racing. But how does that work if his career is marred by a giant asterisk?

I was particularly interested in putting this question to Leipheimer given the ongoing success of Levi’s Gran Fondo, an annual fall event in Sonoma County that’s widely considered the best Gran Fondo in the United States and among the best in the world. Launched in 2009, it attracts 7,500 riders and a number of sponsors, including Specialized, Nissan, and Clif Bar, and has generated $1.2 million in donations to charities since its inception. Leipheimer’s confession and retirement has had essentially zero impact on its popularity.

Levi’s Grand Fondo also recently became the title sponsor of the NorCal High School Cycling League, an interesting arrangement when you consider that it connects teen athletes with a guy who has confessed to using drugs to compete. If so many people and organizations are happy to align themselves with Leipheimer’s namesake event, maybe they’re ready to forgive and forget more quickly than I expected. 

When I reached out to Leipheimer to talk about all this, he suggested we meet in Sonoma County and mix in a ride as well. If I could see the roads that inspired him to move there and then create the Gran Fondo, I’d understand everything so much better.

About an hour before we got on our bikes, I met Leipheimer at Flying Goat Coffee in downtown Healdsburg. He was wearing jeans, a black Gran Fondo hoodie, and a San Francisco Giants baseball cap, which covered his baldhead. At 5’7” and cyclist skinny, he’s an inconspicuous guy. But if you sit directly across from him for a conversation, there’s a guarded intensity that comes out of his striking blue eyes and steadfast expression.

I asked him how he’s been spending his time since retiring. What does he do to fill his days? He gave a roundabout answer that can be simplified to: not much.

“For many years during my racing, I thought about this time, when I’d be done,” he said. “One thing I always knew is that I would need at least a year of decompression. Just do nothing.”

The constant pressures of professional cycling, he tells me, were exhausting, both on and off the bike. “You have to make a lot of sacrifices,” he said. “I’ve needed time to transition out of that and try to live a normal life.”

A big part of normal is simply sticking around Santa Rosa, the largest city in Sonoma County, where Leipheimer relocated in 1996, shortly after he turned pro. He’d grown up in Butte, Montana, with its long frigid winters, and instantly fell in love with Sonoma’s year-round cycling weather and diversity of terrain, from redwood forests to oak woodlands to oceanfront headlands. Leipheimer and his wife, Odessa Gunn, now own a hillside property outside Santa Rosa where they care for some two dozen rescued animals—horses, donkeys, pigs, goats, cats, dogs. Leipheimer plays a supporting role in that operation and also handles a lot of the household management while Gunn works on her nascent clothing line, The Gunn Collection. As he sees it, she did so much work for him when he was racing, now it’s payback time.

Since his suspension, Leipheimer has had no income but has been able to live off the money he saved during his career. He gets zero dollars from the Gran Fondo and likes to call himself the event’s “number one volunteer.” When I asked him what he’d put on a resume, he thinks for a moment, then says, “Advocate.”

As for his next move, he doesn’t have clear answers. “It’s tough,” he said. “With biking, I found something that I completely loved and that I was really good at and had a lot of passion for. It’s not easy to replace that.” He paused for a moment, then added, “At some point, I either need to find something that I’m that excited about or—well, I guess that’s it. There is no ‘or.’”

He is very excited about the Gran Fondo, though his efforts on behalf of the ride, which is managed by Santa Rosa-based events organizing group Bike Monkey, don’t amount to a full time gig. Still, he said, “It’s fulfilling for me—I have a purpose.” 

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After admitting to doping, Leipheimer was worried that riders might abandon the Gran Fondo en masse. The fact that they didn’t was incredibly uplifting for him. “It meant more than I can describe that people were still willing to come back and try to understand the situation and the choices I made, and not just write me off,” he said. “That they were willing to forgive and give me a second chance and shows how great the cycling community is.”

A good number of participants might also be simply be attracted to the ride itself and not think too much about the former pro it’s named after. Leipheimer recognizes this. “What happened in the Tour de France and in the Tour of Spain those years is completely separate from my motivation for creating the Gran Fondo,” he added. “The event is about how much I love Sonoma County and how it forged me into a better rider.”

Indeed, the years Leipheimer spent getting better by grinding out miles on Sonoma roads are core to his self-identity and underlie his passion for the Gran Fondo, an event that draws cyclists willing to suffer through a grueling 103-mile route that includes 9,200 feet of climbing. He didn’t have the natural talent of other top cyclists when he was young, he told me, so he outworked them. “When I was on the USA national amateur team, the coaches were like, ‘You’re probably not going to be a pro,’” he said. “And I proved them wrong. I worked hard and incrementally, over the years, I got better and better. Despite the asterisks, that still holds true. And I think the 7,500 people on the start line of the Gran Fondo understand that.”

The NorCal High School Cycling League apparently understands it as well. In a scene from a new documentary about the Grand Fondo, Leipheimer stands in front of a room full of teen riders and candidly answers their questions about doping, recalling the last time he transfused his own blood, at the 2007 Tour de France. “Somewhere along the line, little by little, I got to that point,” he tells them. “That’s not something I’m proud of. It’s not fun to live through.” At another moment in the film, he says he was unprepared to face the choice to dope when he first became a pro. By telling younger rider what he went through, he hopes “that when the time comes to make a decision like that, even it’s outside the sport, they’re not blindsided. It’s giving them tools to go forward.”

Leipheimer has recently been advising a few NorCal riders advice on training and balancing cycling with life. He told me that when he ponders his future—“however long away that might be”—he thinks about mentoring younger riders and coaching master racers. “One thing I did well in my career was pay attention to detail—I was very organized,” he said. “I think I have a good philosophy about training, so that’s one thing I can pass along.”

For now, though, the decompression continues. Back in 2012, in the days after news of Leipheimer’s confession and suspension broke, he was in regular contact with some of the other pros who’d testified in the USADA investigation. “It’s so good to have those guys because we understand what each other is going through,” he’d told a newspaper reporter at the time. These days, the contact is less frequent, though he said he texts with some guys, including Tom Danielson and George Hincapie. This past April, he ended up on a culinary-themed group ride with Christian Vande Velde and David Zabriskie. “There will always be a connection,” Leipheimer said. “It’s a brotherhood that comes from living the same experiences.”

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Whatever they share in history, each of the retired American riders who have admitted using performance-enhancing drugs is charting his own path into the future. Tyler Hamilton published his bestselling tell-all last year and now has a coaching business. Hincapie, the most successful of the group, has a sporstwear line, a development team, a cycling-centered hotel, and his own three-year old Gran Fondo in North Carolina. Others are more adrift. “It’s hard,” said Leipheimer. “They don’t know what to do.”

As for the enduring impact the doper stigma will have on all of them, Leipheimer wasn’t wiling to speculate. “I think the best answer is that only time will tell,” he said. “Only time is going to bring clarity and understanding about all of it. I think after a while it will make more sense.”

That sounded like a platitude, but Leipheimer was being sincere. “For myself, after what I’ve gone through, I’ve had no choice but to be a better person,” he added. “And I see that for cycling as a sport. It’s going to become stronger because of all this.”

Leipheimer dialed in his cleat, but now he’s staring at my rear cassette, which is making some unsettling creaking and popping noises. We pull over to add some chain lube, but there’s no improvement.

“You need to take the cassette apart and check out the freewheel,” Leipheimer says with authority, before pedaling ahead, I presume, to escape the squawks of an imperfect drivetrain.

We roll on westward for several hours through extraordinary landscapes on a road that gets more pot-holed but also more empty by the mile. There are long stretches where we don’t see a single car or structure. This is the kind of riding that seduced Leipheimer to move to Sonoma County almost 20 years ago and that molded him into one of the best cyclists of his generation. It’s the kind of riding he wanted to celebrate when he created the Gran Fondo.

Close to the coast, we reach a fork in the road. Three of us are headed to the right, for one more relatively easy climb followed by a blissful descent to Highway 1, where we’ll have dinner and then get a car ride home. Leipheimer and another rider are going left on a route to Santa Rosa that will have them climbing another 3,500 feet over 40 or so miles. Leipheimer seems ecstatic at this prospect. He’s smiling broadly as he departs, eager to embrace another three hours of blissful pain.

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Tour de France 101

This year’s Tour de France has proven mysterious to even the most knowledgeable cycling fanatics, with both pre-Tour favorites Alberto Contador and Chris Froome out of the race due to heavy crashes. So we imagine that to the outsider, the race must seem almost incomprehensible. Presenting a beginner’s guide to the world’s most important cycling stage race.

#1: Does the race take place exclusively in France? 

Nope. It often starts in a nearby country, a tradition that dates to 1954, when the race set off in Amsterdam. This year, it began with three days in England, starting in Yorkshire and ending in London.

The Tour frequently passes into neighboring countries throughout the event, especially the mountains of Italy and Spain. This year’s edition also swung through Belgium for what became a contentious and slippery day on the cobbles.

#2: How many racers compete?

A total of 198 racers line up at the start. There are 22 teams, with nine riders per team. Throughout the event, racers drop out because of injuries. Riders must also finish within a certain percentage of time of the stage winner or they’ll be eliminated from the race. The percentage of time varies, depending on the difficulty of the stage.

The race jury can grant exceptions to riders who don’t make the time cut. And if more than 20 percent of riders miss the time limit, generally they are exempted. That’s why, on mountainous stages, you’ll often see a large group of riders, known as the autobus, group together at the back of the field—it’s safety in numbers.

#3: How does this stage racing stuff work? How do you win?

Each rider is timed on every one of the 21 stages. A rider’s time is added up from stage to stage for an overall elapsed time. The racer with the fastest elapsed time over three weeks wins the race.

So it’s possible to lose a lot of time one day, make it up throughout the length of the race, and still win. Maybe the best example came in 1958, when Frenchman Charly Gaul started the final day in the Alps 15 minutes behind but, thanks to atrocious weather, made up all but 28 seconds of that time. He went on to win the overall.

#4: Is it true that a racer can win the overall without ever winning a stage?

Yes. While it’s considered good style to win at least one stage en route to an overall win, it’s not a requirement. All that’s necessary is a racer finish with the fastest elapsed time over three weeks. 

Only six racers in 101 editions of the race have won the Tour without winning a stage. Spaniard Óscar Pereiro did it most recently in 2006, while three-time Tour champ Greg Lemond took his final victory in 1990 without a stage win.

#5: Are there time bonuses for winning a stage?

Through 2008, time bonuses were awarded for both pre-set sprint intervals along a day’s course and for the fastest finishers. Intermediate sprints earned the top three racers 6, 4, and 2 seconds, respectively, while the first three racers to finish a stage took 20-, 12-, and eight-second bonuses.

Race director Christian Prudhomme eliminated the bonuses in 2009, arguing that the true winner of the race should be person who clocks the actual fastest elapsed time. Both the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España still award bonuses, and some argue that the extra incentives make for more exciting races. 

#6: What’s with all the special jerseys?

The yellow jersey, or maillot jaune in French, indicates the rider with the fastest elapsed overall time in the race at any given point during the Tour. It is awarded after each day’s finish. If a racer wins a stage but isn’t the overall leader, he is awarded a maillot jaune for his win, but he won’t get to wear it the next day, the overall leader will. 

Concurrent to the overall race, there are three additional competitions in the Tour. The green jersey, or maillot vert, is awarded based on a point system for winning sprint stages. The racer who wears the polka dot jersey, or maillot à pois, is called the King of the Mountains. He earns the jersey by accruing points for reaching the tops of designated mountains first. And the young rider classification is awarded to the racer under 26 with the fastest elapsed time, who wears the white jersey, or maillot blanc

#7: Is the course the same every year? How do they decide on the route?

The course, often referred to as the parcours, changes every year, though given the long history of the race, towns and climbs cycle in and out from year to year. Towns bid to host race starts and finishes, which can bring in great revenue because of the influx of teams and spectators. The course is announced each fall, usually in October, in a gala celebration.

#8: How fast do the racers go?

On flats, the peloton moves along at around 30 miles per hour. On mountain stages, racers can descend in excess of 60 miles per hour. The fastest Tour de France on record was in 2005, in which Lance Armstrong averaged 25.882 miles per hour over the 2,241-mile course.

#9: Why do they shave their legs?

Arguably the biggest reason racers shave is because, in case of a crash, it’s easier to clean the wounds with no hair. Shaved legs are also said to be more aerodynamic, and though some people claim the differences are insignificant, Specialized recently refuted that. And if they’re honest, most cyclists will tell you shaving is also about identity.

#10: How do they go to the toilet?

Given that Tour riders can spend five or more hours a day in the saddle, it’s reasonable to wonder how they take care of business. Generally, the peloton will agree to stop somewhere discreet alongside the road for a “nature break,” when riders can go without being left behind. In some cases, if the race is on, riders will just go from the saddle, with other racers taking care to stay out of the way.

#11: How much money do you get if you win?

Winners of each day’s stage are awarded €22,500 (~$30,000), while the team time trial pays €25,000 (~$34,000). Overall winners of the green jersey and polka dot jersey take home €25,000 each, while the overall winner of the white jersey gets €20,000 ($27,000). There’s also an award for the most aggressive rider (€20,000), which is decided by a jury of eight cycling specialists, and for the fastest overall team (€50,000).

The grand prize for the racer who takes top honors at the Tour de France is €450,000 ($610,000), though traditionally he will share it among his team.

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Tour d'Attrition

The 2014 Tour de France was turned on its head once again Monday after Alberto Contador crashed on the rain-slicked descent of the day’s second-rated climb and was forced to abandon the race.

Though he remounted the bike after the crash and tried to soldier on, he eventually succumbed and discovered later at the hospital that he had fractured his tibia.

The two-time Tour champ’s departure comes just five days after Chris Froome went down on wet roads and was also forced to quit. Contador and Froome took the start line on July 5 as the favorites, though Vincenzo Nibali and his team Astana commandeered the race lead in Stage 2. Contador and Froome were the only two racers in this year’s Tour who had previously won the event, and their departures ensure that the race will have a new champion.

After last Wednesday’s treacherous cobbled stage, there was much handwringing over whether or not the pavé has a rightful place in the Tour. Critics argued that the rough roads were too dangerous for the high speeds and nervous racing of the Tour and that they put the lightweight GC contenders at too much risk.  

The whole discussion misses the point, especially in light of Contador’s crash. On Stage 5, it wasn’t the cobbles that caused the chaos, but the rain: Froome, Valverde, and Van Garderen all went down on rain-soaked smooth pavement.

Similarly, the wet roads and heavy rain surely contributed to bringing Contador down. In the same way that no one is likely to argue that the race should skip the mountains in the name of rider safety, there shouldn’t even be a conversation about whether cobbles are appropriate.

Tour director Christian Prudhomme put it best after Froome’s unfortunate crash. He said he was sad to see the Brit leave the race, but maintained that the winner of the Tour de France must be a complete rider

A bit of luck helps, too.

And as always, one rider’s misfortune is another’s advantage. With both Froome and Contador gone, Nibali, who was already looking ready for the fight, now has to be considered the top contender to win the Tour de France. The Italian was expected to grapple with Contador on today’s final climb to La Planche des Belles Filles, but with the Spaniard out, Nibali rode away with the race to regain the yellow jersey and consolidate his lead. He now sits two minutes and 23 seconds ahead. 

Other, lesser favorites also benefited, including American Tejay Van Garderen, Spaniard Alejandro Valverde, Omega Pharma’s up-and-comer Michael Kwiatowski, Dutchman Bauke Mollema, and Belgium’s Jurgen Van Den Broeck. All of those racers moved up the standings.

After Nibali, Team Sky is arguably the biggest beneficiary of Contador’s departure. When Chris Froome went out of the race, many questioned whether Sky had made a mistake leaving home Bradley Wiggins.

However the team rallied around super-domestique Richie Porte, and the Aussie has ridden consistently to silence the doubters and move to second overall on GC. Besides, given how harsh the race has been to past Tour winners, Wiggins may be lucky to be sitting comfortably at home.

With the two biggest favorites out, it’s easy to write this race off as over. And it’s true that Nibali now seems a shoo-in for the win. But given the tumult of the first 10 days of racing, the only thing that seems certain about this Tour is that nothing is certain.

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Fact-Checking Outside’s Altitude Training Tips

No matter what I read about tackling a high-altitude race, I wasn’t convinced that minor training tweaks could actually affect my result. And as a fact checker for Outside magazine, I couldn’t resist the chance to test our online team’s fitness advice when I ran a 26.2-mile race in Leadville, Colorado, last month.

Maybe it was an altruistic pursuit, but it’s more likely that I needed an outlet for my growing nerves. Because Leadville is high (in at least one way I could confirm). The town is wedged between Rocky Mountain 14ers at 10,152 feet, and the course starts climbing right away.

Us mere mortals were resigned to hiking the inclines as the trail weaved toward the halfway point at Mosquito Pass (13,185 feet) where wind speeds hovered around 30 mph. To put it in perspective, climbers launch most Mount Rainier (14,409 feet) summit bids from Camp Muir, which sits at 10,080 feet. You know, the same height at which pilots used to tell you it was okay to turn on approved electronic devices. High.

So how does Outside recommend tackling the highest marathon in the United States? And more importantly, does our advice work?

“Avoid racing between 24 to 72 hours at altitude and instead head up the night or morning before.”

To avoid the ill effects of altitude on race day, we recommend heading up one to three weeks ahead of time to get acclimated. If that’s not doable, then avoid the window where symptoms typically set in: between 24-72 hours of exposure.

Since hanging out in Colorado for a week wasn’t something I could pull off, I got to Leadville 12 hours before the gun. Surprisingly, I felt no effects of the altitude (trust me, I was looking for it), but it definitely took a mental toll because I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

PINOCCHIO RATING: 0

“Aim to spend four or more hours at 5,000-plus feet a few times in the month leading up to the race.”

Having experience training at altitude helps. When I moved to Santa Fe (7,000 feet), I was aware of the thin air the second I got out of the car. But three months of training here gave me a huge advantage over my fellow Midwestern competitors. On the course I met a guy from Oklahoma (as we were walking one of the ascents), and he mentioned that the tallest “mountain” he could find topped out at 1,400 feet. He’d never breathed air so thin, much less tried to run in it.

PINOCCHIO RATING: 0

“Be sure to prepare mentally, as your race pace will be slower and dehydration sets in quicker.”

I’m pretty good at drinking water. I even nixed my usual night-before beer because Outside (for once) doesn’t recommend drinking booze. Starting the race hydrated is easy enough, but staying that way is a bit tougher. I took a few sips of water every 10 minutes or so, but it wasn’t sufficient to keep headaches at bay. As pressure built at the nape of my neck and temples, however, a quick chug of water reversed the advancing pain and allowed me to keep trudging on.

PINOCCHIO RATING: 0

“Rather than trying to maintain your typical pace, consciously slow yourself down to avoid blowing up.” 

Unlike a sea-level marathon where a wall is expected late in the race (if ever), at altitude you might not know you’re bonking until you’re delirious and puking in the trees. For many, myself included, a finish at high altitude is as good as a win. I overheard the following advice on the course:

1. Don't do anything stupid. 
2. Just finish. 

One guy said this to another shortly after we passed a runner dry heaving around the two-mile mark. The altitude combined with the gnarly terrain (think snow, loose rock, mud) was responsible for a few bloody knees and faces as runners navigated the steep slopes. No need to do anything crazy, just keep it moving. 

PINOCCHIO RATING: 0

And if all else fails?

“If you still end up feeling like crap the whole race, don’t sweat it. It’s not you—it’s genetics.”

I managed to finish on two feet, arms sticky with electrolyte water and a new tan line resembling a capped-sleeved wrestler's singlet. But I finished. I was waiting for symptoms of altitude to hit, but they never did.

The Bottom Line:

So after completing this 6.5-hour investigation, my fact check found that we’ve offered sage advice on executing a high-altitude jaunt, sans hypoxia and with enough stamina left to Instagram post-race. No noses growing here: it turns out (surprise!) that Outside's experts know their stuff.

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