Toolbox: The Postal and Sky eras introduced us to the concept of the “mountain train,” with a legion of climbing teammates delivering the leader to victory. But how does having a mountain train actually help?
The US Postal mountain train
The Mountain Train
We have grown accustomed over the past two decades to seeing the Postal and Sky mountain trains demoralizing and demolishing the competition on their way to repeated Tour glory. This was generally done by successive climbing domestiques keeping the pace so high during their turns at the front that it became essentially impossible for any rivals to attack without either getting caught quickly or blowing up completely.
The Mountain Train 2022
During the 2022 season, however, we saw climbing domestiques play a different and arguably dramatic role in their leader’s victory. At the Giro’s penultimate stage, BORA-hansgrohe’s Lennard Kamna spent the day in the breakaway, then pulled so hard for about 400 m when leader Jai Hindley and rival Richard Carapaz caught him 5 km from the final summit finish that Carapaz cracked and Hindley took it from there.
At the Tour, Jumbo-Visma essentially repeated the playbook on Stage 18, with Wout van Aert in the breakaway and then cracking Tadej Pogacär when he and Jonas Vingegaard reached him on the final summit, again with about 5 km to go.
Seeing these two versions of climbing dominance leads to an often-asked question: “Just what ARE the benefits of having climbing teammates.” Related to this is a secondary question of why is it a benefit that this domestique is your teammate than from a rival team?
One clue to the benefits of climbing while paced by a partner versus climbing solo comes from a 2018 French study, which had elite riders perform an uphill TT solo and also while paced by a teammate on an e-bike (Ouvrard et al. 2018). Here’s the setup:
- 12 male competitive cyclists (3+ years) with maximal aerobic power ~5.8 W/kg.
- Course was a 2.7 km one averaging 7.4% grade, done on their personal bikes with standardized tire pressures.
- A solo condition where the rider rode alone, self-paced as if it was a race. Gearing, cadence, and posture (sitting/standing, bar position) were self-determined.
- A paced condition where an experienced competitive cyclist teammate rode an e-bike. The participant controlled the domestique’s speed verbally, with the teammate increasing or decreasing speed by 0.2 km/h at “Go” or “Wait,” respectively. The teammate whenever the gap to the participant was greater than 2 m.
The Remco train
It Takes Two to Tango
It is of course impossible to really replicate race conditions, but this field test does a pretty decent job of simulating attacking a hill solo or teammate-paced. What were the main results?
- Not surprisingly, TT performance improved when paced, by about 23 seconds or 4.2%. This occurred despite no change in mean power output, mean heart rate, post-ride lactate, or ratings of perceived exertion. This certainly highlights the importance of aerodynamics and drafting, calculated to be worth about 13 s advantage.
- A really interesting finding was that, while power output did not differ across conditions from 0-90% of the TT time, the paced condition enabled a significantly higher power output over the final 10% of the TT time. This was quite dramatic at a benefit of 32 W in the paced versus solo condition.
- No difference were found in motivation or attentional focus, but participants had a much higher pleasure rating for the paced compared to the solo condition. It’s of course hard to determine whether this was due to the actual pleasure of riding with a partner versus the perception of better performance and faster speeds.
Jay Vine smashing it twice in the Vuelta
Smashing the Hill
So it definitely appears as if riding with a partner benefits by permitting higher speeds at the same wattage without any additional physiological cost. At the same time it’s more enjoyable. So chalk this one as a win for the “misery loves company” team.
Note that other studies have shown that racing against a competitor typically results in higher power outputs. Remember, however, that this study the paced situation was cooperative rather than competitive.
The other fascinating finding for me is the higher end-spurt of effort when paced. Even without any difference in physiological strain over the bulk of the effort, being paced somehow encouraged or enabled the rider to push far harder nearing the finish. This higher end-spurt can be likened to Hindley and Vingegaard jumping off Kamna and van Aert’s wheels for their coup de grace attacks.
What remains unanswerable by this study is the second question we started with. In racing situations, why isn’t there apparently the same benefit to being paced by a rival rather than a teammate? Is it because of the stress of being outnumbered? Is it because it’s a rival driving the pace leading to a feeling of lack of control? Of course, that such a question might never be answerable by science is part of why we love racing so much!
Enjoy the Vuelta! Ride fast and have fun!
Ouvrard T, Groslambert A, Ravier G, et al (2018) Mechanisms of Performance Improvements Due to a Leading Teammate During Uphill Cycling. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance 13:1215–1222. https://doi.org/10.1123/ijspp.2017-0878