Repetition is the Mother of Learning

Repetition is the mother of learning. That’s what my Russian teacher used to say when he made us repeat basic phrases again, and again, and again. Except he said it in Russian. I don’t speak any Russian anymore, and I’m betting Mark Cavendish (Columbia) doesn’t either, but that’s not stopping him from using repetition to teach his competitors a lasting lesson or two. The first lesson, already driven home by the time Wednesday’s stage rolled out, is that he is undoubtedly the dominant sprinter of the season. The second lesson, reinforced yet again by his Stage 11 victory, is that he’s no longer the guy who goes shooting backwards whenever there’s any sort of elevation gain.

It’s a popular theory, of course, the one that says that any hill in a key spot will be Cavendish’s undoing, his Achilles heel. It does have some basis in the history of his early career, and he’s certainly not a proven sprinter on uphill finishes like Oscar Freire (Rabobank), but the notion is becoming more and more dated as the season presses on. In Milan-San Remo, plenty doubted that he’d make it over the Cipressa and the Poggio, but he did, with flying colors, and won on the other side. That performance proved that he can get over the hills on the way to a flat sprint, but still, they wondered, could he actually sprint on an uphill?

Nobody seemed to really know coming into largely flat today’s stage from Vatan to Saint-Fargeau whether Cavendish’s legs could handle the incline. While few would flat-out bet against the man from Man, many sprinters were seeing the little rise to the line as the key to breaking the stranglehold Cavendish has held on the sprint stages. After all, Thor Hushovd (Cervelo) and Freire had fought out the victory on the twisting uphill grind into Barcelona, where Cavendish was nowhere to be found. That performance spoke more to the versatility of that pair than the abilities of a pure sprinter, however, and Wednesday’s finish was nowhere near as extreme. Deep down, I’m sure they knew their chances on Stage 11 were still slim, but when you’re being manhandled the way the other sprinters have this Tour, you have to try to find hope where you can get it. A little bit of that hope must have died when Cavendish timed it all right and took his fourth stage win – on the uphill.

Despite all that, I have no doubt that the next time there’s a stage with a little hill near the finish, or with a haul to the line that’s not billiard table flat, the “Cavendish can’t go up” idea will emerge again. Sometimes, it takes a few repetitions to really get it.

Today’s sprint also showed that, while much is made of Cavendish’s kick, his elbows are pretty good, too. Hushovd was kind enough to leave Cavendish a little room as he came around, but Cavendish bought himself a few more inches with a well-timed bump just as he began to move out of Renshaw’s shadow. Considering the difference in mass between the two riders, Hushovd seemed surprisingly willing to yield the space, and I’m surprised he didn’t work a little harder to box Cavendish in behind Renshaw and against the fence.

That said, if Hushovd had pinched Cavendish off, I still don’t think he would have won the stage. In the finale, Tyler Farrar (Garmin) easily came around Hushovd, despite the fact that he had to practically ride sideways as the sprint began to get around a fanned-out Renshaw-Cavendish-Hushovd line. That took him to the left side of the road, just as the road took the last right-hand bend, leaving Farrar to ride all the way back across the road to make the turn. If you reduced the number of riders he had to ride around by even one, the reduction in side-to-side riding distance might have been enough to finally get Farrar across the line first. Unfortunately for him, that’s just me speculating, and not what actually happened. Even without a win, though, this Tour has been a breakout for Farrar.

Race Radio
  • It was surprising to see Johan Vansummeren (Silence-Lotto) in the break today, given that the team has precious few resources to help Cadel Evans later in the race, and Vansummeren is one of their stronger assets. I’m not sure if that means that Lotto is looking for other ways to get their Tour money’s worth besides Evans, or if Vansummeren just asked for a little chance for himself since the Alps are a week away. Either way, I always like seeing Vansummeren ride.

  • On the approach, Columbia did a great job not giving anyone anything for free by jamming everyone up the left side of the road. Now that’s putting it in the gutter.

  • The thing that strikes me about Columbia’s well-drilled leadout is how star-studded it is when contrasted with the comparatively anonymous but purpose-built trains of Mario Cipollini and Alessandro Pettacchi. While they were great leadouts, riders in those squads rarely scored big results of their own, while Cavendish’s train is a group of riders who are standouts in their own right. You wouldn’t think that two world TT champions, a perennial classics contender, a Fleche Wallonne winner, and several others who could be stage contenders themselves could all pull together into what looks and functions like a dedicated leadout team. That they do speaks to something, I’m just not sure what. Cavendish’s ability to deliver on their work? Stapleton’s management? A collective lack of ego?

  • Now that I’ve seen Liquigas try to organize a leadout on an open, flat, straight road, I’m no longer wondering why Danielle Bennati’s nowhere to be found. Those guys don’t need radios to find each other; they need GPS.

  • Did you see Nocentini boogie-ing his way solo up the outside about 3 kilometers from the finish? Now there’s a guy who’s not taking any chances with his yellow jersey: No teammates around to usher me to the front? Ah, screw it, I'll do it myself...

  • No sooner to we mention the relative anonymity of Yauheni Hutarovich (FdJ) here on the Service Course than he bags himself a third place on Stage 11 amidst some pretty exclusive company. With results like that, people will stop getting him mixed up with Pippo Pozzato (Katusha) any time now.

  • Since, by having a blog, I’ve effectively caught up with the en vogue medium of six years ago, I’ve gone the extra step of establishing a Facebook page for it. Now I’m only two years or so behind. If you're into that sort of thing, stop by and tell me what I'm supposed to do with it. Permanent link is up there at the top left.