As cyclists, we sometimes have a tendency to overstate the strategic and tactical aspects of professional cycling. Don’t feel bad about it – it’s a perfectly natural reaction to being surrounded by a general public that, at least in the United States, understands little about the intricacies of the sport we love.
On a daily basis ("daily" meaning “six times in July”), we face misguided commentary and indignant questions from those who, through no fault of their own, believe that bicycle road racing is an individual sport, that once the starter’s pistol is fired, every one of those 180 lycra-clad freaks pedals hell bent for leather to the finish line, and may the strongest man win. For those who know better, it can be tough to take.
And so we, those who’ve left skin on the road, those whose sympathetic hearts pound when the big attacks explode across the television screen, yearn to teach the lay public different. We long to open those uninitiated eyes to the all the careful thought and closely guarded knowledge that allows the racer to make most effective use of his muscle, ache to share the science that shows it’s oftentimes better to be a few men behind than boldly out in front, and dream of the chance to illuminate the topographical nuances that will dictate how and where a race will be decided.
In response to the slightest provocation from a non-cyclist, in addressing the most innocent dinner party question, we go overboard, sputtering through explanations of the roles of domestiques, the commercial concerns that drive the early break, the benefits and drawbacks of multiple team leaders, and the importance of a well-drilled lead-out train. As the inquirer begins to shift uncomfortably in their seat, we continue with increased urgency to try to impart as many of cycling's rock-paper-scissors nuances as we can before our victim feeds the family dog a chicken bone to create a diversion and facilitate an escape.
Usually, the effect of this deluge of mind-numbing detail is that the victims retain nothing at all, but if they somehow manage to digest some of our inane ramblings, they’d be likely to come away with the mistaken view that cycling is almost entirely decided by strategy and tactics. And that’s as untrue as thinking it relies solely on fitness. In fact, when it comes down to the finale of races like last Sunday’s Ronde van Vlaanderen, the average oblivious man on the street might have a more accurate impression of how things work than a bunch of overanalytical bike geeks. Sometimes – maybe most times, in fact – it all really does just come down to who’s stronger.
In the Ronde, both Tom Boonen (Quick Step) and Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank) rode tactically perfect races. Each had obviously picked the right man to mark (not a hard decision after last week’s E3 Prijs). Both stayed alert during the early sortings out on the Paterberg and Koppenberg climbs. Cancellara attacked on the Molenberg with 45 kilometers remaining to the finish – marking almost exactly the point at which the magical “final hour” of a bike race begins – and set the pair up to pick up a tailwind boost as the race turned southeast. Boonen followed with so little hesitation that many press outlets seem hesitant to assign the attack to one rider or the other, instead giving dual credit, and both favorites immediately began to work to build their advantage over the rest.
Everything from the start in Brugge up to that point of attack on the Molenberg – all that work to be in the right place, at the right time, with the right people? Though there’s a (high) minimum fitness level required to execute it, that’s all the tactics and teamwork of professional cycling. That’s all that stuff we like to rattle on about, entertaining each other and lulling outsiders into a dangerous state of combined boredom and loathing.
But past the Molenberg -- over the Leberg, Berendries, Tenbosse, Muur, Bosberg, and on into Meerbeke? That part of the race was all pure brute strength, the kind it doesn’t take a cyclist, a cycling fan, or a journalist to spot. Tactically, scientifically, and aerodynamically speaking, the larger group of very strong riders behind – names like Gilbert, Hincapie, Iglinsky, Langveld – should have been able to regain Boonen and Cancellara. But they couldn’t. Instead, Cancellara and Boonen continued to build their gap. And when Cancellara attacked again on the Muur, Boonen didn’t hesistate, didn’t let Cancellara go figuring his move was too far from the finish. Boonen didn’t make any sort of tactical or technical mistake, didn't misjudge or get caught asleep at the wheel – he simply couldn’t match Cancellara’s power. Nor could he recover and claw back anything on the Swiss over the Bosberg or on the flat run to the finish. From start to finish, Boonen rode a perfect race. Cancellara just rode a perfect race faster.
Sometimes, beaten riders subjected to press questions will cite little tactical issues that they credit with ultimately bringing about their demise – too far back on this climb, little team support here, followed the wrong wheel there. Again, it’s understandable. It is hard, and boring, to simply tell the assembled press that you just weren’t strong enough, and it’s easy and sounds more insightful to focus on all the times when a small mistake cost you. But those immediate post-race statements just tend to reinforce the poor but oft-stated metaphor that cycling is like a chess game. It isn’t. Nobody makes you get three quarters of the way through a chess game, and then arm wrestle to see who wins. So, tactics junkies, race analysts, and cocktail party bores, listen closely to what Tom Boonen had to say following his heartbreaking defeat at the hands of Cancellara:
“I was racing after him at 55 kilometers an hour, and he took a minute off me. What can I say? He was the strongest.”
Sometimes, losing is just that simple.
- Want a second opinion on Cancellara’s strength? From Gent-Wevelgem winner Bernhard Eisel, on hearing the Cancellara/Boonen break behind him, from Cyclingnews.com: “I thought, I’d better let this motorbike come by, but when I turned around and looked it was Cancellara.”
- I don’t care if you’re a ProTour team or not, if you don’t put a single rider across the finish line of a monument like Flanders, you should receive a mandatory one year exclusion from that race. No hard feelings or griping from the organizer need enter into it – it would just be a sort of automatic, single-event relegation. This year, all eight of Footon-Servetto’s starters ended up on the DNF end of the results sheet. Under my plan, they’d be excluded next year, so David Gutierrez (Footon) can stay home where he wants to be, preparing for the Tour of the Basque Country or whatever, while someone like Jens Keukeleire (Cofidis) can be at the Ronde van Vlaanderen, where he wants to be. Another beneficial side effect: the second feed zone of cycling’s monuments won’t have more people looking for a ride than a goddamn Greyhound terminal on Thanksgiving weekend.
Anyway, hot on Footon-Servetto’s dubious heels were fellow Spanish imports Caisse d’Epargne and Euskaltel-Euskadi, who each managed to send a single rider across the finish line (Joaquin Rojas in 37th and Javier Aramendia Lorente in 65th, respectively). Look, I know the classics aren’t a focus for those teams, and that only two of Footon’s riders were actually Spanish, but that’s a ridiculous attrition rate and the shared country of origin really makes it stand out. To be fair, home team Topsport Vlaanderen-Mercator also finished only a single rider – Gent-Wevelgem warrior Sep Vanmarcke, in 62nd position – but they’re a second division team focused on young talent, and with a budget that makes the constantly sponsor-challenged Footon look wealthy.
- Last week, I pointed out that if “classic specialist” ProTour teams Quick Step and Omega Pharma failed to win the Ronde, they’d be in the unenviable position of having to win Paris-Roubaix to salvage the part of the season that pays the bills for them. Well, they didn’t win the Ronde (or today's Scheldeprijs, either). That both these teams have failed to climb the top step of the podium at this year’s cobbled classics makes me wonder anew whether there is really room for such a high level of specialization at the very top of the sport these days. With teams like HTC-Columbia and Saxo Bank making an impact from February to October in classics, stage races, and grand tours, will even the most die-hard Belgian sponsor be willing to front ProTour money for two months of hit-or-miss classics specialization, followed by six months of chasing stages and glorified kermesse wins? For the sort of cash Quick Step puts up, they should at least have an Ardennes specialist that will give them a legitimate shot through late April. People wail and moan about Tour de France-centric teams like U.S. Postal/Discovery only really racing for 21 days a year, but if you count up the days of classics racing, are Quick Step and Omega Pharma (post-Cadel Evans) really far off that mark?
- Finally, how about that Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Transitions)? Somebody needed to start winning things for that team, and I’m glad he’s the one to do it. OK, that’s a little mean, considering David Millar’s stage and overall win in DePanne, but people have had a lot of expectations for this team for a long time, and those expectations were starting to wear pretty thin. Now that Farrar seems to be really getting his legs under him in the classics, let’s hope he’s allowed to put some energy into building on that promise, rather than spending a career getting overmatched in grand tour bunch sprints. Success (or, if not success, visibility) in grand tours means a lot to American teams in particular, so it’s understandable that Farrar gets highlighted in that capacity. And don't get me wrong, he’s very, very good in the bunch sprints – one of the best. But he could have a potentially better career as a classics man ahead of him, and I have to wonder if Garmin will be the right place to make that transition in the most effective way.