With the Tour under way we thought it would be a good idea to take a look at how the big teams prepare for battle. We’re going to take a look at which race tactics and strategies play a massive role in determining the outcome of a given stage. We’ll then invite you to tell us about some of your most memorable moments in professional cycling, where race strategy was clearly influential, or conversely, simply went out of the window!
To the innocent onlooker, a typical cycling race may seem like a perfectly simple affair. You pedal your heart out and hope that your endurance is good enough to see you maintain it just that little bit longer than your closest rivals, crossing the finish line first. However, as any avid cycling fan will know, the innocent onlooker would be sorely mistaken, as team strategy and race tactics are crucial in securing a stage win. Basic tactics can be built upon and expanded, which leads to increasingly complex race strategies which will often be the deciding factor between cycling’s elite athletes at the highest level. It’s all about teamwork, even if it’s normally only a select few which receive any considerable amount of recognition!
A cycling team is typically made up of riders which adopt a variety of roles. Each rider has his own specialities and weaknesses. As a consequence, adapting team strategy to work to everyone’s relative strengths is critical to success. Climber, time trialist, sprinter, domestique or all-rounder, a given rider has a specific role to play for the overriding benefit of the team as a whole. Undoubtedly, the big sprinters and climbers receive more attention, purely for the fact that they are usually the ones who take the stage wins for the team and subsequently bask in the adoration of fans, the media and *ahem* the podium girls. However, domestiques are a fundamental part of a cycling team and are integral to the successful functioning of team strategy as a whole.
Perhaps the most thankless job in the professional peloton, the role of the domestique is one of the least glamorous yet also one of the most important. At their most basic level, domestiques support their team by drifting back to the team car to collect food, water or clothing, and by shielding team-mates from their rivals. However, domestiques can also be expected to sacrifice their bikes or wheels for the benefit of their team-mates if the circumstances dictated it.
Racing in the interest of the team, domestiques will often initiate a breakaway in order to force other teams to chase them, sapping energy reserves which could prove decisive in the final metres of a stage. Similarly, they will also chase a breakaway that could potentially threaten their own team to ensure that rivals do not build too great a lead.
The changing roles of the domestique:
In 2005, George Hincapie, Lance Armstrong’s domestique, chased one such breakaway, believing Lance would catch up further down the road. Tagging on to the back of the breakaway, the group quickly built up an unassailable lead of 18 minutes and Hincapie was then given the green light by team director Johan Bruyneel to go for the win. A final sprint to the finish secured his first ever individual stage win in the Tour de France.
However, at the time, commentators were divided over Hincapie’s success, with many declaring it a memorable win, while a more critical group had a more damning verdict of his tactics, believing that simply sitting on the back of the breakaway and cheekily taking the win at the last moment was a sly move. Clearly, it’s a no-win situation for the domestique!
Nevertheless, the role of the domestique does not have to be an eternal one for a professional cyclist. For instance, veteran professional rider Stuart O’Grady rode as Carlos Sastre’s domestique in the 2008 Tour de France, helping him to his eventual overall win. On the other hand, in the Herald Sun Tour, also in 2008, O’Grady acted as team leader. He was assisted by his team-mates to two stage wins and won the overall general classification. Now the Australian riders leads the GreenEDGE cycling team. In essence, for those who show promise, or are known to have the ability to take on another role, their position within a team does not have to be permanent.
As already hinted at, domestiques are vital in instigating tactics such as drafting. Quite simply, much of a cyclist’s effort goes into pushing aside the air in front of them. My GCSE in Physics informs me that the effort involved in pushing aside this air will therefore increase with speed. Consequently, riding in the slipstream of another rider is far easier than taking the lead. It has been stated that a rider in the slipstream of another expends between 30% and 40% less energy to ride at the same speed. With this is mind, it’s only a small step to see the implications this has for a cycling team.
In some races, the domestique will expend maximum energy during the first half of a race, with a team-mate in tow, before dropping out from exhaustion. If all goes to plan, said team-mate will then proceed to win the race.
Taking this tactic one step further, several domestiques may attempt to ‘lead out’ their designated sprinter, whereby several riders form a lead-out train or paceline with each domestique taking his turn at the front, before peeling off and letting another domestique take the strain to ensure that a steady pace is maintained.
The strength of a tactic such as this is seen when it is used within a breakaway. If one or two riders escape the peloton, the likelihood of them being able to maintain the break is low, because if both riders work equally, each rider will spend 50% of the time pulling the other. If five or six strong riders can initiate a breakaway, the chances of success are far greater, particularly on a twisting course, where numerous turns slow the peloton repeatedly. Moreover, each rider will only exert full power for a sixth of the time, rather than half, giving each rider time to recover. In conjunction with this, team’s involved in a break will often encourage a couple of it’s riders to try and disrupt the chasing pack, giving the breakaway time to succeed.
While we’re on the vein of drafting, the formation of echelons is a tactic used in the professional peloton to protect riders from cross winds. While riding into a headwind means that a straight paceline can be formed, with one rider following another, a cross wind means that riders are forced to align themselves diagonally.
In the final stretches of a stage, the teams with the strongest sprinters can use a lead-out train to a greater extent. Each rider at the front of the line will utterly exhaust himself before swinging off and allowing the next rider to power through. A common mistake of the more inexperienced rider is to slow down before pulling over, which has the negative effect of slowing down the entire group. With the finish line in sight, the last rider through will be the team sprinter, who will give everything in the last couple of hundred metres in an attempt to secure victory.
Of course, it is often the case that multiple teams have a similar strategy and often no one is able to control the sprint. In cases such as this, it can often dissolve into an every man for himself battle for the line. As shown above, this battle can turn violent!
On other occasions, more deceptive tactics are required. Perhaps most memorable is Lance Armstrong’s tactics in the 2001 Tour de France. After feigning fatigue on L’Alpe d’Huez, Armstrong encouraged his rival, Jan Ullrich, to work hard to catch him. However, with Ullrich just a matter of metres behind, Armstrong stepped it up a notch and was able to pull out a healthy 2 minute lead over his rival. It’s tactics such as this which can, and do, decide races.
The terrain over which a given stage is raced is also a major factor which will affect a team’s strategy. On flat terrain, drafting is common. However, on climbs, speeds are significantly reduced, therefore negating the benefits of drafting. As a result, on hilly stages, climbers will remain in the draft of their team-mates until the most severe climb, at which point a team’s climber will attempt to sufficiently distance themselves from the chasing pack. In this instance, a group of the best climbers will often race wheel to wheel and attempt to pull ahead while the advantageous nature of the slipstream remains elusive and the key determinant of speed is ultimately the power-to-weight ratio.
Constant pacing, negative splitting:
There are of course far more tactics and strategies than those listed above. Deciding whether to start fast and trying to sustain the pace, start slowly and build up as the race progresses, or attempt to hold an even pace for the duration can be a difficult decision to make.
Varying pace throughout a race is well known to be a sure fire way to sort the proverbial men from the boys. It has also been shown that even pacing has the potential to produce the best results on a relatively flat course with minimal wind. However, faster times have been shown to result from riding into a headwind or up a climb harder, before backing off with a tailwind or a downhill section, rather than merely riding it all at an even pace, at least when considering smaller distances.
Of course, at the highest levels, negative splitting is often the name of the game. Essentially, a negative split is achieved when the second half of a stage is ridden in a faster time than the first half. Ramping up the pace in a fashion such as this will test the endurance of the leading riders, and if executed well, can often be decisive and will reveal who’s spent a few extra hours on the turbo after that Christmas blow out.
As just mentioned, overseeing a cycling team’s overall strategy is a director. Taking into account the strength and weaknesses of their own team, and those of their opponents, team directors will decide which will be the protected rider, or riders, within the team before a given race. Numerous factors will influence who is chosen as leader. The most experienced, the healthiest, those in best form or those who possess specific skills which suit a particular course structure, are all factors which will determine who is chosen, and what subsequent tactics are adopted.
However, the team director’s influence is not limited to pre-stage strategy, as they will also follow the riders in the lead team support car. From here, the team director will direct riders via two-way radios, therefore keeping in constant contact with the riders, allowing for strategy and tactics to evolve and adapt to changing circumstances within the race.
Team radio – to abolish or not?
Returning to the subject of team radios, there’s been a lot of talk within the cycling world concerning the use of radios for team communication. Radios were introduced into professional cycling in the 1990s, allowing managers to dictate team strategy to a much greater extent.
Recently, there have been debates over whether or not radios should continue to be an integral part of professional cycling. The UCI originally voted to phase out the use of radio earpieces in the professional peloton by 2012, given concerns that the technology was eroding the spontaneity and excitement of cycling. A UCI spokesman declared the ban was to ensure races are not decided and played by people sitting in a car, wanting to restore the spirit of the racing. You are the rider, you have to decide based on your instincts, you have to decide by yourself what you have to do, whether to attack or not.
A fair point, but riders such as Cancellara have expressed their discontent at these developments stating, “rules are rules and that is how it is. But I still think it is wrong”. Cancellara has been joined by others such as Evans to suggest that race radios are needed for rider safety above anything else, and that race radios have already proved themselves to be a crucial element in protecting riders from upcoming hazards. The case of former Dutch junior time trial champion Jelle Lugten illustrates just how important radios can be. The Dutchman was hit head on by a car, which entered the course after disobeying race marshals. Many believe that the accident could have been avoided if Lugten was equipped with a radio.
Consequently, since the vote to phase out team radios, riders have voiced their dissatisfaction with the ruling. The Association of Professional Racers questioned a total of 344 riders from across Europe, with the results revealing only 40 to be in favour of a complete ban, while 207 revealed they were in support of the continued use of radios without any restrictions.
Taking this further, Rabobank riders have called for ‘transparent communication during races’. This essentially means that team radio chatter would be broadcast live during races, with the intention of allowing viewers to experience even more of the race. Nevertheless, there are several issues which could potentially arise as a consequence of this development. For instance, one commentator has suggested that teams would only discuss misleading strategies via radio, intended to confuse and deceive their opponents.
There’s clearly more debating to be done between the UCI and the professional teams. However, what’s your stance? Are you in favour of a ban on team radios or opposed? We’d like to hear your opinions below. Moreover, we want to hear about your most memorable moments in cycling over the years, where strategy was either clearly influential, or simply went out of the window altogether!