Sunday, 1 July 2012

Tour de France Stage 1: A Question Of Tactics

On the face of it, today's stage was pretty straight forward. The favourite won. In this victory though, is a question of tactics. Peter Sagan won, thanks largely to second placed Fabian Cancellara. Is Sagan a wheelsucker? Cancellara tactically poor? There is no definitive answer, but here's my view...

I have already heard remarks concerning Sagans win today along the lines of 'wheel sucking' and 'lack of respect'. Fabian Cancellara attacked today in the closing kilometres on the final category four climb of the day after an unsuccessful attempt by Sylvain Chavanel. Cancellera did what he does best and rode away from the bunch, putting a fair distance between himself and the peloton - the only problem was that Peter Sagan had managed to jump onto his wheel and ride away with him, sitting in the slipstream of Fabian as he towed his rival within metres of the finish line until Sagan leapt from behind to claim the stage victory, which he celebrated with hands on hips and a flex of his muscles indicating a show of strength.

Sagan is 22 and full of himself, quite rightly. The head on his shoulder is 29 and his legs that of a heavyweight, experienced pro. He can climb, sprint, time trial. The world is at his feet. In many instances as these, there is a fine line between confident and cocky and though I can see why people saw his celebration as disrespectful (the suggestion was that Sagan wasn't strong afterall, but merely sat on Cancellaras wheel to the finish and like a sniper nipped out for a clinical victory after refusing to help on the front) but in his current form, Sagan can afford to be both. Frankly Sagan does maybe have a few things left to learn but equally most other 22 year old cyclists would have lacked the timing and tactical ability to get on Cancellaras wheel, would have been stupid rather than brave to refuse fan favourite Fabian's requests for him to take a turn on the front, would have been chomping at the bit to get on the front and ride solo to victory (only to fail miserably after using up valuable energy reserves), rather than be patient, wait to be delivered to the line and finish it off with the poise of an assassin to take what was in the end a simple victory. If this is Sagan at 22, the rest of the peloton really should be shaking in their boots.

The trouble here is that Fabian is a fan favourite, everybody loves Cancellara, me included. We see him put so much effort in while other sit behind, refuse to take a turn and then jump him at the line. It's heartbreaking. Cancellara though is a steam train, a machine. His power and drive in the closing kilometres of a race cannot be matched by any other in the professional peloton. When Cancellara goes off the front, he stays of the front. You go with him, or you lose. Those are the rules. Unfortunately for Fabian, this drive and power is actually also his downfall.

Rewind to Milan-San Remo this year, Cancellara leapt off the front from quite far out looking to take an emphatic win. Unfortunately for Fabian, Simon Gerrans attached himself to his wheel and inevitably, sitting comfortably behind the Swiss TT champion, jumped out in the closing metres and 'stole' victory. Today's stage was almost a carbon copy. Rewind over the last couple of years and you will see a similar situation time and time again. We know that Cancellara is strong, he can win from a long way out, a tireless workhorse but the rest of the peloton know this too, and use it to their advantage. Get on his wheel and it's a shot at victory - that is what Cancellara is to the rest of the bunch, an open invitation at victory. At some point Cancellara needs to look at this, and change it.

On today's stage he said:

“Once I made my attack it would have been good to get some help. In Milan-San Remo it was the same but I'm not going to attack and ease off and end up somewhere out the back – that is not my style: when I go, then I go and really put the hammer down until the end. That's what I've done,” he said. “I lost this game of poker but one day I'll win.” 

See the bit in bold, It is this refusal that has become Fabian Cancellaras undoing. He DOES need to sit up and ease off at some point, maybe not during the Tour, but in a race in which he has some influence, he has to stop towing, stop altogether if needs be. Coming second all the time is not compensation for never coming first. A win is everything and Cancellara can do it, we have seen it. Strade Bianchi. His strength does work - but if somebody attaches themselves to him, he needs to shed them way ahead of the finish or simply sit back and let them do the work, even if this means losing in the short term. There's nothing worse than gifting somebody else a victory.

As for Sagan, say whatever you like but if I had been in his shoes I would have done exactly the same, only a fool would take a turn on the front in his position. Would you?

1 comment:

  1. Nice analysis of the race and the finish. Thanks. I am really enjoying this blog.