Monday, July 27, 2009

Tactics - Last Corner Blunder

Yesterday, Sunday, I had a lot of stuff I had to do, errands to run, things to pick up, stuff that isn't totally bike related. Okay, I had to collect some stuff from the CCC Crit a month or two back, but that's about the extent of the bike stuff. Oh, and wash the van for the Bethel Spring Series.

Okay, so some bike related stuff.

But nothing to do with riding them or, unfortunately, working on them (I should degrease and retape the Cannondale at the least).

However, when I tuned into the last day's coverage of the Tour, everything got put on the back burner.

Granted, watching guys tool along at 18 mph isn't really exciting, so I dealt with some stuff around the house while the laptop blared Phil and Paul's voices. When I returned to the laptop, the missus excitedly told me that a group was 36 seconds away, and that Columbia was chasing.

I sat down.

Columbia-HTC had the field strung out in a long, thin, line, but as the corners approached, especially the U-turn at the top of the Champs Elysee, the field flared out, guys either trying to move up or trying to protect their positions. This told me that as hard as Columbia was pulling, the field had plenty of reserves.

Although a Cavendish admirer, I thought this particular stage would suit a less jumpy sprinter, a Tyler Farrar for example. Since I usually vote for the underdog, I hoped that Farrar would win the stage.

Thing is, if there is one place in the Tour where the leadout counts, it's the Champs. Therefore Farrar needed his Garmin team to do something special.

With an opponent like Columbia-HTC, Garmin would have to pull some good moves beyond just doing a good leadout. I figured that there'd be a few different factors, all in the last kilometer.

1. Extremely wide roads at 1 km to go flag - you can go literally 20 or 30 wide. This means totally insane speeds, probably 38-42 mph.
2. Narrow left bend. Since the bend is taken so fast, and you need to set up for the right, it's literally a single or double file bend. Again, this has to be taken at, say, 38 mph minimum.
3. Narrower right bend. If the left is narrow due to the play of the race, the right is literally just one rideable lane wide.
4. All this takes place on (smoother) cobbles so riders can't make immediate line adjustments like they can on asphalt.
5. A great leadout will have one rider used up with 200 to go, another at 500 to go, another at 1 km to go. This means 3 guys in the last kilometer, maybe 5 or 6 with 2 k to go.

So with all this in mind, I planted myself next to the missus and watched the final two laps of the race.

Impressively, Columbia-HTC sat at the front, accepted their responsibility as favorites for the finish, and just pounded away. Their pace told on the field as they followed in a long, thin line behind.

As time started to run out, though, the shape of the peloton reflected the true nature of the race. Just behind the big Columbia leadout, the field flared pretty wide. This meant that Columbia's pace just wasn't hot enough, that others were starting to think of their own chances.

Garmin seemed especially active in moving up, surfing the side of the field, surging forward, then losing position after a few hundred meters, then repeating the process.

That's when I started doubting Farrar's chances.

The energy required to move up repeatedly costs riders a lot of energy. Holding position isn't easy, but if they're holding position, that's a good reflection of the rider's ability to maintain the effort. If they keep surfing the edges to move up, then try and hide, this means, to me, that the guys can't hold the effort. It means they're moving up too early or they're starting to fade.

I know the latter because that's how I am when trying to stay abreast of a super-fast leadout.

As the field approached 3 km to go, Garmin finally went to the front. Although they had some of the best time trialers in the world, they only had three of them in front of Farrar. I distinctly remember mumbling under my breath, "3.4 k to go, 3 guys, they went too early".

The Garmin guys started to visibly fade, and after a supreme 1k effort, the first guy pulled off. As they approached the red kite, incredibly, they still had two guys in front of Farrar.

My leadout math led me to believe that, even with Garmin's talent, this wouldn't be enough. They wouldn't be able to sustain sprint speeds for 800 meters with two guys. Faster leadout men would be able to pounce on this less-than-lightspeed train.

Sure enough, Columbia-HTC, with a slightly rested Hincapie in front of Renshaw in front of the Cav, launched just after the red kite. Hincapie accelerated violently, swinging left, towards the inside of the second last bend.

This was exactly what a leadout should be, a superlative effort consistent with an all out sprint.

Garmin's last leadout man saw the threat, moved over, and tucked in behind Hushovd and Cav. With 700 or 800 meters to go, this was an acceptable launch point, but not for the sprint. The leadout man knew he had to position Farrar further forward, probably either on Cav's wheel, or, preferably, launch Farrar well in front of Cav.

Hincapie drove through the left bend, and, with the wind from the right, pulled off to the right.

At the same moment the Garmin duo made the "must make" move. They had no choice because they had to launch Farrar early and in front of Cav, and now they only had one more natural obstacle before the line.

They went inside, probably because the shorter line outweighed the benefit of sitting on the slightly sheltered outside line. Hincapie, though, interrupted their flow, and they had to make one more desperate effort to get to the right bend before the Renshaw-Cav duo.

Farrar, already at the limit, seemed to have exploded here. He lost his leadout man's wheel, had to go a few pedal strokes in the wind, and that was it.

Behind, Farrar's leadout man tries to get into the last right bend before the Columbia duo, but fails. He either brakes or "violently coasts", and some confusion with Farrar (as to which side to jump) results in a little stutter jump by Farrar. Part of what caused this is the aforementioned cobbles - with asphalt it wouldn't have been as much an issue, but with cobbles making minor adjustments at high speed becomes, well, major.

Hushovd, almost forgotten in all this, had let a slight gap go, then probably eased even more to let the Garmin duo in. When they fumbled the bend, he got gapped away. In retrospect, he should have fought tooth and nail for Cav's wheel, but Renshaw's acceleration opened a gap between Hushovd and Cav, so Hushovd wasn't in the position to fight.

Hushovd's and Farrar's hesitation, along with the awkward leadout swing-off for Farrar, meant that Renshaw and Cav gapped the field as they exited the last bend.

Renshaw, fresh off of Hincapie's launch, and with a brief respite while cornering, accelerated in an almost leisurely fashion. He got the big gear going, looked down regularly, and seemed so relaxed I couldn't believe we were watching the final sprint on the Champs.

Cav, though, looked ready to pounce. You could almost feel him gathering himself, and when he launched, he went hard. The sideshot vividly illustrated his compact, low position, one that's got to be worth a bit of speed. It also shows how his downstroke isn't a leg-extended effort, but rather a kind of leg-crunched one.

Whatever, it works.

Predictably, with a gap behind them, Cav won handily. They were so far ahead that Renshaw got second. Crazy good.

For Farrar, well, it'll have to wait. But with all this practice with field sprints, I think that once Garmin gets that last bit of teamwork down, they'll be flying.


Gregory said...

It seemed to me, before that last right-hander, even after going to early to the front and losing a leadout guy (Maskaant) in the shuffle somewhere, that Tyler was in with a prayer. Not a big chance, but a prayer. And then Garmin produced an absolutely epic fumble on that last turn. It was shocking to watch. They didn't just lose the stage to Columbia, they gave it away.

Don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of Garmin and Farrar. I think that Tyler has clearly shown us this season that he's world class, but his leadout hasn't quite gotten things together yet. I think they will. In fact, I think Tyler's done remarkably well with such a reduced leadout compared to the Columbia train. The thing is, you have to be perfect to beat Columbia, and no one has been close this year. That fumble of the final turn was still quite a shock. There's "not quite there," and then there's completely dropping the ball. Ouch. It'll be great when they figure out the leadout, and when Tyler gets his chance in the Classics. I hope to see him start winning races!

By the way, I was impressed by his thoughtfulness and maturity in his post-race interview, saying only that "we just ran out of steam." Of course, that was part of the problem, but Tyler didn't so much as hint that his teammates did anything wrong. Good for him - he clearly understands the importance of cultivating respect and trust from his teammates. That's what will get him the wins when they finally pull together. It was a refreshing change from the intra-team, fratricidal sniping at Alberto Contador from Lance and Bruyneel all Tour. Trust and respect for teammates seems to be something that Garmin really has down.

Tyler Farrar for Paris-Tours? :-D

Aki said...

In my haze I forgot one critical component. Garmin's inside line would have been fine on pavement, where your tires stick like glue to the road. But on bouncy, shiny, slippery cobbles... they had to focus on staying upright first, and that cost them.

In any other situation I think they'd have gone through that turn two wide, but on cobbles, it wasn't possible.

Ergo, they had to ease. And that was that.