Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Story - 2:1 - Dirty Sprinting

When you get a small breakaway group that contains two racers from a particular team, you'll hear the announcers talk about how the two teammates "have the advantage". They're supposed to attack in turn, forcing the others to chase, while the other teammate sits in. Ideally one teammate time trials away, the other sits on the chasers till the sprint and then gets second.

In reality it's much less straightforward.

If the two teammates are not that strong, the others will easily outmaneuver them. For example, if the two teammates are big strong Cancellera type guys and there's a 10k climb before the finish, well, it's pretty clear that the two big guys aren't going to make it over the top. Likewise, if you have two domestiques in a break with a powerful all around team leader like a Museeuw (who has no teammates around him), it's unlikely that the domestiques will be able to out-power the stronger racer.

The "advantage" also varies with different size breaks. If a team has four racers in a break, that sounds great, right? What if the break had 25 total racers? Good but not so great. If the break had five racers? Excellent numbers. Well, for the four teammates. Not promising for their single opponent.

So if you have two teammates, both national team racers, in a break with one amateur racing for a local team, what would happen?

Such a scenario played out at a small criterium in Stirling, NJ. A GS Mengoni racer, a NY local, provoked a move that drew out two racers from a high powered field. Since the race was held in Team Navigator's backyard, it was surprising that no Nav riders made it up. But the fact that they weren't up there meant one thing.

The three riders in the break were strong.

The two other racers in the break? Teammates from a foreign (but English speaking) country's national track team. Obviously, if they represented their country, they were solid, strong riders. The Mengoni racer would eventually turn pro with the 7-Up team, so he too was a strong rider. The three of them set about solidifying their lead until it was apparent that no one could bridge up.

As the laps wound down, the three racers started taking the edge off their pulls. The race seemed wrapped up and they needed to focus on the podium order. I found it surprising that the Mengoni rider kept working hard, never slacking on a pull (at least not so I could tell). Out numbered two to one, it seemed like he could plead "team tactics" and skip a pull or two. Everyone knows that the textbook says the two teammates should take turns attacking, and everyone waited for the attacks to start.

Surprisingly, although the three racers made a few feints at each other, they seemed resigned to working out the race in the last lap. The three of them took the bell, in this order: Trackie1, Mengoni, Trackie2. Only four turns separated them from the finish, and they flew into the first turn at full bore.

Since it's a slight downhill approach into a pretty narrow turn, the three rode through in single file. With time and distance rapidly running, Trackie2 launched a ferocious attack from the back as soon as the road straightened out. As a trackie, he had a good jump and got a bit of a gap right away. The Mengoni rider countered, as he had to, with Trackie1 on his wheel, as expected.

Now everyone reads the same "How to Race" textbooks and these three weren't any different. The expected order would be for Trackie2 to attack first. Then Mengoni would bridge, dragging along a relatively rested Trackie1. Then Trackie1 would launch a leg withering attack, with an exhausted Mengoni unable to respond.

The Mengoni rider knew the textbook too. So although he bridged to the powerful Trackie2, he did so while keeping an eye on Trackie1. In fact, even though Trackie2 was doing his utmost to get away, the Mengoni rider bridged without going into the red. Although that in itself is amazing, it gets better.

He reconnected towards the end of the backstretch, just short of turn 3. Predictably, by the book, Trackie1 launched an even more ferocious attack, blasting through the turn and sprinting away down the third stretch. And although the Mengoni rider had just made a tremendous 35 mph effort down a somewhat windy stretch of road, he had left just enough in the tank to respond to just such a move.

To both Trackie1 and Trackie2's surprise, the Mengoni rider immediately bolted off after the relatively fresh and rapidly disappearing Trackie1. The Mengoni rider bridged just before turn 4, the last turn of the course. Trackie2, who had thought his work was done, somehow dug deep enough to latch onto the flying Mengoni wheel, and held the caboose position through that last turn.

At this point, Trackie1 was pretty spent - he thought his initial attack would seal the deal and he'd just motor to the finish. With the Mengoni rider on this wheel though things weren't the way the two teammates expected. In fact, only a few hundred meters from the line, they were in the same order as they were at the bell - Trackie1, Mengoni, Trackie2.

Except now they were all breathing hard.

The trio streamed out of the last turn, Trackie1 opening up the rockets to lead out the other two - and with the Mengoni rider in second spot, Trackie1 could pull off whenever, put the Mengoni racer into the wind, and force the Mengoni rider to give Trackie2 an armchair ride to the finish.

The two track riders also knew class when they saw it. And though they might have underestimated him at the bell, they'd learned a lot in that last 3/4 of a lap. They knew the Mengoni rider was stronger than that.

They needed to dig deep into the playbook.

Way deep.

In fact, they pulled out the other playbook. The black one. The "Do Not Open Except in Case of Emergency" one.

And they went down the scenarios until they found the one. "Two teammates, allegedly very strong, allegedly very good sprinters, find themselves in a break with a guy who allegedly doesn't sprint but seems to sprint as well as the strong sprinting teammates and responds to multiple attacks with scary efficiency".

The book called for plan DZ-015.

And so they executed.

Trackie1 sprinted ferociously out of the last turn, leading out the Mengoni rider and Trackie2, who was now the undisputed leader of the two track teammates. Trackie1 wrenched at the bike like he was trying to rip it to pieces, accelerating well into the red zone. The Mengoni rider, know he'd be dumped into the wind a little too far out from the line, stuck to him like limpet mine, ready to go for a long, drawn out sprint.

That's when Trackie1 slammed on the brakes.

Now, normally, locking up your rear wheel at something like 40 mph isn't a good idea. It's especially unsafe when there's a guy sprinting like mad about 12 inches behind you.

But if your teammate, a further five feet back, knows what's about to happen, well, slamming on your brakes at 40 mph might actually be a pretty good idea.

If you ride dirty.

The Mengoni rider expected a lot of things, maybe a chop, a closed door, a skipped wheel, but not something quite so blatant and obvious. He also slammed his brakes on, barely avoiding the skidding sprinter, skidding to one side of Trackie1. And he knew what was coming next.

Trackie2, going like he was shot out of a cannon, on the other side of Trackie1.

Just because you know something is going to happen doesn't mean you're going to be able to anything about it. And with 200 meters to go, watching your newest arch nemesis sprint away from you while you're still on the brakes trying to avoid your newest nemesis's teammate slithering around the road in front of you... well, it presents a bleak picture.

The Mengoni rider, though, was furious, and fury, fury is a fuel. Somehow he found the energy to jump again. Trackie1 was done, cooked, but even he knew trouble when he saw it - and the fire in the Mengoni rider's eyes meant trouble. He screamed a warning to his teammate.

The Mengoni rider smiled at this point of the story. He said that when Trackie2 turned around and found the Mengoni rider rocketing towards him, even after all the shazzam they put him through, Trackie2's eyes widened in fear. To see him scared like that made it all worth it.

Trackie2 turned back around and sprinted like his life depended on it, because, at some level, it probably did.

And although the sprint was close, they didn't need a camera to decide. Trackie2 had won the race. With no protest lodged the result stood.

I asked the Mengoni rider why he didn't protest. He said that it didn't matter, second was fine. Eventually, he said, those riders would pay the price. But not here, not now. They'd be riding nervous and scared for a while. Because, as good bike handlers as they might be, he showed them that he could hold his own against them. They knew they rode dirty, and therefore they knew to expect something like that back at them. And when it came down to the wild and crazy mass field sprints, who know what would happen.

I never heard of those national team track riders again but the Mengoni rider went on to sign with 7-Up and rode pro for a few seasons. He never lost sight of his roots and would always say hi whenever I saw him, even at the big races. He'd even tell me that he heard me cheering at such and such a race. It's incredible that he remembers, first because there are lots of people, and second, because he made the effort to remember and tell me.

What's most surprising about the story is the Mengoni rider told me the story about 30 minutes after the race finished.

They'd crossed the line, he'd done whatever (flicked them off, yelled at them, something), rode back to his car, and changed. And when he stepped out of the car, he was the same old smiling self. He told me this story like it had happened years ago. If it was me I'd still be shaking with the adrenaline. Him? Sipping whatever drink and talking and laughing like he was talking about a movie.

There's class in a racer. It's hard to define, but probably the most illustrative example would be the mythical old time coach/soigneur squeezing a rider's leg and immediately proclaiming him to be the next great racer, just from the "feel" of the rider's muscles.

And then there's class as a person.

This Mengoni racer, he had both.


Ron George said...

By class, you mean professionalism yes?

Its an interesting topic that just brought to my mind a question. What if in that breakaway, none of the two trackie's were the designated leader of the team, and the leader himself was in a dangerous position in the back pack to lose time? What happens in a typical situation like this? Go with the break or help out the leader? And what if that leader was say, 10 mins behind in the pack? I would think the 2 team members would try and pace, or block or something to slow things down, but I guess the fear of the lone cyclist to break would hardly matter if he was lower down in the classification. Oh well...

Aki said...

yes, professionalism.

If two teammates made a break that was allowed that type of leeway, any number of things might happen.

1. Point men - the two are simply there to hold the front position. At some point (big climb etc) the leader will bridge, the two teammates will sacrifice, and hopefully the leader gains time. Hypothetical example: Voigt and Zabriski go off on a long break in the mountains but there is 75 km between the last two climbs. Sastre attacks the field on the second last climb, bridges the gap.
Voigt and Z then work their brains out to bring Sastre to the base of the last climb. Without them there, Sastre would have no chance of holding off the chasing field.

2. If the two break teammates are allowed leeway, the team will let them take the lead. Eventually they'll lose it, unless something odd happens. Hypothetical example: CSC puts Voigt in a break, forcing other teams to chase. Although Sastre is the designated leader, Voigt takes the jersey by 10 minutes after the opposing teams refuse to chase. CSC now has the responsibility to chase. However, until Voigt loses all that time, CSC gets publicity. And that's what pro teams are paid to do - get publicity.

3. If the leader is the leader (i.e. holding yellow for example) then the two will simply sit on and allow the third rider to pull them. The two's duty is to protect the yellow, and if the third rider pulls them to the line, then it's the two's duty to beat him. Sounds unfair but all of them know this is the case. Again, hypothetically: Voigt and Z are in the break, Sastre is in yellow. No on chases. Voigt and Z will refuse to pull. If the third rider pulls them to the line, both Voigt and Z have the right to sprint to the line. If the third rider is an overall threat, they probably would. If the third rider is deep in GC, honor would probably dictate that the third rider win.

However, in a crit, it's winner takes all. And in this case, there was no concern over team tactics regarding the field. It was a 3 man race a minute ahead of the field. The two trackies found themselves in an ideal situation but had to resort to some ridiculous riding to defeat a much stronger opponent.

Ron George said...

Great insight.

I totally understand point # 2. Spend as much time as possible on TV :)

Thanks aki

Anonymous said...

i apologize if i'm way off here but i feel compelled to ask you. this classy rider who went on to sign with 7-up... is it O.P. who got suspended?

Aki said...

Close - it was his brother J.