Saturday, July 17, 2010

The fascination of Le Tour

If you think that cycle racing is just about getting on a bike and peddling as fast as you can, then you should watch the Tour de France. The sport is as much about tactics and outwitting your opponents as it is about speed.

The most obvious example is the way that on flat stages teams work to ensure that their fastest man is in a good position for the final sprint to the line. On those kind of days you also find teams working together in the peleton to reel back breakaway groups. Of course, if a team has a promising rider in a breakaway group, then they will be reluctant to help draw the riders back in. They are also less willing to chase a breakaway if the people in it are unlikely to affect the general classification.

Television commentators try to predict what tactics might be applied from day to day but often they get it completely wrong.

Yesterday we saw a different form of tactical riding by Alberto Contador. He knows that on long climbs, his rival for the crown Andy Schleck, will react to any movements he makes. Yesterday’s stage finished with a short but brutal climb. Contador took advantage of that and made a dash once he was close to the summit.

Although Shleck reacted to the move, he wasn’t able to keep up with the Spaniard and lost ten seconds of his lead. That might not sound much but psychologically it was significant because Contador has now revealed a weakness in his opponent. You can be sure that he will exploit that weakness in the Pyrenees where we can expect him to challenge Shleck over and over again. Or maybe he wont, maybe he will wait for the time trial – we shall have to wait and see.

If the unexpected makes Le Tour a fascinating race to watch, it was even more interesting in the past. For example, In 1950 when the summer was particularly hot, many of the riders got off their bikes and ran into the Mediterranean at Ste-Maxime. They were of course penalised by the judges.Then in 1978, the peloton decided to ride slowly all day and finally walked across the line at Valence d'Agen in protest at having to get up early to ride more than one stage in a day. I don’t suppose anybody saw either of those events coming.

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