Thursday, June 23, 2011

Guest Post: Team of Rivals

This is the first in a series of guest posts. This one is by Jason (@sfjason).

The Shack announced their leaders for the Tour earlier this week. Yup,
all 4 of them, or nearly half the full team. Once the team was nearly
half-cocked, RadioShack team director Johan Bruyneel asked for help in
determining the other 5 riders on their website. That's not really the
story I'm interested in though. (Although why the self-proclaimed
mastermind behind 9 Tour de France victories needs this help is a
somewhat related question.) In a year that will see perhaps the
deepest contingent of American talent ever sent to France in July,
from old to young, I'm more interested in the two American leaders for
the Shack and their teammate/competitors, and how this team of rivals
strategy is going to unfold during the race.

Levi Leipheimer spent the last couple of weeks tuning up for the big
show, and proving his leadership worthiness, by winning the Tour de
Suisse overall. He did this with a “lay back and take in the end”
strategy. It worked perfectly, and provided some last second drama
amidst the stunning mountain scenery of Switzerland, Austria and
Luxembourg.

Chris Horner, on the other hand, has been quietly preparing back home
in SoCal while trying to keep his weight down by eating out. (I expect a
diet book deal is in works here.) He was allowed to skip the Swiss
tour and train from home after his fantastic victory in the Tour of
California over his closest rival/teammate, and 3-time former winner,
Levi.

Okay, let’s round out the rest of the leadership team – there’s also
Andreas Kloden and Jani Brajkovic. Klodi’s been showing some good form
in TT’s lately, although he’s been climbing one rung below the top
guys. Jani has been showing that he can’t quite eat enough food to
finish a race strong. Two would be great “super-domestiques”, as they
say, only they’re not. They’re also billed as co-leaders.

Yesterday Radio Shack announced the other five guys: Markel Irizar,
Dmitriy Muravyev, Sérgio Paulinho, Yaroslav Popovych, and Haimar
Zubeldia. It’s clear now that this is a team solely focused on GC
results. (Oh, and of course the incredibly important Team
Classification.) I have a feeling that 12 time stage winner Robbie
McEwen wishes he was wrapping up the final year of his career on a
different team. Poor Robbie. So, there’s the team. Four GC guys, and
five workers. Let’s explore the potential success of this kind of
strategy.

Without a doubt, the best strategy for winning the Tour is to bring
the strongest guy and a team built solely around helping him win. The
next best thing is to bring the strongest guy and just let him ride.
Aside from that, it’s a crapshoot, and the list of winners from that
past 25 years or so shows that. And what happens when you have two
guys capable of winning on the same team? There was the glorious
infighting between Hinault and Lemond in ‘85 and ‘86. There was the
orderly handover from Riis to Ullrich between ‘96 and ‘97. And then
there was 2009. Sometimes it just doesn’t matter if your teammates are
actively conspiring against you, because they’re forced to put on a
show of public support. Again, being the strongest rider really helps,
and Contador’s second overall victory demonstrated that rather
effectively.

Back to RadioShack 2011. They don’t have the strongest guy, but they
have some guys capable of winning if luck goes their way. And that’s
the thing, they need to hope luck does fall their way, because they
are doing absolutely nothing to make their own luck. Bruyneel’s Tour
management success has primarily come from teams actively making their
own luck. (In various ways, but I’m not going there.) In fact, they
are creating conditions within the team to sabotage luck, by forcing
riders to publicly show support for the team while actively riding
against their own teammates in the hopes of building enough of a lead
to claim sole team leadership. It might make for some great sound
bytes, and fun race drama, but it’s lousy team management.

I think Chris and Levi have each shown that they’re the strongest of
the four co-leaders so far this year, but anything could happen out on
the road, and I don’t see either one of them quickly and dutifully
dropping into a support role if another shows superiority. Horner
would do so first though, and I both love and hate him for that
quality. With no opening prologue this year, the big mountains
beginning on stage 12, and the sole ITT only the day before Paris, the
sole team leader, if there will be one, won’t be clear quickly. It’s
fun to imagine the crazy what-if scenarios though. What if the Passage
du Gois becomes a mud-slicked train wreck, and we see a field split
separating RS teammates? You can’t actively ride against your
teammate/rivals, but you could use other teams to drive the split or
call in some favors. What if somebody flats in the Team TT. Better
hope it’s early enough so that they’ll wait for you. The real drama
won’t happen until the big mountains though, and that’s why they say
they’ll “let the road decide.” I’ll be watching closely come mid-July
to see who the road favors, since the team can’t decide.

The biggest irony of this so-called strategy is that it’s far more
likely to result in winning the Team Classification rather than in
overall victory. That, and it should really help rack up a bunch of
UCI points.



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