STATION DES ROUSSES, France (VN) — Do not, under any circumstances, allow Richie Porte to be isolated.
If there was one takeaway from BMC’s final-stage loss at the Criterium du Dauphine, this is it. And if there is one takeaway from BMC’s tactics on Saturday, it is that they’ve learned their lesson.
Alone, Porte is vulnerable, just as any GC rider is. He must have teammates. Always.
This all-encompassing, semi-myopic desire manifest on Saturday in a series of tactical decisions designed to ensure Porte had access to teammates at any time, even if it meant burning matches the team might need again on Sunday. It meant sending the team’s best domestiques up the road, just in case they were needed later.
“We didn’t want to get caught out like we did at the Dauphine,” said Nicholas Roche, one of the three domestiques sent up and then set free for a potential stage win. “We learned there that it’s easier to have riders to drop back rather than try to bridge across.”
BMC’s initial plan was to put its Olympic champion and deviously capable climber Greg van Avermaet into the breakaway. He was to shoot for a stage win and his position at the front of the race would allow him to be called back in the case of a Portemergency. This plan was successful. But then the attacks kept coming, “the race kind of went bananas,” Roche said. A 45-rider group eventually chugged away up the road.
Forty-five riders is an uncontrollable number. A group that size is dangerous. And so BMC made the call to push more riders up. Damiano Caruso and Nicholas Roche were next in line. “We wanted to have our best riders after Richie on the front, just in case,” said BMC’s director, Fabio Baldato.
Team Sky played a similar tactic. It moved Mikel Landa and Sergio Henao, two of Chris Froome’s top climbing lieutenants, into the lead group as it swelled in size. The difference, though, was that while van Avermaet and Roche each went on the attack, Landa and Henao were clearly riding breakaway defense.
They sat and conserved and then, as they hit the final climb with just 90 seconds advantage over the yellow jersey group, they drifted back. BMC played the same conservative card with Caruso, pulling him back early. He’ll likely the most important rider for Porte on an expected tough Sunday stage, and was the least likely to truly contend for in the flat stage finish at the top of Station des Rousses.
In contrast, Roche and van Avermaet were given a green light to shoot for the stage. It suited their characteristics.
“We tried to ride aggressive and get the race going. I rode aggressively as I could,” Roche said. “At some stage, I had to stop thinking I was in the Tour and there are two weeks ago. I was saying, ‘alright, whatever happens today happens and we’ll think about tomorrow tonight.’ I went really deep.”
Still, BMC’s tactics are understandable within the context of that Dauphine loss. Porte was isolated on a short stage and was unable to keep control of half a dozen close contenders by himself. It cost him the race.
Baldato’s “just in case” sums up BMC’s strategy quite well on Saturday. Burning matches with top domestiques is a gamble, a bet that Saturday’s stage was going to be more decisive than it ended up being. And it could have been; if Porte had shown signs of weakness, maybe Sky or some other contender would have piled on. While sending van Avermaet up the road in search of a stage win was predictable and wholly understandable, then using Roche and Caruso as well made it clear that BMC was keen, most of all, on making sure it had numbers for the day’s final climb. They didn’t want a Dauphine repeat.
Every action has a reaction, of course. And the consequence of BMC’s aggression on Saturday will be some tired legs on Sunday, a stage many are calling the hardest of this Tour de France. Stage 9 has three hors categorie climbs, over 15,000 feet of climbing, and more than 15 kilometers with gradients of 10% of more. There will be nowhere to hide. “I expect the GC to get blown right open,” Froome said.
Will BMC regret its aggression, and taking a shot at Saturday’s stage win? The Mont du Chat will finish that tale for us.