Tour de France 2020

Neal Rogers Analysis: Tight battles making strange bedfellows

Collusion between teams is nothing new. So what sorts of alliances are taking place at this Tour de France?

With several competitions still extremely tight at this year’s Tour de France, teams are starting to look for allies with common interests.

Heading into stage 16, the top of the general classification was separated by only eight seconds. The battle for the final spot on the podium, between Samuel Sanchez and Denis Menchov, was separated by just 13 seconds, and the green jersey contest a close contest between Lampre’s Alessandro Petacchi and Cervélo’s Thor Hushovd, with a margin of just two points.

Those tight battles are creating unusual scenarios on the road that have left the casual observer — and sometimes even riders inside the peloton — wondering what is going on.

During Friday’s stage 12 into Mende, Lampre helped Saxo Bank chase the day’s 18-man breakaway during the middle part of the stage, until, in the final 20km, Cervélo TestTeam curiously sent three riders the front of the field to assist in the chase.

Hushovd later said the team was riding to set up 2008 Tour champ Carlos Sastre for a possible stage win. However on a short, steep climb that didn’t suit Sastre’s climbing style, the Spaniard never attacked, instead finishing along with Bradley Wiggins and Ivan Basso, 31 seconds behind stage winner Oliver Rodriguez and defending Tour champion Alberto Contador.

What’s more likely is that the Saxo Bank team of then-race leader Andy Schleck was able to make arrangements with both Lampre and Cervélo. Early on in stage 12, Schleck’s team allowed Hushovd’s 18-man move to ride clear. Cervélo benefitted, with Hushovd gaining precious points at the day’s intermediate sprints. In return Cervélo helped Saxo keep the break in check towards the end of the stage.

With Hushovd in the move, Lampre needed to help keep the break close enough that the Norwegian wouldn’t be in contention for points at the finish line.

“Lampre was pulling a lot, and that made sense because you had Thor up the road getting the intermediate bonuses, and they didn’t want him to get more at the finish,” RadioShack’s Chris Horner said. “Later I saw Cervélo at the front, and it didn’t make sense, what was going on there.”

Stage 12 was a textbook example of Saxo Bank leveraging two teams engaged in a contest against each other, while benefiting from both.

“That was good for Saxo, Lampre started to ride,” said HTC-Columbia director Rolf Aldag. “That’s something (for Saxo) to show. Thor is in the front, so everybody who wants to win green should work with us. You have to keep it interesting for the others, and say, ‘Guys, wouldn’t it make sense to chase it down, and then in the final we would both profit from that work?’”

Later, after Contador attacked — bringing Rodriguez with him, and effectively taking away Alexander Vinokourov’s stage win — the Spaniards had a brief conversation before the finish.

Whatever the discussion was, the end result was that Rodriguez won the stage, Contador gained 10 seconds on Schleck, and Vinokourov was left to wonder what might have been. (Contador denied trading the stage win for GC time, but help from Rodriguez, or Katusha, in the final Pyrénéan stages could be another story.)

“Contador might have made a little deal with Rodriguez at the finish,” Horner said. “To me, it didn’t make any sense to chase down your teammate for 10 seconds; that’s not enough to pull your teammate back and lose the stage win for your team. But if Contador gave Rodriguez the win, then maybe later he has some help in the mountains if he falls in any kind of trouble.”

If collusion indeed took place in either of these scenarios, they wouldn’t be the first instances we’ve seen at this year’s Tour. As is customary, the sprint teams of HTC, Garmin-Transitions, Cervélo and Lampre have repeatedly worked together to bring back breakaways; Contador and Schleck have twice been in a position where they needed to ride with a common interest, first on the Col de Madeleine, when they agreed to holster their attacks in order to distance themselves from the rest of their GC rivals.

The Tour de France pressroom was abuzz when, on the Madeleine, Caisse d’Epargne’s Spanish national champion José Ivan Gutierrez handed a surging Alberto Contador a water bottle. Speculation was rife that, without Alejandro Valverde in the race, Contador has an ally in the entire Spanish Caisse d’Epargne squad — a team he has been in contract discussions with dating back to spring 2009.

And while there have been no obvious signs that RadioShack aided Saxo Bank in its defense of Schleck’s maillot jaune, it’s not hard to imagine a scenario where that might have happened.

Following Lance Armstrong’s catastrophic stage 8 into Morzine, Schleck stated that he hoped Armstrong might win a stage to pull a victory from his otherwise calamitous final Tour.

As they did by allowing Hushovd’s break to slip away, with Schleck in yellow, Saxo Bank could have played an instrumental role in allowing Armstrong to escape. It’s the worst-kept secret in the peloton that Armstrong would prefer to see Schleck win ahead of Contador, meaning it’s not out of the question that RadioShack would return the favor and lend a hand to Saxo Bank.

“There is always common interest on the road, but that changes every day,” Armstrong said. “(Saxo Bank) will find their friends and find their allies on a daily basis. Andy is a good kid, I appreciate his friendship, I respect him a lot, and I think he’s got a great future. But, like we always said back in the day, we never gave anybody anything, so I don’t expect 200 guys to roll over and say, ‘hey old man, here you go, you can have one.’ That wouldn’t be right, either. So I have to go out and earn it.”

If it’s true that Astana has Caisse d’Epargne as an ally, the plot thickens when considering that RadioShack and Caisse d’Epargne are fighting among themselves for the team classification. (The team GC battle was tight, with RadioShack leading by just eight seconds, until stage 15, when the American team took a lead of 4:27 over Caisse d’Epargne.)

Though collusion of different shapes and sizes is part and parcel in the pro peloton, it’s rare that a rider or director will admit to working with another team. Riding in a way deemed by officials as unsporting is against UCI rules, primarily because the governing body fears the public perception — or misperception — of thrown results.

Nevertheless, in a grand tour, with 22 teams harboring different strengths and agendas and so many stages to factor in, collaboration is commonplace.

Aldag said agreements between teams are usually less of a pre-arranged plan, and more of an impromptu understanding.

“You have to really plan your own tactics, and then you can try to get other teams in the boat,” he said. “You don’t want to ask for help, you try to force them. So Saxo Bank might say, what is the interest of RadioShack? Obviously they want to win team GC. Why not let someone from Caisse go in the break? If there’s one RadioShack or one Caisse d’Epargne in the break, for sure the other has to help.”

And Aldag was quick to point out that occasionally, a rider helping another from rival teams is not so much conspiratorial as it is humanitarian.

“You have guys (in the peloton) who live together and train together,” he said. “If you have two fresh bottles and your training colleague comes from behind and is suffering, and asks for something to drink … you spend 200 days a year training with him. You’re not going to say, ‘You’re not on my team.’”

With so many riders, teams, stages and races within the race, it’s nearly impossible to keep track on all the secret dealings happening within the Tour peloton. But it’s important to remember that, more often than not, a two-up sprint is a two-up sprint, and a shared water bottle is just a shared water bottle.