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Tour de France

Same riders, different goals: how teams shift targets at the biggest race of the year

The success of a team's whole season can be defined at the Tour de France. Some teams opt to change their goals for the race over a number of seasons, while some are forced into action by misfortune or poor form. We spoke to riders about how it's done.

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BRIOUDE, Franc (VN) The focus of a team in the Tour de France is often planned months in advance, sometimes years; but it can also shift within the split second of a crash or an overnight bout of illness.

Some teams still manage to focus on more than one goal, and plan for stage wins and the general classification or other categories such as the king of the mountains and points classifications.

French Tour leader Julian Alaphilippe, racing for the stage-chasing Deceuninck-Quick-Step team, has raised that prospect with his exploits in this Tour. How far he can continue in the yellow jersey is the question on so many lips here; likewise, the prospect of him finishing in Paris placed high overall.

The long game

On Sunday, Mitchelton-Scott a team racing for the overall classification with Briton Adam Yates as leader, also showed its versatility to still allow other riders to try for stage wins by green-lighting South African champion Daryl Impey to go for one in the 170.5km ninth stage from Saint-Étienne to Brioude.

Impey pulled off the victory in a two-up sprint over Belgian Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal) and afterward said the team had targeted stages 8 and 9 as opportunities for Yates’ teammates.

Although Mitchelton-Scott is working for Yates in the overall, they pre-selected particular days to look for stage wins. The move paid off for Impey on stage 9. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images.

“Coming into the Tour these were going to be stages where guys like myself and Matteo [Trentin] and the others guys would have a chance to go up the road,” Impey explained. “That doesn’t take anything away from going for the overall GC ambitions with Adam [Yates]. In the Tour de France sometimes, you have got to have a go and today was one of those days … we still kept a lot of guys with Adam.”

Before the stage, Impey spoke to VeloNews of Mitchelton-Scott’s development into a GC team since making its debut in 2012, and the challenge that such a change presented.

“We were putting our energy just into one-day races and then kind of taking the other days as they came,” Impey said. “As a GC team, you’ve got to be on it every day. But you’ve also got to realize the group collectively when it has to save energy on some days … guys have actually got to sit up on purpose because the next day we are expecting the brunt of the work to be done by them. We’ve got to really manage the efforts a lot more. We are still learning as a team. A team like Ineos does it really well. You see a guy like Wout Poels. He’s been sitting up every day in the first week. That’s not because his form is bad. They know in the second and third week he’s going to be vital. We try to manage our guys in a similar way.”

The sudden shift

However, the demise of Australian Richie Porte in the Tours of 2017 and 2018 showed how abrupt a team’s Tour blueprint can be scuppered for everyone on a team. His crashes on stage 9 of both Tours de France in which he started as an overall favorite turned his then Team BMC’s Tour plans on its head. Just like that … months of planning, strategizing, preparing in training, and a coterie of a pre-selected long list of likely Tour teammates and staff came tumbling down with him.

When a GC leader crashes out of the Tour, months of preparation are turned upside down. Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images

The demise of Porte, who rode through that ill-fated crossroad on Sunday when he finished the 170.5km ninth stage of this year’s race from Saint-Étienne to Brioude, is not the only example. Last year, Colombian Rigoberto Uran, runner-up in the 2017 Tour, also withdrew from the Tour – on stage 11 due to injuries sustained in a crash onstage 8. As with Porte, his misfortune scuppered the carefully laid out plans and ambitions of his entire EF Education First team, from riders to team staff.

“It took me a couple of days to reset. It was quite different going from racing for someone else to racing for yourself,” Simon Clarke, his team’s road captain, told me then. “It is like going from being a mum with kids. All you do is think about the kids to suddenly having no kids and you think about yourself.

“To change that mindset overnight is not easy, the more serious you are on a general classification attempt the harder it is. We were so committed to ‘Rigo’ … To have it turn on its head was tough.”

There is a litany of such examples which have not only led to enhancing the winning opportunity for their rival teams and riders. For their own teammates, the one consolation is that with their leader gone, they are granted the chance to salvage their and their team’s Tour by trying to win a stage.

For Uran and Porte their setbacks are one year behind them. The rest of the Tour now awaits them.

A chance to see the race from a different perspective

Uran is still at EF-Education First, however, Porte has since moved on to Trek-Segafredo. Meanwhile, Team BMC – now CCC Team after its change of sponsor – has shifted its focus completely from racing for general classification since Australian Cadel Evans joined it in 2010 and remained until his January 2015 retirement. In that time Evans won the 2011 Tour and placed third in the 2012 Giro d’Italia.

Riders on CCC Team are enjoying the change, especially those who have raced for the team during its days as Team BMC when everything centered on the Tour and the race for the overall classification.

“It’s a completely different approach for us,” Swiss CCC Team rider Micky Schar who raced in the 2011 Tour-winning team led by Evans told VeloNews. “The first 10 days, we would mostly ride up front to cover and protect our GC boy. That has not been the case this year,” Schar said. “There is a lot of freedom, a lot of space … a more relaxed approach. It’s also nice after all the years, to see [the Tour] a bit differently now. Hunting stages is something I like. It’s cool to give some creativity to the show.”

CCC Team has switched from a GC focus to hunting stages, something that allowed De Marchi to go into a day-long break with De Gendt on stage 8. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images.

Not having to constantly stay at the front also saves ammunition for later, said Schar: “The GC guys have to be all day long in the top 30 or 40. They want to be there, out of trouble. “If you don’t have to be up there all day, it’s really a more relaxed approach. You waste much less energy which means you have more energy for the third week and every day for the breakaways.”

A flexible approach

In this year’s Tour, 11 of the 22 teams started with their eyes set on vying for the overall classification, but already one of them – Bahrain-Merida – has had to change gears and revert to stage hunting. Their leader, Sicilian Vincenzo Nibali, who placed second in the recent Giro, surrendered his bid for overall glory on Saturday’s eighth stage to Saint-Étienne where he finished 4:25 down on the victorious Belgian Thomas De Gendt (Lotto-Soudal). Nibali will now pursue stage wins on the Tour, and most probably in the mountains; while his teammates will now get their chance to taste victory.

Nibali’s Australian teammate and world time trial champion Rohan Dennis said the team was prepared for such a switch in plans, citing doubt over his form due to his efforts in the Giro.

Asked by VeloNews if the team is now hunting stages, Dennis said: “We sort of were already. It was a 50-50. We gave [Nibali] a bit of help when we could, but we didn’t put all our eggs in that basket. All the eggs are out of that basket completely now. It’s just, ‘Okay … let’s all go for stages,’ including him.

Bahrain-Merida went into the Tour with a flexible approach. When GC possibility Nibali fell out of contention, it left them free to chase stages. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

“We still help each other, but it’s all for stages. There is no need to try to save Vincenzo’s energy on a stage to help him not lose energy to make him get a 20th place and not lose time. If maybe he loses time in the next couple of stages – I don’t know what his plan is, but I think that would be smart for the third week so he can just go freely up the road and on some climbs. It’s actually perfect for him.

“It’s better to come away with something instead of trying to hold on for a 10th or a top 20 [overall] in the Tour de France. Who gives a rat’s who got second? I still try to remember if it was [Tom] Dumoulin or [Chris] Froome last year who got second. You know who won. But second or third?”

Dennis said it helped being ready for such a scenario, unlike when it happens without warning as it did for in 2015 when he was racing the Tour on Team BMC and his American team leader Tejay van Garderen withdrew from the Tour during stage 17 due to illness while holding third place overall.

The team still finished the Tour with plenty to celebrate in Paris after claiming three stage victories – the opening stage time trial (Dennis), the stage 9 team time trial and stage 13 (Greg Van Avermaet)

“It was an odd feeling,” Dennis said.  “It was an odd feeling because everything was going so well, and then all of a sudden, ‘Bam … done.’ It was, it was hard to refocus. The next day, they said, ‘You’ve got to go in the break.’ And, I’m like, ‘There is no way in hell. I am destroyed mentally and physically. I’m just destroyed from helping here for the last 16 stages. I cannot go in the break.’

“I made the break on stage 18, and that just destroyed me. Stages 19 and 20, I just survived on memory. And then they said, ‘Well, let’s try on the Champs Elysées. That morning it was raining. I said, ‘Why did I say yes to this one? It was a bit of a roller-coaster from stage 16 onwards to be honest. In the end, it was a good Tour. There were three stage wins between the team. It was one of the more fun Tours too, because everyone was united for one thing. It was a good atmosphere.”