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SAINT-LÔ, France (VN) — How do you take on the big-money teams like Sky and Astana when your budget is less than half of theirs? Play cycling’s version of “Moneyball.”
That’s what Cannondale – Drapac manager Jonathan Vaughters is doing with his unconventional bet on French climber Pierre Rolland in this year’s Tour de France. Twice in the top-10, Rolland could be this year’s Tour surprise, or at least Vaughters is betting on it.
“We have to play a bit of ‘Moneyball’ here, when your budget is one-third of the top teams,” said Vaughters, referring to the baseball bestseller. “I had to look at statistics, to look for that diamond-in-the-rough. I think we’ve found that with Pierre.”
In baseball’s “Moneyball,” Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane used statistics and averages to search for under-valued, overlooked players to field a championship squad on the small-market team.
Vaughters’s cycling version isn’t much different. He knows he can’t match the salary muscle offered by powerhouses such as Team Sky (with an estimated annual budget of $30 million), so he dug into the results sheet to find some hidden gems in the peloton. One of his top 2016 signings for a new-look Cannondale team was French climber Rolland.
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What he discovered was that Rolland, a steady climber who’s won stages at Alpe d’Huez and La Toussuire and twice finished in the top-10, would continually lose time on the flats. Vaughters noticed that once he hits the mountains, Rolland usually could stay pretty close to the favorites. In 2011, he won the best young rider’s jersey, and in 2013, he held the mountain’s jersey until the penultimate stage, losing it to Nairo Quintana due to the new rule of having double points on mountaintop finishes.
Vaughters’s hunch is that if you can bring Rolland into the mountains without major losses in the opening week, who knows how far he could go.
“This Tour de France is like an 18-round fight, with no knock-outs,” Vaughters said. “With this parcours, it’s hard and it’s back-loaded with a brutal final week, and we have a guy who is capable of surviving a slow and nasty slugfest. Pierre is perfectly suited for that.”
Whether the Rolland, 29, can defy the odds, and live up to Vaughters’s enthusiastic expectations remains to be seen. This spring, 15th at Tour de Romandie and 10th at the Critérium du Dauphiné, suggest he’s on track for a potentially strong and consistent Tour. He’s trimmed down from 71kg to 66kg (145 pounds), ready for the Tour’s unforgiving steeps.
To back his hunch, Vaughters isn’t afraid to defy convention, and brought several classics-style riders to chaperone Rolland through the first week of what many are calling the hardest Tour route in decades.
“We’ve brought a lot of big, mean Dutch guys to keep him safe, and put him on par with the others for the mountains. Then it’s up to him to be with the strongest,” Vaughters said. “If we can prevent him from losing time on the flat stages, he won’t be 10 or 12 minutes behind when he hits the mountains.”
For the flats, Rolland will see help from experienced hands such as Matti Breschel, Kristijan Koren, Sebastian Langeveld, Ramunas Navardauskas, and Dylan Van Baarle. Once the road tilts up, Lawson Craddock, Alex Howes, and Tom-Jelte Slagter will pace him in the mountains.
Rolland is quietly confident he can surprise the favorites, and perhaps ride into the top-five if things go well. After attending altitude camps this season for the first time in his career, Rolland is ready to deliver on the bet the team has placed on him.
“I have a great team for the crosswinds,” Rolland said. “I am looking for the GC in this Tour, and maybe a stage win, too. I hope to get past the flat stages and go well in the mountains.”
If the “Moneyball” bet pays off on Rolland, it would a new chapter in the franchise’s record of squeezing out impressive victories against some of the peloton’s biggest hitters. The team has won a grand tour (the 2012 Giro d’Italia with Ryder Hesjedal), one-day classics (the 2011 Paris-Roubaix with Johan Van Summeren; 2013 Liège-Bastogne-Liege and 2014 Giro di Lombardia with Dan Martin), and one-week stage races, including the 2014 Critérium du Dauphiné with Andrew Talansky. All those wins have cut against convention.
“Sometimes we leave people scratching their heads, but our tactics are never conservative,” Vaughters said. “We’ll never out-horsepower everyone, but we can try other things. We’ll be looking for a sneak attack. This Tour is ideal for that.”