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By Chris Carmichael, Carmichael Training Systems
While I was surprised it David Moncoutie dispatched his breakaway companions as quickly as he did, his counterattack of an initial move by Juan Antonio Flecha was a textbook example of how to escape and win from a breakaway.
The counterattack is the guerrilla warfare of the cycling world; your goal is to use your opponent’s offensive efforts against him. When Flecha launched an attack, Euskaltel rider Egoi Martinez immediately chased him down. Of the three men in the breakaway, Flecha and Martinez had just put forth hard efforts, but Moncoutie was still fresh. Just as Martinez caught up with his Spanish countryman, the Frenchman launched his attack to the far side of the road. Having just expended a large amount of energy, the Spaniards were left flat-footed and gassed, and they couldn’t respond to Moncoutie’s acceleration.
We’re going to see this same sort of warfare several times over the next two days. When the elite group of climbers and overall contenders reaches the slopes of LaMongie tomorrow afternoon, someone is going to try his luck and launch the first attack. The others will have to accelerate to catch him and burn precious energy in the process. As soon as the first attacker is caught, if he’s caught, there will inevitably be a counterattack.
The attacking and counterattacking will continue until someone separates himself from the lead group because a solo attack on a steep ascent is the most energy-efficient way to gain a lot of time on your rivals. A hard attack burns a tremendous amount of energy, no matter where you launch it, so it’s important to carefully choose the right moment.
The best moment for an initial attack is when the pitch is steepest because it’s more difficult for your pursuers to accelerate and come after you. You get the biggest benefit from the cost of your effort because you can open up a significant lead over the group in the shortest distance. The best moment to launch a counterattack, however, is just as the group is catching an earlier attack, regardless of the pitch. A counterattack takes advantage of the other riders’ exhaustion and you want to hit them before they get a chance to recover from their previous effort.
You have to know your body very well to survive the constant surges that occur on the slopes of major climbs. There are a finite number of times you can dig deep to respond to an acceleration, and trying to increase your speed during every surge can deplete your energy stores very quickly. If you push yourself over your limit too soon and crack from the pace, you will slow down dramatically and lose massive amounts of time.
Sometimes it is better to maintain your pace and let someone gain a small gap because you then have the chance to gradually increase your effort to reel them back in. By expending less energy during the chase, you then have the opportunity to launch a counterattack as soon as you reach the attacker’s rear wheel.
With so many riders still in contention for the yellow jersey, the climbs to LaMongie and Plateau de Beille may very well be the sites for all-out war. The attacks are likely to start early and continue all the way to finish as Lance Armstrong, Jan Ullrich, Tyler Hamilton, Roberto Heras, Iban Mayo, Ivan Basso, and Levi Leipheimer attempt to open significant time gaps. They are each very strong climbers, and they will have to use the same tactics David Moncoutie used today: Turn your opponents’ strength and aggression to your advantage.