Inside Cycling with John Wilcockson: Teamwork more important than ever

VeloNews Editor-at-Large John Wilcockson writes on the importance of teamwork in the first of the cobblestone classics and two major stage races

Sometimes a little help from your friends is exactly what you need.
Sometimes a little help from your friends is exactly what you need.

Editor’s note: Every week through the 2011 road season, VeloNews Editor-at-Large John Wilcockson is writing about key features of the week’s racing. This seventh installment focuses on the importance of teamwork in the first of the cobblestone classics and two major stage races.

“First, I’d like to thank my teammates for making all this possible.”

Anyone who has heard a winner being interviewed after a race knows that this is the most hackneyed post-win quote in cycling. But in one of the year’s busiest weeks the truth of that statement was emphasized by winner after winner: Tom Boonen, Nick Nuyens and Fabian Cancellara in Belgium’s cobblestone classics or semi-classics; and Alberto Contador and Fränk Schleck at stage races in Spain and France.

The three one-day races in Belgium (Ghent-Wevelgem, the E3 Prijs and Across Flanders) this past week all saw different outcomes — and each saw different examples of great teamwork.

On paper, Sunday’s Ghent-Wevelgem resulted in a straightforward mass finish in which Quick Step’s Boonen rediscovered his field-sprint kick to defeat Sky’s Daniele Bennati and Garmin-Cervélo’s Tyler Farrar to win. But the tactics in the UCI WorldTour classic were far more complex than that.

Until the very last minute of the 4-hour, 36-minute race, it looked as though the four-man break (Peter Sagan and Maciej Bodnar of Liquigas, Ian Stannard of Sky and Sylvain Chavanel of Quick-Step) that formed 34km from the finish was going to hang on. Not only did all four work hard to gain 42 seconds, but they also had a combined 10 riders (five from Quick Step, four from Liquigas and one from Sky) slowing the chase in the 48-strong group behind.

Furthermore, the only rival teams with more than three riders were BMC Racing and the French Pro Continental squads Cofidis and Europcar — none of which had a field sprinter. Of the true sprinters, HTC-Highroad’s Mark Cavendish crashed out of contention with 21km to go, Omega-Lotto’s André Greipel had just two teammates with him, Philippe Gilbert and Marcel Sieberg, and Farrar was alone.

BMC, riding for Greg Van Avermaet, pegged the gap to 20 seconds with 10km left; but, in the end, it was only Gilbert’s strong pulls that brought the break within firing range for the sprinters. And, unsurprisingly, Quick Step had the greater numbers and freshness, with Steegmans able to pull Boonen to within 200 meters of the line before the team’s superstar jumped past the last of the breakaways, Stannard, to get the gap he needed to beat the unassisted Bennati, Farrar and Greipel.

Successful breaks

In the Across Flanders race at Waregem last Wednesday, that event’s late break (Saxo Bank-SunGard’s Nuyens, Sky’s Geraint Thomas and Landbouwkrediet’s Frédéric Amorrison) also had 20 seconds’ lead with 10km to go … and a collective six teammates slowing the chase in the 39-strong peloton.

As at Wevelgem, Quick Step had the greatest numbers in the group, but after their Niki Terpstra just failed to cross the gap to the break (Sky’s Juan Antonio Flecha sat on his wheel in defense of teammate Thomas), the Belgian team put only one rider on the front, knowing that the slightly uphill finish suited Garmin’s Farrar rather than Boonen.

The gap dropped to 10 seconds with 5km to go, seven seconds at 3km — and just ticks of the clocks under the last-kilometer archway. But Nuyens had Saxo teammate Baden Cooke imperceptibly slowing the head of the group with Sky’s Matt Hayman, and when Thomas accelerated through the final turn before Nuyens began his sprint, the gap grew just enough for these two to keep a one-second advantage over third-place Farrar (Boonen was only ninth).

While the tactics employed by winners Nuyens, Boonen and their respective teams at Waregem and Wevelgem were nuanced, a far more direct strategy was used by Cancellara and his Leopard-Trek team at the E3 Prijs in Harelbeke.

Even though Cancellara, the defending champion, suffered two flats and had to change bikes just before the fifth of 12 Flemish climbs, he worked his way back to the main chase group before the 10th climb, the Old Kwaremont, inside 40km to go, where he predicted before the race that he would attack.

With the race in a state of flux, and without radio communication from his team car, Cancellara simply put the hammer down and, as he said, “threw myself blindly into the battle, knowing absolutely nothing about the situation in the race.”

In fact, there were two groups ahead of him at that point. One with Dutchman Bram Tankink of Rabobank and Canadian Svein Tuft of Team SpiderTech was 45 seconds in front, while a lead group with the dangerous Heinrich Haussler of Garmin and his Leopard teammate Stuart O’Grady was 90 seconds ahead.

On a straight, wide stretch of smooth road after leaving the Old Kwaremont cobbles, the world time trial champion zoomed up to the Tankink group and surged right by, forcing each of those chasers to dig deep to get into his draft. In front, knowing from the chalkboard that No. 1 (Cancellara) was trying to bridge up, and sensing it was the right thing to do, O’Grady drifted back from the break to help his team leader.

2011 wins for UCI ProTeams
(in UCI .1 races and higher through March 28)
1. HTC-Highroad – 15 (seven riders)
2. Rabobank – 12 (five riders)
3. Garmin-Cervélo – 10 (five riders)
4. Team RadioShack – 8 (six riders)
5. Lampre-ISD – 8 (five riders)
6. Saxo Bank-SunGard – 8 (four riders)
7. Liquigas-Cannondale – 7 (three riders)
8. Sky – 5 (four riders)
9. Vacansoleil-DCM – 5 (three riders)
Movistar – 5 (three riders)
11. Leopard-Trek – 4 (two riders)
Omega Pharma-Lotto – 4 (two riders)
13. Quick Step – 3 (two riders)
14. AG2R-La Mondiale – 2 (two riders)
15. BMC Racing – 2 (one rider)
16. Katusha – 1 (one rider)
Astana – 1 (one rider)
(Euskaltel-Euskadi remains as the only ProTeam yet to register a victory in 2011.)

Cancellara later complimented the Aussie veteran, saying, “Stuart pulled me up at just the right time. We came to the group with Haussler before the last section of cobblestones (the Varentstraat). … and, yeah, I just went from there.”

Fourteen riders came together in that front group, from which Tankink immediately counterattacked. Cancellara went after him, and as the big Swiss accelerated again, a cramping Tankink sat up. There were 20km to go — and that was it!

Cancellara was a minute clear when he cruised across the line in Harelbeke, knowing, as last year, that he was right on target for next Sunday’s monument, the Tour of Flanders.

Climbers to the fore

Coincidentally, in exactly the same time frame that Cancellara was splattering a classics field in Flanders, his teammate (and close friend) Fränk Schleck was burning up the tarmac on the first of three stages at the Critérium International in the mountains of Corsica.

It was a stage worthy of the Tour de France (and the Tour may well start here in 2013), with seven categorized climbs, 12,962 feet (3,951 meters) of elevation difference in 198km of racing. And it finished at the top of the 14.3km-long Col de l’Ospedale, which has an average 6.2-percent grade, with the steepest, 10.4-percent pitches coming in the last 2km.

It was on this challenging terrain that Leopard-Trek showed why it will be a major force at the Tour this coming July. Its tactics were close to perfection. First, its German veteran Jens Voigt (a five-time Critérium International winner on less severe courses) bridged to the day’s major breakaway, and launched clear on his own up the Col de Bacinu to summit that mountain 2:40 ahead of the pack.

His massive effort allowed his team leaders, the Schleck brothers, to have a free ride as the rival teams organized a strong chase on the long descent to the coast before the final climb.

Describing their tactics on the Ospedale ascent, Andy Schleck told L’Équipe, “We talked at the foot of the climb (just before Voigt was caught). I saw the race last year when they climbed at tempo virtually the whole way … and that’s exactly what I didn’t want to happen again. So I told (Fränk) I was feeling good and right away, I went on the attack to put everyone in the red. Fränk countered.”

Only two riders were able to join the elder Schleck, the same two riders who animated the hardest stage of Paris-Nice a couple of weeks ago, Movistar’s Vasil Kiryienka from Belarus and Cofidis’s Rein Taaramae from Estonia. But Schleck easily dropped them on his premeditated acceleration on the steepest gradient, to win the stage solo with enough time to comfortably defend his overall lead on Sunday’s sprint and time-trial stages.

Andy Schleck finished atop the Ospedale climb in the main chase group, 1:09 behind his brother, along with another likely Tour de France contender, Ryder Hesjedal of Garmin. Perhaps the Schlecks’ tactics were a preview of what will be happening in the Pyrénées this July … although they may have to contend with a certain three-time Tour winner who also displayed his climbing form last week. (Contador learned on Thursday that he is to face an appeal from the UCI at the Court of Arbitration for Sport regarding the Spanish federation’s decision not to suspend him for his clenbuterol positive).

Indeed, leading the Schlecks’ former team, Saxo Bank, at the Volta a Catalunya, Contador impressed everyone with his form at the mountaintop stage finish in Andorra last Wednesday to seal an overall victory in the UCI WorldTour event. Saxo’s support teamwork was impressive, with all its riders contributing, some making the early tempo and others leading the charge at the foot of the final climb until Chris Anker Sørensen made a last acceleration before Contador attacked.

Only one man was able to catch Contador, Team RadioShack’s Levi Leipheimer, who couldn’t follow a second surge by the Spanish superstar and drifted back to the next best climber, Michele Scarponi of Lampre-ISD, who’s nearing top form for May’s Giro d’Italia.

The impressive teamwork seen in all of these diverse races showed that elite-level cycling has never been richer in quality. And besides the stage races in the Mediterranean countries and the classics in northern Europe, the past week also saw an overwhelming Australian show (eight gold medals!) at the world track championships in the Netherlands; an overall victory be a hopefully reformed Emanuel Sella of Team Androni in Italy’s Coppi & Bartali Week; and a one-woman-show by Garmin-Cervélo’s world TT champ Emma Pooley in the season’s first UCI World Cup race, the Trofeo Alfredo Binda in the lake district of Italy.

Cycling’s cup of riches is overflowing.