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The beauty of tactics – Bike racin’ at the improv’

Everyone knew what the script was. Everyone knew what they were supposed to do. Lance Armstrong is here going for a record six Tour de France victories. Then there is the small army of riders who are waiting to spoil it for him: Jan Ullrich is supposed to shake that second-place monkey from his back and score his second Tour win. Iban Mayo, the Spanish climbing master had already proven he can out-climb the Texan, so the mountain challenge is there. Of course, Armstrong’s former teammate and fellow American Tyler Hamilton is ready to show the world that the defending champ and his Postal

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By Thomas Prehn

Everyone knew what the script was. Everyone knew what they were supposed to do.

Lance Armstrong is here going for a record six Tour de France victories. Then there is the small army of riders who are waiting to spoil it for him: Jan Ullrich is supposed to shake that second-place monkey from his back and score his second Tour win. Iban Mayo, the Spanish climbing master had already proven he can out-climb the Texan, so the mountain challenge is there. Of course, Armstrong’s former teammate and fellow American Tyler Hamilton is ready to show the world that the defending champ and his Postal team are not invincible.

Well it was supposed to happen that way.

At this point, it seems that only Armstrong and the Postal team are able to stick to their script. Stage 12 and Stage 13 of this year’s event dashed the hopes for all the original contenders. Ullrich may look leaner this year but perhaps dropping too much weight too soon before the Tour is a bad idea. Mayo is suffering from bad luck and bad legs. Hamilton abandoned on stage 13. After suffering the entire race last year with a broken collar bone, he probably didn’t want to ride another tour injured, as he was from some early crashes.

Of course, all of this is part of racing and especially stage racing. It is time for a new script. And there have been some new characters to enter the mix. Thomas Voeckler was never considered a factor before the race, yet he still wears the Yellow Jersey even after the Pyrénées. Ivan Basso has now been the only rider to stay with Armstrong on the two mountain top finishes.

The race goes on. Just as each of Armstrong’s main competitors have fallen by the wayside, Armstrong and his Postal teammates know that bad luck can rear its ugly head at any time over the course of a three-week tour and that – to use an old cliché – the race is not over until it is over.

Every day until next Sunday, there will be a host of tactical games that play out. Take today’s stage as an example.

As the riders came off the steep hills of the Pyrénées, they raced 192.5 kilometers of flat Mediterranean coastal low lands from Carcassonne to Nîmes.

There were plenty of attacks and counter-attacks leading up to the one that finally stuck. The group of 10 attackers had a few big names, bur still didn’t include anyone who was in contention for the overall lead. The best-placed of the bunch was more than 25 minutes back, so no one in the top 20 was gonna sweat this one out.

So we had a break that included Santiago Botero (T-Mobile), Nicolas Jalabert (Phonak), Inigo Landaluze (Euskaltel), Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano (Liberty Seguros), Egoi Martinez (Euskaltel), Aitor Gonzalez (Fassa Bortolo), Pierrick Fedrigo (Credit Agricole), Peter Wrolich (Gerolsteiner), Marc Lotz (Rabobank) and Christophe Mengin (FDJeux) and the quickly started to build a pretty hefty lead.

With a gap like that and an uninterested peloton, you knew that someone was going to start shaking things up as the escapees hit the edge of Nîmes. The problem was one of timing, though, since the early moves would surely be countered by the other nine riders in the bunch. Clearly, as the only men with a teammate in the break, the two Euskaltel men – Landaluze and Martinez – had something of a tactical advantage.

Liberty Segeuros’s Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano made the first move. He attacked and was quickly caught and an immediate counter attacked came from Pierrick Fedrigo (Crédit Agricole). This is also nullified and the group was back together. It was here where one of the Euskaltels should have made a strong attack. Then, if he were caught, his teammate could take his own shot.

But whether it was from fear of risk or just a lack of legs, neither took the opportunity and Aitor Gonzalez (Fassa Bortolo), made his move, stringing the whole group out behind him.

Remarkably, he looked like he was caught and the chase actually eased off. It was another blown opportunity, especially for the two Euskaltel riders.

Within a kilometer the once-cooperative breakaway is now engaged in a series of attacks and counter attacks that do not close the distance to the lone Spanish leader.

So what is it that made this one stick and all the other attacks did not? Well of course, the Fassa rider was strong and fast. But most of the other riders in the breakaway were, too.

Consider the dynamics of the break. For 90km, this group was the picture of cooperation, with all ten men working quite well together. No one in the group avoided taking pulls and all shared the workload quite nicely. Still, not everyone in the group wants to see this ride all the way into the finish together.

Of course, the sprinters in the bunch would prefer that, but most wanted the group to split it up to increase their odds in a sprint or, better yet, sneak away solo to ensure the win.

So everyone in the break knew that at some point, someone was going to try a ‘surprise’ move. With no chance of being caught by the peloton, it should have been clear that after that first attack, any spirit of cooperation was doomed for the day. That first attack signaled that riders would instantly switch from being breakaway companions to breakaway competitors.

Gonzales’s move worked so beautifully for precisely that reason. He was able to get just enough of a gap that catching him would have required cooperation and in this new environment that was not going to happen.

No one wanted to pull the rest of the group back on to Gonzalez’s wheel only to be counterattacked by fresher riders. Gonzalez knew that once it got a gap he was going to be successful… at least in splitting up the group. Indeed, the only threat came from Jalabert, Mengin and Fedrigo who eventually finished 25 and 29 seconds behind him on the stage.

That was a small threat because Jalabert and Mengin joined up to work together and were caught by Fedrigo. The three riders behind could have caught the leader had there been a few more kilometers in the stage, but there were not and so any group work was under threat of one of them attacking the other two in order to bridge to the leader. The result was that all three stayed around 30 seconds behind Gonzalez and, interestingly, the two Euskaltels finished ninth and tenth on the day.