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The beauty of tactics: It ain’t over ’til it’s over

It’s a cliché, I admit, but there’s a reason things become clichés and the wisdom behind that old line “It ain’t over ‘till it’s over,” has certainly been proven more than a few times over the first few days of this year’s Tour de France. If anyone thinks this year’s Tour is going to be just another cakewalk for defending champion Lance Armstrong – or anyone else for that matter - they have another thing coming. If anything, Armstrong’s six previous Tours are conspiring against him. Given a remarkable string of good luck over the past six years, the odds have to be catching up with him. It

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Luck – good and bad – plays a big role in any race

By Thomas Prehn

Mengin was on his way to the line...

Mengin was on his way to the line…

Photo: AFP

It’s a cliché, I admit, but there’s a reason things become clichés and the wisdom behind that old line “It ain’t over ‘till it’s over,” has certainly been proven more than a few times over the first few days of this year’s Tour de France.

If anyone thinks this year’s Tour is going to be just another cakewalk for defending champion Lance Armstrong – or anyone else for that matter – they have another thing coming. If anything, Armstrong’s six previous Tours are conspiring against him. Given a remarkable string of good luck over the past six years, the odds have to be catching up with him. It is as if there is a bullet in the chamber and fate may just decide to pull the trigger. It’s sure happened a few times to others already this Tour.

The hand of fate
There have already been several twists of fate in this year’s Tour de France. Who would ever have thought that rising American star, Dave Zabriskie’s time in the yellow jersey would be cut short a kilometer and a half from the finish of, what was a likely win in last Tuesday’s team time trial?

No one could have predicted the end of stage6 where wet roads, a bad line in a corner and a bit of white paint in the cross walk conspired to put an end to poor Christophe Mengin’s 160-kilometer breakaway, just 700 meters from the line. Mengin’s crash, as you recall, then gave could conspire for such a consequence. An unknown Italian wins his first-ever professional race and Vinokourov gains a few precious seconds over Lance.

The competition
One of the great aspects of bike racing and stage racing in particular is the unknown element introduced by the presence of a host of other competitors. Among the short list of top contenders, no one knows who will feel exceptionally well on a certain day or be graced with a bit of bike racing luck. Much is made of the Ullrich – Lance rivalry, but what of the rest of the T-Mobile squad?

This year, they seem ready to give Armstrong and Discovery a real run for their money. Today’s stage to Gérardmer surely sent a signal that T-Mobile was more than willing to press the effort and ensure that this year’s Tour will be a real race. With three riders in the top ten right now, this can make for some dynamic racing. Furthermore, one result of the success of Armstrong and the old U.S. Postal team is that it succeeded in developing some top-notch lieutenants over the year. Trouble is, once developed, some of those guys have developed right into leaders themselves and Armstrong is now facing off against riders like Floyd Landis, Roberto Heras – who was already a major force before he came to Postal – and Levi Leipheimer. The team?
Today’s stage must have been a bit of a wake up call for Discovery. I am sure there will be a great deal of calm, but very frank, discussion about the day’s events in the team meetings tonight and tomorrow morning. For Armstrong to find himself alone on that particular climb is really inexcusable. Maybe the riders didn’t view the second category climb as that threatening, maybe all of them were having a bad day. Maybe some cracks have been found in the Discovery armor. It is normal, over the course of a long stage race, that riders have good days and bad. With a nine-member team there should always be a few riders there, ready to do the work. But what happens if the unexpected happens and everyone suffers on the same day?

Some doors open. Some doors shut
I think it’s safe to say that Armstrong and Discovery Channel probably work harder than any other team to keep the odds in their favor. Earlier in the Tour, Armstrong noted that he has a mental list of riders to avoid, simply because they have a higher propensity to crash than do others. We heard him give Dave Zabriskie the advice to “never to ride out of the front 20” riders in the peloton.

The thing is, in his six-year winning streak, Armstrong has never really experienced seriously bad luck. Sure, he got caught in that spectator’s mussette bag on the way to LuzArdiden in 2003. And he avoided disaster when he barely avoided JosebaBeloki’s awful crash days before that on the way into Gap. But those were close calls… not bad luck. I am talking about bad luck, the kind that caused Beloki to fall… the kind that took out Alex Zülle on the Passage du Gois in ’99. Bad luck… the kind you can’t plan for. The kind that just happens – a flat on a descent, a flat 4 km’s from the finish, a rider falling down in front of you that happens for no reason at all.

No one would have thought Beloki's 2003 Tour would have ended this way

No one would have thought Beloki’s 2003 Tour would have ended this way

Photo: AFP

While no one likes to see this sort of “lady luck” play a role in the Tour de France, it is a fact of bicycle racing. It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.

With each kilometer, with each stage, the chamber spins.


Thomas Prehn is a former USPRO national champion and author of “RACING TACTICS FOR CYCLISTS,” published by VeloPress.

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