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The beauty of tactics: Protocol, obligation and pulling through

Two successive stages of the Tour de France this week put the same rider – Phonak’s Oscar Pereiro – on to both sides of the same question, namely when is a rider obligated to pull through in a breakaway? In stage 16 George Hincapie found himself in a breakaway group on what had to be the toughest stage of this Tour de France. As you know, Hincapie is a teammate and real workhorse for Lance Armstrong, the overall leader of the Tour. As a result, it’s well understood that Hincapie had absolutely no obligation to pull through as the break moved away from the peloton. Even though it was

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By Thomas Prehn

Periero was out of gas at the end of stage 15...

Periero was out of gas at the end of stage 15…

Photo: AFP

Two successive stages of the Tour de France this week put the same rider – Phonak’s Oscar Pereiro – on to both sides of the same question, namely when is a rider obligated to pull through in a breakaway?

In stage 16 George Hincapie found himself in a breakaway group on what had to be the toughest stage of this Tour de France. As you know, Hincapie is a teammate and real workhorse for Lance Armstrong, the overall leader of the Tour. As a result, it’s well understood that Hincapie had absolutely no obligation to pull through as the break moved away from the peloton.

Even though it was understood that none of the riders in the lead posed any threat to Armstrong’s hold on the jersey, Hincapie was not obligated to do any work. The main reason he was in the break was to offer help if Armstrong encountered difficulty along the way – losing the rest of his team on a particularly difficult climb, for example. Were that to have occurred, Hincapie would sat up, soft-pedaled and waited for the race to come to him so that he could help Armstrong and other members of the team to recover.

At some point, however, Hincapie’s role changed. As the break continued to build time and Armstrong and the team were more than holding their own on the stage, Hincapie was given the go-ahead to try to win the stage.

As the lead group began to unravel, only Pereiro and Hincapie survived to contest the stage. On the last climb to Pla d’Adet, the two emerged with a solid lead. Over the final three kilometers, Pereiro’s frustration was clear. The Spaniard knew that the American had been sitting on all day long and he knew that Hincapie had to be pretty fresh. Pereiro pulled off from side to side in an effort to get Hincapie to pull through. He didn’t. He stayed tucked behind all the way until he made the jump with 200 meters to go and went on to win the sprint.

So, the question remains, should George Hincapie have pulled through?

I, for one, don’t think so. Pulling through would really not have done anything for Pereiro. With the road as steep as it was going up to the finish, pulling through is really wasn’t going to do much for Pereiro beyond giving him a bit of a psychological boost. There is no draft to sit on. I think Pereiro was just feeling frustrated and knew that he didn’t have much of a chance holding off Hincapie at the line. By the time the two hit the flatter stretch in the final kilometer, the issue came down to a race between the two men. Unlike Chris Horner’s tactical error of sitting on Sylvain Chavanel’s wheel with the peloton bearing down on them, there was no risk of losing the stage to any chasers at this point. Hincapie played it like he should have and it paid off. Pereiro’s comments at the end of the day simple reflected his degree of frustration, but Hincapie did nothing wrong that day as far as protocol was concerned and he played his tactical hand to perfection… just like Pereiro did on the very next stage.

Wearing the red numbers of the Tour’s most aggressive rider into Stage 16, Pereiro again found himself in the day’s winning break. Periero joined forces with Xabier Zandio (Illes Balears), Eddy Mazzoleni (Lampre) and Cadel Evans (Davitamon-Lotto) on the descent of the Col d’Aubisque.

... and had plenty left the next time around

… and had plenty left the next time around

Photo: Graham Watson

As this group of four approached the finish, it was Evans who drove the break, motivated by his desire to move up as high as he possibly could on the overall standings. While there is no real protocol or rule here, it is understood that as a rider, you can let the rider who has the most to gain do the most work. It is as if the three riders with Evans said to him “Hey this is your move on GC. If you want it, you need to do it yourself.”

Actually, there was no need to express it, because all four men new the drill. For Evans, every second leading up to the finish line was going to help move him up on GC. So, this time around it was Pereiro who became the beneficiary of another rider’s effort. With Evans driving the break into the final kilometer, it was obvious that the Aussie wasn’t going to take the stage. Pereiro watched the other two men in the break, grabbed the right wheel in the final couple of hundred meters and won the stage. Evans, meanwhile, had no complaints as he moved into seventh place in the overall standings.

In bike racing, there is some unusual protocol when it comes to obligations to pulling through and doing your share of the work. And I will be the first to admit that not all racers, coaches or managers would even agree as how the protocol should be interpreted for different race situations. In that sense, bike racing is a little like art… everyone has a reaction to what they see. Some like it. Some don’t.


Thomas Prehn is a former USPRO national championand author of “RACINGTACTICS FOR CYCLISTS,” published by VeloPress.
 

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