By Chris Carmichael
Stage 10 of the 2011 Tour de France is what’s typically referred to as a “transition” stage. The race has to move around the whole of France, using a combination of stages and transfers on team busses and trains. Stage 10 was essentially part of the process of getting the peloton down to the southern mountain range of the Pyrenees, but that didn’t mean it was just a cruise through the countryside. In fact, Stage 10 provided one of the best demonstrations of how to attack and how to chase.
The first hour of today’s race was extremely aggressive, covering more than 31 miles (50+ kilometers). That was because there was a good chance that the breakaway could win the day. At 98 miles (158km), the stage was relatively short and the terrain wasn’t terribly challenging. And coming after a rest day, some opportunistic riders were motivated to use their refreshed legs before the race enters the big mountains. But even after the breakaway was established, the peloton maintained a high-enough tempo that the break’s lead never grew to anything all that dangerous.
A final Category 4 climb set the stage for an excellent illustration of two very different ways to win bike races. Some athletes can sprint extremely fast, but if you’re not one of them you need to everything possible to prevent the race from coming down to a sprint. That means you have to go on the offensive further out from the finish line by launching attacks. Today’s final climb wasn’t a massive ascent, meaning that the sprinters (who aren’t normally great climbers) would be able to get up and over it with the main pack. But it was hard enough – and close enough to the finish line – that opportunists could use it as a launchpad for a last-minute breakaway.
Both sprinters and attackers played their hands to perfection, but obviously only one strategy can work on any given day. Here’s how it went down and why the stage ended as it did.
As the race reached the base of the final Category 4 climb, the day-long breakaway was splintering and slowing down. It was clear that no one in the break had the power to stay away all the way to the finish line. Behind them, a few teams moved their riders up to the front of the peloton, most notably the HTC-Highroad and Omega Pharma-Lotto teams. Both teams had plenty of cards to play and could win the stage with either an attacker or a sprinter. HTC-Highroad wanted to see Mark Cavendish get over the climb so he could sprint for victory, so they were trying to strike a balance between riding fast enough to discourage other riders from attacking and yet not so fast that they dropped Cavendish out of the back of the pack. If Cavendish did drop, however, they had men like Tony Martin who could get into a late breakaway and snag the stage win. Omega Pharma-Lotto had green jersey points leader Philippe Gilbert on hand for the breakaway option, and sprinter Andre Greipel if the race came down to a mass surge to the line. As a result, these two teams applied pressure to the front of the race and kept the pace very high on the climb.
The best time to attack on a climb is when the pace is very fast. You basically have the majority of the riders in the group on the ropes – they can’t go much harder than they already are – and then you hit them with a vicious acceleration. That’s exactly what Tony Gallopin (Cofidis) did, and he was very shortly joined by Gilbert, Quickstep’s Dries Devenyns, and yellow jersey leader Thomas Voeckler. Voeckler is not seen as a real threat to hold onto the yellow jersey all the way to Paris, so his presence in the breakaway didn’t draw out the biggest names in the race. Tony Martin, however, started the day in 6th place overall and is someone who could prove to be a threat for a high overall placing in Paris.
Not only did Gallopin and the group attack when the pace was very hard, but they also waited until they were more than halfway up the ascent before they went off the front. This is a good tactic because it allows you to get a good gap over the field with a hard initial acceleration, but then you reach the summit before the climb itself really starts to sap your legs. That’s important because on a descent a small group can go nearly as fast as the large pack – even though the large pack contains a lot more horsepower.
The late breakaway group was packed with strong riders. This wasn’t a group of no-names looking for glory. It was the green jersey of Gilbert, the man who has won more than 14 races this season alone. It was Thomas Voeckler, who is a three-time French National Champion known for his aggressive, attacking style. And Tony Martin, a rider who is great in both time trials and big mountains was there, too. But the teams of the sprinters, most notably HTC-Highroad and Garmin-Cervelo, were barely fazed. Instead of breaking ranks and panicking, these teams continued to set a blistering pace on the front of the steadily shrinking peloton.
Consistency and steadiness are the keys to a successful chase. You have to keep the speed as high as possible and as steady as possible because that maintains order behind you. If you react to every little move by opportunists, that’s when gaps open up between teammates in the leadout train and riders from opposing teams infiltrate into the line. Similarly, the perceived lack of organization convinces your opponents that you don’t have control of the race, so they organize their riders and send them to the front to take over. In a downhill, twisty run-in to the finish line, you don’t want several teams competing with each other for control.
Chasing a late breakaway in the final kilometers requires patience. A 10-12 second gap is not very big; at times it had to seem like Gilbert was just out of reach. It’s tempting to lose your patience and go ballistic to close that gap, but a well-drilled team has to resist that temptation. You don’t want to accelerate so hard that you break up your own leadout train, nor do you want to catch the breakaway rider too early and encourage the next opportunist to attack. HTC-Highroad and Garmin-Cervelo successfully closed down the remaining gap to Gilbert, partly aided by a few small rises in the road that took the sting out of the Belgian’s legs.
Once the breakaway was reeled in, it was time for HTC-Highroad to deliver Cavendish to the final 300 meters with a clear path to the finish line. But although Omega Pharma-Lotto’s strategy with Gilbert had failed, they still had another card to play. Andre “Gorilla” Greipel (he even has a Gorilla graphic on the front end of his bike) has been waiting to win a Tour de France stage over Mark Cavendish for years. The two men were on the same team, and Greipel was left off the team’s Tour de France squad because there was no reason to bring two sprinters. So Greipel left the team and moved to Omega Pharma-Lotto, and today positioned himself directly on his former teammate’s back wheel in the final 500 meters of the stage. As Cavendish launched the acceleration that’s won him 16 previous stages of the Tour de France, Greipel surged too. Coming to the line, the big German was more than half a wheel ahead of Cavendish, bringing a perfect end to a day that saw Omega Pharma-Lotto execute perfect tactics in both the late-stage breakaway and the final sprint.
Chris Carmichael rode the Tour de France in 1986 with 7-Eleven and has been writing Tour de France commentary for the past 11 years. He is CEO and Head Coach of Carmichael Training Systems, the premier destination for coaching, training camps, and performance testing since 2000; and Official Coaching and Camps Partner of Ironman. Follow Chris on Twitter at www.twitter.com/trainright, on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carmichaeltrainingsystems, orwww.trainright.com.