Three Stooges Syndome

Apr 5 2011

Girona Training camp by Team Garmin-CerveloIt’s always a little uncomfortable to tell professionals in the cycling world that they’re “doing it wrong”. After all, I can sit here with limited talent and no experience and say pretty much anything I want and face no repercussions—I don’t even have to worry about offending a sponsor or future stonewalling from press agents.

That said, Garmin-Cervelo is doing it wrong.

It doesn’t have much to do with their Flanders performance. The squad has taken an inordinate amount of heat for a radio conversation that at the time made plenty of tactical sense. In fact, it even turned out to be the winning decision, just for another team—and that’s kind of my point.

Garmin-Cervelo’s strategy of “letting the road decide the leader” doesn’t really work in cycling. It’s an attractive, ego-friendly dictum, and you can find it munging things up at pretty much any level of the sport. Go to a local race, watch the team riding like nonsense, and I can all but guarantee that their “plan” going in was to “see what happened” and “let the race decide”.

At the pro level, it tends to be a mark of deep intra-squad strife, or at the very least, poor organization. I will admit that keeping two riders in decent GC shape at a three-week Grand Tour makes a bit more sense, as it can be good insurance, and also an important strategic lever.

But as the classics have no GC competition, “race-determines-leader” seldom ends well. A semi-protected lieutenant placing in the second group brings no advantage to the next race. Similarly, if your leader crashes and falls off the pace, he or she begins at square one with every other rider the next weekend. Yes, the chances are higher of disaster striking a given rider at the classics, but the numerous clean-slate restarts throughout the spring make the risk worthwhile.

Plus, there are some practical concerns. When the peloton lines-out in a classic, over narrow streets, surfaces with maybe one rideable line, and up grades where any hesitation or mishap means missing a critical selection, there’s no time to democratically work out which rider sits on and which rider pulls. There’s even less room to let “the road” determine leadership by having two teammates fight for a single opening. If both riders are strong, one should be protecting space, eating wind, or pushing the pace to the advantage of the other; otherwise, it becomes a literal case of Three Stooges Syndrome:

Finally, you only get to put eight riders on the start line at most big one-days. With three leaders, you’ve only got five support riders. With three of those riding as “bodyguards”, that leaves two guys to chase, get bottles, cover breaks, and cover all the other intangibles that make the sport so interesting. Over an au bloc 260km effort, those two domestiques simply aren’t going to get the job done.

It’s tough to claim that Garmin-Cervelo currently packs a more star-studded line-up than the Mapei or Domo Farm-Frites teams of the 90s-00s. Yet rare were the moments where Patrick Lefevere had to explain to the press why his superteam wasn’t winning. Sure, there was the occasional gripe from a slighted rider after a pre-arranged finish order, but for the most part, the order went out, the squad closed ranks, and the wins rolled in.

Patrick Lefevere at Dwars Door Vlaanderen by Cindy TrossaertThe commitment is total, as Paolo Bettini’s memories of the 2000 Liege, or scenes of a yellow-clad Victor Hugo Pena dropping back to get bottles, can attest. The director says “today, we ride for Hushovd” and everyone else, because they’re pros, says “yes, directore“. It’s a unfair system, prone to politics and unfriendly to careers, but it also wins bike races. Prize money isn’t split to reward effort; it’s done to suppress dissent.

And I think this hesitation to enforce top-down authority is at the root of Garmin-Cervelo’s problem. You’ve got JV saying things like “when you have two riders and one says he doesn’t have it, what can you do?” The answer is nuke the guy who doesn’t have it to put the guy who does in a position to win. Many pixels have been scattered about how agreeable things are between Garmin’s stars, but to my mind, that’s more reason for Vaughters to stand up and say “today, you are the man”. Set the heirarchy from the start and no one wastes time wondering whose bottles to tote.

Obviously, it’s tough to choose between riders who are all on-form, but much like barking an order over the radio, deciding a pre-race leader does not translate directly into outcome. Servais Knaven didn’t win Roubaix because he was protected—he won because Lefevere told him “get to the front or die trying so we can smash Hincapie“.

Knaven did his job, and as luck would have it, his attack turned out to be the winning move. Similarly, Stijn Devolder’s back-to-back winning solos at Flanders were designed to take the pressure off the squad, and leave more riders to look after the real leader, Tom Boonen. Pozzato’s win at Sanremo, Burghardt’s Gent-Wevelgem—plenty of riders have had their day working to the advantage of a teammate.

On paper, Gamin-Cervelo is almost custom-tailored for Roubaix. But every time they split resources between riders, they get half as good. This Sunday, they need to pick one guy, put everything behind him, and never look back. In a sport where the road will always have its say in determining a winner, a team focus on a single leader will always be the best bet. If you don’t believe me, just ask Bjarne Riis and Nick Nuyens.

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