Sanremo, Strength, and Tactics

Mar 22 2012

Mauruzio Fondreist attacks the Poggio

Maurizio Fondreist disregards fairness
on the Poggio / Max Nicolodi, cc-by

For a guy who made obsessing over aerodynamics and other tech geek foibles into the development and marketing norm in the sport, Gerard Vroomen is surprisingly attuned to the sloppy, cut-and-run realities of professional bike racing.

After some muttering from fans following Sanremo, and some atypically direct criticism of RadioShack by Philippe Gilbert, Vroomen put together a nice little blog post on how “negative racing” is actually “bike racing”, and that pretty much everyone involved knows the score. It’s about trying to matching your strengths with your opponents weaknesses.

While I wouldn’t say I was particularly effusive in my praise of Gerrans’ Sanremo, I certainly wouldn’t say I was overly-critial of it, either. It bears mention that the riders weren’t all just kinda hanging out on the Poggio, and Gerrans thought “hey, look, Nibali is attacking. Guess I’ll jump up to him and then draft him an Cancellara to the finish”. Prior to the winning selection were nearly 300k of attacks, climbs, tight roads and sharp corners, where even a momentary lapse of focus could tail a rider of the back, or force them to make a race-killing effort to get back on.

Gerrans had been looking punchy long before the Poggio (I briefly mistook him for Cav during some smart positioning moves on the Cipressa) and, perhaps sussing out Liquigas’ climb-controlling strategy, the Aussie parked on Nibali’s wheel before Agnoli’s recapture at 7.5km to go (4:52 in the video below). While the Poggio isn’t particularly long or steep, it is narrow and raced at eye-watering speed. If you’re not in the spot you need to be, you’ll be hard-pressed to get through a-reduced-but-edgy peloton, let alone make up time plowing your own furrow up a 4% grade at 30mph.

Indeed, Cancellara may have been the only rider in the remaining peloton capable of the feat—if you watch the video, you’ll see Cancellara is heavily marked and gets the drop on no-one. The separation only occurs when the riders behind him simply can’t put out the necessary wattage to keep his wheel. Cancellara’s prodigious strength bears additional consideration in light of the perceived lack of cooperation in the final selection—even if you wanted to come around him, the drop in speed between your max and his might doom the break.

Finally, the sprint wasn’t a foregone conclusion. Cancellara isn’t exactly a pancake in the final meters, especially after a 250+km, and the final margin wasn’t huge. In fact, were Cancellara a little more inclined to close the gate, and had chosen to lead out on the opposite site of the road (both the flags and waves show a strong tailwind/crosswind from the riders’ left), the additional effort required for Gerrans to come by might have made the difference.

On a more general level, last weekend’s race highlighted what I find to be the most interesting aspect of the sport—tactics as much as strength determines who wins races.

While everyone likes to feel that a winner took the day as fairly as possible, that sort of warm, fuzzy definition for “fair” favors the most dominant, predictable winners—and dominance gets boring in a hurry. Because of finishes like Saturday’s, teams riding for guys like Cancellara have to be tricker in how they leverage their strength advantage; just powering away is only occasionally an option. Even the most impressive displays of raw power, like Cancellara’s 2010 Roubaix win, are often triggered by a brilliantly seized tactical moment—in the case of Roubaix 2010, an out-of-position rival.

I think it’s safe to say most American fans got their introduction to the sport watching US Postal at the Tour de France. And it wasn’t a bad primer for tactics at the basic level—aggressively control the race, keep your strongest rider fresh, and then put him alongside his rivals at the moments where he can make the most difference. While that’s a nice big-picture plan, it requires a rare, generally not entirely organic level of dominance, and, as I mentioned above, it’s kinda dull.

The sport is really at its most interesting when favorites and spoilers are equally reliant on cunning to get across the line first. When Liquigas can dictate terms all day, and Fabs can single-handedly fend off the charging field, and still both can come away empty-handed, it’s clear that they’ll have to go back to the drawing board in terms of execution. I’m excited to see what they come up with to chase down wins through the rest of the spring.

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