Saturday, July 16, 2005

Trying something different

For six years running, the US Postal Service team's basic strategy for winning the Tour de France was as follows:

1. Keep the team safe and rested in the first week. Get whatever time advantage the Team Time Trial can provide.
2. Demoralize the competition in the first long Individual Time Trial, usually before the mountains start. A win isn't needed, but a psychological blow to the favorites is the goal.
3. Blow the competition away on the first real mountain stage featuring a mountain top finish. Again, a win isn't needed, just time over the "heads of state" as Paul Sherwin calls them.
3.5. The Prefontaine Approach, Team Edition. USPS puts it's formidable climbing group at the front and pares the pelton down to just the elite - climbers and GC contenders. One by one people peel off because they can't handle the sustained pace. Fast enough that nobody, or few, can attack. At its best, this strategy results in Lance and one of his teammates being the only two left (happened twice in a row in 2002, with Roberto Heras at the top of his form).
4. Play defense. If an opportunity to take time presents itself, grab it.

Johan Bruyneel is the architect of this strategy, along with Armstrong of course. Discovery Channel, which is the same team, organization, management, etc., uses the same strategy. You saw it in the Alps if you were watching. 20 guys left and 5 or 6 are Discovery Channel riders.

So today, finally, the competition tried something different. With 44km and two major climb to go in the stage, T-Mobile attacked hard on a false flat. Looks like they had four riders their, including Guerini, Kloden, Vino and Ullrich, and they managed to isolate Armstrong. Rasumussen, Basso, Mancebo and a few others tacked onto the elite group too. Then it was Basso's turn, and he attacked repeatedly to try and hurt everyone/get away. No such luck. Rider after rider tried to get away, so the pace was moving around like a yo-yo, with riders coming and going from the group.

Armstrong kept his cool, kept his pace even and didn't panic. With 40k to go, it would be hard to get away for good.

So up the Port de Pailhères (15km, 8%, HC), fast descent down the other side, and then a climb to the finish at the Ax-3-Domaines ski station. Armstrong waits, and then starts his attacks, working over everyone in the group, and bringing back all but one of the riders out front (a small group of non-GC threats had been out most of the day).

Georg Totschnig won the day. Armstrong finished second, 56 seconds back. But ahead of Basso, Ullrich, Leipheimer, Landis, Manceba and most importantly, Rasmussen, who lost 51 more seconds, leaving him in second still, but 1:41 back of Lance. Basso now sits at 2:46 and Ullrich at 4:34. Vinokourov ultimately paid for his effort, losing 3:00 to Armstrong.

"When Armstrong went I had nothing left," Ullrich told Eurosport. "We had to go on the attack, but it just didn't work out. Armstrong matched everything we did." (via Velonews)

So, Lance consolidated his lead, but it was exciting. T-Mobile and CSC (and Rabobank) have to take risks if they are to unseat Lance. The silver lining is that Discover Channel should be a little rested for tomorrow's crazy stage.

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