Wednesday, April 07, 2010


Sometimes, It Is That Simple

As cyclists, we sometimes have a tendency to overstate the strategic and tactical aspects of professional cycling. Don’t feel bad about it – it’s a perfectly natural reaction to being surrounded by a general public that, at least in the United States, understands little about the intricacies of the sport we love.

On a daily basis ("daily" meaning “six times in July”), we face misguided commentary and indignant questions from those who, through no fault of their own, believe that bicycle road racing is an individual sport, that once the starter’s pistol is fired, every one of those 180 lycra-clad freaks pedals hell bent for leather to the finish line, and may the strongest man win. For those who know better, it can be tough to take.

And so we, those who’ve left skin on the road, those whose sympathetic hearts pound when the big attacks explode across the television screen, yearn to teach the lay public different. We long to open those uninitiated eyes to the all the careful thought and closely guarded knowledge that allows the racer to make most effective use of his muscle, ache to share the science that shows it’s oftentimes better to be a few men behind than boldly out in front, and dream of the chance to illuminate the topographical nuances that will dictate how and where a race will be decided.

In response to the slightest provocation from a non-cyclist, in addressing the most innocent dinner party question, we go overboard, sputtering through explanations of the roles of domestiques, the commercial concerns that drive the early break, the benefits and drawbacks of multiple team leaders, and the importance of a well-drilled lead-out train. As the inquirer begins to shift uncomfortably in their seat, we continue with increased urgency to try to impart as many of cycling's rock-paper-scissors nuances as we can before our victim feeds the family dog a chicken bone to create a diversion and facilitate an escape.

Usually, the effect of this deluge of mind-numbing detail is that the victims retain nothing at all, but if they somehow manage to digest some of our inane ramblings, they’d be likely to come away with the mistaken view that cycling is almost entirely decided by strategy and tactics. And that’s as untrue as thinking it relies solely on fitness. In fact, when it comes down to the finale of races like last Sunday’s Ronde van Vlaanderen, the average oblivious man on the street might have a more accurate impression of how things work than a bunch of overanalytical bike geeks. Sometimes – maybe most times, in fact – it all really does just come down to who’s stronger.

In the Ronde, both Tom Boonen (Quick Step) and Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank) rode tactically perfect races. Each had obviously picked the right man to mark (not a hard decision after last week’s E3 Prijs). Both stayed alert during the early sortings out on the Paterberg and Koppenberg climbs. Cancellara attacked on the Molenberg with 45 kilometers remaining to the finish – marking almost exactly the point at which the magical “final hour” of a bike race begins – and set the pair up to pick up a tailwind boost as the race turned southeast. Boonen followed with so little hesitation that many press outlets seem hesitant to assign the attack to one rider or the other, instead giving dual credit, and both favorites immediately began to work to build their advantage over the rest.

Everything from the start in Brugge up to that point of attack on the Molenberg – all that work to be in the right place, at the right time, with the right people? Though there’s a (high) minimum fitness level required to execute it, that’s all the tactics and teamwork of professional cycling. That’s all that stuff we like to rattle on about, entertaining each other and lulling outsiders into a dangerous state of combined boredom and loathing.

But past the Molenberg -- over the Leberg, Berendries, Tenbosse, Muur, Bosberg, and on into Meerbeke? That part of the race was all pure brute strength, the kind it doesn’t take a cyclist, a cycling fan, or a journalist to spot. Tactically, scientifically, and aerodynamically speaking, the larger group of very strong riders behind – names like Gilbert, Hincapie, Iglinsky, Langveld – should have been able to regain Boonen and Cancellara. But they couldn’t. Instead, Cancellara and Boonen continued to build their gap. And when Cancellara attacked again on the Muur, Boonen didn’t hesistate, didn’t let Cancellara go figuring his move was too far from the finish. Boonen didn’t make any sort of tactical or technical mistake, didn't misjudge or get caught asleep at the wheel – he simply couldn’t match Cancellara’s power. Nor could he recover and claw back anything on the Swiss over the Bosberg or on the flat run to the finish. From start to finish, Boonen rode a perfect race. Cancellara just rode a perfect race faster.

Sometimes, beaten riders subjected to press questions will cite little tactical issues that they credit with ultimately bringing about their demise – too far back on this climb, little team support here, followed the wrong wheel there. Again, it’s understandable. It is hard, and boring, to simply tell the assembled press that you just weren’t strong enough, and it’s easy and sounds more insightful to focus on all the times when a small mistake cost you. But those immediate post-race statements just tend to reinforce the poor but oft-stated metaphor that cycling is like a chess game. It isn’t. Nobody makes you get three quarters of the way through a chess game, and then arm wrestle to see who wins. So, tactics junkies, race analysts, and cocktail party bores, listen closely to what Tom Boonen had to say following his heartbreaking defeat at the hands of Cancellara:

“I was racing after him at 55 kilometers an hour, and he took a minute off me. What can I say? He was the strongest.”

Sometimes, losing is just that simple.


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