– By Chris Carmichael –
Stage 14 came very close to being a perfect day for Columbia HTC. If the results were just a little bit different, I could easily be writing a story about a team that put Hincapie in the yellow jersey and widened Cavendish’s lead in the green jersey competition. Instead, George missed out on the jersey by just five seconds, and Cavendish scored no points at the finish line because the officials relegated him to the back of the group for obstructing Thor Hushovd’s path to the finish line.
So close: Hincapie’s day in the break carried him painfully close to yellow.
I would have loved to see George Hincapie capture the yellow jersey today, and I know many fans and other riders would have as well. Had the breakaway been approaching the finish line with a 10-minute advantage, Columbia’s strategy would have been straightforward. They would have committed to a full-throttle leadout for Mark Cavendish in hopes that he would win the race for 13th place and collect some more points in the green jersey competition.
But the lead coming into the final 10 kilometers was hovering right around the tipping point for George to capture or miss out on the yellow jersey, and that leads to a dilemma for a team manager. Do you run a full-throttle leadout to enhance your chances of achieving a long-range goal, or put that priority aside and do what you can to slow the chase – or at least not contribute to making it faster – in pursuit of a short-term benefit? It’s a difficult decision to make, and whichever way you go, it’s even more difficult for the riders to successfully follow through on it. There’s only so much you can control within a bike race, especially in the final few kilometers when it’s a flat run to the finish.
So far: Hushovd lets Cavendish know what he thinks about ‘blocking’, and the officials agreed, sending Cav to the back.
This isn’t the first time – nor will it be the last – that a team has to make tough decisions. It actually happens quite frequently. It’s not uncommon for a rider in a breakaway to be asked to sacrifice a possible stage win because it’s necessary that he drop back and support a team leader. Remember last year in the Tour when Garmin-Slipstream’s Ryder Hesjedal was in a breakaway on Stage 16? He was in the group that would eventually contain the stage winner, Cyril Dessel, but his team leader, Christian Vande Velde, lost contact with the yellow jersey group before the summit of the Bonnett-Restefond climb. Ryder had to all but stop on the road and wait for Vande Velde, and once his leader reached him, he rode flat-out in an effort to get Vande Velde back into the yellow jersey group. In the end, despite their best efforts, Vande Velde crashed on the descent and lost a few minutes on the other yellow jersey contenders. As with Columbia today, Garmin probably made the “correct” choice on the road during Stage 16 last year, but making the right choice doesn’t always mean you’re going to be successful.
There’s a lot of second-guessing and name-calling going on tonight, but what’s important to take away from today’s stage is that every decision, from the beginning of the race to the very end, influences the outcome. Five seconds over the course of 124 miles is nothing, and everything. It’s impossible to scan through the footage of Stage 14 and say, “Right there. That’s why the peloton finished five seconds faster than it should have/could have.” If you’re involved in cycling long enough, you will eventually be on both sides of a narrow margin of victory. When it goes your way, it’s a huge thrill. When it doesn’t, it’s a crushing way to lose. But don’t forget, at the Tour de France, one team’s misfortune is almost always a benefit to someone else. After all, Team Katusha can now say they’ve justified their admission to the Tour as a wildcard team, and there are a bunch of French cycling fans who are thrilled that Rinaldo Nocentini is still in the yellow jersey.
• Chris Carmichael has been Lance Armstrong’s coach for 20 years and is the founder of Carmichael Training Systems (CTS). Chris’s newest book, “The Time Crunched Cyclist: Fit, Fast, and Powerful in 6 Hours a Week” has just been released and signed copies are available at www.trainright.com. There you can also get information on CTS’ Create Your Own Comeback program, the free Do the Tour…Stay at Home™ training program, and the free CTS Tour de France Newsletter. You should also follow Chris on Twitter.