There have been some strange goings-on in pro cycling recently, with domestiques usurping team leaders, and team leaders doing grunt work for lesser teammates. From the outside, it looks like traditional hierarchies are being turned upside down, but these counter-intuitive developments are not as unusual as they appear.
The recent trend of helpers getting the upper hand on their team leaders began just over 18 months ago at the 2011 Vuelta a Espaa when Chris Froome suddenly emerged as a Grand Tour contender by beating teammate Brad Wiggins in the long mid-race time trial and moving into the overall race lead. That situation flummoxed their Team Sky directors, who had to rethink their pre-programmed strategy. They were too slow to react, and when they finally released Froome from his domestique duties he didnt have enough favorable stages to catch the new race leader, Spanish upstart Juan Jos Cobowho eventually won that Vuelta by 13 seconds from Froome, with Wiggins a distant third.
Its easy to understand sponsors wanting their highly paid team leaders to win the biggest races, thus gaining the maximum publicity and making the most of their investments. That was a factor in the continued blurring of lines between leader and lieutenant at Team Sky in last years Tour de France. And had Froome not flatted at a critical point on the first stage and conceded a minute-and-a-half to all the pre-race favorites, his stage win on the first summit finish (at La Planche des Belles Filles) would have seen him pulling on the yellow jersey and not Wiggins.
That would have recreated a Vuelta-type situation, and who knows what would have happened next. Thats why Team Sky management was so unhappy at the end of the first mountain stage in the Alps when Froome accelerated on the climb to La Toussuire (ostensibly, to gain time on second-placed Cadel Evans and close down an attack by challenger Vincenzo Nibali), but in the process he dropped his team leader. Froome was told to take his foot off the throttle and return to help Wiggins, but it was clear that the British team didnt want to consider any changes in its all for Wiggo strategy.
Interestingly, a similar everyone behind the team leader policy was being threatened at BMC Racing, the pelotons other big-budget team, on that same alpine stage. First, on the steepest part of the Col du Glandon, 60 kilometers from the finish, BMC tried a 1-2 attack with defending Tour champion Evans and teammate Tejay Van Garderen. It was an attempt to disrupt Team Skys hegemony, but the tactic misfired when Evans couldnt follow Van Garderens elevated climbing pace, and the American twice had to slow down before their move ended after 15 minutes of intense riding.
Evans paid for that effort on the climb to the finish of La Toussuire, where the Australian star fell off the pace and Van Garderen had to drop back and help his leader. Without the 1:26 conceded there, Van Garderen would have finished fourth overall (not fifth) in Parisand its possible the young American could have even challenged Nibali for the podium without his domestique duties for Evans, who would end up seventh in the final standings.
Its very unlikely that BMC will have any hierarchy problems at this years Tour, starting on June 29. Thats because both Evans and Van Garderen look like both being at the top of their form and in a position to support each other when needed. Evans, whose below-par 2012 performance was due to illness, showed hes returning to his best form by placing third at last months Giro dItalia. And Van Garderen is on a roll after winning the Amgen Tour of California.
This week, Van Garderen has shown great strength at the Tour de Suisse, by riding hard on the climbs to help his veteran Swiss teammate Mathias Frank take and defend the yellow jersey. Thats another apparent leader-domestique conflict, but it has been smart riding by the young American, who was greatly assisted by Frank in California and can also rely on Franks help at the Tour.
There were, unusually, several other examples of this leader-lieutenant dynamic at work in last weeks Critrium du Dauphin. After Saxo-Tinkoffs race favorite Alberto Contador did a poor time trial he unflinchingly helped his better-placed Australian teammate Michael Rogers stay in contention for the third podium spot (which he conceded on the very last climb of the final stage to Katusha Teams Dani Morenowho was greatly assisted by his slow-to-find-to-form team leader Joaquim Rodriguez).
Over at Team Sky, we saw race leader (and eventual winner) Froome pacing Aussie teammate (and race runner-up) Richie Porte on several climbs in an attempt to land Porte a stage win. That didnt happen, but Froomes efforts did guarantee that hell get unstinting support from Porte in the upcoming Tour.
As for the other main Dauphin favorite, Andrew Talansky of Garmin-Sharp, he quickly fell out of contention with a stomach virus. But that didnt stop the American from doing super-domestique duty for teammate Rohan Dennis after the young Australian (yes a third Aussie!) took the overall lead in the time trial. Dennis inevitably lost the yellow jersey to a seemingly unbeatable Froome; but Talansky impressively turned around his form by the final stage when he was the only rider to chase down and finish with Froome at the summit finish in Risoul.
This past weeks benevolent team leaders Froome, Talansky, Contador, Rodriguez and Van Garderen all go into this years Tour as main contenders (along with Evans and Garmins Ryder Hesjedal, who unfortunately crashed out of the Tour de Suisse on Monday but says hell be back in shape for the Tour).
Many say that, because illness and injury is preventing Wiggins from defending his title, this Tour is custom made for Froome. Indeed, without the potential disruption of an explosive co-leadership with his fellow Brit, Froome appears to be headed toward a victory as convincing as those hes already snared this year at the Tour of Oman, Critrium International, Tour de Romandie and the Dauphin. But in the uncertainty of a race as long and varies as the Tour, nothing can be taken for granted. Not even those leader-lieutenant relationships that look so good on paper.
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