Monday, 19 March 2012

Milan-Sanremo - Eggs, baskets and tactics

Team Sky ready to roll at Milan-Sanremo

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Last Saturday we witnessed the first monument of the season unfold, la classica di Primavera. Just taste the word for a while, it carries memories from a past and promises to the future. It is a magnificent race and as the longest of the calendar as well as being a monument, it is a prestigious race to win.

Much have been written about Mark Cavendish, Team Sky's primary hope, since he got dropped 90 kilometers from the finish line. Almost too bad since I feel we all should write about Simon Gerrans and his brilliant win. His win was nothing short of impressive, Gerrans win proved he was the smartest rider, smartness triumphs strength any day.

Questions to ask
Over the years I have learned that "one never questions decisions taken in the heat of battle". One can bring them up when the timing is adequate, to study and to learn, but since we didn't have the shoes on at the time, who are we to judge?

However, the things we can question are tactics and strategy. Those are made prior to the race, making is easier for the roadcaptains and riders to act and react without always checking with the team car. Act upon intention, if you like.

Tactics are meant to maximize the team's strength and possibilities while at the same time reduce risk. Giving the riders and staff the comfort of having the upper hand is crucial. Tactics and planning should identify key terrain, address the team's advantages and make a systematic approach to gather and present the information surrounding a race. Another important issue is war-gaming or what-if's. Take a look what Petter Northug, x-country WC and Olympic champion said after winning the Worlds:
When the start signal goes, I feel prepared because I have done those 50 kms several hundred times before, going through every scenario possible in my mind.

Sessions like these are important to athletes. Being mentally prepared can make the difference between success and failure. Knowledge of training, nutrition and technology have been researched thoroughly over the recent years and information about these matters and training methods are merely a click away. One could say that this has levelled the battlefield for the riders, and the main difference that remains, is mental coaching.

Team Sky Saturday 17th of March
Two favourites for the race, how plan and create tactics to match both? As Steven De Jongh said to after the race, the team was supposed to ride primarily for Cav, if there was a minute or less gap at the Le Manie, the team would drop back and help Cav getting back to the bunch again. To me this is a strange tactic. Yes, the MSR was one of Cavendish' main goals for the season. Yes, Cav is lighter than last year and has shown good shape, but tactics are supposed to exploit possibilities, not minimizing them.

Eisel and Cav at ToQ  -  Cav, the season's long with many possibilities

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EBH, Sky's second favourite, was left with Löfquist, who did a good job bringing EBH to the front over the Cipressa and near the front on the Poggio. But still just one man in support.
To order the whole team back to help a rider showing weakness with seven more climbs 90 kilometers left, kind of limits your options, doesn't it?

I'm not in any position to say things would have been different if EBH got more support, I usually refrain from if’s and maybe’s, but I think it's a strange tactic by Team Sky. Eisel, Cav’s wingman explained what the team tried to do when bringing Cav to the peloton failed (via Velonation):
After speaking to him it was me who originally made the call for the guys to stop riding on the front of that chase group,” he said. “But then we changed our mind because if we got back on then it meant some of us could work for Edvald instead, so that's what we tried to do.”

One would expect Sky to learn from last tdf where the whole team was set up to bring Wiggo to the podium. We all know what happened to Wiggo, who unfortunately broke his collar but Team Sky had a great tdf without him. This shows the potential in this team. EBH nabbed two stages, G in white for days (losing it when the whole team waited for Wiggo), Uran in white for days too.

Cav was humble enough to let the team know he wasn't feeling too good on stage 3 of the Tirreno-Adriatico, giving EBH the chance to sprint for the win, so I believe Cav has a clear understanding of his capabilities and he has shown leadership before, taking care of his teammates.

Question is, to what extent do the management provide sufficient resources to other riders? Team Sky is a British team, with roots all the way back to BC and track. Is it more difficult to divide resources to others when you have the reigning WC onboard? As far as we know, Cav felt good right upon the beginning of the race, but tactics need to cover all aspects and be known in advance. 
Norwegian cycling experts have questioned on how much influence Brailsford and Ellingsworth had on Saturday's tactic. Of course, one could say Norwegians are biased in this matter as nationality goes, but questions like these do have a rightful place.

I hope to see a different set of tactics later in the season. Team Sky has such a strong roster that they have many cards to play. If a rider is given a protective status, perhaps it is better to have more than just one man in support. How will Team Sky solve tour de France?

There is nothing wrong in having options, to have the eggs in different baskets, you never know when you'll need them.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Milan-Sanremo - preparations meet tactics meet luck

La classica di Primavera

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On Saturday the 103rd edition of the Milan-Sanremo will take place, a race often referred to as "la classica di Primavera". I wrote a post last year including some of the race history, you can find that here

As the Italian name suggests, Spring is finally here, at least in countries close to the Mediterranean. At 298 kilometres long, Milan-Sanremo is the longest race in the season, normally the longest races don't cap 280 kilometres, like the worlds. Some have criticized the race for being boring with the action only taking place the last 20 kilometres with the Cipressa and Poggio as the ultimate pinnacles the riders deal with. I see this as a beautiful race going through a nice part of Italy. However, I can relate to the fact that the race is on fire the last 30 kms.

One for the sprinters?
The race is also called sprinters' classic but I find the race as not always living up to this name. It is difficult to pinpoint one single reason for this but 298 kilometres is very demanding any day of the week, not to mention this early in the season. The distance makes even the smallest climb difficult, which is why the Cipressa and/or Poggio often determine the winner or at least define the decisive break. Normally, the fastest sprinters doesn't win. Actually I don't like this term, as the fastest guy is the one to cross the finish line first, right? The ones who have prepared the best as well as being lucky, will be there in the final. Often those two go hand in hand, just read what Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian explorer, said about luck:

"Victory awaits him who has everything in order — luck, people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time; this is called bad luck."

Wide open for the opportunists
As I often repeat it is impossible to predict the future and guessing the winner is difficult. It is easy to name ten-fifteen riders who can be among the winners on a given day, but that does not impress anyone right? So let me just name some of the riders I expect to rock the race, and quite frankly, I see them all up there. But remember, this is racing and anything can happen. Last year Hushovd was in great shape but found himself caught behind a crash just before the Cipressa. I guess he won't be that far back on Saturday.

Ready for the long haul?

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I have narrowed it down to these five riders. There are many more, but what fun is it to mention they all? The list is based on form, capacity and former achievements. Of course, choice of tactic play a part here too.

Peter Sagan
Edvald Boasson Hagen
Oscar Freire
Fabian Cancellara
Tom Boonen

Tactics and strategy
How do you control all the different outcomes in a 298 km long race?

Normally a break takes off early, often gaining a significant lead. One thing is certain though, the ones in that breakaway will never make it to the finish line first. This Monument in cycling is so prestiguos to win that teams have brought their very best hoping to win, making sure a breakaway will not survive. The ones in this breakaway will be riders from teams getting a wildcard, who will honour the sponsors as well as the race itself by being in the front. Teams with a favourite might also sneak in a rider or two as well, for two reasons. 1) having an exuse not to use strength rallying the break in later 2) the possibility of having a rider up there who can provide cover if the lead man comes up or just to be a free asset.

The last 30 kms - who will be the strongest?

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Watch closely 10-15 kilometres or so prior to the Cipressa, riders slip backwards to get bottles and food from team cars, as well as receiving final advice/orders from the DSs. Some riders will try to help their leaders to the front in hope to avoid any chaos that might occure in the peloton. The sprinters will fight for their lives to stay near the front, to avoid sliding too far back on the climb. All this while the riders who picked up fluids and food try to make their way to the front to support to their leaders with some crucial food or drinks. The pro teams have own nutrition experts, like Team Sky's Nigel Mitchell, who have sorted a menu suited to each rider on every step of the way.
We'll have the usual attack on the Cipressa or the Poggio by Nibali and Garzelli or other punchy riders. In addition to this, the Italians will try to snatch a win on home soil. Count among them Pettachi, Viviani (evil tongues will say Sagan will ride him in like Nibali if he can) and Sacha Modolo, remember his 4th place last year?

Radioshack-Nissan could use Italian star Bennati or Fabian for a late attack whilst BMC could do the same with GVA or Gilbert.

The first of cycling's five monuments is here, and the strong men will battle it out. I'm excited to see how the different teams play their tactics. Having just one egg in the basket can bring a devostating result as the peloton is tired, teams not all that organised this early and everybody wants to secure a place in the spotlight. We will see if Roald Amundsen's words is valid still on Saturday.

Let's have a look at the frenzy in the last kilometres Milan-Sanremo 2011 where Matt Goss won.

Monday, 5 March 2012

AIGCP vs UCI - why confidence matters

JV talking to the press

photo downloaded here

Yesterday we saw the AIGCP (Association des Groupes Cyclists Professionels) has no confidence in the UCI leadership. AIGCP held a meeting in Paris on Friday, voting on different key subjects. The AIGCP is taking care of the pro teams interests and it not a small thing they are coming out like this in public.

Now, many would say that this is nothing new and it is not getting us anywhere since the UCI don't care what the teams think anyway. I beg to differ. This is a new twist to the ongoing "battle" between pro teams and the UCI. The AIGCP is an organisation which depends highly on who's leading it. Jonathan Vaughters is currently the president of the AIGCP and has been in fights with the UCI over several issues the last years. Remember the radio ban?

What is it about
I see this as a two-fold battle. Firstly it is about power. The AIGCP stated in a release to cyclingnews that the AIGCP is under-represented in the decision-making process pertinent to the sport of professional cycling. The AIGCP has tried to be more influential in pro cycling for a decade, gaining more influence could be a good thing but this is also about money, lots of money.

As AIGCP stated in that release, they represent 2000 employees and 321 million euros per year. They want a fair and equal say. Nothing wrong with that I suppose, although it isn't crystal clear to me exactly what the AIGCP want to do when/if they got it. Television revenues are important because the financial possibilities when it comes to attract sponsors has never been so hard. Cycling teams are mostly being run by former riders and it could be difficult to deal with the business aspect of managing a team. After all, there is nothing indicating that being a world class athlete makes you a world class manager. This is known as the Peter principle.

Being able to decide more of the structure of the World Tour is something I feel the teams should be able to do. After all, their sponsors are interested in getting their ROI, the team has a certain amount of riders and staff and do not want to travel the world on tights budgets and time schedules. Should teams make money or get their budget in zero?

To be able to decide more of the structure of the WT is something I feel the teams should be granted, as well as getting a fair share of the televsion revenues. However, I think the AIGCP could be more open to expressing what their intentions are beyond these matters, as they criticize the UCI for being "secretive" and closed.