Race tactics in cycling – part 1

July 22, 2011

You’ve seen it all before: One team at the front in a mountain stage, keeping the pace high while the pack behind them is reduced to the 30-40 strongest in the race. Then the team leader places his decisive move on the final climb and wins.

HOWEVER: Which team is the team leader on? Does the work from the team increase the chances of their own leader of his competition? The speed is the same for everybody, does it matter if the pace is set by a guy in a blue or a red jersey? Cycling seems to believe it does, and obviously all the years that the team was Postal/Discovery and the team leader was Lance, it would seem to be the case. But does anybody really believe Lance rode away from his rivals because it was his teammates setting the tempo instead of Ulrich’s teammates?

The Tour de Suisse 2011 saw Leopard setting tempo “Postal-style” perfectly putting Frank Schleck in position with 5km to go. Then all his rivals proceeded to ride away from him. To Plateau de Beille, Leopard once again set the pace, and once again nothing happened on the climb. And why would it? While Andy sits comfortably at the end of his train, Contador sits comfortably behind him.

If you’re having a really lousy day, having your team set a tempo you can deal with, while dissuading another team from setting a higher tempo would be a good idea. But “making the race hard for others” also makes it hard for yourself and is hardly a tactic. This fact remains intact even if one of these stages a team sets tempo and their leader wins. Wasting your team like that doesn’t help, but it doesn’t prevent you from making a winning move either.

Note: I wrote this on Tuesday, so who knows what happened in the Alps. But it doesn’t matter, the facts remain even if somebody by chance “finishes off the beautiful work by his team”.

10 Responses to “Race tactics in cycling – part 1”

  1. DocTour Says:

    Hi. I think maybe they feel they have the strongest team, and by keeping a high tempo they can get rid of the teammates of the contenders. Less teammates to help on the last climb, means you have to work harder yourself. So the high tempo is not to get the GC contenders exhausted, but to get the “helpers” tired. (more tired than your own “helpers”). Could that be the reason?

  2. Bill Says:

    i think the reasons are at least two-fold. First, as the commentor above mentioned, it gets rid of all of the pretenders and leaves only the strongest to battle for the win. The second reason I think is psychological, especially if the team setting the tempo at the front is very strong. It sends a message to the other contenders that you’ve got good legs and that you and your team are both a force to be recockoned with and ready to control the race.


    • Yes, it weeds out the pretenders, but so what? The pretenders are only pretending anyway, they were never a real threat. The only difference is that the pretenders drop off a few k sooner. And anybody who drops off while Jens Voigt is setting tempo is so far into pretender-land and so far removed from being a contender, he’s not worth worrying about (no offense to Jens, but you know what I mean, he cannot come within 30min of winning the Tour, so any team leader he eliminates was never a serious threat).


  3. And with US Postal, they bought the services of many of their would be rivals over the years, putting them in the USPS jersey. Having very strong teammates (podium contenders) working on your behalf is likely to not only weed out your rivals team members, but can wear on the team leaders as well.

    In general, you need to believe that you are stronger than your rivals, and that you will save more energy then them.

  4. Ruskie Joe Jo Says:

    Crashes. Lance had a strong team, strong mind, and strong body. A big part of his 7 successes was that he rarely crashed. I’ll assign 20% of his success being due to his team keeping him at the front and out of crashes when it was most important, when he was riding in a big peloton.

    With the whole team at the front, at worst, with a strong team, they stay out of crashes. At best, they stay out of crashes, control the race, and thin the crowd out.

    Alberto showed what happens when your team isn’t strong enough to keep you on the front. Eventually, it catches up with you.

    Can someone tell me what Internet site gives the best English language TV coverage for cycling? It can be a pay site.


    • While this is certainly true in the first week during the flat stages, it has little effect in the mountain stages. If you have six domestiques at the front followed by their team leader, who in turn has his biggest rival directly on his wheel, then the latter has basically the same ride, effort and risk as the team leader who is burning through his six helpers.

  5. Andrew Says:

    The strategy worked for Armstrong’s teams because his teams were so dominant. No teams are anywhere close to this level because none of the rider is nearly as dominant, so none can attract the level of team.


    • I think it worked because ARMSTRONG was so strong. Does anybody really think that if those 8 domestiques had ridden exactly the same way with a T-Mobile jersey on, Ullrich would have won the Tour from 99-05?

  6. johnny Says:

    i have been thinking about your june 29 entry (Tour excitement?) now that we are mostly there. I was right with you – so-so excitement level for the tour, especially after the Giro.

    What is best about bicycle racing (and for the industry) is that at some level, we can all relate to the images on the tv if you participate in the sport. Over the last decade, the tour has become harder to relate to as the ‘super’ human and highly calculated solutions have taken away most of what we can relate to – none of us Sunday racers could pull off a victory in the first third of a race or dance away from the pack as has been happening. All this has happened at a time time when access to professional level equipment has reached an all time high (by the way can’t wait to get the new RS i just ordered).

    For whatever reason this tour has brought back so many things most of us can really relate to:

    Crashes – oh, than never happens in my cat 3 races!
    The smile on Thors face as he crossed the line – yes, we all wished for that moment.

    DZ – more worried about the next race than the body damage

    Thor and Ryder – yes, the town line sprint is more important than you winning your first stage in the TDF. I don’t care if we are on the same team, i am World Champion!

    Thomas V. – Reminds me of the new guy that shows up at the local race and mixes up the general understanding all the “usual” have with each other.

    The “big” moves from andy and alberto working when everyone knew going in that they would come but cold not do anything about it.

    Ryder, Tom, Christian – always pumping away and in it.

    Alberto, Andy, Frank bonk – oh, than never happens to me!

    Cadel – proving that it is always best to not panic.

    if they were handing out Jagermeister shots at the top of the climbs, i would have sworn it was a cross race in Seattle.

    In the end, I have been loving all of this, and relating more than ever. It is nice to get away from formula wins and wake up each day wondering what will happen

    Hoping that we are getting back to the real human era!

  7. Rowan Says:

    I can see an advantage to it being your guys on the front, that being that they do what you want. I think everyone will acknowledge that to beat some people you want to hold a high steady tempo, and to beat other people you want to just give them a whole lot of short sharp hits until they fail to respond to one and then you take the gap you just gained and try to ride away. So depending on who you are racing against it pays to get the guys on the front to ride in a specific way, and the easiest way to ensure that is for them to be being paid to support you, and not the guy you are racing against. Also, if they are working for you then they should be reacting to how both you and the guy you are racing against seem to be performing. But I agree it often doesn’t actually matter that much.


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