July 4, 2012

The approach displayed by Sky and Wiggins in the run-up to the Tour has been the target of much criticism. Too calculated, too robotic, etc. And to be sure, Sky’s approach of “marginal gains” involves leaving no stone unturned. But to pooh-pooh the approach and say Wiggins is boring and should be attacking in the mountains as if he’s a Colombian climber is misplaced.

Let’s first look at the race strategy of having your teammates set a steady pace while you follow. Maybe it’s not as exciting as attacking the climbs and trying to drop everybody, but that’s not Wiggins’ fault. It’s quite simple, the climbers yo-yo up  the climbs with one main objective; to crack riders like Wiggins.

So it would be rather dumb to ask of Wiggins to crack himself. He, like Evans, is at his best when he rides a steady pace. Maybe that’s “boring”, but it’s how he makes the most of his abilities and to do anything else makes no sense.

Looking at Sky’s approach as a whole, much has been made of their preparation, their incessant testing and their team of coaches, psychologists, course investigators and tire sniffers. But I would make two comments on that:

  1. It’s not that different from the approach that several teams take.
  2. If you had an ex-pursuiter as your main ace to win the Tour, what approach would you take? Just wing it, or try to control everything you can? Preparing a rider for the Tour is not about what “the best absolute approach” is. Rather, it’s about what the best approach for a specific rider is. And for Wiggins, it is very well possible that he derives comfort and confidence from a very structured approach. Does this mean Wiggins will win? No, but it probably means he’s got a better chance this way than by just winging it.

That said, I think these over-structured approaches do backfire spectacularly from time to time, as the structure can also drive somebody crazy. And of course, when you try to do things a bit differently (or at least talk about them more than other teams), you’re bound to be criticized.

It also means that when it goes wrong, we’ll certainly see a lot of ridicule (“that aero helmet didn’t save him from crashing into that cow”). Sky knows like no other that you cannot control everything (just think back 12 months), but should you therefore give up on controlling anything? Given the rider they have, I think the answer is no.

15 Responses to “Skybotics”

  1. Skip Says:

    I agree that it is a boring strategy, but proven effective in all racing sports. Like him or hate him, Lance used that to “own” the tour during his run, Michael Schumacher did the same in F1 for years… Unfortunately, nobody has convinced Voekler of this yet (which is awesome)!

  2. John S Says:

    Sky believe they are max’ing chance of winning. As such it makes sense to continue status quo. However are they sacrificing flexibility? Wiggins has problems…what is the protocol? How is Sky then placed?

    The Tour would be compomised if many
    adopted Sky strategies. We are fortunate that BMC, with a similar rider appear to have adopted a more “flamboyant” strategy.

    • Craig Says:

      If Froome’s form is anything like it was in the Vuelta last year he could easily become their GC rider if Wiggins has a problem.

  3. Sime Says:

    I would much prefer that someone with a bit more daring takes the win. Someone with the balls out attitude and antics of Morkov or the swashbuckling but lonesome sprints of Cav. Wiggins is boredom personified. However, if his team have the same level of competency as his hairdresser he has zero chance anyway.

    • Of course everybody has their favorites and riding style plays a big role in that. That’s how it should be, all I want to say is that you can’t fault somebody to play to his strength, even if one finds those strengths are a bit boring.

  4. hgjohn Says:

    Piss poor preparation = piss poor performance. Nothing wrong with Sky trying to control the controlables. I’d disagree with Wiggins being boring (what about his massive solo break in 2009? Or was it ’07). The bottom line is he doesn’t have the ability to do the sharp accelarations in the mountains that some have so they need to come up with a strategy that suits his style of riding.

  5. hgjohn Says:

    Incidentally, calling Cadel Evans “flamboyant” is somewhat ironic since he has been subject to similar criticisms as Wiggins has been getting for years.

    • John Siviour Says:

      Yes there was “some” irony. And the “flamboyance” is only comparative, that is, nothing compared to, say, Marco Pantani.

  6. Bob Says:

    one thing I never understand, why would you need team mates to pace you in the mountain???

    • John Siviour Says:

      Except on steep gradients there is still significant drafting advantage to have someone in front pacing you.

      Regardless of drafting effects, there is the psychological assistance of being there, having a team mate setting a pace consistent with your capabilities.

  7. John Siviour Says:

    There is a growing difficulty/dimension that cycling stakeholders might consider.

    Cycling like most sports is increasingly an entertainment industry. To appeal to the growing audience the desires of the (especially the novice) audience need to be considered.

    I submit that the sport as such needs the attacking rider to maintain the interest of the novice viewer. A swag of “robotic” teams, with a calculated “metronome” strategy would kill the “golden goose”. Luckily there is significant variety in the peloton…however I would deplore a significant minority of “robotic” teams.

    I am glad the maillot Jaune in not currently on BW’s shoulders as we might be viewing a “robotic” dance :).

  8. John Siviour Says:

    While Brad Wiggins and Cadel Evans may be regarded as the least entertaining GC riders (and Denny Menchov might join that clique), I foresee an intriguing battle. Hopefully it appeals to the majority of viewers.

    The above three, need to minimize losses on the mountains. The GC climbers need to attack on the mountains to redress the individual time trial (ITT) ability of the three. All the while the GC climbers and the above three need to put time into the respective members of their “own clique”.

    So the mountains should be an intriguing battleground on both the ascents and the (technical esp) descents. I foresee figurative carnage.

    The ITTs will be a more clinical/dispassionate conflict and all will need to have put time into Brad, against the significant possibility of his convincing superiority..

  9. Peter Says:

    Excellent post as always, Gerard. I am particularly curious about the mental effects the Sky strategy will have on BW. I remember reading a few weeks ago that BW said that while the ‘new training regiment’ (of being at 90% all season long) was paying off physically in terms of wins, it was incredibly tough mentally. It would be interesting to see how long Sky can stretch that elastic.

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