New Strategies Emerge After Time Trial

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In Stage 8 of the 2006 Tour de France, we saw the beginning of a strategy that is likely to be prevalent throughout the second week of racing. Today’s breakaway group contained Dave Zabriskie (CSC) and Matthias Kessler (T-Mobile), both of whom are sitting in the top 11 overall after Saturday’s time trial. Sending highly-placed riders up the road forces other teams to expend value energy setting a fast tempo on the front of the main field, as the Phonak team did today. In bike racing, such a strategy is a way of wearing down an opponent’s defenses so he’s more vulnerable to big attacks in the mountains.

For the Phonak team, it was a mistake to let the breakaway group go and gain several minutes on the peloton. Normally, the team with the yellow jersey would be tasked with setting the pace and containing the breakaway, but having a highly-placed T-Mobile rider in the group up the road negated the team’s incentive to chase. Similarly, the CSC team wasn’t going to chase because they had Zabriskie in the group. The sprinters’ teams, like Tom Boonen’s Quickstep squad and Robbie McEwen’s Davitamon-Lotto team, have been chasing breakaways all week and saw today’s situation as a chance to make someone else do the work. They’d help finish the job if someone else brought the gap down to two minutes or less, but until then, they were going to sit back and watch.

That left Phonak with the task of closing down a gap that had gotten out of control. Floyd Landis put his team on the front of the peloton for nearly 62 miles (100 kilometers) and slowly brought the gap down. The Française de Jeux and Lampre teams finally took over the work about 28 miles (45 kilometers) from the finish line, but the chase lacked the organization necessary to close down the gap. Fortunately, tactics in the front group split the breakaway group and both Zabriskie and Kessler sat up and waited for the field to catch them after Sylvain Calzati took off in pursuit of the stage victory.

Over the next few days, after tomorrow’s rest day, we’re likely to see more attacks from riders who are in the top 20 overall. With Landis looking like the man to beat so far, it’s in the other teams’ best interests to wear him and his teammates down as much as possible before the big mountains. As we’ve seen in the past few years, it can be a big advantage to have three to five teammates who can stay with a team leader all the way until the final climb of the day. If rival teams can exhaust some of Landis’s teammates, they may be able to isolate him in the high mountains and make him more vulnerable.

What’s Next? Phonak won’t be able to stop the breakaways from forming during Stage 9, but they need to be more attentive and quickly shut down any group containing riders high up in the overall classification. A group will certainly get away, and it will be a great opportunity for some of the teams with no overall contender in the race, like Agritubel, Bouygues Telecom, Milram, or Francaise Des Jeux to go for a stage win.

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