When Team GB lined up at the start of the Olympic Cycling Road Race, the smart money was betting that by the last kilometer, they would have dragged back any breakaways in preparation for an all-out bunch sprint, giving Mark Cavendish a shot at a gold medal. Despite fielding a five man squad comprising the current Tour de France yellow jersey winner Brad Wiggins, second place man Chris Froome, British Road Champion Ian Stannard, and multiple Tour de France stage winner David Millar, alongside the prodigious Cavendish, himself a multiple stage and last year’s green jersey winner not to mention reigning World Champion, the smart money was sadly mistaken. Arguably, the outcome was always going to be out of their hands, not because of errors in team tactics, but because of the setup of the race itself.
Teams In Pro Cycling Races
In major professional road races, such as Le Tour, the teams often consist of nine riders, and usually an individual team will either be set up to support a sprinter (as was the case for Cavendish while riding for the now defunct Team HTC-Highroad); or it will be set up for a yellow jersey contender (as was the case in Team Sky for Bradley Wiggins). The rules for entry into pro races do vary however, and in the UCI World Road Racing Championships in Copenhagen in 2011, Team GB had eight riders. However, for the Olympic Road Race, each country was only allowed up to five riders. This was to have huge implications.
Carrying The Load And Controlling The Peloton
One of the trademark tactics of pro cycling is drafting, where riders will shield themselves in the slipstream of the man (or woman) in front. It is possible to save up to 30% of your energy expenditure by drafting, and of course, the guy up front bears the brunt of this as he is the one who has to push through the air to help his teammates behind. This tactic is used in both road and track cycling, and it is imperative even for amateur cycling club members to learn how to ride in a so-called paceline.While riding in the paceline, each rider will take his turn up front, allowing the other team members to get on his wheel, and continuing until the pace starts to drop through fatigue. The front man will then flick his elbow to signal the rider on his wheel to take over, allowing him to peel off and rejoin at the back to take a breather.The paceline technique works well for large teams of eight or nine, even over longer race distances. Keeping the pace high, by recycling around the paceline allows a strong team to keep control of the peloton, because it makes it more difficult for breakaways to occur – those that do break off the front are usually not all from the same team, and therefore often find it hard to cooperate effectively in order to keep the pace high and therefore survive off the front.The main problem for Team GB at the Olympics was the five man team ruling, as the plan was to use four of them to control the pace and breakaways, and allow Cavendish to rest in the wheels until needed for a sprint finish.
Large Breakaways And Lack Of Assistance In The Peloton
The Olympic Road Race was 250 kilometers in distance – longer than any of the stages in the Tour de France – and with only five men instead of eight or nine, the race setup itself meant that Team GB tactics, to a large degree, relied on the fact that other sprint teams would benefit by helping to spread the workload and pacing at the front of the peloton. This was to be the fatal flaw in the plan for GB, as nobody else was willing to help in a concerted way. The Germans played a tactical game of their own, putting a single team member at a time up front to help, hoping that the Brits would have blown up all their lead-out men by the time they reached the final kilometers. This would have allowed their sprinter Andre Greipel to take advantage and shoot for gold.In the event, two separate breakaway groups, none of which on their own posed a risk, eventually combined into a single large group, a minute off the front of the peloton. This became a far riskier proposition, because a larger group can work together more effectively, and they held the gap at 60 seconds for most of the rest of the race. The German and Australian teams – both of whom had good sprinters – held back to see if Team GB could claw back the leading group, but with a few kilometers to go Froome and Millar had dropped back, having burned out from the monumental exertions of the previous 245 kilometers.It was at this point that the Germans realized that “grupo compacto” was not going to happen, and it was all over for their man Greipel – no sprint finish.
The Race To The Finish
As became evident in the Women’s Road Race, just like the Men’s, the Olympic race was designed to favor the cut and thrust of the opportunistic breakaway riders. It makes for an exciting race for spectators, and although it meant the British men were to make no impact on their race, the British women had Lizzie Armitstead, who learnt the lesson and peeled off the front in a splinter group of just three, and she took silver medal behind the favorite Marianne Vos.In the event for the men, it was Alexandr Vinokurov who flew home for gold, followed by Rigoberto Uran. These two riders broke from the leading group and took advantage of confusion in the chasing pack and their unwillingness to work with each other.
There are two main morals to the story:1. Team tactics count for nothing if you don’t have enough team members for the whole course and need the cooperation of other – sometimes unwilling – teams;2. Worrying about getting beaten into silver medal position by the World Champion counts for nothing if you don’t even get grupo compacto to set up a bunch sprint!
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