Three Stooges Syndome

Apr 5 2011

Girona Training camp by Team Garmin-CerveloIt’s always a little uncomfortable to tell professionals in the cycling world that they’re “doing it wrong”. After all, I can sit here with limited talent and no experience and say pretty much anything I want and face no repercussions—I don’t even have to worry about offending a sponsor or future stonewalling from press agents.

That said, Garmin-Cervelo is doing it wrong.

It doesn’t have much to do with their Flanders performance. The squad has taken an inordinate amount of heat for a radio conversation that at the time made plenty of tactical sense. In fact, it even turned out to be the winning decision, just for another team—and that’s kind of my point.

Garmin-Cervelo’s strategy of “letting the road decide the leader” doesn’t really work in cycling. It’s an attractive, ego-friendly dictum, and you can find it munging things up at pretty much any level of the sport. Go to a local race, watch the team riding like nonsense, and I can all but guarantee that their “plan” going in was to “see what happened” and “let the race decide”.

At the pro level, it tends to be a mark of deep intra-squad strife, or at the very least, poor organization. I will admit that keeping two riders in decent GC shape at a three-week Grand Tour makes a bit more sense, as it can be good insurance, and also an important strategic lever.

But as the classics have no GC competition, “race-determines-leader” seldom ends well. A semi-protected lieutenant placing in the second group brings no advantage to the next race. Similarly, if your leader crashes and falls off the pace, he or she begins at square one with every other rider the next weekend. Yes, the chances are higher of disaster striking a given rider at the classics, but the numerous clean-slate restarts throughout the spring make the risk worthwhile.

Plus, there are some practical concerns. When the peloton lines-out in a classic, over narrow streets, surfaces with maybe one rideable line, and up grades where any hesitation or mishap means missing a critical selection, there’s no time to democratically work out which rider sits on and which rider pulls. There’s even less room to let “the road” determine leadership by having two teammates fight for a single opening. If both riders are strong, one should be protecting space, eating wind, or pushing the pace to the advantage of the other; otherwise, it becomes a literal case of Three Stooges Syndrome:


Finally, you only get to put eight riders on the start line at most big one-days. With three leaders, you’ve only got five support riders. With three of those riding as “bodyguards”, that leaves two guys to chase, get bottles, cover breaks, and cover all the other intangibles that make the sport so interesting. Over an au bloc 260km effort, those two domestiques simply aren’t going to get the job done.

It’s tough to claim that Garmin-Cervelo currently packs a more star-studded line-up than the Mapei or Domo Farm-Frites teams of the 90s-00s. Yet rare were the moments where Patrick Lefevere had to explain to the press why his superteam wasn’t winning. Sure, there was the occasional gripe from a slighted rider after a pre-arranged finish order, but for the most part, the order went out, the squad closed ranks, and the wins rolled in.

Patrick Lefevere at Dwars Door Vlaanderen by Cindy TrossaertThe commitment is total, as Paolo Bettini’s memories of the 2000 Liege, or scenes of a yellow-clad Victor Hugo Pena dropping back to get bottles, can attest. The director says “today, we ride for Hushovd” and everyone else, because they’re pros, says “yes, directore“. It’s a unfair system, prone to politics and unfriendly to careers, but it also wins bike races. Prize money isn’t split to reward effort; it’s done to suppress dissent.

And I think this hesitation to enforce top-down authority is at the root of Garmin-Cervelo’s problem. You’ve got JV saying things like “when you have two riders and one says he doesn’t have it, what can you do?” The answer is nuke the guy who doesn’t have it to put the guy who does in a position to win. Many pixels have been scattered about how agreeable things are between Garmin’s stars, but to my mind, that’s more reason for Vaughters to stand up and say “today, you are the man”. Set the heirarchy from the start and no one wastes time wondering whose bottles to tote.

Obviously, it’s tough to choose between riders who are all on-form, but much like barking an order over the radio, deciding a pre-race leader does not translate directly into outcome. Servais Knaven didn’t win Roubaix because he was protected—he won because Lefevere told him “get to the front or die trying so we can smash Hincapie“.

Knaven did his job, and as luck would have it, his attack turned out to be the winning move. Similarly, Stijn Devolder’s back-to-back winning solos at Flanders were designed to take the pressure off the squad, and leave more riders to look after the real leader, Tom Boonen. Pozzato’s win at Sanremo, Burghardt’s Gent-Wevelgem—plenty of riders have had their day working to the advantage of a teammate.

On paper, Gamin-Cervelo is almost custom-tailored for Roubaix. But every time they split resources between riders, they get half as good. This Sunday, they need to pick one guy, put everything behind him, and never look back. In a sport where the road will always have its say in determining a winner, a team focus on a single leader will always be the best bet. If you don’t believe me, just ask Bjarne Riis and Nick Nuyens.

35 Responses to “Three Stooges Syndome”

  1. nick April 5, 2011 at 11:53 am #

    Luckily, Garmin would be insane to do anything but support Thor 100% at P-R this weekend. Farrar and Haussler – if both are even riding – have no claim to leadership.

    I’ve heard public comments from Haussler and JV acknowledging as much.

  2. Chris April 5, 2011 at 12:02 pm #

    Cosmo -

    First off, I totally agree with you that Garmin-Cervelo are a huge dissapointment. But I don;t think you give JV enough “credit” for his team’s lackluster performance in RVV.

    How can you say on one hand that holding Farrar, Hushovd and Haussler back was the right tactical move, and then ALSO say that when one guy doesn’t have it, you nuke him to move someone else up? If Hushovd was on an off day, why not have him bury himself on the front to pull back what he could and deliver Haussler and Farrar to the front of the race? We’ll never know what might have happened, but if the group came back together just a couple of km earlier, a sprinter like Farrar, Haussler, or Boonen could have changed the day’s outcome.

    BMC didn’t ride for 3rd place – they almost single handedly brought it all back together – and with a little more road might have gotten Ballan into a winning/podium position. The added oomph of Hushovd (even on an off day) really might have changed things.

    End of the day, JV’s “just stop riding” was a spineless move.

  3. A April 5, 2011 at 12:35 pm #

    Cosmo – great blog – I really enjoy your insight and commentary.

    I think Vaughters is stuck in a stage-racer’s mentality (and he had most success as a stage-racer). In his pre-Flanders video on cyclingnews, he said the best place to be when Cancellara attacks is “on his wheel”. That’s a great strategy to limit losses, but not one if you’re willing to take a risk and go for the win. If we ignore Cancellara’s cramping, Chavanel raced the best race against a clear and strong favourite – attack before he does and make him respond to you (and get up the road before he puts in an attack you can’t follow).

    I think the stage-racer’s mentality is a bit of the curse of the North American bike racer. We’ve spent too many years watching Lance defend and TT his way to the Tour title. The average North American rider doesn’t understand one-day bike races or one-day tactics. Hopefully, the Taylor Phinney’s and other attackers like Ben King along with some great one-day races in Quebec, will change that mentality.

  4. DJ April 5, 2011 at 1:12 pm #

    Chavanel was one podium spot shy of a win as well racing for another leader – and Lefevere. I was a bit surprised that one of the stronger Garmin-Cervelo lieutenants, Roger Hammond, was sacrificed in the first, doomed, breakaway that is meant for smaller teams that want to give their sponsor some tv-time.

  5. nick April 5, 2011 at 1:13 pm #

    Chris,

    Haussler had been dropped from the group long ago. JV only had Farrar and Hushovd in that group. JV said that neither felt good. When the race came back together, Farrar didn’t have the legs to make the move and Hushovd was even further back. What do you think would have happened if one of them chased as well?

    It’s a terrible sound bite, but Garmin’s race was over at that point. JV was smart – save your legs in case the gods of cycling bring the race back together.

  6. tomsescu April 5, 2011 at 1:13 pm #

    One more point – Garmin’s best win of the season? Husvod leading out Farrar in Tirreno.
    And regarding The Decision – JV was absolutely correct, only way to win was to enter last 2-3k with Farrar and Husvod; with one leading out the other (Boonen would for sure have a lead out and would be hard to beat without a lead out).

    BTW what do you say about Boonen’s sprint? He left the group at 3 secs. Impressive or what?

  7. JustJoshinYa April 5, 2011 at 1:18 pm #

    Totally agree. Look at BMC. They were loaded with talent, but when it came time for a team to go after Cance/Chava, only BMC had the numbers to do it and it happened. And, they’re leader Ballan never took a pull. Sure, he did not happen to win the day, at least BMC left Flanders looking like a team.

    One leader, one LT (and send him up the road to make the others work), and everyone else work. No questions.

  8. Cillian Kelly April 5, 2011 at 1:32 pm #

    The wait-and-see and let-the-road-decide approach, for me, doesn’t work in the classics and you’ve alluded to the reason without explicitly spelling it out.

    In a Grand Tour you have a couple of weeks to figure out who is strongest, in a classic you have a couple of hours. By which time it my too late to affect any sort of team tactics on the race that you might like.

    In my opinion, Vaughters needs to absolutely decide before a race who is the unquestionable leader and who is the backup.

    But then again, maybe he has done that in private, and has cited the let-the-road-decide approach in public so as not to reveal plans to rivals, and the road just hasn’t been kind.

    I suppose only the team themselves know, and aren’t likely to tell us.

  9. tomsescu April 5, 2011 at 2:46 pm #

    Plus why is everybody criticizing JV, and nobody mentions Quick Step ordering Chavanel not to ride with Cancellara? That in retrospect, could even be a wrong move…

  10. SvelteSoutherner April 5, 2011 at 3:05 pm #

    How can you say they have ‘stooges syndrome’ when none of them have the form to make the final group? They followed wheels all day and still could not make the race. Garmin simply does not have the form to play ball right now. If they were flying and still losing races you might have a point. But there are 20 guys going better than them right now.

  11. Matt April 5, 2011 at 8:08 pm #

    Maybe you can teach Neal Rogers a thing or two about racing! Vaughters was all annoyed the Thor ‘didn’t have it’ and Haussler was not up to snuff…so why not put them on the front for what they COULD do? Thor (who was in my pre race top 3) had enough to KILL IT before the Leberg…take that effort and parse it out over a 5-10m chase and maybe you have Cancellara back before the Muur? Similarly Maaskant is certainly at a level to be of service at the front earlier. Sitting and waiting didn’t seem like a good plan then or now….

  12. Matt April 5, 2011 at 8:11 pm #

    My sincere apologies to Neal Rogers…it was Neal Browne on the versus blog all atwitter (pun intended) that Vaughters was being called out for his lethargy

  13. m April 6, 2011 at 11:16 am #

    Maybe the race would have come back together better if Thor had helped out BMC by pulling hard and burning himself out with some heavy pulling. Farrar would have been a slight favorite in the reduced field sprint even without a leadout man one would think.

  14. Guy April 6, 2011 at 2:19 pm #

    If we are to believe JV, though, Thor didn’t have it – so it was difficult to put him on the front and ‘nuke’ him as he might not have been very effective. Maybe it was worth a try, but JV (and presumably V Pete agreed with him) followed the tactic book to the letter – let a stronger team pull it back, which was almost successful.

    Overall, though, Cosmo, nice analysis of the bigger picture and the difficulty of keeping multiple favorites at the front. Tough call for P-R, though, as Thor is in theory the rider to support, but does he really have the form right now. Maybe Tyler would be a better choice (although we’ll see after today’s crash). We might be in for a surprise, as you suggest, if Garmin can get some riders up the road early.

  15. Erik April 6, 2011 at 3:22 pm #

    Nice analysis, Cosmo. Vaughters is openly exasperated with his riders’ form, but has yet to question his own tactics. It seems like he may have an allegiance to Farrar, his most prolific race winner for the last several years. In the spring classics you have to smash the competition, not minimize the damage during the race hoping to tow your fast guy to the line (though it helps if your leaders are fast). In my opinion Farrar, not only has no claim to leadership in in Roubaix, he had no claim to it in MSR or Flanders.

    How do you think Garmin’s tactics differ from Cervelo’s in 2009 that the leadership condundrum has been so detrimental this year? Perhaps the form of JV’s riders is a major factor? If your best rider is a Grand Tour sprint stage also-ran, you don’t have much hope in the classics.

  16. Wil April 6, 2011 at 6:23 pm #

    JV’s boyish allegiance to Farrar is hurting the team. He’s a stage sprinter, not a classics hardman. I predict you’ll see Hushovd sign with a different team next year—where he’ll be properly supported as he was on Cervelo TT, where he had brilliant results. A lot of internet cycling pundits are talking about JV being a brilliant tactician… huh? Has anyone seen the latest Beyond The Peloton episode? His schpeel to the team is uninspired and without insight. I miss Cervelo. Argyle is over.

  17. Erik April 6, 2011 at 11:28 pm #

    Wil,
    I felt the same way after watching beyond the peloton right before I posted.

  18. Larry T. April 7, 2011 at 10:10 am #

    It’s obvious JV needs help with the one-day race tactics. So far no replacement for White’s racecraft in the car. But this points out the radio issue — do none of these riders have enough racecraft in their head to decide among themselves what to do and simply ignore JV? They can always say the radio wasn’t working, no? But more than this it’s probably the classic “too many chiefs and not enough indians” case. JV inherited a lot of guys from Cervelo and it takes awhile to integrate the whole thing. I think JV is smart enough to a) figure out the tactics himself, one way or another OR b) hire a classic DS to run things for the one-day races.

  19. Guy April 7, 2011 at 1:28 pm #

    Um, Pete Van Petegem was sitting right in the car with JV. Do we know for sure that Pete didn’t suggest the tactics? Anyway, this has been a very interesting debate.

  20. Joe April 8, 2011 at 9:19 am #

    Putting support behind one guy is not the right idea. Things can happen out on course. Garmin Cervelo’s excuse was lame, poor and a joke. They had the numbers. Even if they weren’t having a good day, they should of still had a go and ot given up. What is really concerning is that all 3 of the team leaders were going badly and that they had only riders in the main group. JV employed a defeatists and loser attitude to RVV. It would be nice if he said he made a blue. RE: the radio situation, he looks like a major hypocrite along with the other ds’.

  21. Larry T. April 9, 2011 at 1:38 pm #

    There’s a difference between a guy who is a strong “horse” capable of doing whatever the DS tells him and a strong guy who can think for himself — they call it racecraft. Maybe PVP was one of the former during his career and as such doesn’t do much good for JV in the car where the legs are doing nothing? Sunday will be interesting since Thor has said the team will be dedicated 100% to him. HE should be calling the shots all day and then HE can take the blame if the tactics (or the legs) fail.

  22. Patrick H April 10, 2011 at 12:17 pm #

    Clearly the Tactics worked at Paris-Roubaix…just shows, you never know whether the plans are good or bad so early in the season.

  23. Erik April 10, 2011 at 6:44 pm #

    At Roubaix, they threw everything at the race in sacrifice for the their (one) leader, and a domestique got the glory as the the end game played out in the favor for the breakaway. Clearly a different tactic than earlier races, where the favorites caught the break before the final, and Garmin was completely caught out because they didn’t sacrifice enough bodies earlier in the race.

  24. Arjan Hulsebos April 11, 2011 at 10:51 am #

    Their tactics really sucked in Paris-Roubaix. Having Vanmarcke leading the main group to chase down Vansummeren… And I don’t understand Hushovd refusing to take over from Cancellara when they had broklen away with Ballan. G-C were very lucky this time, as it couldve been just as easily any of the other three guys.

  25. Guy April 11, 2011 at 12:34 pm #

    Um, they didn’t chase down VS – that’s why Hushovd didn’t work (otherwise he could’ve handed it to either Canc or Ballan). If you’ve got a guy up the road in the lead, you don’t chase him down. If it had been someone else in the break, they would’ve.

    The tactics were just fine. They got VS into the break: he went on to win the race. If someone else broke away, he could’ve come back to help Hushovd. That’s why Vaughters told VS that if he was going to go, he had to go alone – either he wins it, or he comes back to help the team leader (Hushovd). I guess he chose the former.

  26. Erik April 11, 2011 at 2:05 pm #

    Not sure where the criticism comes from. At one point Garmin had 3 riders up the road ahead of the race favorites. When Vanmarcke returned to the group of favorites, he worked to limit attacks on his leader while still keeping him in the race in case Van Summeren ran into trouble up the road (at that point Tjalingii was still hanging on). In the end only Cancellara was able to get away. Garmin did a great job of never showing their true hand, while retaining the ability to play two hands in the final. One in the break, two in the group. They played an excellent chess match, and it helped that their other 2 protected riders had crashed out by that point.

  27. Eddie April 13, 2011 at 11:11 am #

    How come you no longer make the “how the race was won” videos?
    Those were what first made me interested in professional cycling!

  28. SvelteSoutherner April 14, 2011 at 5:29 pm #

    Could you pass the crow?

  29. 350WX30min April 15, 2011 at 1:53 pm #

    @Svelte. Good on you armchair bud. I do believe Garmin (JV) is trying to do right by as many people as possible. Sometimes that means you don’t win. Winning becomes everything only if when you do it right.

  30. kalicka April 19, 2011 at 7:47 pm #

    hey cyclosm did u see what the three stooges or five to be precise did at the hell of the North. Not bad for a couple of jokers. so when will the how the race was won video commentary be revived. Have the copyright syndicates gotten to you too.

  31. Lebelweg April 28, 2011 at 11:25 am #

    What’s a ‘syndome’?

  32. Osteo July 4, 2011 at 7:30 pm #

    Hindsight is indeed 20:20. Turns out Garmin have finally tweaked that balance just right given the first few days in Le Tour. Thor in Yellow, TTT win and Farrar taking line honours for the 3rd stage.

    I think the Garmin lads are pointing to the scoreboard!

  33. Velotex July 12, 2011 at 5:59 am #

    I think this tactic is useless. Cycling is an extremely competitive sport and good riding strategy is needed. I find it daft to “let the road decide” a winner. Someone MUST decide who is going to be the front-runner/winner – or else who is going to claim the prize and the pride-points. Anyway – Great summary of the race – Very insightful.

  34. Duluth Baptist July 19, 2011 at 12:53 pm #

    G-C seem to have things figured out now. No tactical problems in Gap today. Of course, it helps to have a World Champion in the form of his life in your hip pocket while a fighter is up the road.

    The only thing that hasn’t gone well for G-C is the overall, with it’s candidates losing big time early on due to crashes. But perhaps that has helped them by focusing their efforts on stage wins as their only achievable, meaningful result. Granted, Tommy D is performing the annual Garmin Top Ten effort, but he’s doing it alone.

  35. cycling jerseys September 7, 2011 at 10:02 pm #

    The tactics were just fine.

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