Sanremo, Strength, and Tactics

Mar 22 2012

Mauruzio Fondreist attacks the Poggio

Maurizio Fondreist disregards fairness
on the Poggio / Max Nicolodi, cc-by

For a guy who made obsessing over aerodynamics and other tech geek foibles into the development and marketing norm in the sport, Gerard Vroomen is surprisingly attuned to the sloppy, cut-and-run realities of professional bike racing.

After some muttering from fans following Sanremo, and some atypically direct criticism of RadioShack by Philippe Gilbert, Vroomen put together a nice little blog post on how “negative racing” is actually “bike racing”, and that pretty much everyone involved knows the score. It’s about trying to matching your strengths with your opponents weaknesses.

While I wouldn’t say I was particularly effusive in my praise of Gerrans’ Sanremo, I certainly wouldn’t say I was overly-critial of it, either. It bears mention that the riders weren’t all just kinda hanging out on the Poggio, and Gerrans thought “hey, look, Nibali is attacking. Guess I’ll jump up to him and then draft him an Cancellara to the finish”. Prior to the winning selection were nearly 300k of attacks, climbs, tight roads and sharp corners, where even a momentary lapse of focus could tail a rider of the back, or force them to make a race-killing effort to get back on.

Gerrans had been looking punchy long before the Poggio (I briefly mistook him for Cav during some smart positioning moves on the Cipressa) and, perhaps sussing out Liquigas’ climb-controlling strategy, the Aussie parked on Nibali’s wheel before Agnoli’s recapture at 7.5km to go (4:52 in the video below). While the Poggio isn’t particularly long or steep, it is narrow and raced at eye-watering speed. If you’re not in the spot you need to be, you’ll be hard-pressed to get through a-reduced-but-edgy peloton, let alone make up time plowing your own furrow up a 4% grade at 30mph.

Indeed, Cancellara may have been the only rider in the remaining peloton capable of the feat—if you watch the video, you’ll see Cancellara is heavily marked and gets the drop on no-one. The separation only occurs when the riders behind him simply can’t put out the necessary wattage to keep his wheel. Cancellara’s prodigious strength bears additional consideration in light of the perceived lack of cooperation in the final selection—even if you wanted to come around him, the drop in speed between your max and his might doom the break.

Finally, the sprint wasn’t a foregone conclusion. Cancellara isn’t exactly a pancake in the final meters, especially after a 250+km, and the final margin wasn’t huge. In fact, were Cancellara a little more inclined to close the gate, and had chosen to lead out on the opposite site of the road (both the flags and waves show a strong tailwind/crosswind from the riders’ left), the additional effort required for Gerrans to come by might have made the difference.

On a more general level, last weekend’s race highlighted what I find to be the most interesting aspect of the sport—tactics as much as strength determines who wins races.

While everyone likes to feel that a winner took the day as fairly as possible, that sort of warm, fuzzy definition for “fair” favors the most dominant, predictable winners—and dominance gets boring in a hurry. Because of finishes like Saturday’s, teams riding for guys like Cancellara have to be tricker in how they leverage their strength advantage; just powering away is only occasionally an option. Even the most impressive displays of raw power, like Cancellara’s 2010 Roubaix win, are often triggered by a brilliantly seized tactical moment—in the case of Roubaix 2010, an out-of-position rival.

I think it’s safe to say most American fans got their introduction to the sport watching US Postal at the Tour de France. And it wasn’t a bad primer for tactics at the basic level—aggressively control the race, keep your strongest rider fresh, and then put him alongside his rivals at the moments where he can make the most difference. While that’s a nice big-picture plan, it requires a rare, generally not entirely organic level of dominance, and, as I mentioned above, it’s kinda dull.

The sport is really at its most interesting when favorites and spoilers are equally reliant on cunning to get across the line first. When Liquigas can dictate terms all day, and Fabs can single-handedly fend off the charging field, and still both can come away empty-handed, it’s clear that they’ll have to go back to the drawing board in terms of execution. I’m excited to see what they come up with to chase down wins through the rest of the spring.

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10 Responses to “Sanremo, Strength, and Tactics”

  1. Ken 22 March 2012 at 2:00 pm #

    PLEASE do “How the Race was Won” this season!

  2. Jim 22 March 2012 at 3:22 pm #

    In a sense negative racing is bike racing. Watching how teams respond to an in-form FC is one of the most thrilling things in the sport.

    Also he would have been completely “justified” in shutting the door on Gerrans; I doubt Gerro would’ve had a problem with that if done fairly. Good point about wind direction.

    Bringing the finish line to where Kelly won over Argentin would be great in eliminating sprinters, as much as possible, and reward those who push over the top of the Poggio and descend well. A little cat and mousing may be inevitable. Freire’s had his run, Cav & Goss have won, Sagan may have won if FC doesn’t make his move. Let’s see a different type of rider come through now.

  3. snappy_don 22 March 2012 at 8:55 pm #

    Thanks. A nice appraisal of the MSR finish. To me it was interesting watching 3 riders with very different strengths go at it. Nibali- climber. Gerrans- punchy sprinter. Fab- sheer power. And on any different day the finish order would have been different. Organizers shouldn’t bother trying to change the course to dictate the race.. it always comes back to the riders on the day.
    And without wanting to delve into Liquigas politics, it could have been juicy prospect to see Sagan instead of Nibali (who looked beaten after the climb) mixing it up with the other two in the final km. But maybe Sagan couldn’t have broken away on the climb? Nyeh, we’ll never know.

  4. a different ben 22 March 2012 at 9:32 pm #

    I wouldn’t say he came away empty-handed — they let him stand up on the podium, and gave him a nice bunch of flowers and bottle of prosecco:

    Anyway, all this snarking is probably just that everyone loves Fab and wants him to win, which is kind of sweet 🙂

  5. adamcrazypants 23 March 2012 at 11:18 am #

    people love to hate. . .I kinda love that.

  6. Bubba 24 March 2012 at 9:50 pm #

    Good to see the race organizers are taking all this into account, and are perhaps making course changes based on. . . nationalism:

  7. Sebastian 25 March 2012 at 10:18 am #

    You’ve hit on what’s most interesting about road racing: the fact that so many factors besides strength determine the final result. If you want a long, slow separation of the best from the rest, watch marathon; in road cycling, the high speeds (and hence wind factor) bring so many other elements into the picture: where to attack, and when, and with whom, and when to hold back . . . Sometimes it yields forgettable winners, but it also means that it’s a constant source of surprises for the fans.

  8. Larry T. 27 March 2012 at 7:56 am #

    Nicely written as usual. I define negative racing as “racing not to win but rather not to lose”, as in not taking any risks, etc. Gerrans took a huge risk – that he wouldn’t be able to come around Cancellara at the exact moment – to me that’s NOT negative racing, it’s smart racing. I was surprised at the numbers of negative comments all over the blogs I look at calling Gerrans a “wheelsucker” and worse along with calling me names for suggesting this was pretty much “bike racing 101”. Your description of so many American fans learning what they think is “bike racing 101” from the BigTex example makes sense, I hadn’t thought of it that way since I’m from an earlier generation of bike racing fan. Good post, keep up the great work!

  9. Michael Roy 30 March 2012 at 9:25 am #

    Great post. I saw the following on Velonews today and was wondering if you were involved or if they stole your concept: “How The Race Was Won: E3 Prijs Harelbeke.”

  10. Dan 3 April 2012 at 9:05 am #

    Very well written, thank you. I was beginning to get annoyed by those who want the “strongest” to win the race. Cycling is “chess played at 40mph”, and that is fine by me!

    I thought MSR was great this year, looking forward to a wet and tactical Paris-Roubaix.

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