In the past few years, Team Sky has had tremendous success with its philosophy of what team boss Sir Dave Brailsford calls “marginal gains.” Now, with the season’s first big classics on the horizon, the British pro squad is doing the opposite: gambling on a radical new policy to win its first monumental classic. The British team’s management, with input from its top classics riders, has decided to focus totally on training as preparation, instead of riding stage races that have been the accepted way of preparing for the spring classics over the past eight decades.
The first of the year’s five monuments is coming up this month on St. Patrick’s Day: Milan-San Remo. As preparation, classics winners such as Tom Boonen, Simon Gerrans, Philippe Gilbert and Alessandro Petacchi will be on the start-line of the eight-day Paris-Nice this coming Sunday, while other single-day specialists, including Fabian Cancellara, Matt Goss, Thor Hushovd and Filippo Pozzato, have chosen to put their faith in the seven-day Tirreno-Adriatico starting on Wednesday.
While all those stars are battling predicted rain showers and strong winds in France and Italy, Sky’s top nine classics men will be at a high-altitude training camp on Spain’s subtropical island of Tenerife. The plan has emerged from the success over the past two years of Sky’s approach to winning the Tour de France. That involved choosing a core group of athletes, and giving them a mix of intense, high-altitude training camps in Tenerife with a schedule of well-spaced stage races in which they built teamwork and individual rapport.
That plan worked so well that at times in pre-Tour stage races, such as the Critérium du Dauphiné or Tour de Romandie, the strongest four or five Sky riders looked as though they were out on another (albeit intense) training run, rather than putting the hurt on their rivals on some of the stiffest climbs in the Alps. Brad Wiggins, Chris Froome and their teammates then replicated that form and strategy at the Tour for their 1-2 finish. No wonder Team Sky’s head of performance, Tim Kerrison, wants to apply a similar strategy to winning a major classic.
Classics demand a very different set of qualities from a rider than a Grand Tour. Besides the obvious difference in length, a one-day race is a one-shot deal and demands excellence on that one day, while the Tour rewards patience, consistency and targeted excellence. There are also a wide variety of specific challenges in each of the monumental classics.
Just looking at Milan-San Remo, coming up on March 17, the winner will need all of the following items in his tactical and physical arsenal, some of which are best improved by racing, others in training:
• Stamina: the race is the longest classic at 298 kilometers, which equates to seven or more hours in the saddle. Those riding Paris-Nice or Tirreno have three stages of 200 kilometers or longer next week, with the longest being six hours over 232 hilly kilometers for those in Italy. The Sky guys on Tenerife will be doing plenty of days of that length, even though it’s in a training environment.
• Power climbing: The last 100 kilometers into San Remo contains four significant climbs: La Mànie (1,043 feet elevation), Cap Berta (426 feet), Cipressa (784 feet) and Poggio (525 feet), with the winning break (or final split in the peloton) generally happening on the Poggio inside the final kilometers. Both the French and Italian stage races contain a mountaintop finish, as well as stages with short, steep hills in the last 10 kilometers, so they give perfect opportunities for the San Remo favorites to hone their climbing strength. As for those at the Sky camp, most of their training days end with a long, long climb up to their hotel on Mount Teide at 6,700 feet above sea level. They can also specifically target climbing efforts to match those they’ll find on March 15.
VERDICT: Advantage Sky
• Sustained speed: The final 50 kilometers into San Remo is usually run off at an average of between 50 and 60 kilometers an hour, with the top men having to match repeated accelerations to stay in contention. All the Paris-Nice and Tirreno riders will see plenty of this action in a similar race environment, while the Sky men can only simulate these speeds with motor-paced sessions. They may approximate in terms of physical speed, but those racing also need to be constantly alert mentally.
VERDICT: Advantage stage-racers
• Race tactics: In both of the last two editions of Milan-San Remo, the winning break emerged in the last uphill kilometer of the Poggio: 10 riders in 2011 and just three last year. Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali and Switzerland’s Cancellara were the only ones to be in both of those moves, and they will both be riding the more tactically demanding Tirreno-Adriatico this coming week. As for those training in the warmth of the Canary Isles, they will have to rely on their experience in two single-day races this past week in Belgium (Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Le Samyn), their memory of riding San Remo in previous years, and a last-minute course reconnaissance over the Cipressa and Poggio.
VERDICT: Advantage stage-racers.
• Sprinting: Even though there were winning breakaways contesting the last two finishes in San Remo, the race was won by the men who followed the moves rather than instigated them. Matt Goss had the raw speed to win two years ago, and his fellow Australian (and now teammate at Orica-GreenEdge) Simon Gerrans was the best sprinter in 2012. The only man to avoid a sprint finish was Cancellara, with his winning final-kilometer solo burst in 2008. All the stage racers will get chances of honing their sprints next week, while the Sky men could actually have more practice, with several sprints every day in training, or jumping off from their motor-pacers.
Judged on this, admittedly basic, analysis, those competing in the stage races will have a small advantage on race day in San Remo. But all that training and living at altitude in Tenerife will give the Sky men higher red-blood counts, which may cancel out the tactical advantages of the others. In any case, it may be better just to compare what Team Sky did last year with what they do later this month. In 2012, using traditional race preparation, only two Sky men finished Milan-San Remo, with the best being Norwegian Edvald Boasson Hagen, who placed 25th in the main chase group, 20 seconds behind the winning break. Expect Boasson Hagen to again be the team’s best man, perhaps with Welshman Geraint Thomas; they should both finish top ten. And the Norwegian’s excellent sprint could even net him the victory.
In any case, if the new Sky gamble doesn’t work this time, look for them in the two cobbled classics regarded as monuments, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, on March 31 and April 7 respectively.
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