After a dozen or so riders crashed on a slick descent early in last Wednesday’s stage of the Volta a Catalunya—with Dane Jakob Fuglsang breaking his scaphoid and New Zealander Julian Dean colliding with a parked car and fracturing a leg — the RadioShack-Nissan-Trek team director José Azevedo told his team Web site: “Normally, the peloton would wait for everyone to get back on their bikes. Not anymore. There was no waiting. It’s a war out there every day and there is no solidarity.” As a result, he asked, “What’s happening with cycling?”
The Movistar team might have asked the same question the previous day when its leader Alejandro Valverde’s front wheel hit a loose water bottle at the end of the feed zone in Palafrugell and he was thrown onto the curb. The Spanish star needed a few seconds to examine his wounds, and by the time his team got organized to help him chase, the Omega Pharma-Quick Step team of Levi Leipheimer had stepped on the gas in a major way. There were still 55 kilometers to race and Valverde never made it back. By the finish in Girona he had lost more than two minutes and any chance he had of repeating his overall Catalunya victory of 2009.
Why did the Omega-Quick Step riders accelerate when Valverde went down? They may have already decided to attack out of the feed zone (it’s a common tactic to surprise other teams), but this was a WorldTour race, and so team directors were constantly talking to their riders via radio. It wouldn’t have been unexpected if Omega had slowed the pace for a few minutes to let the fallen Valverde catch back on. But that didn’t happen. Perhaps there was “a war” going on out there.
The Omega versus Movistar rivalry probably goes back to what happened on stage 7 of Paris-Nice, a couple of weeks ago. That was when Leipheimer crashed on a downhill turn 34 kilometers from the stage finish in Nice, and Valverde’s Movistar team moved to the head of the pack to race as hard as they could down a long, serpentine descent. And even though Leipheimer had teammates such as world time trial champion Tony Martin pulling for him, he was still 45 seconds behind after chasing ferociously for 20 kilometers.
The American might well have caught the pack and retained his second place overall, but the Movistar-induced speed strung out the peloton so much on the twisting back road that it led to an inevitable crash, which the Omega boys ran into around a blind turn. Leipheimer banged into a teammate who’d hit a gendarme’s motorcycle that was “protecting” the crashed riders—and that was the end of the American’s quest to win Paris-Nice.
This tit-for-tat between the two teams likely started earlier in Paris-Nice when, halfway through the 185-kilometer second stage, Leipheimer’s Omega squad accelerated sharply through the feed zone in Authon-la-Plaine. With Leipheimer were his teammates Sylvain Chavanel, Tom Boonen and Nikolas Maes, who drove the pace, forcing riders like Valverde (and his Movistar teammate José Rojas) to chase hard in a powerful crosswind to make contact on the undulating road.
That premeditated acceleration through the feed zone was not unlike similar moves made in past decades—especially those engineered by team directors such as Frenchman Cyrille Guimard. Guimard’s most successful feed-zone attack happened on stage 19 of the 1987 Tour de France. That stage came the day after a time trial up Mont Ventoux, which was won by Toshiba team leader Jean-François Bernard that put him in the yellow jersey, 2:34 ahead of Stephen Roche and 2:47 on Charly Mottet—the leader of Guimard’s Système U team.
Stage 19 was a transitional one leading to the French Alps. On the third of six climbs, Roche twice made strong attacks, but Bernard defended well each time. Then, just before starting a descent to the feed zone at Léoncel, Bernard flatted. The race leader was given a wheel by a teammate and was catching back through the line of team cars when Guimard ordered his Système U riders in the peloton to accelerate through the feed zone (and told two of his men in a breakaway to wait for their leader). Mottet and Roche went with the attack, as did eight others. And by the time Toshiba organized a chase for Bernard the Système U men had established a 40-second gap.
The chasers held the Roche-Mottet breakaway to about a minute for the next 50 kilometers, but when they hit the last major climb, Bernard’s teammates (and then the race leader himself) ran out of steam. Bernard lost more than four minutes by the finish in Villard-de-Lans, where Roche took over the yellow jersey that he’d be wearing in Paris a week later.
Inter-team “warfare” is nothing new. It dates back to the earliest days of European bike racing—whatever Azevedo may have said this week intimating that unsporting tactics are something new. He could have recalled one of the more outrageous examples of “hitting below the belt” at the Giro d’Italia of 1957. After 18 of that Giro’s 22 stages Luxembourger Charly Gaul, the leader of a weak Faema team, was in the leader’s pink jersey. He was the defending champion and had a comfortable lead over the Italian Gastone Nencini and Louison Bobet—a three-time winner of the Tour de France who was desperate to become the first-ever Frenchman to win the Giro.
Gaul was fully expected to add to his overall lead on stage 19, which would finish atop Monte Bondone, the mountain climb where the Luxembourger had established his overall victory the previous year. Halfway through this 199-kilometer stage, however, Gaul’s fortunes took a dive when Bobet and his French national team made an unprecedented move. This is how the French magazine Miroir-Sprint reported the incident: “We were approaching the decisive part of the stage in a total calm. Several riders made good use of this truce to stop for a [pee], including Charly Gaul. Louison was waiting for the slightest chance to get rid of the Luxembourger … So, alerting his teammates, he went on the attack. The surprise was total.”
By the time Gaul was back on his bike, the Bobet-Nencini group was out of sight. With some 80 kilometers still to ride on mostly flat roads to reach the final climb, Gaul raced as hard as he could, but with no teammates to help it was a lost cause. He never gave up, closing from five minutes to within 3:15 at one point, always chasing alone, with three uncooperative Italians sitting on his wheel. By the start of the Bondone climb, he was six minutes back. That gap became eight minutes by the summit, where Nencini took the overall lead by 19 seconds over Bobet, with a weary Gaul dropping to fourth.
That could have been the end of the story, but there was a postscript the next day at the end of a mountain stage into Levico Terme. This time, race leader Nencini was delayed by a couple of flat tires—and the French team immediately turned the screws, hoping they could leave the Italian behind and put Bobet into the maglia rosa. That underhand tactic almost worked, but after his humiliating loss to Bobet the day before, Gaul gained his revenge by faking a mechanical to wait for Nencini and then working with the Italian to get back to the Bobet group before the finish. As a fitting reward, Nencini helped Gaul escape in the final kilometer to win the stage, and Nencini would keep his 19-second lead for the final two days to deprive Bobet of the overall victory.
And so Azevedo was right when he said “there’s a war out there every day.” It may be harsh to say, but cycling has always been that way, and hoping otherwise is probably too much to expect.
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