Conservative or Aggressive: It’s a Matter of Managing Risk

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If everything goes your way, riding conservatively can be a great way for a super-strong rider to win the Tour de France. Considering that Floyd Landis appears to be much stronger than any other overall contender in this year’s race, this strategy might very well work for him. The risk with being conservative, however, is that you may not have enough of a time buffer to absorb the consequences of a bad day, a crash, or a mechanical problem.

I was watching today’s stage with Lance Armstrong and several other people, and at one point during the race, Lance and I talked a bit about the difference between racing conservatively and aggressively.

During his reign as Tour de France champion, Lance was adamant about seizing every opportunity to gain time on his rivals. The idea was to build a cushion between Lance and his nearest competitors in case he ran into problems later on in the race. A one-minute lead can turn into a three-minute deficit in just a few kilometers, and Lance and Johan Bruyneel always said they’d rather defend a lead than fight to catch up.

If you’re in the lead, you have two options. You can follow other riders, and as long as you stay with them you don’t lose any of your lead. Your other choice is to attack and build an even bigger lead. If you get into a situation where you’re behind, there’s only one option. You have to attack and drop riders who somehow gained time on you already, and there’s never any guarantee you’ll be able to do that.

The one thing that’s certain about the Tour de France is that anything can happen, to anyone, at any time. Having the yellow jersey and several minutes of time in hand gives a rider a margin of safety; losing one minute of a six-minute lead isn’t a cause for major concern. Losing one minute of a one-and-a-half-minute lead puts the yellow jersey in a stressful position and lends encouragement to the challenger.

Floyd Landis reclaimed the yellow jersey with a solid performance on a hard stage in the Alps today, and though he surged a few times at the beginning of the final ascent up L’Alpe d’Huez, he chose to follow T-Mobile’s Andreas Kloden to the summit instead of attacking to build a bigger lead.

With yellow jersey contenders Cadel Evans and Denis Menchov already behind him and losing ground, Landis didn’t need to put forth a huge effort on l’Alp d’Huez. Kloden, on the other hand, had a lot to gain by keeping the pace as high as possible all the way to the finish. While the German would love to challenge Landis for the yellow jersey, there are other priorities that have to come first. He was left behind by Evans and Menchov on the climb to Pla-de-Beret in Stage 11 and needed to make up time on them in order to claim a podium position in Paris. Today’s efforts moved him ahead of Evans in the overall classification and brought him closer to Menchov as well. If he wants to challenge for the yellow jersey, he’ll have to direct his attacks at dropping Landis over the next two days, but for now his methodical approach to moving up the leader board is paying off.

Riding conservatively has served Landis well so far in this year’s Tour, but the Phonak leader may want to put in one big effort tomorrow afternoon, on the climb to La Toussuire. Summit finishes are the best places to attack and gain big chunks of time on rivals, because once you push a rider beyond his limit on a mountain climb, the effort forces him to slow down and the time gap opens very wide very quickly. And with no descent or flat roads to allow anyone to recover, the race is over before dropped riders can retake lost ground.

One of the points that Lance and I agreed on today was that it would be wise for Landis to build on his lead tomorrow instead of waiting to secure his first Tour de France victory in the final individual time trial on Saturday. Even though Landis is a very strong time trial rider, and arguably better than any of his yellow jersey rivals, anything could happen during the time trial or the stages on Thursday or Friday. Riding conservatively is a good strategy, but it’s better when you already have a lead that’s greater than four minutes. Riding aggressively on Wednesday to build a bigger time cushion reduces the risk that any potential problems later in the week could cost Landis the victory.

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