As Mountains Loom, Leaders Look to Teammates for Help

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With five USPS teammates present in the lead peloton at the end of today’s Stage 10, Postal was one of only three teams to have six total riders at the front of the race. A strong team is going to be an important key to winning the 2004 Tour, and USPS, Phonak, and Euskaltel-Euskadi appear to have the teams most prepared for the challenge.

It is easy to see how teammates are beneficial during the flat stages. They block the wind to reduce the work their team leader has to do, they keep him near the front of the peloton to help avoid crashes, and they are around to pace him back to the group in case of a flat, mechanical problem, or crash. In the mountains, drafting is less of an issue, but teammates may be more important than ever.

One of the most important roles teammates play in the mountain stages is setting the pace on long climbs. When your leader is feeling good, you can send the team to the front of the peloton and have them set a high pace the leader can comfortably follow. The goal is to put pressure on the leaders of other teams by making them climb at a pace that forces them above their comfort zones.

Even more important, using teammates to set a high climbing pace reduces the size of the leading group, often by eliminating support riders from rival teams. If you can isolate a team leader, it’s easier to put him in difficulty because he doesn’t have anyone to help him. If the group is still reasonably large, an isolated team leader even has to drop back to the team car to get water bottles and food. When you have teammates with you, you don’t have to use your own energy to get water and then get back to the group.

You also need teammates to set the pace and reduce the team leader’s energy expenditure in the valleys between the ascents. As the mountains get bigger over the next few days, you will see domestiques drop off the back of the lead group near the top of mountain passes, only to catch back on at the base of the descent. After doing their jobs setting the pace on the lower slopes of the climb, they can’t maintain the pace when another teammate keeps the speed just as high. They continue climbing as quickly as they can and then race down the descent to catch back on to the lead group. Once there, they go straight to the front to keep their leader out of the wind and set the pace on the early slopes of the next climb. It’s an extremely difficult task, and you want as many domestiques as possible to share the work.

Roberto Heras’s Liberty Seguros team only had two men with their leader by the end of Stage 10, and if that is indicative of the support he will have in the big mountains, it’s going to be difficult for him to challenge Armstrong, Ullrich, and Hamilton.

Jan Ullrich’s T-Mobile team may have had their first sign of trouble today as well. Matthias Kessler crashed hard on a descent, and though he was able to finish the stage, reports are that he suffered a broken rib. It’s unlikely he will be able to start tomorrow, which reduces the T-Mobile team to just eight riders. Of them, Santiago Botero struggled today and was dropped from the lead peloton. At one time, Botero was considered a threat for the yellow jersey when he rode for Kelme, and he even beat Lance Armstrong in a long individual time trial in the 2002 Tour de France, but it’s been a while since he’s been at the top of his game. Ullrich would much rather have seen Botero at the head of the lead group today instead of falling behind it, and it remains to be seen if the Columbian can find the legs that propelled him to fourth place overall in 2002.

After the first stage with significant climbs, Lance Armstrong, Tyler Hamilton, and Iban Mayo are undoubtedly very happy with the performances of their teammates; but the biggest mountains are yet to come.