Strategy Turns to Opportunity for Hincapie

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It’s not normal to see a six-foot, three-inch, 180-pound cyclist win the hardest mountain stage in the Tour de France. But then, George Hincapie isn’t a normal cyclist. He started his career as a road sprinter. He and Freddy Rodriguez used to duke it out for city-limit signs and USPRO Championships on a regular basis. Yet, over the past three years, George has changed his focus and become one of the best all-around riders in the peloton.

Stage 15 began normally enough for George. His goal was to support Lance Armstrong on the hardest mountain stage of the 2005 Tour de France. Considering the tactics employed by the T-Mobile team over the past few mountain stages, George thought it wise to get into one of the early breakaways. That way, even if Lance was isolated by attacks later in the day, George might be able to drop back out of the breakaway and help him out.

Sending riders in breakaways as a means of setting up support for later is not unusual. The idea is that you cannot ride forward to rejoin the group of main contenders once the selection is made on the biggest climbs. Once supporting riders are dropped by attacks like the ones we’ve seen from T-Mobile, there’s no coming back. Yet, if you have a rider already up the road in a breakaway, that rider can slow down and wait to be caught by the advancing group of team leaders. Once caught, the former breakaway rider can set pace for his leader and help chase down rivals.

Discovery Channel wasn’t the only big team with a rider up the road today. Phonak had Oscar Pereiro and T-Mobile had Oscar Sevilla in the breakaway group as well. By the time the peloton reached the final climb of the day, both the Phonak and Discovery Channel team directors had told their breakaway riders to go forward and fight for the stage win. There was nothing they needed to do, or could do, to impact the race for the yellow jersey and podium positions behind them.

Sevilla received different orders. His leader, Jan Ullrich, lost contact with Armstrong and Ivan Basso (CSC) on the climb to the finish line, and Sevilla slowed down to wait for him. Once Ullrich reached Sevilla, the support rider sat in front of his leader and led him through the crowds at an ever-increasing tempo. Had Sevilla not been in the breakaway, Ullrich would have been all by himself on the final climb and may have lost more than 1:24 to Armstrong and Basso.

While there’s a tactical advantage for the team to having a rider in the breakaway on a mountain stage, the rider in the break also gains a tactical advantage. With his team leader in the yellow jersey, George was under no obligation to work with the breakaway. He could sit on the back instead of rotating through and pulling on the front. Yet, on a day like today, that didn’t matter all that much. On steep climbs and fast descents, there is only a slight difference in workload between the men working and the men sitting on.

George had to work for the stage win today. On the climbs, drafting isn’t really effective for saving energy— the speed is too low. On steep descents, the speed is so high and the corners are so technical that all riders in the group are doing roughly the same amount of work. George only received any real advantage in the five- to ten-kilometer transitions through the valleys between the climbs.

Not only did George earn his victory on the roads today, he earned it through his years of undying support of Lance. George sacrificed his personal goals to be an integral part of every one of Lance’s Tour de France victories, and it was a great experience to watch George win a stage for himself and then watch Lance cross the finish line a few minutes later with the yellow jersey still firmly in his grasp.

Chris Carmichael is Lance Armstrong’s personal coach and founder of Carmichael Training Systems, Inc. (CTS). His latest book, Chris Carmichael’s Fitness Cookbook, is now available and you can register for a chance to win a ride with the Discovery Channel Pro Cycling Team at