Three Approaches To One Finish Line

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There’s a reason riders and team directors pore over stage profiles prior to each day of racing. It’s the same reason Lance Armstrong previews portions of the Tour de France route months in advance: the better you know the course, the more you can exploit its features for your benefit.

Stage 7 of the 2004 Tour de France differed from any of the previous days due to a small but significant climb just ten kilometers from the finish line. Normally this little bump would be inconsequential in the Tour, but so close the finish line it had the potential to serve as a launchpad for a stage-winning breakaway.

Depending on the team, one of three distinct strategies was probably discussed in this morning’s team meeting:

The Sprinters’ Teams: Teams like Lotto-Domo and AG2R Prevoyance would want to have at least two or three support riders with their premier sprinter at the top of the climb. With just five kilometers between the summit and the finish line, the sprinters’ teams could keep the field strung out in a single line all the way to the final 500 meters, then hand it off to the speedsters.

The Opportunist Teams: Teams like CSC, Allesio Bianchi, and Rabobank would see the final climb as a perfect opportunity to spoil the day for the sprinters and get a well-earned stage victory. A sharp attack on the climb would open up a small gap, but reaching the summit with 15-20 seconds in hand might be all you need to make it to the finish first. If the sprinters hesitate to chase for just a few seconds, the stage could belong to the opportunists.

The Contenders: The only danger today’s finish presented to the overall contenders would have been a split in the main field. If a hard attack on the final climb caused a split in the field, and one of the contenders for the yellow jersey was caught behind the split, he stood a good chance of losing 30-40 seconds to his rivals. Teams like U.S. Postal Service, T-Mobile, Phonak, and Liberty Seguros would have discussed letting the inevitable attack go for the stage win, but keeping a careful eye on each other for the bigger picture.

There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that there would be an attack on the final climb if the peloton reached its base en masse. The only thing the teams and their directors didn’t know was whether the attack would be hard enough, by a strong enough rider, to make it to the finish line before being caught.

Both The Contenders and The Opportunists accomplished their goals today. The attacks started as soon as the final climb began and after a few surges, a group of seven established a gap. Lance Armstrong and his main rivals kept an eye on each other to make sure there were no changes in their overall chance of victory in the Tour de France, and an opportunistic young Italian on the Fassa Bortolo team captured his first stage victory. The only group that could be disappointed today was The Sprinters, but they’ll get another chance tomorrow.