With the race over, this is obviously a good time to write the second part of my little stage racing primer. This part focuses primarily on tactics and strategy.
Each rider and team goes into the Tour with different goals and expectations. Most teams are there to try and win a couple of stages and get into breakaways so their sponsor logos are on TV for a while. A few teams with strong sprinters will try and win the Green jersey. A few other teams with strong climbers will try and get the mountain jersey. Finally, a few teams will have riders that they think can win the overall.
The other main thing to understand about the race is that it lasts three weeks. As such, teams have to be careful about how they spend their energy. No team can chase down every breakaway and try and win every stage. Teams must be careful to expend energy only when the outcome is important to them. This is why you saw Postal give up a nine minute lead and the Yellow jersey to Voelker this year. They knew that he wouldn’t last in the mountains and they also knew that with the Yellow jersey on a different team, they would not have to chase down breakways, thus saving energy for the important days.
Finally, day to day tactics depend on the nature of the stage:
- Flat stages: These are the days for the sprinter teams. These teams will try to keep the race together for a big bunch sprint at the end. If the overall is close, then teams contending for it will also want to control breakaways that may affect the yellow jersey. The fact that teams are motivated to chase down breaks and the fact that it’s relatively “easy” to do so on flat roads as compared to mountains means that large shifts in the overall don’t generally happen on flat days.
Late in the race the flat stages (or stages with small hills) become the one place where teams that are not contending for the overall, and don’t have a strong sprinter can pick off stage wins. This is because if the break doesn’t have any threatening riders, in general it will be allowed to stay away since it takes a lot of energy to chase it down. This is where you’ll see the stages where breakaways get 15 minutes ahead of the group. This works out because to win the overall, you just have to have the best overall time. Whether or not you win stages doesn’t actually matter. Indurain won the race multiple times without ever winning a road stage.
- Time trials: This is where the big boys take the lead. To win the Tour you must be able to ride a really strong time trial. The difference between an OK time trial and a really strong time trial is measured in minutes so in general these stages tend to have a large effect on the overall classification. When Miguel Indurain won five tours in a row, he did it primarily by destroying people in the time trial (by four or five minutes) and then not losing time anywhere else.
- Mountain stages: This is where the race is won and lost. Again, guys who can climb will make minutes per day on guys who can’t. These stages are where the climbers will try and make back time they lost in the time trial, the strong time trial riders will try to keep up, and where the sprinters just suffer. Lance has won his six primarily with strong stage wins in the mountains backed up by strong wins in the time trials. What the strong teams do here is make the pace so high in the climbs that the weak teams fall away. For example, a couple of different times this year, Postal managed to drop everyone but a single rider on the CSC team by the last climb of the day. This is good for two reasons. First, it means they are making time on everyone. Second, if the final group has two Postal riders but only one “enemy” rider, this is a huge advantage for Lance in multiple ways. In general, Postal was perfect in the mountains this year, whereas last year there were multiple occasions where Lance was by himself on the last climb.